Note: This piece originally appeared in Spanish in the Blog of the Due Process of law Foundation. To read the original piece, click here.
From the beginning of his mandate, President Nayib Bukele has sent worrying signals that have set off alarms across broad sectors of El Salvador and the international community; these signals range from issuing important executive orders via Twitter, to using the military to threaten the country’s legislative body, disregarding judicial rulings, and unscrupulously attacking those he considers his political adversaries.
Concerns about these oversteps have increased in recent weeks due to measures and messages the president has launched—especially on social media—within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The way things appear, it seems that the disease is not the only threat that El Salvador faces, these expressions of presidential domination are equally devastating and a lethal danger to the health of democracy and institutionality.
Throughout its history, El Salvador has had to fight this authoritarian evil more than once. However, with the signing of the Peace Accords in 1992, many believed the foundations were being laid to build a society that was demilitarized, open to dialogue, and respectful of the Constitution and of human rights—that is to say, respectful of the rule of law. The price to pay to end the war and start on the path toward a more rational social coexistence was very high: enormous loss of human life (about 75 thousand people), tens of thousands of forced displacements, countless enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions, among other serious human rights violations that to date continue in impunity. These Accords, without a doubt, raised the hopes of a population, who imagined a less tortuous future than the one they had lived for more than fifty years under repressive military regimes.
Unfortunately, within just a few years that expectation turned into collective frustration when it became evident that the militaristic and dictatorial tradition had not disappeared with the end of the civil war. Indeed, successive presidential administrations—including the current one—from both the left and the right, have ruled with an eye on the military establishment. They have taken meticulous care so that this sector does not feel threatened in its privileges, including being able to evade justice for serious human right violations, and assigned them significant power and resource quotas, especially in fields such as public security, where they have been steadily gaining ground.
Within this framework, the despotic behavior of Nayib Bukele should not be surprising, although this does not mean that it should be tolerated. He is a successor to that age-old practice, even though he maintains he is far from it. Despite a successful proselytizing presidential campaign, based on the image of himself as a fresh and novel figure, and in which he knew to label his opponents as part of an anachronistic, ancient and “traditional” political class, within a few months in office, the “cool” president demonstrated just the opposite. He’s shown an absolute intolerance to criticism and dissent; disproportionate attacks (now virtual) on political adversaries; a high concentration of power; usurping of public functions; contempt for judicial decisions; “iron fist” leadership style; nepotism; opacity; manipulation of public opinion—essentially a whole cocktail of anti-democratic values that, while previously distributed across different moments and political personalities, now appear to be concentrated in the presidential seal.
Some relevant events, over the last two months in particular, placed Bukele as a nearly imperial figure. The first episode that put Salvadorans and foreigners alike on alert occurred on February 9, with the military assault on the Legislative Assembly, a scene that recalled the worst moments of military dictatorships not only of El Salvador but also of Latin America.
But given what we’ve seen over the past few weeks, that act was only the beginning of a chain of actions and decisions that have been intensified in the context of the current public health emergency, and that have taken on a particularly authoritarian character. Let us consider some of Bukele’s actions:
- Despite his political party not holding seats in the legislative body, thus far it has been able to secure the legislative counterbalance by obtaining approval for almost all the decrees that it has sent to Congress. Several of these decrees have been highly questioned for causing disproportionate and undue restrictions on constitutional rights, such as Executive Decree 611, which fortunately lost its validity a few weeks ago.
- He has openly expressed his contempt for orders issued by the highest constitutional court and has challenged its authority by carrying out, via the country’s National Police (PNC) and the military, some 2,000 illegal or arbitrary arrests of people who have allegedly disrespected the mandatory quarantine measure.
- He has discredited and dismissed the work of the Attorney General of the Republic and the actions of the Office of the Ombudsperson, two important entities that oversee public administration. In addition, before the emergency, Bukele appointed—although he resigned a few days later—one of his political allies as commissioner of the Institute of Access to Public Information, an act that could compromise the objectivity of another important institution with legal powers to exercise control over state actions.
- Under the pretext of installing sanitary cordons, he has militarized popular areas and entire municipalities—martial law style—without a public health rationalization or legal basis to justify these extreme measures, immobilizing entire populations so that they are unable to satisfy basic food and health needs.
- Although he does not have these powers, Bukele has “authorized” local governments to adopt their own measures to contain COVID-19, which has led to decisions that conflict with human rights, such as military encirclements, curfews and other undue restrictions on mobilization.
- Bukele has launched an intense smear campaign against civil society and human rights defenders, by questioning how representative they are as well as their legitimacy, and painting them as political instruments linked to his partisan adversaries. He engages in the same behavior toward academia, unions, the media and journalists who investigate and cover social expressions of discontent that are increasing day by day.
It is clear that El Salvador is in the presence of dangerous demagoguery, which has no antecedents in its recent history, and that the president’s authoritarian impulse seems to be advancing with few mechanisms to counter it. Beyond that, President Bukele seems increasingly determined to impose his judgment and style of government, using all means at his disposal to achieve this purpose. Confronted with this panorama, it is not hard to intuit that the events described are not just flare-ups of personality, but rather part of a carefully orchestrated plan, that includes—but is not limited to—future elections, especially the February 2021 legislative and municipal elections, in which the president will seek to achieve greater support within the Assembly than he currently has.
The truth is that the incipient pluralist life that El Salvador began to build with the end of the armed conflict is at stake. The weak institutional framework of the country is being tested and must demonstrate that it is capable of imposing reason in the face of presidential abuse and arbitrariness, and of retaking the path toward a balanced and fair exercise of power, and in favor of people, especially those who live in greater vulnerability.
Despite the stigma and de-legitimization to which they are being subjected, organized civil society, academic entities, popular organizations, unions and think tanks, now have the enormous challenge of maintaining and amplifying their critical and proactive voices in favor of good sense and law as a civilized instrument of democratic coexistence.
Juan Carlos Sánchez is a Program Officer at DPLF based in El Salvador.