El Salvador

Three years into his presidency, Bukele has become the leading flag carrier of populist politics in the post-Trump era. His cheerleading of Bitcoin, informal dressing style and witty tweets that make fun of high-ranking US officials as well as credible international institutions such as International Monetary Fund (IMF) has already stepped him up to become “the coolest president in the world” for many. In reality, however, Bukele is not doing much but simply sending authoritarian signals of what’s ahead for the rest of his time in the office.

Located on the western coast of Central America, El Salvador, officially the Republic of El Salvador, is the “Land of the Volcanoes,” with more than 20 volcanoes over an area of just more than 21,000 sq. km. Although the smallest of the Central American countries, El Salvador has at times garnered international attention to its chronic state of instability and violence, as well as record-breaking murder rates. Especially throughout the civil war, from 1979 to 1992, the country reflected the larger East-West conflict. The government was supported by the US, Mexico, France, and Israel, and the rebels were supported by the Nicaraguan, Cuban, and Soviet governments.

Since the 1992 peace accords, Salvadorians have enjoyed relative political stability, featuring credible and regular elections. However, ongoing problems such as corruption, the free reign of criminal groups, and profound social inequality, led to the rise to power of 39-year-old populist Nayib Bukele in 2019.

Throughout much of the 20th century, until the outbreak of the civil war in the late 1970s, El Salvador had a gradually expanding role as an agro-export country in the global economy (Pelupessy, 1997). However, this agro-export development model had, over time, led to the rise of unprecedented social inequality, as well as an oligarchic political system dominated by the military. The 1970s indeed became a decade during which poverty and social exclusion reached peak levels (Van der Borgh, 2000).

Grave social contradictions worsened with electoral frauds in the 1972 and 1977 elections, the military’s increasing interference in politics, poverty, and the ineffectiveness of limited economic reforms. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the revolutionary left in the country found a fertile foundation for gaining massive popular support during the latter part of the 1970s. This movement quickly grew into a revolutionary force. The decade ended with the country embroiled in a fully-fledged civil war between the military-led junta government and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), an umbrella organization of left-wing groups. For the next 12 years, over 75,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed, according to UN reports (UN Truth Commission, 1993).

With the peace agreements signed in 1992, the FMLN was recognized as a legitimate political party. Along with the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena), the FMLN has become one of El Salvador’s two dominant political parties. Arena candidates, in particular, won all four presidential elections between 1989 and 2008, while FLMN candidates emerged victorious in the 2009 and 2014 elections.

Throughout the 1990s, consecutive right-wing Arena presidents implemented neoliberal economic policies. Especially between 1999-2004, during the presidency of Francisco Guillermo Flores Pérez, the country opened to the US and the US Agency for International Development (USAID). In 2001, the U.S. dollar was accepted as El Salvador’s official currency. In August 2003, Flores announced that 360 Salvadoran troops were sent to Iraq as part of the US-led coalition. In August of the same year, El Salvador, along with Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, agreed to sign a free trade agreement with Washington. In March 2006, El Salvador became the first Central American country to implement the free trade agreement.

In the 2009 election, an FLMN candidate, Mauricio Funes, defeated the Arena candidate by a thin margin of less than three percentage points, marking FMLN’s first victory since the end of the civil war. This victory put an end to the twenty-year-long dominance of right-wing politics. Funes initiated a break from Arena’s policies. His presidency started with a set of social reforms and investments in education, agriculture, and health care. Public healthcare was expanded, and a law was enacted to ease low-income access to affordable medicines.

Then-first lady, Vanda Pignato, enacted a social program named Ciudad Mujer (Women’s City) to improve the living conditions of women in terms of employment, sexual and reproductive health, and prevention of gender-based violence (IDB, 2015). The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) supported the initiative with a loan of $20 million in 2015.

The Funes administration also made some investments in infrastructure to improve the country’s road system, social facilities, and airports as well as other public buildings, including hospitals and schools. Additionally, he introduced significant socioeconomic guarantees and state benefits for poorer citizens. Funes’s social policies yielded some visible results. Poverty in El Salvador fell from 40 percent to 29 percent between 2008 and 2017.

When Salvador Sánchez Cerén assumed the presidency in 2014, he maintained a similar course, continuing the existing social policies and creating new ones to support lower-income and marginalized Salvadorans. In July 2014, the tax code was reformed, introducing a set of new taxes for major financial transactions and on the assets of the rich, while closing loopholes (Renteria, 2014). Cerén’s social policies reduced extreme poverty rates from 12.4 to 7.9 percent by 2018, elevating some 244,000 Salvadorans out of extreme poverty.

