El Salvador / Politics

“El Salvador isn’t a democracy anymore”

Wednesday, September 8, 2021
José Luis Sanz / Washington

Leer en español.

Four months ago, when his report to the Organization of American States (OAS) on the state of democracy in El Salvador was published, Santiago Cantón was bound by institutional guidelines that prevented him from speaking freely about Nayib Bukele’s administration.

He then let the stark conclusions of the report speak for itself, citing attacks on the press by the executive branch and restrictions on information access, warning of militarization, and denouncing “the complete disregard for court rulings, unconstitutional pandemic containment decrees that violated the rights of people unjustly deprived of their freedom, and public statements that encouraged violence against high-ranking leaders of the country’s democratic institutions.” The report put the most popular president in Latin America in a bad light and expressed “concern for actions that could violate the rule of law and democracy in El Salvador.”

And all that was written before May 1.

Cantón has now let loose with an updated analysis that expresses a mixture of alarm and regret. He compares Bukele’s methods with Peru’s Alberto Fujimori and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. The international community must be strict with El Salvador and Nicaragua, he says, or risk a crisis of democracy that could affect the entire continent. In a republic, “one must follow the rules, no matter how many votes you get,” he reiterates.

Recently appointed director of the Rule of Law program at The Inter-American Dialogue, Cantón deplores the current lack of quality political leaders, as well as the political trend of shunning dialogue in favor of “winning elections at all costs, and then taking power without knowing what to do or taking power and destroying everything.' Cantón was the first person to serve as the OAS Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, and served for 12 years as Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). He also advised former President Jimmy Carter on democracy development programs.

In the conclusions of the report submitted to OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, Cantón said that it was fundamental for El Salvador’s president to reestablish “an institutional dialogue between the country’s institutions and its democratic forces.” Last week, he lost all hope for that to happen.

On Friday, the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber, put in place just four months ago by Nayib Bukele’s party, opened the door for presidential reelection. What are your thoughts?

Debating whether or not El Salvador is a democracy makes no sense anymore. The Chamber’s decision is clearly unconstitutional. It contradicts Bukele’s own statements on a reelection ban, as well as his vice president’s frequent opposition to reelection. But above all, it’s clearly unconstitutional and conflicts with a recent advisory opinion issued by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that rejects unlimited reelection.

Of course, in this case we’re not yet talking about unlimited reelection, but this latest decision must be viewed in the context of other moves by the Bukele administration over the last two years. Viewed in isolation, this court decision, the May 1 dismissal of the legitimate Constitutional Chamber justices, or the August 31 purge of judges might not lead one to say that El Salvador is no longer a democracy. But there is no doubt when viewed as a whole.

I used to say that Venezuela’s democracy was a book of 1,000 pages, and Chávez only tore out one page a day. That gave the international community an excuse to say that they didn’t realize what was going on. But democracy ran out after five years of tearing out pages. The same thing is happening here.

A week ago, nobody in the international community ventured to unequivocally state that there is an institutional breakdown in El Salvador. But add in the events of May 1, the dismissal of one-third of the country’s judges, and now allowing consecutive presidential re-elections, which is clearly unconstitutional — that does it. We can’t keep fooling around. The biggest mistake made by the Inter-American community in recent decades has been its slowness to take action.

What does “take action” mean to you?

Article 20 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter must be invoked against El Salvador. Also, the United States must get tougher and have an explicit policy on such matters with international financial organizations. But the United States alone won’t be able to solve anything. The U.S. continues to be the most destabilizing or stabilizing influence in the region, depending on how you look at it. But it is not enough. The rest of Latin America must join in. It would be useful for everyone to understand that El Salvador is already like Nicaragua. We’ll see what happens — there will be either total paralysis or nations will come to their senses and start treating Nicaragua and El Salvador the same. If not, we’ll be opening the door to a serious inter-American crisis of democracy.

What if Bukele, who has already ignored pressure to reinstate the judges, doesn’t back down?

If he doesn’t reverse course, the penalty is suspension from OAS membership. But the multilateral credit organizations are the key to all this. Mainly, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) — where the United States holds considerable sway — and the Interamerican Development Bank (IDB). Pressure can only be exerted from there because Bukele is vulnerable in this area. I think this is the only line of action — the strength of the Inter-American Charter, and the pressure from the international financing agencies.

