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Ruling on Bukele Reelection Prompts US Comparisons to Venezuela

Julia Gavarrete Roxana Lazo Valeria Guzmán Gabriela Cáceres Daniel Lizárraga Carlos Martínez Carlos Dada Óscar Martínez

The magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court — Bukele loyalists installed as part of a legislative coup on May 1 — have issued a ruling authorizing the consecutive reelection of the president. On Saturday, the top U.S. representative to the country delivered a harsh condemnation of the regime, accusing Bukele of undermining judicial independence and democracy.

ElFaro.net / Publicado el 5 de September de 2021

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Magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court of Justice, installed by President Nayib Bukele on May 1, ruled last Friday, September 3, to permit consecutive presidential reelections, thus authorizing Bukele’s run for a second term in 2024.

In their resolution, the magistrates argued that it should be up to “the people” to decide if a president should rule for consecutive terms, or should be replaced by another candidate. Now, Bukele’s only requirement for reelection is that he resign from office five months prior to election day.

In their ruling, the Constitutional Chamber argued that the prohibition against sequential presidential reelection was established in response to the needs of “20, 30, 40 years ago,” and is no longer necessary. In light of changing times, the court concluded, term limits represent an “excessive restriction disguised as judicial certainty and the actions of representatives who resist changes to sovereign rule, and who resist listening to the will of the people.”

The magistrates who issued this historic ruling were appointed on May 1 by President Bukele’s ruling-party majority in the Legislative Assembly, which dismissed the court’s legitimate magistrates and installed their replacements in direct violation of the proper selection process established by law. President Bukele took responsibility for that decision during a subsequent meeting with the diplomatic corps, which his administration broadcast on national TV.

The Constitutional Chamber released the 27-page resolution last Friday evening, September 3, on social media. The magistrates have yet to provide the public with their opinions on a ruling that many see as marking a before-and-after moment for El Salvador. This is the first major resolution issued by the new high-level Bukele loyalists who control the judiciary, and its express aim is to facilitate the continuation of the Bukele regime.

President Nayib Bukele gives a speech at the entrance to the Legislative Assembly, prior to the military occupation of the Assembly on February 9, 2020. Photo for El Faro: Carlos Barrera
 
President Nayib Bukele gives a speech at the entrance to the Legislative Assembly, prior to the military occupation of the Assembly on February 9, 2020. Photo for El Faro: Carlos Barrera

 

On Saturday, September 4, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) announced that it accepts and will abide by the new ruling. In a brief, three-paragraph communiqué, the tribunal emphasized that, if the current president so wishes, he will be allowed to run again.

A few minutes after the publication of the communiqué, Julio Olivo, a magistrate on the TSE, said that he was “surprised” by the statement. “The tribunal did not formally meet to discuss it,” Olivo tweeted. “It was an expedited agreement that arose from informal talks involving the presiding magistrate.”

Bukele, who regularly communicates via social media, had yet to comment on the ruling at the time of publication. The Salvadoran Vice President, Félix Ulloa, who is in charge of drafting proposals for constitutional reforms and presenting them to Bukele on September 15, as part of the bicentennial of El Salvador's independence, has also remained silent. Ulloa had previously insisted that the articles of the Constitution prohibiting consecutive reelection are set in stone, and cannot be modified, and has stressed that any attempt to violate this provision would constitute a cause for insurrection.

Harsh Condemnation from the United States

The U.S. Embassy’s chargée d'affaires in San Salvador, Jean Manes, was the first diplomatic representative to publicly react to the decision. On Saturday night, 24 hours after the court issued the ruling, Manes said during a press conference that the U.S. government “condemns the decision taken on September 3 by the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court.”

“This decision allows for the consecutive reelection of the president and is in clear violation of the Salvadoran Constitution, which stipulates that consecutive presidential reelection is not permitted,” said Manes, who served as U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador between 2016 and 2019, and is currently the U.S. Embassy’s chargée d'affaires ad interim.

In her statement, Manes drew connections between this new resolution and the series of recent actions taken by the Bukele administration to take control of all three branches of government. She said the ruling was “a direct result of the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly's decision on May 1st to unconstitutionally remove the sitting magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber and install replacements loyal to the executive branch,” adding that these moves reflect “a clear strategy” on the part of the president “to undermine judicial independence and eliminate a key counterweight to executive power.”

