In the year since Bukele and the Army attempted a coup d’état against the Legislative Assembly, the Salvadoran president has only confirmed concerns about his authoritarian nature and the dismantling of our democracy, which first provoked alarm on February 9, 2020 (9F).
Still today, those images of Bukele praying in the Blue Room, surrounded by military officers and seated in the chair of the president of the Legislative Assembly, continue to circulate around the world. The international community watched the events with great concern and let this government know it. Bukele, however, has learned no lessons.
On February 9, 2020, the disrespect for the rules of our republican life was so clear that the main actors no longer needed to hide it. Since then, the armed forces’ loyalty to the president over our Constitution; the police’s fealty to Bukele over the law; and the rejection of dialogue toward political coexistence have become normalized.
Later, we learned more: that the tyrannical spectacle was also a dramatic maneuver intended to quell criticism of the water management of the National Administration of Aqueducts and Sewers (ANDA). Bukele and his team chose a distraction in which they thought they’d emerge victorious: the conflict with the representatives who hadn’t approved a $109 million loan for his security plan. On February 9, Bukele stormed into the Assembly with armed soldiers and usurped the Assembly president’s chair. By now, everyone knows about the shameful spectacle of his communication with the gods.
That same night, this newspaper wrote an editorial about the dangers of a ruler who demands a cult of personality, who lacks good judgment and historical memory of the country and, above all, responsibility in national life. That editorial was titled, ‘Dictatorial Dressings.’ The year we have lived since then has only served to confirm the rapid deterioration of all the state’s institutions around the president and his family, who lead a cabinet as corrupt as the ones that preceded it but are not even willing to subject themselves to the separation of powers that the Constitution mandates.
A few days ago, after three state security agents murdered two FMLN militants, we witnessed how Bukele and the police are willing to distort the crime in order to defend their own. The same has happened with all the cases of corruption recorded by the media and state oversight institutions or those responsible for investigating corruption. Impunity has presidential approval, so long as the accused are loyal to Bukele.
This is just another expression of the permanent crisis in which we’ve lived over the past year, a mixture of crises across sectors: a health crisis caused by the pandemic and exacerbated by corruption, the opportunistic political management of the crisis and a lack of transparency. An economic crisis not only caused by the pandemic but also by the misappropriation of public resources and maximum debt to finance emergency expenses without accountability. A political crisis unleashed since last February 9 and perpetuated by a president whose brand of politics is permanent conflict, discrediting alternative voices, closing all space for dialogue, and monopolizing all spaces of power, no matter the cost, even at the expense of the Constitution. And a crisis of the rule of law, in which political and judicial persecution or impunity increasingly depend on opposition or loyalty to the president.
The government arbitrarily decided not to fund municipal governments since none of the mayors belong to his political party, and despite the Supreme Court ordering Bukele’s Treasury Minister to disburse the funds. The government has refused to do so in order to deny the mayors the opportunity to do work that could improve their position in the February 28 elections. In turn, there are numerous allegations of the delivery of food packages to candidates from the government’s party so that they can distribute them. The Nuevas Ideas Party also refuses to report where the millionaire funds invested in its campaign come from.
The President’s Office has shut down all access to public information, including — amidst the worst pandemic humanity has experienced — information related to the health system, statistics on contagions, and the extraordinary expenses accrued during the emergency. This is in addition to the proliferation of media controlled by the executive branch to present an alternate version of reality without questioning its own exercise of power and the wielding of the state apparatus to persecute critics.
A year ago, we wrote in our editorial: “With the military seizure of the Assembly, Nayib Bukele eliminated the last remaining doubts about his nature: he is sensationalist, populist, anti-democratic, and authoritarian.” To all of that, we must now add he fosters widespread corruption and impunity; that is to say, we are suffering a constant attack by the government on the rule of law, the only guarantee citizens have.
Since then, the most significant breaking point in this anti-democratic advance has been the change of government in the United States and the departure of Ambassador Ronald Johnson, a diplomatic representative so nefarious that he made himself available to appear at Bukele’s call to seize the legislature three days before 9F; he later minimized the events and proclaimed his personal friendship with the president. The Trump administration, which gave the green light to the region’s despots in exchange for their submission to its migration policy, is gone and replaced by a government that bets on the fight against corruption and has, in just three weeks, already given strong indications that the bilateral relationship — the only one that seems to interest Bukele — will depend on El Salvador’s return to the path of democracy and combating corruption.
Now, a year later, it’s sad to note that we were right when we warned that the usurpation of the Assembly was not an exception to how the Bukele administration governs, but the rule. The dismantling of our democratic institutions has worsened, and the Bukele clan and its closest associates continue to use public funds without accountability to anyone.
As we did a year ago, today we insist: the attacks on our democratic life are possible because of a weak political opposition to Bukele that has little credibility. At this point in our history, the best space for stemming the breakdown of democracy is not there but rather in organized civil society, which knows that authoritarianism snatches away rights and aspirations. February 9 is a milestone. It was the day we learned a harsh lesson about this government’s true nature: that it is a threat to our democracy and our rights.