Nayib Bukele’s recent power play— using the armed forces to intimidate members of the Legislative Assembly to approve some $109 million in funds for his Territorial Control Plan—sent chills down the spines of many Salvadorans, of other Central Americans, of the Salvadoran diaspora, and of the international community at large. His theatrics triggered memories of some of the darkest moments of the Central American past, where authoritarian combinations of pressurized politics and military threats were preludes to open conflict.
His move checked our assumptions: that a functional democracy in El Salvador was not vulnerable to this kind of military reactivation. We assumed, blindly, that civil war tensions were a thing of the past, the so-called 'post-postwar' of Bukele’s own proclaiming. Last month, he downplayed the public need to commemorate the 28 years since the signing of the ‘92 Peace Accords—a troubling instance of political revisionism. Bukele’s election to the presidency, and his June 2019 taking of power, both initially suggested a new opening, one that signaled an end to the bipolarity that had characterized Salvadoran elections since the civil conflict’s end. Even then, as Bukele built his political résumé as mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán and then as mayor of San Salvador, and as he moved people towards his millennial vehicle—the right-wing Nuevas Ideas party—critics voiced concerns about his narcissism and Trump-like brand of social media populism. Looking back now, the pieces of an emerging populist figure are all there.
The events of Sunday—Bukele’s using the military as a form of mob control and a source of political power—while exceptional, are also, given trends in the region’s recent political history, rather anticlimactic and expected. His use of the military for his televised address in front of the Assembly’s gates, where he lambasted legislators to a crowd of 5,000 to 50,0000 (depending on who you ask) was both a display of military force and a weaponization of his political support—one indistinguishable from the other. Bukele would confirm that his move was urgently needed as the rationale for modernizing the military and police via this funding package, that it was his mandate as head of state to protect Salvadoran lives. But by antagonizing legislators for not automatically approving the funding—falling just short of calling them murderers themselves—Bukele pitted these two forces against one another, ‘flexing’ his military-popular strength while crowds enthralled by his millennial mystique cheered him on to ‘make the state work.’ This, of course, was not an instance of deliberative democracy, but a deformed kind of strongman realpolitik.
For both Salvadorans and the international community, the display of force and military intimidation signaled a return to wartime tensions, echoing authoritarian figures throughout the 20th century, to the very caudillismos that defined nations like El Salvador from their beginning. However, it is in the unresolved militarisms—which reached a rolling boil in the Salvadoran Civil War—that we find most cause for concern. The war itself was prompted by a military coup staged by a revolutionary junta under right-wing military influence, which then prompted the escalation of the 13-year conflict. Leaving roughly 50,000 to 70,000 dead, the Salvadoran Civil War remains a case study to understanding the role of the military as a determining factor in the course of politics and society.
In recalling these bloody events, the use of the military to bully legislators into pushing through a funding bill for the armed forces and police does not seem too ‘outside’ the routine ways politics and militarism have co-evolved under Salvadoran governance. Bukele’s justifications, in a telephone interview he gave to El País the evening of the military occupation, confirms that he recognizes his own power, popularly and militarily, and its utility for pushing the punitive option as the only solution for El Salvador’s enduring social problems.
El Salvador is still not out of its war; it has just transformed into a protracted war against crime. The $109 million loan that is supposed to fund the modernization of the military and the national civilian police (PNC), is part of a larger need to unroll a surveillance apparatus in El Salvador and to over-criminalize and over-police sectors of society for the goal of making El Salvador investable for transnational capital and enclose people seeking to move. Bukele, as president-elect, promised as much to The Heritage Foundation in his first public speech in March 2019, kowtowing to the United States while offering, as bundled deliverables, to improve the “investment climate” and commit to stop outmigration and narcotrafficking. That same call to capital does not address the sources of these social deformations, a reduction in social spending and investing in people, in communities, in employment, in infrastructure, in the bases of Salvadoran society that will, in the long-term, reduce the influence and seduction of the gangs and criminality. Thus, Bukele’s fundraising for the military and police, as one of his prescribed “bitter medicines,” will only worsen processes of forced migration northward, further entrench social exclusion, and again fail to mend the social fabric.
Scaling back, Nayib Bukele must also be thought of as part of the conservative wave in the region—recall the 2009 Honduran coup that led directly to today’s narco-president Juan Orlando Hernández; Guatemala’s recent presidents from Pérez Molina to Jimmy Morales, both of whom gutted anti-corruption efforts in the neighboring nation, to the recently inaugurated warden-turned-politician Alejandro Giammattei. The optics of recent events in El Salvador must be seen in context of this region-wide shift, as well as in the very militarisms that converged with the punitive objectives of prior administrations (Mano Dura, Super Mano Dura, Plan El Salvador Seguro, and now Plan Control Territorial). Bukele’s prompting of the masses sympathetic to punishment is also furthered by his now conventional acts of performative religiosity—as his 'asking god for patience' evoked as he sat in the usurped seat of the Assembly. El Salvador, despite claims to the contrary, and especially now with President Bukele at the helm, has not moved beyond the shadow cast by the civil conflict—in fact, it has simply rearticulated them in trendy populist guise. Bukele’s tantrum clearly shows that for the many fiefdoms turned nations like El Salvador, the military and the state, sprinkled with the gospel, are indissoluble.
Jorge E. Cuéllar is Mellon Faculty Fellow (2019-2021) and Assistant Professor (2021-) of Latin American, Latino & Caribbean Studies at Dartmouth College.