Columns / Politics
Being In Opposition Isn’t Enough

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Héctor Pacheco

When it comes to politics, the only thing Salvadorans seem to have learned is what we don’t want. Over the course of the last three decades we’ve lived through so many disappointments, so many broken promises, and so many false illusions that, by this point, we’re exhausted. When the politician currently in power doesn’t fulfill their promises, we opt out of politics, or, maybe, we oppose what we don’t like. We even believe it’s somehow possible to carry on with life while ignoring it all, though we’ve come to the bitter conclusion that the safest option is by carrying on alone — even though this means we could end up against the wall one day — because everything else has screwed us over. 

But simply opposing something doesn’t solve anything. 

We all know this country has been designed for big winners and lots of losers. It’s always been that way, from the coffee barons up to the “winners” behind sophisticated cryptocurrencies. These small groups, who seek to enrich themselves by taking control of politics and government power, have been as common and diverse as the curtido that goes on pupusas.  

Maybe this can explain why we are the way we are. Human behavior is based on reciprocity. We’re willing to make an effort and sacrifice a little in order to receive a little bit of well-being: a good education for our kids, decent healthcare, just so long as those in power don’t strip us of the little dignity we have. And that is the base of any developed society. 

But what happens when we don’t receive anything in exchange from the authorities, as in our case in El Salvador? Our response to governments who didn’t give anything in exchange was to hang on to what we already had. The scant credibility and erosion of legitimacy for the FMLN, ARENA, GANA, PDC, and the PCN was caused by their lack of respect for Salvadorans, by their failure to uphold their end of the social contract. But as a society we’ve also committed an error: we’re unprepared for what comes after saying “No more.”

Nayib Bukele’s promising arrival to the Salvadoran political scene in 2012 also generated many doubts, and a lot of questions, about the future of the country. From the beginning we knew little about his vision of the world, about how realistic his proposals were, or how to understand Salvadoran politics after his arrival. I say “promising” because Bukele, as a critic of his own party (the FMLN), was seen as a gamble for a better future — a future where corruption wouldn’t be tolerated and in which democratic norms and transparency would reign above all else. The long-awaited opposition to the status quo had arrived, or at least, that’s what we believed at the time. 

The current Bukele, however, is a far cry from the audacious politician so many once loved. Tolerance, and a willingness to find common ground with those who think differently, clearly aren’t the strengths of the president and his followers. The centralization of decision-making and the upending of any laws or norms Bukele doesn’t like have become normalized. He now looks down on the role of the opposition, of which he was once a part. He’s responded to his loss in popularity with aggression and lies. One could say that democracy, empathy, and solidarity aren’t priorities for the current government. All of which is to say that, as time goes on, we’re seeing more of what Nayib Bukele really has to offer us. 

Thanks to our troubled political past, it’s clear to us what we don’t want: we know that inequality, corruption, and violence haven’t allowed us to grow as a country. The promises that democracy would solve those demands weren't fulfilled. To the contrary, politicians justify anti-democratic and authoritarian behavior by throwing around that “the people voted for it.” So if we don’t agree with democracy, what are we willing to sacrifice? Herein lies the logic of Bukele’s gamble: positioning himself as the savior of the country, he’s opted to win votes for himself and maintain his popularity in exchange for a few scraps, while ignoring the historical causes of the problems which no one has wanted to confront. After all, in times like these, democracy has become a luxury for the poor majority whose day-to-day needs aren’t met. 

This leads me to believe that the most important thing to improve as a country is decency, a willingness to adhere to one’s own principles. We keep promising ourselves spectacles without asking ourselves what we really need. The political class — including the “cool” guys in Bukele’s circle — continues to see Salvadorans as a naive crowd that doesn’t understand the way they’ve skirted around addressing the population’s most basic needs. If not, how else could you explain the way they hide their corruption, the way they cover up the statistics of the disappeared, while still selling themselves as the greatest government in the world? We weren’t even consulted about something as consequential and sensitive as bitcoin becoming a national currency. It was simply imposed on us one morning, as is the custom in this country, to place the interests of the powerful above those of the majority. 

At this point, my conclusion is that Nayib Bukele is just another Salvadoran president who sees the country as his estate and defends his and his family’s interests at all costs, without consulting anyone. The bad news is that as a country we’ve renounced the very minimum we can demand, and we’ve exchanged ethics for cosmetics. The good news is that makeup, with time, fades away. 

What we can’t do is simply expect things to change, because that route will take us to the authoritarian traps of the past, one just as steeped in exclusion and inequality as the present. What we can do is generate arguments, debate from different positions, act in favor of real solutions from below, the most simple solutions, simply listening and seeking to understand those who think differently, and in this way go against the grain of dogmatism and fundamentalism. In the absence of reason, you act emotionally, you can be manipulated and lied to — and that’s one of the most corrosive forces in society.

The Peruvian sociologist and philosopher Anibal Quijano uses a phrase to define this irreverent way of thinking, which he calls: “Living within and against.” By being in a condition of constant resistance, questioning the real day-to-day problems that affect people, one becomes critical, and therefore a threat to the inequalities and injustices imposed by the dominant group. 

It’s uncomfortable, even risky. But it’s the only way to generate alternatives. It’s not about being opponents, but being critical and ethical and understanding the deepest feelings of the people who have placed their faith one, two, three times in the hopes of changes that were promised but never arrived. Nor is it a question of setting a single acceptable political position. It’s a question of diversity and mutual respect becoming tools of resistance. 

Living in pluralistic societies isn’t easy. Going beyond seeing things as black and white requires maturity; recognizing the value of other people’s ways of thinking is the beginning of social justice. It’s not a question of looking for excuses or scapegoats — like Bukele does — but attacking the causes of problems. I like to think that could be the bravest act: respecting all of us, despite our differences, and opposing the intolerance imposed upon us from the megaphones of the state. 

If Salvadorans, like me, don’t like the idea of using bitcoin, or the notion that water should be reduced to a commodity on the market, or if you’re worried about the number of the disappeared, or simply think that things could be done differently, we’re already living within and against. Thus, the question remains: where do we go from here?

Héctor Pacheco is a Salvadoran social psychologist, economist, and political scientist specializing in Iberoamerican philosophy. He has served on working groups on democratic governance and the construction of peace with the Organization of American States and the United Nations Development Programme.
Héctor Pacheco is a Salvadoran social psychologist, economist, and political scientist specializing in Iberoamerican philosophy. He has served on working groups on democratic governance and the construction of peace with the Organization of American States and the United Nations Development Programme.

*Translated by Jared Pace Olson

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