The chargée d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador speaks at a press conference on the night of September 4, 2021. Photo: U.S. Embassy
 
The chargée d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador speaks at a press conference on the night of September 4, 2021. Photo: U.S. Embassy
 

These harsh statements from the ambassador represent an unprecedented escalation in the Biden administration’s tone toward the Bukele regime. Despite the U.S. administration’s condemnation of the military occupation of Congress on February 9, 2020, and its unsuccessful attempt to demand the reinstatement of the magistrates illegally deposed on May 1, the White House has since tried to build bridges with Bukele in an effort to increase U.S. influence on his government.

The appointment of Manes as virtual interim ambassador on May 26 — following an announcement by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) on May 4 that the U.S. would withdraw aid for El Salvador’s Attorney General Office, Police, and Supreme Court — was a step in that direction. During her first post in the country, Manes maintained a close relationship with Bukele, then the mayor of the capital, San Salvador, and as recently as one week ago, sources in Washington were celebrating Manes’ success in establishing direct and regular communication with the Salvadoran president.

But on Saturday, the U.S. ambassador compared Bukele to former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and said that El Salvador is “a democracy in decline.”

“We’ve seen what happens when other countries in the region have followed this path, like in the case of Venezuela, where Chávez was elected democratically, but worked little by little to acquire more power and limit independence,” Manes said. “I think many Venezuelans believed they were living in a democracy, because they had valid reasons to elect him, but when the independence of a country’s institutions is eroded little by little, we know where that road leads.”

Manes, who as recently as August 27 oversaw the donation of eight U.S. helicopters and various other military equipment to the Salvadoran Armed Forces, did not respond when asked if the White House would impose sanctions on El Salvador, but spoke of possible consequences for foreign investment. “This level of uncertainty is exactly what you don't want if you’re looking to attract good investment to the country,” Manes said. “The companies we’re trying to bring in are thinking about investing in a different country now [...] You need a functioning judicial system, and at the moment, it’s clearly not functioning.”

Manes also repudiated the new reform to the Law of Judicial Careers, approved on August 31 by the loyalists in the Legislative Assembly and mandating the retirement of all judges over the age of 60, or those who have served for more than 30 years, and expressing skepticism at the argument of backers of the reforms who claim they are aimed at combating corruption in the judicial system. “If they want to combat corruption, we support them, but that’s not what’s going on here,” Manes said. “This has to do with removing individuals and replacing them with loyalists picked by [Bukele] — that much is clear.”

Fighting Fire with Fire

The decision by the Constitutional Chamber to greenlight Bukele’s reelection comes during one of the least favorable international moments for the president since he assumed office in 2019, and at a time when his popularity among Salvadorans, still very high, has started to drop a few points in the polls.

The resolution was made public four days before the so-called “Bitcoin Law” is set to go into effect next Tuesday, September 7. That law will authorize the cryptocurrency Bitcoin as legal national tender and make its use mandatory countrywide. Despite the official discourse touting the benefits of Bitcoin, a survey by the Central American University (UCA) revealed last week that seven out of ten Salvadorans are against using the cryptocurrency, and more than 90% are opposed to the law.

Secret negotiations between the country’s three most powerful gangs, revealed by El Faro on August 23, along with the unconstitutional reforms to the Law of Judicial Careers approved by the regime’s ruling-party bloc in the Assembly, have prompted international condemnation. Adding to the list is the arrest last Wednesday of Mario Gómez, a computer specialist and outspoken critic of Bitcoin. Police detained Gómez without a warrant and without charge. He was released hours later following a surge of citizen complaints on social media, but the police confiscated his phones. 

Unlike other moments in his presidency, for more than two weeks Bukele seems to have lost control of the national narrative. Since Friday, the controversial judgements of pro-Bukele magistrates on the Supreme Court have relegated other recent scandals to the background.

President Nayib Bukele, at the request of the president of the Legislative Assembly, rings the gong to begin an “extraordinary plenary session on accountability” in June 2021, during his second year in office. Photo by Víctor Peña / El Faro.
 
President Nayib Bukele, at the request of the president of the Legislative Assembly, rings the gong to begin an “extraordinary plenary session on accountability” in June 2021, during his second year in office. Photo by Víctor Peña / El Faro.

Reactions to the Ruling

Over the weekend, various nongovernmental organizations, jurists, and judges unaligned with the Bukele regime reacted to the Constitutional Chamber’s ruling. All of them rejected the legitimacy of the decision. Fearing reprisals, several judges spoke with El Faro on condition of anonymity.

