Spanish version: Maneras de dictador
The delirious spectacle of President Nayib Bukele—who this Sunday, while surrounded by heavily armed military and riot police carrying shotguns, usurped the seat of the National Assembly’s president and threatened to dissolve the National Assembly itself while delegitimizing the role of the Constitutional Chamber—is, perhaps, the lowest moment that Salvadoran democracy has lived in three decades.
Bukele had already, in the past few months, instrumentalized the Armed Forces and the National Police to the point of degradation. But the military occupation of the main chamber of Congress this Sunday hark back to dictatorial scenes and brings to mind an Army that we thought we had left behind. The images of uniformed soldiers in bulletproof vests, helmets, and carrying rifles inside the legislative hall are an embarrassment, and will not be easily forgotten.
If we add to this the messianic populism played to the extreme—during his usurpation, the president closed his eyes, covered his face, and later revealed to his followers that he had spoken with God, and that God told him not to go forward with the self-coup—the events of the day sow serious doubts about Nayib Bukele’s maturity and ability to govern.
His act of populist bullying is a very serious attack on all the democratic institutions that El Salvador has worked so hard to build. If the president doesn’t know that, he is incapable of governing; if he doesn’t mind, he is a threat to the country.
Bukele was at the point of burning everything down. And he probably would’ve done it, had foreign governments, trade unions, and national and international organizations not intervened to let him know that he was pushing El Salvador to the edge of a precipice.
Maybe it’s what he was looking for. Members of Congress had confirmed on Saturday that they would meet on Monday to discuss the president’s demand for a loan, a loan he claims he needs to finance phase three of his security program. A ruler and a cabinet with real interest in their country, or at least real interest in the loan, would have waited a few hours. But Bukele and his team believed it profitable to play the part of a strong president backed by his Army, stirring up crowds against his opponents, and establishing direct communication with a supreme being. They decided that it was politically wise to put a gun to the heads of lawmakers. Literally.
Discussing the viability of a loan is impossible under these conditions. The presidential commissioner of cabinet operations, Carolina Recinos, claims that this confrontation between the Executive and the Legislative branches is normal. No, it is not normal, and it cannot be normalized. Not when the Chief Executive orders security forces to wander outside the private homes of opposition legislators. Not when weapons are brandished along with calls to dissolve Congress. Not when members of Congress are given a week to vote in favor of the president’s demands under threat of popular insurrection.
Under these conditions, it’s difficult to guarantee that members of Congress will be free to vote. Under these conditions, legislators have but a single dignified path forward: refusing the blackmail and debating, instead, the violation of their legislative body by the state and the military. Voting for the loan, under the current conditions, would only be yielding to a threat; it would be pretending that something as serious as what happened over the weekend did not set a dangerous precedent. Only a political dialogue that includes Bukele’s revocation of the threats can open the way to a new legislative normality.
An Institutional Crisis
We Salvadorans believed we were safe from the caudillos that some of our regional neighbors live under, but we have discovered that we suffer from the same cancer.
This crisis, erected piece by piece by Bukele, lays bear the truth of this nation. Through a number of profoundly corrupt administrations, during moments when agreements between the major political parties and gangs were aired out in courtrooms, our political system lost credibility and demanded a complete renovation. The President has converted the people’s understandable thirst for a restart into a platform for his own personality. In just eight months, the enormous popularity of his actions is convincing proof of the dangers of our institutional weakness. But his very style of government is a part of a rotten system, a fundamental part of the problem, not the solution. Democracy needs to be strengthened, not dynamited as Bukele is beginning to do.
It’s painful to discover that we haven’t gotten past the nightmare of an armed threat, threats against opponents and critics, to push a political point. That the heads of the Armed Forces and the National Civilian Police (PNC) have both supported this president’s perverse spectacle establishes a precedent, reminding us that we do not want them, ever, intervening in politics—not even when their Commander in Chief orders them to.
The actions of the Army and the PNC over the weekend call for nothing less than repudiation. Hopefully those officers who remain committed to their uniforms, and committed to democracy, demand an amends, demand a measure of sanity, and deman a taking of stock among their corps, especially in the difficult weeks ahead of our country. It’s not just for the good of their country, but for the good of their institutions as well.
Neither has the Supreme Court of Justice, especially its Constitutional Chamber, risen to the level of this crisis. The body’s silence—from either cowardice or incapacity—is criminal, and has encouraged a president who saw it as in his right to interpret the Constitution and to try to use it like a guillotine. It was up to the judges to intervene and demand their independence and relevance. Their voices may come late, but their silence, if it continues, will condemn them to the same state of irrelevance that Bukele relegated them to when he claimed, in front of the masses, that he didn’t need the Court to interpret the articles of the Constitution to threaten Congress or to call for insurrection.
With the military takeoever of the Assembly, Nayib Bukele laid to rest the last doubts about his character: he is showboating, populist, anti-democratic, and authoritarian. With the cheapest tricks—vile, dangerous, and claiming he has God on his side—he turned over a dark page in the history of our young democracy. The country has taken a blow, but the worst bruise is that which will accompany the President in the remaining years of his term, and in the way history will view him.
It’s hard to expect much reflection or a new direction from the President at this point. To a politician capable of the stunts he pulled on Sunday there is nothing left to do but impose limits and more stringent checks and balances.
The defense of our democracy will not come from the masses that he invokes, organizes, and then injects with demagoguery and the invitation to insurrection. No. It will come from an organized civil society that answers him with a commitment to the basics of democracy, that pressures him to continue to combat corruption and build respect for the Rule of Law. It will come when the other branches of government stand up and act in defense of their institutions. It will come from a watchful international community. It will come with reflection and a profound reassessment of our political parties, which need both internal purges and to start anew in search of legitimacy. It comes from a collective commitment to strengthen pluralism.
And it comes, also, from the members of his cabinet who must consider whether or not it is worth continuing with a project based on the cult of personality of a man both ignorant of our collective memory and without a sense of political responsibility. To hand over all powers to a single person, or to allow that person to hoard them, is a perfect recipe for disaster. History has given us too many such examples. Ya basta. Enough.