What do you call it when the president of a country deploys heavily armed soldiers and police inside the Legislative Assembly, threatens to dissolve the Assembly if lawmakers don’t do as he says, and then claims to have conferred directly with god?
If you’re El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele—who did all of the above and more on February 9—you call it “respect[ing] the separation of powers.” This, at least, is what he argued in a February 16 letter to the editor of the Washington Post, while also cordially informing American readers that “anyone who suggested I was using our security forces for anything other than to protect the safety and integrity of the National Assembly is misreporting the truth.”
What better way to conduct damage control than by spontaneously rewriting events?
The spectacle Bukele staged in the Assembly was meant to coerce Salvadoran legislators into cooperating in his pursuit of a $109 million loan to finance the third phase of his Territorial Control Plan, which Bukele believes would—using the same failed strategies that have been flung at the wall in administrations past—increase security, reduce gang violence, and essentially make Bukele the savior of El Salvador.
And while god is apparently on board with the arrangement—recommending only that Bukele have “patience”—other powers that be were not so receptive to the show of force. United States ambassador to El Salvador Ronald Johnson, for example, unleashed some admonishing tweets about the importance of democracy and respect for the rule of law, and the Washington Post editorial board condemned Bukele’s “alarming violation of democratic norms.”
Hence Bukele’s rebuttal in the Post, titled “As El Salvador’s president, I respect the separation of powers.” According to this short and sweet assault on logic and reality, the deployment of the military and police was necessary because “[t]he safety of the National Assembly was a concern, as tens of thousands of Salvadorans were outside the National Assembly calling for the full removal of its members.”
This is a bold statement, no doubt, from the very character who summoned said crowd to the National Assembly to do precisely that.
Bukele also emphasizes that his security plan is “an important step in taking back control of our country from terrorist groups”—jargon that certainly resonates with a US audience conditioned to rally behind wars on terror (but lest anyone imagine Bukele on the frontlines with ISIS, he means gangs).
The “terrorists” also feature prominently in Bukele’s February 15 op-ed in the Miami Herald, right alongside other villains like the “right-wing death-squad sponsor ARENA political party” and the “extreme left-wing, pro-Maduro FMLN political party” (which in addition to not being extreme boasted none other than Bukele as a member until 2017, when he was expelled).
El Salvador’s two traditional parties have “left our country in shackles, riddled in violence,” and their respective leaderships have “actively engaged with terrorist groups.” Never mind that Bukele has also negotiated with the gangs; the clear remedy to the situation is his insisted-upon loan, which is “earmarked exclusively to purchase equipment and logistical support for the police and military, who have been neglected for more than 30 years.”
Somehow, the inattention has not kept said security forces from engaging in extrajudicial killings and other abuses—yet another indication that increased “security” does not necessarily mean less violence. Furthermore, “more than 30 years” puts us at some point before 1990, i.e. in the middle of El Salvador’s brutal civil war that killed more than 75,000 people. The vast majority of lethal violence was committed by the right-wing military—and allied paramilitary groups and death squads—who were far from neglected by the U.S., which downplayed massacres and human rights atrocities in order to continue inundating the country with “aid.”
This brings us to the jejune concluding sentence of Bukele’s Miami Herald appeal: “The United States should always side with the good guys.” Beyond its sordid role in the Salvadoran civil war—during which countless Salvadorans fled north, mainly to Los Angeles—the United States is also largely responsible for the current gang problem itself, by deporting members of the gangs that had formed in LA back to El Salvador. To be sure, throughout the last thirteen decades or so of U.S. interventionism, the country has a proven track record of siding with whomever serves their interests—which is generally bad news for the average Salvadoran.
In Bukelelandia, however, history matters little. Social media, on the other hand, is of paramount importance. “President Trump is very nice and cool, and I’m nice and cool, too,” Bukele once said, in reference to the man he apparently forgot had called El Salvador a “shithole” country. “We both use Twitter a lot, so, you know, we’ll get along.”
For the United States, of course, the “good guys” will typically be the ones who allow a savage capitalist system and corporate-friendly economic policies to flourish. But it’s always better when a façade of “democracy” can be maintained—which is naturally more difficult when a president decides that the parliament building is a combat zone.
In presenting his case of auto-exoneration in the U.S. media—a PR stunt designed to instantly rehabilitate his image—Bukele reiterated that, despite toying with an outright call for insurrection over the preceding days, “[m]y administration was deeply concerned about a popular uprising of frustrated Salvadorans mobilized against the National Assembly.”
Indeed, Salvadorans have plenty of reasons to be frustrated—and Bukele is one of them.