Columns / Corruption

There Is No Democratic Tradition in El Salvador

Saturday, May 8, 2021
Jorge Cuéllar

Technical coup, soft coup, constitutional crisis. The abrupt removal of magistrates from the Salvadoran Supreme Court is a frightening authoritarian backslide and a prelude to a near-future when an overpowered executive, Nayib Bukele, can steamroll the opposition without checks and balances. In the last few days, Bukele has used his newfound control of the Legislative Assembly to make sweeping removals of public officials he disagrees with, to remake Salvadoran laws better suited to his needs and his image. In a country whose sense of history appears to be evaporating, Bukele appears to Salvadorans as wholly new rather than the most recent iteration in a long tradition of dangerous demagogues.

The “New Legislative Assembly,” as government marketers working on the legislature’s social media accounts have branded it, has also voted to impose a tributary tax on print news media, a clear form of retaliation against journalism which has been a perpetual thorn in Bukele’s side. There is a sense that this will soon escalate to other “tax evasive” groups as denoted by Bukele’s Assembly, and that more dismissals will follow. While this political standoff was predicted by analysts after his party and allies, this February, swept the legislative and municipal elections, little did we know that Bukele would seek his own form of absolutism through unopposed rule in one fell swoop. The removal and replacement of Supreme Court magistrates and the Attorney General on day one of the new legislature eliminated two of the last remaining counterweights to the balance of power. May 1’s antidemocratic shock, coupled with Bukele’s ongoing shift towards an unveiled authoritarianism, puts him squarely in the demagogic tradition in El Salvador.

With the new Assembly and a brewing juridical crisis, Nuevas Ideas and its allies are using their supermajority in the Legislative Assembly to create a political climate where Bukele’s whims go functionally unopposed. No longer will Bukele’s decrees be scrutinized in the Legislative Assembly or batted down in the courts, and no longer will his power —his enlightened despotism — be questioned. Heads of state, U.S. Congresspersons, human rights watchdogs, journalists, and Salvadorans around the world have voiced their repudiation of Bukele’s actions and the breakdown of democracy. Many have called it fascism, authoritarianism, dictatorship, a power grab driven by insatiable narcissism, and yet he shrugs and carries on. 

Bukele has responded to naysayers by telling them to mind their own business, and that these changes were — in addition to being wholly constitutional under his rationale — internal issues of “cleaning house” that require no input or outside commentary. If February 9, 2020, when Bukele entered the Legislative Assembly with heavily armed soldiers was widely seen as anachronistic, a brutish intimidation and a sign of an emergent “neofascism,” the events of May 1 show an improved legalistic stratagem towards securing autocracy, an on-time delivery of what last year felt like a coup averted. 

What May 1 reiterates, and what most Salvadorans already know, is that there has never been a serious democratic tradition in El Salvador. After the high of the 1992 Peace Accords wore off, wherein much of the current institutional architecture and political rulebook of the country was established, the presidency has slowly accrued, as in historical moments past, immense unilateral power. To this day, El Salvador remains a country with a strong military-presidential tradition. In fact, for most of the country’s history, and particularly the twentieth century, Salvadoran governance is replete with strongmen and local caudillos, cultivating this form of leadership as legitimate and effective. These traditions — from Regalado, Hernández Martínez, Osorio, Romero, and the military coalitions and juntas of the past century’s latter half — foreshadow the emergence of modern-style authoritarians like Bukele who have risen out of disaffected fractions of the local elite.

For those who have attended Salvadoran politics for any length of time, this return to authoritarianism in El Salvador, while jarring, is not necessarily new or unexpected. Fascism has been a continuity in Salvadoran politics, simmering below the surface, whether through governments before, the culture of militarism that saturates Salvadoran nationalism, the discourse of elimination that is part and parcel of anti-gang security discourse or, in a different way, the inability to achieve definitive justice to communities living in the trauma of 1980s war crimes. There are, indeed, a variety of genealogies to Salvadoran fascism, and many of its characteristics continue to be valued and hold an important place in the political imaginary of the country, from its sense of “competent leadership” to a warped understanding of direct democracy as if channeled through Bukele.

It’s unsurprising, then, that Bukele and his renegade tactics remain incredibly popular. His views have infiltrated the common sense of in-country Salvadorans as well as many groups across the diaspora in the United States and beyond. This is the underlying reason he can rationalize this power grab as representing the will of the people. His hard position against decorum and his self-styled disobedient rule appears as fresh politics in a country with an exhausted bipartidism and a hunger to improve living conditions that have been steadily worsening for the better part of the last 30 years. His self-congratulation during the pandemic too, despite mismanagement and improvisation, has proved to be a hit with Salvadorans.

In a way, Bukele is a lesson delivered to the political classes writ large by disillusioned popular sectors. It is a call to rectify the errors of contemporary politics, a condemnation of “democratic” governance as usual, that has brought only the slightest improvements. Seizing on these frustrations, Bukele has harnessed this towards an iron-fisted strongman approach, ensuring that fascism—as political and economic logic that resonates with culture—triumphs as the only effective and viable method to get things done.

Fascism, in short, has never truly disappeared from the political terrain. Rather, it has become an integral part of the collective consciousness, an unthinking response and solution by people to the country’s mounting social problems. Bukele and his party, the link between popular resentment and the political institutions, have exploited these tendencies and offered a personalist politics of saviorism in response. Bukele has fomented a massive media presence and echo-chamber where his voters’ desires — his dictates — are perceived to be of the utmost merit, spiritually virtuous, and morally supreme. By capturing this general dissatisfaction and disaffection with political institutions cultivated for the last three decades, Bukele has transferred what little confidence remained in them into his populist project, giving it shape through the pragmatics of dictatorial ambition and a singular chain of command.

Through the authoritarian consolidation that began on May 1, Bukele and his allies are seeking to rewrite the rules, eroding the precariously standing democratic levers of Salvadoran government. In El Salvador, the perverse present of eroded democracy has occurred in step with the devolution of politics into a common-sense fascism emblemized by Nayib Bukele, justified by an unshakeable manodurismo against crime, of solving problems by means of repression and legal backdoors. Only a reconstitution of a progressive popular opposition can provide a true counterweight to fascism’s creep, but the arc of political education, organization, and mobilization is long and comes with no guarantees. Without a concerted opposition, any anti-Bukele protest, sloganizing, or position-taking will remain mere symbolism. 

Jorge Cuéllar es un académico interdisciplinario cuyo enfoque es Centroamérica y sus diásporas. Recientemente fue nombrado Mellon Faculty Fellow y profesor asistente de Estudios Latinoamericanos, Latinos y del Caribe en Dartmouth College. Actualmente trabaja en su primer libro centrado en la política de la vida en El Salvador contemporáneo.
Jorge Cuéllar es un académico interdisciplinario cuyo enfoque es Centroamérica y sus diásporas. Recientemente fue nombrado Mellon Faculty Fellow y profesor asistente de Estudios Latinoamericanos, Latinos y del Caribe en Dartmouth College. Actualmente trabaja en su primer libro centrado en la política de la vida en El Salvador contemporáneo.

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