Despite a break from the country’s neo-liberal past under consecutive Arena governments, the FLMN presidents continued El Salvador’s devoted client-state position with successive US administrations. During the FLMN administrations, US-Salvadoran relations continued to grow. In 2011, El Salvador signed its 2011-2015 Joint Country Action Plan as part of the Partnership for Growth (PFG) initiative. In 2012, US assistance reached $28.2 million in support of PFG priorities (CRS Report, 2013). FLMN’s revisionist foreign policy attempts remained largely limited to President Fume’s restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2009.

The orthodox application of neoliberal policies throughout consecutive Arena governments and the wide-scale social reforms by the following FLMN administrations have failed to cure the country’s chronic problems, such as poverty and socio-economic inequality. Almost three decades after the civil war, the country today still struggles with significant levels of emigration, crime, authoritarianism, and corruption.

Campaigning as an anti-corruption outsider, Nayib Bukele, the popular former mayor of San Salvador, won the 2019 presidential election, breaking the grip of the two established parties. After his landslide victory where he won 53 percent of the vote, Bukele announced the start of a “new era” for El Salvador, with his government being accessible, inclusive, and transparent. Throughout his election campaign, he constructed an image as an outsider and an anti-establishment politician, directly appealing to millions via Twitter and Facebook, instead of through classic mass public rallies. He also refused to join traditional debates with other candidates in the run-up to the elections.

Bukele often used his charisma to influence different segments of society, using populist rhetoric to denounce the country’s established political parties. For instance, in December 2018, he openly called on the “bastards” to “return what’s been stolen!” (Call, 2019). His populist speeches focused on the corrupt politicians of the two major parties. During his campaign, he often brought up the three former presidents who have been indicted for corruption. His campaign slogan was: “there’s enough money when no one steals” (The Guardian, 2019). He delivered his victory speech in blue jeans and a leather jacket.

Three years into his presidency, many believe that Bukele has already become the leading flag carrier of populist politics in the post-Trump era. His cheerleading of Bitcoin, informal dressing style and witty tweets that make fun of credible international institutions such as International Monetary Fund (IMF) has already stepped him up to become “the coolest president in the world” for many. In reality, however, he is not doing much but simply sending authoritarian signals of what’s ahead for the rest of his time in the office. He already possesses near-total control over the legislature, executive, and judiciary. In February 2020, he ordered 1,400 Salvadoran soldiers to raid the Legislative Assembly to force the lawmakers to pass a request seeking a loan of 109 million dollars from the US. He entered the assembly with heavily armed soldiers behind him, took his seat, prayed, and then left. This show of strength was heavily criticized by the opposition, who accused the president of staging a “coup.” Dismissing the accusations, Bukele continued his threats during an address to the crowd of supporters waiting outside: “Let’s give these scoundrels a week. We summon them again if they don’t approve the plan. And if not, I am not going to put myself between the people and Article 87 of the Constitution. It will remain in your hands” (Mills, 2020). The Salvadorian army posted tweets in support of the President, saying that all the troops had sworn loyalty to Bukele, and they would “always be attentive to his orders” (@FUERZARMADASV, 2020).

In May 2021, he replaced all the judges of the country’s top court, including the attorney general, with loyalist. Later he tweeted that he was “cleaning our house … and that is none of your business,” in a response to the US authorities (Vivanco & Pappier, 2021). In November 2021, his forces raided the offices of many major social service and advocacy groups as part of a so-called corruption investigation. Since the begging of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020, he has used it as a shield for growing human rights abuses. He’s encouraged excessive use of force to enforce a nationwide mandatory lockdown as part of his so-called response to the pandemic. Salvadorian police have so far made hundreds of arbitrary arrests (Human Rights Watch, 2020). Countless police abuses have also been reported. Many therefore suspect that President Bukele may be establishing Latin America’s first millennial dictatorship. It is however too early to tell whether he will end up as an electoral accident, or become a permanent political force, even an authoritarian one. Bukele’s polarizing style, punctuated by overarching populist promises with regards to social policies and internal security, already hints at a possible return to the corrupt and inefficient system employed by Arena and FLMN.

October 26, 2020.

Updated February 6, 2022

References

— (1993). “From Madness to Hope: The 12-year war in El Salvador.” Report of the U.N. Truth Commission on El Salvador, April 1, 1993. http://www.derechos.org/nizkor/salvador/informes/truth.html (accessed on October 21, 2020).