It seems that Bukele, like Ortega, doesn’t care anymore about international isolation.

That’s right, and it’s a serious problem. Venezuela is already out of the OAS, and Nicaragua is on the brink. If El Salvador were to be suspended or decided to leave on its own, the question becomes — can the OAS be the answer anymore? That’s where the discussion changes. Maybe we should consider what some countries have already talked about creating a different [regional] organization, or focusing more on the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC)? Are countries like Mexico and Argentina taking a geopolitical perspective on all this rather than a democratic lens?

You also have to add Russia and China’s influence in the region into the mix. I think El Salvador and Nicaragua wouldn’t dare to do what they’re doing without Russia and China in the scene. If you choose China or Russia as your friends, you’re sending a clear message about your democratic values.

In recent months it has become common for the Legislative Assembly, controlled by the ruling party, to pass laws or reforms without notification or debate, as it did when it purged all the judges over 60 years old.

They are no longer a democracy. El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly has been reduced to rubber-stamping Executive Branch orders, like a notary. And the Judicial Branch, the main defender of the people, is totally controlled by the Executive.

The first attack on judicial independence was on May 1, when the Assembly removed the Constitutional Chamber justices. The more recent purge of judges and prosecutors goes even further and aims to secure absolute control over the judiciary. If this reform takes effect, judicial independence in El Salvador ceases to exist, and one of the main requirements of a democracy, according to the Inter-American Democratic Charter, is the independence of the branches of government, especially the judiciary.

Furthermore, it’s obvious that they lie to the public when they justify the reform saying that it fights corruption. If that were the case, corrupt judges would be prosecuted. Instead, we saw the dismissal of every judge over the age of 60. This move aims to take control of the judiciary. We are facing a breakdown of the democratic system that goes far beyond the judiciary.

You are asking for an international response, but for over a week, only the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador has spoken out.

Diplomacy is not known for its speed, but it’s very possible that in the next few days, Latin American and other countries around the world will say something. It’s too clear what has happened. El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly and Supreme Court try to put on a democratic façade, but it’s obvious that their recent actions are anti-democratic.

Fujimori planted an evil seed in 1992 when he shut down Peru’s legislature and carried out a self-coup. He then convened elections, which he promptly won. With a new majority in the legislature, he proceeded to reform Peru’s constitution. He clearly destroyed democracy by using methods that appeared democratic. The Inter-American Democratic Charter was promoted by Javier Pérez de Cuéllar precisely to avoid a repetition of what happened in Peru. When the military stages a coup and overthrows a president, it’s quite straightforward. But the way it’s done now is a lot murkier.

The mechanism used by El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly is clearly unconstitutional. It’s absurd to think that you can dismiss a third of the country’s judges in a single day without any due process. Like Fujimori, what’s happening in El Salvador now violates the spirit of the Democratic Charter and international standards. El Salvador isn’t a democracy anymore.

Bukele has tipped his hand that he has regional aspirations. Do you foresee that happening?

Bukele is the strongest leader in Central America, and the contagion effect has been a constant throughout Latin American history. The dictatorship era was the era of dictatorships, plural. With weak leaders in the region, it’s certainly possible that the contagion spreads from El Salvador to other countries that also have vulnerable democracies.

You have repeatedly said that democracies are eroding throughout Latin America.

It’s impossible to separate what’s happening in Central America from the rest of the continent, or even from the United States, especially if you consider what was happening here just a year ago during the Trump administration. There is heavy deterioration in the rule of law. I intentionally use that term because there are countries with democratic election processes, but their rule of law is in the intensive care unit. We are at the end of the third wave of democracy in Latin America, the biggest such wave in our history. It started in 1978 with Guzmán’s victory in the Dominican Republic, followed by Ecuador in 1979, and Alfonsín [in Argentina] in 1983. But that wave is coming to an end. And watch out — before the third wave were two previous waves that ended and were followed by dictatorships.

I don’t think that the military will return to power, except in a couple of countries where that’s possible. But we’re going to experience clearly autocratic governments that don’t respect the rule of law. There may be a couple of isolated exceptions, but if you look country by country, unfortunately most of Latin America is on the brink of a return to autocracy.

Don't you think this is partly because of the weakening of both the right and the left?

