El Salvador Cheers as Democracy Dies
Warning that a car with no breaks is about to hurtle off a cliff isn’t the same as wanting the car to crash. Similarly, pointing out that a certain way of governing will have consequences for a country isn’t the same as wanting the country to fail. Bukele’s power, I know, will one day come to an end, just as that of Arena and the FMLN did. But it’s hard for me to envision what that end might look like. Skyrocketing inflation, as in Venezuela, or debt defaulting, like in Greece, or indefinite reelection and the elimination of opposition spaces, as in Nicaragua, aren’t unthinkable. They’re possible.
But the Bukele regime isn’t even a topic of acceptable debate in El Salvador. Two years after assuming power, the president still enjoys an impeccable public image and his approval rating is still sky-high. For major sectors of the population, more concerned with the demands of daily subsistence than the vicissitudes of national politics, debates about Bukele are a sideshow.
In the lead-up to the February election, one voter summed it up like this: “I want the president to control everything.” Apparently, for now, the perceived benefits of total control outweigh concepts like institutional stability, the rule of law, legal certainty, and the separation of powers.
These are hollow, meaningless concepts in Salvadoran society today. Bukele’s defenders categorically reject them. Such things, they say, have never truly existed in El Salvador anyway. They’re not entirely wrong. The history of democracy in this country is short-lived. Weak. And besides, Bukele has won two elections, both with a significant majority. What could be more democratic than that?
But things aren’t so simple. I’m not saying we had a vibrant and flourishing culture of freedom and civil rights prior to 2019. But even that imperfect order afforded us more room to maneuver and more protections than we currently have in this shell of a republic — in this republic of bones. And in any case, the solution to those imperfections, of course, is not to completely eliminate all checks and balances on presidential power, as happened on May 1, 2021. Now, ever since that day, the same person is playing pitcher, batter, and referee.
When Bukelismo comes to an end, the bar by which we measure the performance of those who govern us will have fallen so low that it will be easy for any future government to seem decent. How can we speak of legal certainty and the rule of law when the president can announce the adoption of a new national currency on Saturday, and then three days later, that announcement is already ratified into law? The lesson for a post-Bukele government will be that judicial independence is irrelevant, and that you can withhold whatever information you want, even information as basic as the number of people who have died during a pandemic.
The prevailing feeling is that there’s no turning back. There are fewer and fewer democratic spaces left, and having an awareness of this not only casts a shadow over the practical tasks of everyday life — it weighs on the spirit. Gaining access to a restricted document through freedom-of-information channels, for example, was never an easy task, especially for someone without a basic understanding of the law. Now, faced with a government transparency institution controlled, evidently, by the president, I find myself wondering if it’s even worth the trouble. Government secrecy now applies even to matters being kept secret for no apparent reason. For example, the national vaccination plan, which by Central American standards is going quite well (more adults in El Salvador have been vaccinated than in Guatemala and Honduras), is classified information.
The Office of the Attorney General, now under the control of a regime loyalist hand-picked by Bukele, deserves the same level of mistrust, as do the new de facto magistrates presiding over the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber. And, of course, the mistrust now applies to the entire judicial branch: if the magistrates who resigned from the Constitutional Chamber say they lacked protections to exercise their authority, then what fate awaits lower court judges? How can anyone sleep peacefully in a society where judges live in fear?
It was obvious some months ago that Bukele would move to take control of the court that opposed him during the pandemic. There were legal ways this could have been done. Bukele’s Legislative Assembly had the right to elect a third of the court’s magistrates, just as previous assemblies had. In January I asked how this process might play out, and several smart lawyers told me that removing and replacing constitutional judges was not so simple a task. But it was. We were naïve to only consider the legal possibilities. “No one will come between God and His people,” reads the Bukelista oath. No one and nothing. Not even the Constitution.
So this has been the state of affairs for the past three months. But you wouldn’t know it. It’s as if nothing had happened. There were no mass protests. No widespread outcry on social media. Nine out of ten Salvadorans think Bukele represents a positive change for the country, according to a Central American University survey. There have been no immediate consequences for breaking the law, since those who are in a position to apply the law serve at the behest of the person who appointed them.
I laugh a little every time I hear about the revolution in justice being spearheaded by “President Óscar López Jérez,” the Constitutional Chamber’s new head magistrate, who solicited under-the-table procedural favors from former attorney general (and current prisoner) Luis Martínez. López Jérez is also a friend of Representative Guillermo Gallegos, a man he voted to exonerate on charges of illicit enrichment in 2019.
I laugh a little, and it makes me feel crazy. Apparently only we infidels can see that the emperor wears no clothes. Representative Dania González has said that those of us who disagree with the new government should leave the country. Yamil Bukele, one of the Bukele brothers in Nayib’s ruling circle, has declared that journalists are “enemies of the people,” in a tone reminiscent of former death-squad leader Major Roberto d’Aubuisson in his glory days. Indeed, not since the war has a government spoken so much of annihilating the enemy.
But we aren’t the only ones. There are people within the government who are dissatisfied, even at the highest levels of power. I’ve spoken with employees who ignore behavior they disagree with because they’re thinking about their families, their debt, their work, their needs. I can’t really blame them. It shouldn’t take acts of heroism to uphold the minimum guarantees established by the Peace Accords. The problem is that we don’t react at all.
And so the fable goes: a man tosses a frog into a pot of boiling water, but the frog is shocked by the scorching heat and jumps out. So the man tries a different approach: he places the frog in a pot of tepid water and brings it gradually to boil. The frog doesn’t react to the slow change, but becomes so used to the heat that by the time the frog senses he should jump out, it’s too late.
In El Salvador, it seems, we are all in a boiling pot of water — a pot that has been warming over a fire for two years — and only now are we beginning to hear the first screams.
*Translated by Max Granger
FI name: Jun 2021