— (2013). “El Salvador: Political and Economic Conditions and U.S. Relations.” CRS Report. April 5, 2013. https://www.everycrsreport.com/reports/RS21655.html (accessed on October 21, 2020).

— (2015). “El Salvador expands Ciudad Mujer with IDB support.” IDB. November 25, 2015. https://www.iadb.org/en/news/news-releases/2015-11-25/el-salvador-expands-ciudad-mujer-with-idb-support%2C11337.html (accessed on October 21, 2020).

— (2019). “El Salvador: anti-corruption candidate Nayib Bukele wins presidential election.” The Guardian. February 4, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/feb/04/el-salvador-anti-corruption-candidate-nayib-bukele-wins-presidential-election (accessed on October 21, 2020).

— (2020). “El Salvador: Police Abuses in Covid-19 Response.” Human Rights Watch. April 15, 2020. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/15/el-salvador-police-abuses-covid-19-response (accessed on October 21, 2020).

— (2020). “Todas nuestras tropas han jurado lealtad al Presidente…” @FUERZARMADASV, Twitter, February 8, 2020, 8:06 PM. https://twitter.com/FUERZARMADASV/status/1226311491168632833

Call, Charles T. (2019). “The significance of Nayib Bukele’s surprising election as president of El Salvador.” Brookings. February 5, 2019. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2019/02/05/the-significance-of-nayib-bukeles-surprising-election-as-president-of-el-salvador/ (accessed on October 21, 2020).

Mills, Frederick B. (2020). “El Salvador: President Bukele Abuses Executive Power and Uses Security Forces to Threaten Congress.” COHA, February 11, 2020. https://www.coha.org/el-salvador-president-bukele-abuses-executive-power-and-uses-security-forces-to-threaten-congress/#_ftn1 (accessed on October 21, 2020).

Pelupessy W. (1997). “The Agro–Export Economy in the 1970s.” In: The Limits of Economic Reform in El Salvador ed. Wim Pelupessy. Palgrave Macmillan, London: 56-84

Renteria, Nelson. (2014). “El Salvador passes tax bill aimed at closing loopholes.” Reuters. July 31, 2014. https://ca.reuters.com/article/idUSL2N0Q62VV20140731 (accessed on October 21, 2020).

Van der Borgh, Chris. (2000). “The Politics of Neoliberalism in Postwar El Salvador.” International Journal of Political Economy. 30/1, Spring 2000: 36-54.

Vivanco, José Miguel & Pappier, Juan. (2021) “The U.S. can stop El Salvador’s slide to authoritarianism. Time to act.” Washington Post. May 18, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/05/18/bukele-el-salvador-biden-human-rights-watch-authoritarianism/ (accessed on February 5, 2022).

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Geographic Location: Central America, bordering the North Pacific Ocean, between Guatemala and Honduras

Area: 21,041 sq. km.

Regime: Presidential Republic

Population: 6,481,102 (July 2020 est.)

Ethnic Groups (2007 est.): Mestizo 86.3%, White 12.7%, Amerindian 0.2% (includes Lenca, Kakawira, Nahua-Pipil), Black 0.1%, Other 0.6%

Languages: Spanish (official), Nawat (among some Amerindians)

Religions (2014 est.): Roman Catholic 50%, Protestant 36%, Other 2%, None 12%

GDP (PPP): $58.987 billion (2019)

GDP Per Capita (PPP): $4,058.25 USD (2018)

Socio-political Situation: Fragile

Main Populism Factors:

  • Left-wing Populism
  • Anti-Establishment
  • Anti-Corruption
  • Social Conservatism

Regime’s Character: Pseudo Democracy

Score: 59/100

MAIN POPULIST ACTORS

Nayib Bukele

NayibBukele

Position: President of El Salvador

Ideology: Conservative liberalism, Social conservatism, Populism, Reformism, Anti-establishment, Anti-corruption

Populism: Self-declared left-wing; ran for president under center-right Great Alliance for National Unity (GANA).

Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas)

ElSalvador-NI

Leader: Nayib Bukele

Ideology: Conservative liberalism, Social conservatism, Populism, Reformism, Anti-establishment, Anti-corruption

Populism: Centre-right

Position: 0/84 seats

Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional, GANA (Grand Alliance for National Unity)

ElSalvador-GANA

Leader: Andrés Rovira

Ideology: Social conservatism Economic liberalism Populism

Populism: Centre-right

Position: 10/84 seats

Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front)

ElSalvador-FMNL

Leader: Óscar Ortiz

Ideology: Socialism, Syndicalism, Left-wing populism,

Populism: Left-wing

Position: 23/84 seats