Among those who agreed to offer their opinions publicly was Judge Antonio Durán, a high-level sentencing judge in San Salvador, who said that the Constitutional Chamber’s resolution is juridically meaningless since it is in direct violation of the constitution. “The letter and spirit of the constitution prohibit consecutive presidential reelection,” he said, citing Article 88 of the Constitution, which states: “Alternation in the exercise of the Presidency of the Republic is indispensable for the maintenance of the established political system and form of government. The violation of this norm is grounds for insurrection.”

Godofredo Salazar, a specialized sentencing judge in San Salvador who adjudicates cases involving organized crime, said that the de facto magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber made a “very convenient interpretation” aimed at defending the interests of the executive branch.

José Marinero, president of the Foundation for Democracy, Transparency, and Justice, warned that the resolution confirms the autocratic character of the Bukele regime and affirms the ruling party’s project of concentrating and maintaining power.

“This resolution was passed by five usurpers,” Marinero said. “This is the behavior of thugs. There are at least two major risks we see: the first is that the decision is the prologue to a larger project of consolidating an autocratic regime. This [decision] will no doubt be incorporated and enshrined in the constitution.” The second risk, Marinero added, is that it clears the way for the regime’s indefinite perpetuation. “It’s perfectly clear that this decision is an attack on the country’s electoral laws, and means that we can rule out the possibility of fair and clean elections in 2024.”

Sonia Rubio Padilla, political scientist with the Due Process of Law Foundation, also thinks the decisions made by the Constitutional Chamber’s current magistrates are illegitimate, due to the illegal nature of the process by which the judges were appointed. “This decision contradicts the letter of the Salvadoran constitution [article 154], which expressly forbids the extension of [the president’s] constitutional mandate not one day [beyond the five year term],” she said. “Thus, this supposed interpretation, by exceeding the limits of the text itself, is actually a modification to the Constitution disguised as an interpretation.”

Abraham Ábrego, a lawyer with the human rights organization Cristosal, which has been one of the organizations most active in denouncing the Bukele regime’s violations of democratic institutionality, agrees, arguing that “the Constitutional Chamber’s decision has no justification [because] the previous magistrates, the legitimate ones, established that the president is required to wait two presidential terms [before running again].”

Bukelistas Kick Off their Campaign

In contrast to Bukele’s silence since the ruling, several members of his cabinet, along with representatives from the Nuevas Ideas bloc in the Legislative Assembly and other party allies, publicly celebrated the court’s decision and unofficially launched the president’s reelection campaign.

One of the most outspoken was Ricardo Cucalón, El Salvador’s Director of Migration, who has been one of Bukele’s most vocal supporters, and has leveled some of the harshest insults against the president’s opponents. On Twitter, Cucalón posted a photo of Bukele’s face edited onto the body of Captain America and superimposed with text reading “Captain El Salvador” and “Reelection 2024-2029,” in reference to the term of the next administration.

The president of the ruling Nuevas Ideas party and a nephew of Nayib Bukele, Xavier Zablah, also expressed his delight on Twitter, writing: “President @nayibbukele, if you decide [to run], your whole party is behind you, ready to continue fighting for the transformation of our beloved country.”

The celebrations of other senior officials, like Health Minister Francisco Alabí and the head of Bukele’s cabinet, Carolina Recinos, were slightly more cautious. Both Alabí and Recinos have been singled out in journalistic investigations for corruption related to irregular pandemic purchases, and Recinos is among the Salvadoran officials sanctioned by the United States following her inclusion on the Engel List.

Among officials from the opposition, few have expressed opinions on the ruling. Arena Party representative René Portillo Cuadra called the resolution “a smokescreen” to divert attention from the implementation of the Bitcoin Law. “When I say a smokescreen, I don’t mean to downplay the importance of the Chamber's ruling, just to highlight the timing of the decision,” he said.

Anabel Belloso, one of four representatives from the FMLN, believes the resolution only proves that Bukele's objective is to further consolidate power. “At this point, it’s already a dictatorship,” she said.

Questioned about her party's support for the regime of President Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, which was consolidated through maneuvers similar to those of Bukele, Belloso called for “respecting the internal processes of each country, and the safeguarding of human rights. Now it’s up to us Salvadorans to confront the dictatorship and its allies and restore our democracy.”

Héctor Silva Hernández, a San Salvador city council representative and member of the Nuestro Tiempo party, said that he felt the ruling was “a sad and painful culmination” of the democratic regression the country has experienced under Bukele. The situation continues to worsen, he said, because the political opposition continues to be “extremely scattered.” 

*Translated by Max Granger