Nayib Bukele ended his first year in office on June 1 besieged by the Covid-19 pandemic and reeling from the devastation of Tropical Storm Amanda, the latter of which, last weekend alone, left over a dozen dead and thousands homeless. Two enormous disruptions in a country of perpetual crisis. A country that hoped that Bukele—a young businessman at odds with the traditional parties—would offer change, improvement, modernity, a fresh response.
A large majority of Salvadorans still back him. They applaud his verbal aggressiveness and hold out hope for that change, despite indicators to the contrary.
Bukele’s emergency response to Amanda illustrates this. He raised the initial alarm on Wednesday, May 27, via Twitter, sounding off an empty order to the Director General of Civil Protection—the executive branch manager tasked with coordinating interagency disaster response who, in theory, should have been the one to make that determination on the basis of technical criteria. That Saturday, as the rain intensified and the country continued on alert, the government failed to preemptively mobilize resources, coordinate across the territory, stage evacuations, or prepare shelters.
The overflowing riverbanks, flooded houses, landslides, and death arrived as if unannounced, overwhelming the government’s already beleaguered capacity to respond. Civil Protection has been shut down during the pandemic response for three months, and the Bukele administration has refused to activate risk management protocols devised by the preceding Sánchez Cerén administration while also failing to devise an alternative. By the time the country moved to high alert on Sunday morning, the country had already registered the damage of a new disaster. That night in Nueva Israel, one of the hardest-hit communities in San Salvador, the president launched into a tirade, saying little of the victims but rushing to cast villains among the Legislative Assembly, the opposition, and the press.
The events were the final touches on the sketch of Bukele’s first year. They were yet another confirmation of his negligence, of his obsession with self-image combined with a growing trend of improvisation, of his allergy to institutionality, of his pathological aversion to criticism. It is impossible to blame the current government alone for El Salvador’s vulnerability to crises, which is a result not only of the ineptitude of past administrations but also, indirectly, of the multimillion-dollar embezzlement of public funds by officials at the highest levels of both Arena and FMLN administrations. Bukele does, though, shoulder the responsibility of having dismantled the fragile institutionality that he inherited without working toward a viable replacement.
His decision not to appoint departmental governors, who are essential regional leaders amid disaster responses, is part of a larger pattern. In his first days in office, Bukele eliminated—without technical analysis, legal argument, nor justification beyond that of long-term savings—five secretariats under the executive branch, including: Social Inclusion, one of the first steps in fighting discrimination against LGBTQ+ people; Transparency; and the Technical Secretariat, in charge of government planning and strategy. He cut them from the state roster without drafting replacements. A year later, we are suffering the consequences of those and other leadership vacuums under a leader who is as anxious to consolidate power as he is to disguise how and through whom he wields it.
Dismissing the governmental chaos as growing pains or restructuration has long lost value. If the first year of an administration is a period of adaptation, of assembling a team, it is also a period for the governor to determine their style, principles, and position within the country’s ecosystem of political and social actors.
Riding a wave of unprecedented popularity, Bukele could have leveraged his tremendous political capital to unite a country divided for decades by ideology, to create space for dialogue and political plurality in a civil society capable and willing to help him spearhead urgent reforms—in particular, curbing corruption and poverty and leveling the distribution of wealth. Instead, he decided to govern with a constant discourse of enmity toward his critics, remaining closed off to any idea coming from outside his inner circle.
Surrounded by an unwaveringly loyal team of officials with dubious credentials and a tight group made up of his brothers and family confidants, Bukele opted not to learn the inner workings of the state that he erratically governs and whose mechanisms for independence, separations of power and checks and balances perturb him.
This past year, he has not only regularly lobbed insults, but he has also disregarded the authority of the legislative and judicial branches and dismissed not only the political opposition, but any civic organization or voice that challenges him. As the self-declared legitimate interpreter of the constitution, on numerous occasions he has broken the laws and court rulings he swore to uphold while claiming he was within his right.
