This past January 16, for the first time since the 1992 Peace Accords put an end to El Salvador’s civil war, the country didn’t commemorate the anniversary. President Nayib Bukele, who took selfies in the General Assembly of the United Nations even as he consolidated the strongest—and most frenetic—administration in the country’s recent history, must have thought that celebrating the legacy of the establishment political parties that he trounced in the elections a year ago would tarnish his goal of national renewal. Besides putting an end to a 12-year conflict that took about 75,000 lives, he doesn’t see the relevance of either of these parties, which were undermined by corrupt administrations.
The past just gets in the way for the millennial president. Like tyrants of old, he believes that History begins with himself. And maybe that’s why, on the afternoon of Sunday, February 9, he overlooked the incredible significance—especially for a country traumatized by a dictatorial past—of a president entering onto the floor of the Legislative Assembly with dozens of armed soldiers.
It’s still unclear how far Bukele would have gone that Sunday without both international parties and the domestic private sector warning him to stop in the hours leading up to his offensive. Up until the morning of February 9, there were private meetings between groups of ambassadors and government officials who were seeking to derail what they saw as a possible autocoup. Bukele himself told his supporters that very day that, if he wanted, he could dissolve Congress in a moment.
He also said that he didn’t do it because, after praying, God counseled a week of patience.
Bukele sees himself above the norms of his job, as well as free of legal formalities. He was set on demonstrating that his political experiment isn’t tied down to any rules. He holds the power, and walks hand-in-hand with the Armed Forces and the Police. He wanted to demonstrate that power to country’s legislators who, in a shy show of independence, and despite having approved for him all kinds of loans in the last eight months, resisted the call to authorize the negotiation of one more loan for security programs. Bukele, in response, showed his might to the rest of the country.
Twenty-four hours later, the firm reactions of the Supreme Court, the Legislative Assembly, among other institutions—as well as those of El Salvador’s civil society and a unanimous international condemnation—burst Bukele’s bubble. Bukele should now realize that he’s not larger than history.
But there’s a chance that not even the hit his international reputation took, nor the growing awareness among Salvadorans of their president’s greed, will be enough to stop the growth of Bukele’s power.
Nayib Bukele leaves this crisis a weakened man, but he has four more years left in office, and the weakness of the remaining parties give him all the advantage he needs to achieve an absolute majority in the 2021 legislative elections. Most likely Bukele will continue governing without opposition until 2024, unless the picture of armed soldiers in the halls of Congress generates a democratic awakening among the Salvadoran people.
Despite his repeated demonstrations of authoritarianism, Bukele has, since the beginning of his presidency, been emboldened from the complicity of multiple national actors, as well as the apathy of many others. It’s true that the murder rate has dropped and that he has created a promising investment environment, but Nayib Bukele’s presidency has been marked by nepotism, opacity, his constant attacks against any opponent, ruthless censorship of the press, and an aggressive answer to those who denounce his conflicts of interest or the telltale signs of corruption within his cabinet.
Nayib Bukele not only made it to the usurpation of Congress drunk with ambition, he also got there standing on the shoulders of those—thinking they’ll make money in his shadow—who cheer him on. He stood on the shoulders of the majority who applauded him while thirsty for hope, those too afraid to confront a man who leads a troll army on social media.
But, if the warning signs of February 9 go quiet with the passage of time, if the different political parties don’t self-reflect and renew within the next few months, if citizens’ participation, public debate, and independent journalism don’t improve, Bukele would have paid quite a low price for his violent storming of Congress.
Central America reminds us time and time again that the lack of alternatives breeds monsters— or at least preserves them. Nothing changed in Honduras after the 2009 coup or after the fraud that gave Juan Orlando Hernández a second term in 2017. And the international silence over the avalanche of proof of the Honduran president’s links to narcotrafficking can be easily explained: his political rivals are non-viable.
There’s little left of the international condemnation of the violent repression that Daniel Ortega unleashed in Nicaragua in April 2018 and that, a year and a half later, still stands in the shape of dozens of political prisoners and thousands of citizens in exile. And Jimmy Morales’ managed to complete his presidency in Guatemala this past January 14 despite the multiple corruption allegations made against him. He was even able to disband, with a little help from the United States, the very uncomfortable International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which jailed his predecessor and had started weakening the treaties among the elites that have kidnapped their own country.
Why, then, should we think that Bukele’s actions will receive a more pointed response, or spark a change in another direction?
If El Salvador doesn’t begin building a viable counterweight to the president’s power, we won’t be able to tell how far the condemnations of Bukele’s usurpation will go. If the national institutions and the citizens’ pressure don’t lead to resignations, admission of guilt, any kind of reparation, any indignation against Bukele’s dictatorial ways will be written in history, even while he consolidates his authority.
Maybe Bukele doesn’t know, understand, or respect El Salvador’s history, but if citizens allow the image of dozens of armed soldiers taking over the National Assembly to stop ringing the alarm of their consciences, if they allow his actions to pass on without consequence, the responsibility for what comes next won’t fall only on the president.
An old Spanish friend once told me that the first thing his mother said when she found out—on February 23, 1981—that the Civil Guard had violently taken over the halls of Madrid’s Congress, and that armed soldiers were on the streets of numerous cities with the intention of starting a coup, was “What a shame, what a shame.” Spain that thought of itself as democratic, but wasn’t; the country still had layers of dictatorship visible behind the cracks of its new makeup.
An indelible stain will follow Nayib Bukele for the rest of his presidency. His political magic tricks will forever be less dazzling and his smile will look a bit more yellow. But February 9 says something more about El Salvador, it says something about us as a society, as democracy. It whispers: What a shame, what a shame.