The Bully of the Tropics

José Miguel Cruz


Nayib Bukele is taunting the United States —and the international community. The president of El Salvador is brazenly demolishing all checks and balances on his presidential power. He is also demanding to be left alone to rule one of the poorest countries in the Americas.

On the evening of May 1, in a move that judicial experts deemed unconstitutional, he directed the recently elected national congress to remove the five magistrates of the Supreme Court's Constitutional Chamber. 

Bukele had gained control of the national assembly when his party and allies obtained a supermajority in the legislative branch. The new representatives took office on May 1, and his congressional bloc quickly moved to replace the top magistrates, disregarding constitutional procedures. They also illegally removed the attorney general and appointed a lackey with a disturbing record of colluding with criminal groups.

The court and the attorney general’s office were among the few government institutions that Bukele had yet to control. He already had the armed forces and the national police under his grip. Saturday’s movements allowed him to place loyalists at the helm of the judiciary, consolidating his control over all three government branches and the Attorney General’s Office.

The ripple effects throughout El Salvador have been immediate. On May 5, Bukele’s congress passed retroactive legislation that grants immunity to government officials for purchases during the pandemic response. The fired attorney general was investigating several of Bukele’s ministers for embezzlement and influence peddling. The new law all but assures that government officials can continue engaging in serious corruption activities with impunity. Bukele’s parliament also passed a law taxing the newspapers, in what observers interpret as an effort to squeeze and muzzle dissident voices.

Bukele’s actions represent a slap in the face to American efforts to secure democratic governance and prosperity in Central America. The Salvadoran president has unabashedly defied the U.S. after American officials criticized his antidemocratic behavior. Last year, he dismissively downplayed letters from Republican and Democrat lawmakers who had expressed concerns about his authoritarian drift. He engaged in a Twitter scuffle with congresswoman Norma Torres and called on her constituents to vote against her. In early April, he refused to meet with Ricardo Zúñiga, the State Department’s Special Envoy for the Northern Triangle. Zúñiga had traveled to El Salvador to discuss U.S. cooperation with El Salvador. More recently, in response to the United States’ concerns about removing the constitutional magistrates, he tweeted back, “it’s none of your business.” Then, on May 11, he finally received Zúñiga. After the meeting and in a clear display of defiance, he tweeted, “the changes we are doing are irreversible.” 

Yet, El Salvador’s economy is essentially sustained by millions of Salvadorans working in the United States. In 2019, Salvadorans living in the U.S. sent more than $5.6 billion in remittances. This amounted to more than 20 percent of the country's GDP. In addition, since 2001, the United States, the single most important partner to El Salvador, has disbursed more than $2.2 billion in foreign aid to the country. This figure does not include funds channeled through multilateral cooperation agencies or regional programs.

Bukele’s contempt for American partnership is most manifest in his policies and decisions. Instead of using his high popularity among Salvadorans to strengthen institutions and turn them into more accountable and democratic organizations, he has done precisely the opposite.

He is demolishing every Salvadoran institution that has been reformed or created with the assistance of the United States. For instance, he has completely co-opted and degraded the government’s public information institute, an organization created with U.S. sponsorship to increase the government’s transparency.

Despite their loud anti-corruption rhetoric, Bukele and his supporters in the parliament have appointed government officials with troubling records in critical institutions that have been reinforced with American support. The recently elected Attorney General has been accused of cooperating with the Texistepeque Cartel, a Salvadoran drug-trafficking organization. In the mid-2000s, the Salvadoran Human Rights Ombudsman Office found him responsible for conspiring in the torture and mishandling of suspects.

The National Civilian Police, the flagship of the 1990s democratic reforms, is now under a directorate that combines absolute loyalty to the president and lengthy records of misconduct. Many top police officials appointed by Bukele are holdovers from the old military establishment that was largely removed with the Peace Accords. He has brought them back to run the police despite their records of human rights abuses and corruption.

The country's authoritarian drift not only threatens to waste hundreds of millions of dollars and years of American commitment; it also could turn the smallest country of the Americas into a model for 21st century dictatorships: regimes that use social media resources to boost their popularity by aggravating historical grievances. They do that while destroying the institutions that could hold them accountable. Yet people in neighboring countries are also buying the populist rhetoric and demanding their own Bukeles.

Some people say that Bukele’s popularity makes it harder to demand that he commit himself to the rule of law. After all, he and his party enjoy unrivaled support among the population. They argue that his popularity makes him different from Ortega in Nicaragua and Hernandez in Honduras, authoritarian leaders who manipulated elections to remain in power. In those cases, the U.S. reacted with an indifference and hesitation that have proved to be disastrous for the political futures of both countries.

Bukele, however, is closer to the model of Hugo Chávez, a populist leader who dynamited Venezuela's institutions and yet was adored by most of the population. Venezuelans now in exile profoundly regret the support they gave him. When El Salvador eventually collapses under Bukele’s grip, even more people will flock to the U.S. border.

The United States has a complicated and upsetting record of historical intervention in Central America, but nowadays an alarmed international community agrees that it is the only actor capable of keeping the promise of democracy alive in the region. That community —the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the European Union, and others— rejects both Bukele's insistence that what he is doing is “none of their business,” and his claim that, in destroying the rule of law and the separation of powers, he is simply, as he puts it, “cleaning house.” That is why El Salvador poses such a grave challenge. If Bukele succeeds despite his flagrant behavior, it would mean that the United States is unwilling or unable to defend democracy, even when it is its “business” to do so.

José Miguel Cruz, Ph.D., is director of research at the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University. From 1993 to 2006, he was the director of the Public Opinion Institute at the Central American University (UCA) in El Salvador.

José Miguel Cruz, Ph.D., is director of research at the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University. From 1993 to 2006, he was the director of the Public Opinion Institute at the Central American University (UCA) in El Salvador. 
José Miguel Cruz, Ph.D., is director of research at the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University. From 1993 to 2006, he was the director of the Public Opinion Institute at the Central American University (UCA) in El Salvador. 

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