That being said, there have been notable achievements during his first year—in particular, the striking decline in El Salvador’s homicide rate to the lowest levels since the government has reliably collected data. Although the workings of the current public safety regime and the reasons for the decline are unclear, it is true that today Salvadorans feel much safer.
The early preemptive response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the drastic measures that blunted the impact of the virus on our battered public health system should also be applauded. Unfortunately, the bold initial action lacked accompanying sanitary protocols, scientific input, and minimal medium-term planning and coordination with other stakeholders. These shortcomings contributed to numerous problems: chaos in aid distribution; the wildfire spread of the virus within quarantine facilities; disorder and shortage of supplies in hospitals; brutality at the hands of security forces tasked with enforcing the quarantine; constant resistance to accountability for the multimillion-dollar international emergency relief funds; failure to find internal agreement and minimal coordination among state actors; and the sowing of lies and discord to mask these problems. The pandemic has revealed Bukele’s worst side, yet it is not the first time he has led the country into turmoil.
By the time the virus had arrived, Nayib Bukele had already submerged the country in a deep political and constitutional crisis.
The military occupation of the Legislative Assembly on February 9 charted the definitive course of this administration: its contempt for the constitution, the trampling of another branch of government, the politicization of the army and civil police force, the populist savior complex of the head of state who usurped the chair of the president of the Congress to ask his god whether he should dissolve the legislative body. The national memory will not easily forget an act of such violence against our democracy.
More than just an outburst, the incident was a window into his governing style, a point of no return for a man without democratic ambitions for the state who understands politics as a forever-war against any who even slightly challenge his absolute authority or encroach onto his stage.
Instead of leveraging his enormous political momentum to propel the country to newfound wellbeing, to drive long-term consensus and eternally delayed transformation, Bukele has spent his time undermining any resistance to his authoritarian vision, which he hopes to consolidate via ballot box in the legislative elections of February 2021.
In insisting on handing over the legislative branch, his adherents fail to realize that by disregarding the rule of law Bukele is failing to protect the citizenry, many of whom do not know what rights they have or how to defend them. They fail to see that the disrespect for the judiciary and its laws will also have short-term economic consequences, because the international wave of fascination with the president in his first months in office has broken. It will not be easy to attract investment to a country whose president defies the law and, as we have already seen, wields state power to shutter businesses whose owners make him politically uncomfortable.
Bukele’s popularity—the highest level of domestic support of all presidents in the continent—should bring his supporters and critics alike to deep reflection. It makes sense given the complete void of alternative national leadership, the tarnished reputations of the opposition parties, and the affinity of a good portion of the public, no less, for politicians promising mano dura. Years of polling warn that most Salvadorans respond positively to massianic political appeals and are unconcerned by authoritarianism because democracy has failed to meet their urgent needs.
In Bukele’s darkest moments, when some of his decisions have proven misguided and amid the intensifying questioning of civic organizations and international organizations, it is no coincidence that he has leaned on God as a rhetorical tool and guide. His followers should question whether his toolkit—obfuscation, lashing out at critics, religious discourse—is not the same used by past presidents from whom he tried to distinguish himself.
But one year after he took office, defenders of democracy face the steepest uphill battle. This administration will not deviate from its confrontational and anti-democratic style because that is its nature. In the face of that reality, the collective task of preventing further institutional backsliding is looming. It requires citizens becoming anxiously engaged in constructing and defending democracy. It requires the cleansing of all political parties, which to date have preferred to shield their most deviant members over their own ideas and responsibility to the nation. It requires action and an immediate, constant, collective, and courageous stance.
And those aware of the many social and political factors that have rolled out a red carpet for this antidemocratic government can only meet this challenge by way of introspection, by reaching out to, listening to, seeking to understand those Salvadorans who doubt that the country is approaching the precipice. Or those who are prepared to jump.