I find it hard to even talk about left and right anymore. Some leaders use these terms to describe themselves, but I don’t think Maduro represents the left, just as Bolsonaro doesn’t represent the right.

It’s interesting that Lula and Cardoso recently joined forces in Brazil and said, “We have to work together to stop Bolsonaro.” That speaks very well of Brazil and of its capacity for internal dialogue. It doesn’t happen in my country, Argentina, where there is such polarization that politicians routinely compromise the rule of law in electoral or ideological fights. The so-called left-wing countries denounce what’s happening in Brazil or Colombia, and then the so-called right-wing countries denounce what’s happening in Nicaragua or Venezuela. It can’t be like this. Ideology cannot take precedence over human rights —this was one of the main precepts of the third democratic wave, which had a high dose of progressivism in both right-wing and left-wing governments.

There is widespread disappointment in the promise of democracy.

The leaders of the third wave of democracy in Latin America — Alfonsín, Sarney in Brazil, Patricio Aylwin in Chile, Sanguinetti in Uruguay, Roldós in Ecuador — all planned a region where democracy and the rule of law would last forever, and that countries with enormous inequalities and human rights shortcomings would be able to give the people what they needed.

That didn’t happen for whatever reason —external crises, mismanagement, whatever. I think that Argentina’s per capita income today is the same as it was in the 1970s. We are still the most unequal country in the world. Yes, clearly there is much disappointment. Democracy was not as expected.

Central America was the last region to join that democratic wave, and has been very quick to abandon it.

Democracy is built brick by brick. If every new president destroys what has been achieved in the past, we will never build a democracy. El Salvador is the best example. Obviously, things were managed very poorly in recent decades. But they’re also trying to destroy things that were done well, such as the peace accords, separation of powers, civilian control over the military, the reintegration of insurgent groups into democratic society, which was an example for the whole world to follow.

Undoubtedly, there are things to improve in El Salvador, because corruption in our countries weighs heavily. But is it necessary to wipe the slate clean or ignore the basic principles of the rule of law? It’s not right to take office and then throw out Supreme Court justices and fire the Attorney General. In a republic you have to follow the rules, no matter how many votes you got. Otherwise, we’ll get another autocracy that could last a year or 50 years, with no doubt that human rights will be violated.

In May, you presented a very harsh report on the situation in El Salvador to the OAS. What do you think of that document four months later?

In a sense, the report anticipated what was going to happen. The meetings I had revealed a clear tendency towards authoritarianism, constraining of the public sphere, persecution of journalists, and the lack of access to information. There had already been separation of power violations, and a lack of compliances with court decisions. There were also attacks on the Attorney General and on civil society organizations. All this was already there.

So two possibilities emerged after his overwhelming victory in the February legislative elections. Bukele would either use his power to unite the country and strengthen the rule of law, or he would continue on the same path. He obviously chose the authoritarian path, to violate the Inter-American Democratic Charter.

You referred to the leaders of the third wave. Are the current leaders part of the problem?

I have no doubt that the main problem is the lack of democratic leadership at the international level. If you compare Sarney, Alfonsín, Sanguinetti, Aylwin, Lagos, Bachelet, with the leaders we have now, it’s like comparing a Beethoven Symphony with... I don’t know, I don't want to offend anyone’s taste in music by comparing it to today’s leaders. Let’s just say that the difference is abysmal. At the international level, there are not many leaders who put democracy and the rule of law at the fore. Biden talks about it, but we’ve heard lots of promises. No new coalition of countries like we saw in the past has united to defend those values. Meanwhile, some countries like Iran, Russia, and China that do not believe in or are not interested in those democratic values occupy those spaces.

Latin America has experienced a very pronounced polarization. A key to democracy is constructive dialogue between people who think differently. This has practically disappeared throughout the region, and the fault lies with its leaders, who are supposed to be leading the way.

Without dialogue, does the nature of politics change?

The old essence of politics has been lost. There was a time when Latin American leaders based their decisions in a rich understanding of politics, democracy and human rights. They knew that they were accountable to something bigger than themselves, and felt part of a united effort. They knew that they needed to face challenges together despite having different ideologies. Today we see a terrible divisiveness, and politics now seems to be all about winning elections at all costs, and then taking power without knowing what to do or taking power and destroying everything. There are too many stooges passing through.

*Translated by John Turnure.

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