As final results arrive from the February 28 elections, the contours of the next Legislative Assembly are coming into sharp relief: a party that embraces misogyny will govern El Salvador. Beyond sheer numbers, the track records of the winners suggest that, for the next three years, the dominant ideology in the Assembly will be misogynistic and conservative.
The electoral results show that openly misogynistic politicians, regardless of party, are more popular in the eyes of voters than their female rivals. Walter Araujo, a prominent Nuevas Ideas candidate who was disqualified from running due to openly misogynistic remarks, is just one of many emblematic figures in his party, which will control two-thirds of the Assembly. The new faces among the Nuevas Ideas deputies have yet to show their true colors.
Women, furthermore, will occupy just 24 of the 84 seats in the legislature, a low in female representation in more than a decade. Of these women, two-thirds come from the winning party which refused to condemn the behavior of its misogynistic candidates. Only one of the 24 women openly calls herself a feminist and voices support for the rights of women and LBGTQ people.
She’ll share the Assembly floor with Araujo, who built his current political brand by sparring with Bukele’s political opponents from his Twitter account and YouTube channel, calling them “los mismos de siempre” (the usual suspects) as if he weren’t one of them.
A founder of Arena, Araujo promised to shake up the Assembly under former president Francisco Flores (1999 - 2004). He later deserted the party, running for mayor of San Salvador with GANA in 2015. Now, he’s a star of Nuevas Ideas. Bound to reappear in the Assembly in some capacity, his broad popularity was his ticket to power.
He has leveraged his social media platforms to lob vulgar attacks against women, especially against one in particular: Bertha María Deleón, an attorney and his former opponent in his campaign for the Assembly. Suffice it to say that the least of their insults was that she was “toxic.” Following steady online harassment from Araujo and other members and supporters of his party, Deleón filed a complaint against Araujo with the Constitutional Chamber, leading to his disqualification from running for any public office for the duration of the trial, which is still ongoing.
Araujo isn’t the only harasser in his party, nor is Deleón their first target. Before her, the president’s allies goaded their supporters into demeaning the physical appearance of FMLN deputy Cristina Cornejo, one of the fiercest opponents of Bukele’s envoys to the Legislative Assembly to negotiate pandemic spending.
When now-ambassador to Washington Milena Mayorga ran for the Legislative Assembly with Arena in 2018, these same characters launched similar attacks, dredging up old photos of her drinking beer and partying. They do it for sport, because they can and because the odds of facing consequences are low.
While the collapse of Araujo’s candidacy set an important precedent in ending the impunity that fuels expressions of violence against women, not even the Chamber’s ruling will ultimately curb his power. Ernesto Castro, Bukele’s former personal secretary and the candidate who notched the most votes in San Salvador, backed Araujo by promising him a job in the Assembly with Nuevas Ideas, in spite of his public behavior and legal action against him for failure to pay child support.
Another prominent figure in the next Assembly will be Carlos Hermann Bruch, who various female journalists and other women have publicly accused of sexual harassment and bullying, sometimes of underage girls, in private messages on Facebook and Twitter. “I’m like God; let the little girls [niñas] come unto me,” reads one example.
Then there’s the case of deputy-elect Eduardo Amaya from San Miguel, which surfaced in the final stretch of the campaign in an investigation by El Faro into the legislative candidates of the party poised to govern the country. The best way to get a woman to obey, he said eight years ago, is to threaten to kill her mother. None of it mattered; he received the most votes of any legislative candidate in the department.
These behaviors are as ancient as the cockroach and equally as hard to purge. Misogyny is in the home, at school, in the workplace, at the gym, on the street, at the beach, in restaurants and bars, on social media, and in journalism, the Fiscalía, the Assembly, Supreme Court of Justice, and Casa Presidencial.
Nobody is born a misogynist, but it takes root in the womb and is constantly nurtured by reinforcing behavior. Quiet women, we are told, are “prettier,” and we should honor the gift of obedience. Meanwhile, the louder a man talks, the better. And if their voice can’t quite reach, the microphones are close by.
In saying this, I wish I were committing the fallacy of overgeneralization or speaking from my narrow experience or that of a friend. But the voices of women who have entrusted their stories to me, a reporter, in four years investigating violence against women back me up.
If that’s not enough, I offer as proof the results of the most recent elections. The smearing of women for their appearance and what they represent — be it party, ideology, their causes and their expertise — was a determining factor in winning over followers and, above all, votes.
Receiving Nayib’s blessing is more powerful than forgiveness from the pope, wiping away the past — be it political, violent, or corrupt — and promising success and impunity. There’s nothing strange about this for a man who ignores violence against women unless he can gain something from it. In his tireless efforts to demonstrate that El Salvador is safer since he became president, in July of 2019 he claimed there had been no homicides that day — with the exception of one femicide, which he opted to describe as a “crime of passion.” For reasons still unclear and unexplained by the president, homicide levels appear to have fallen overall, but that doesn’t mean that women here live in paradise.
Bukele was markedly tight-lipped about the wave of murders of trans women in 2019 — one murder every week for seven weeks. He took the same silent approach amid rising femicides and domestic violence during the first three months of the Covid-19 stay-at-home order. From March 21 to May 14, the Feminist Network against Violence against Women reported 18 femicides.
The president broke his silence on the violence to report a statistic which, of course, made him look good. In a press conference on June 4, 2020 intended as a sort of state-of-the-nation address following his first year in office, he boasted of a 61 percent decline in violence against women since he took office and railed against feminists who he accused, as he has with other human rights advocates, of being shills for the FMLN.
More recently, the president has said nothing about the abuse of a man accredited to cover the February elections for the government-run National Radio toward FMLN candidates Daniela Genovez y Karina Sosa. The man, who was arrested on March 8 on charges including expressions of violence against women and online harassment, mixed insults with catcalls toward the two women on his YouTube channel. “They’ll say it’s sexual harassment,” snickered another man in the video.
When questioned by the press about the man’s statements, Ernesto Castro responded: “You’d have to ask that to the YouTubers,” because “this is a democratic country where you’re free to voice your support for whoever you want.”
The administration did, however, spring into action to paint over the spray-painted messages that female protesters scrawled on walls and monuments in downtown San Salvador during protests on Sunday, March 7 for International Women’s Day. Along the walls of the National Palace, a historic landmark, and throughout Plaza Barrios read messages of protest, among them: “The police don’t keep me safe;” “for the women we’re missing;” and “abort your Nayib, Walter, and Bruch.” By that evening, the Ministry of Public Works had covered the walls in a fresh layer of paint and the administration breathed a sigh of relief.
The restoration of San Salvador’s Centro Histórico became a symbol for Bukele as mayor of San Salvador. It’s so unpopular for women to demand their rights through protest that, as the march drew near, female street vendors along Avenida España yelled from their stands, “get a hobby,” when chants mentioned Bukele.
That afternoon, a video circulated among the president’s supporters, in which a woman stood at the foot of the statue of Gerardo Barrios, which had also received a spray-paint makeover. The markings, the woman said indignantly, weren’t the actions of “true feminists.” The protests, she continued, were a “show.”
The future looks grim, especially given that one feminist will swim alone is a sea of enablers of misogyny and cut-throat conservatism. Times of resistance are on the horizon. A century ago, in 1921, women working as vendors in San Salvador took the streets to protest awful living conditions and the repression of the Meléndez Quiñónez regime. By November of that year, women had obtained suffrage. I wish it wasn’t so, but history teaches us that we must resist.
*Translated by Roman Gressier