In the first two years of Nayib Bukele’s presidency, his critics barely managed to convene dozens of protestors — or a couple of hundred at most — in the streets. But on September 15, thousands marched through the center of San Salvador to protest issues ranging from this government’s dismantling of democracy, to the imposition of bitcoin as legal currency, to systemic attacks on journalists, to obstacles in the trial of the El Mozote massacre.
The protesters — organized without the banner of any political party — also cited a controversial proposal for constitutional reforms, a law to force senior judges into retirement, and a ruling to allow reelection despite a constitutional ban as some of the motivations behind the protest.
They marched with signs and banners saying “No to the dictatorship,” “Without journalists and journalism there is no democracy,” and “No to the truce” — the latter in reference to the Bukele administration’s covert gang negotiations.
Conservative estimates place attendance at 5,000, while more bold estimates count more than 15,000. Whatever the exact number, the diverse showing of different sectors of Salvadoran society on the 200th anniversary of Central American independence from Spain — including doctors’ and lawyers’ unions, ex-guerrilla combatants, students, private sector, feminist organizations, and Indigenous collectives — marked the first political challenge to Latin America’s most popular president.
The administration has marketed the bicentennial anniversary of independence as the refounding of the nation, and even secured a million-dollar budget for the ceremony. But rather than a grand public celebration, like at Bukele’s swearing-in, a president bitter with protestors who spoiled the day broadcasted a pre-recorded closed affair.
Even though the protest was peaceful, with only two isolated incidents of vandalism, Bukele baselessly accused the protestors of attending with weapons, as well as of wreaking havoc on government and private property. “They went to fight against a dictatorship that doesn’t exist,” said Bukele, whose party controls the Legislative Assembly and in the last few months has illegally replaced the judges for the Constitutional Court and the Attorney General, and has purged a third of the country’s judges.
He then issued a thinly-veiled threat of repression against future protests and accused the diplomatic corps of hypocrisy: “Until now, in two years and three months in office, we have yet to — I don’t know if one day they’ll give so much financing that it’ll be necessary, but I hope not — we haven’t used even one can of tear gas, like the ones many of your governments use almost daily.”
Bukele also touted his administration’s achievements, including the country’s high levels of Covid-19 vaccination relative to its neighbors and the bill sponsored by the administration and approved on September 14 to grant the right to vote to Salvadorans abroad — roughly three million Salvadorans, 2.5 million in the United States.
He also announced multiple major public works projects, including a new hospital in Nejapa, San Salvador and new airport in the easternmost coastal department of La Unión, as well as new legislation granting “tax exemption for all of the country’s artists.”
How Big or Small is Three Percent?
Since taking office, Bukele has minimized any opposition to his agenda, saying that only three percent of the population disagrees with his agenda — in reference to polling from his first 100 days in office showing that over 90 percent of respondents at least somewhat approved of his time in office.
The moniker of “three percent” has been employed not only by government officials, but by aligned troll campaigns to denigrate criticism of the administration online. Protesters also tried to reclaim the term by using it in a mocking way at the protest. “Here’s your 3%,” read one protester’s sign.
Until recently, Bukele faced little opposition within El Salvador. He won the presidency in 2019 with over half the vote, enough to avoid a run-off. In February of this year, his party Nuevas Ideas and its allies scored another major victory when they won about 70 percent of votes to gain a supermajority in the Legislative Assembly.
Bukele still has a high popularity rating, receiving an average score of 7.64 by Salvadorans asked in August to rate his performance on a scale of one to 10 in a Central American University poll. But the recent Bitcoin law to make the cryptocurrency legal tender began mobilizing opposition against him in recent months. Six out of 10 Salvadorans don’t want their tax dollars spent on the implementation of the Bitcoin Law, and many at the protest wore “No to Bitcoin” hats and t-shirts.
Despite Bukele’s frequent assertions that he and his party act in the interests of “the people,” the poll showed that 60 percent of Salvadorans don’t support any political party. About 29 percent said they support Nuevas Ideas. No other party received more than 4 percent.
The violent picture painted by the government of the demonstration didn’t match up with reporting on the ground from reporters from El Faro and other Salvadoran media. Only a small group of individuals —many covering their face — vandalized property. But the larger group not only distanced themselves from these actions.
“There are people who are making disturbances who are not part of our march,” one organizer said into a speakerphone after the motorcycle was set on fire. “Please, let’s maintain calm and advance firmly.”
“I was there,” tweeted El Faro’s Carlos Martínez. “These guys were all uniformed. They refused to identify themselves or say how they organized themselves. The rest of the protesters distanced themselves from them. When they saw they were discovered, they disappeared.”
While it has been standard practice for soldiers to guard the government’s Bitcoin ATMs, no soldiers were standing guard when protesters reached the city center, sparking accusations that the people who burned the ATM were not part of the protest, but rather sent by the government to infiltrate the march.
By focusing on isolated instances of vandalism, Bukele attempted to erase the discontent that drove these citizens to the streets. “This is the first time we came out to march. Eight of us came and we are doing it for a just cause,” Ángela Hernández, 50, told El Faro. “In our family, there are already three grandchildren and it’s for them that we do this, for their future.”
An Increasingly Isolationist Bukele
Bukele’s accusation that the international community financed the protests is an apparent reference to the Biden administration’s stated goal of diverting financial support to civil society organizations and away from Central American governments with checkered records on democracy and human rights.
On September 5, two days after the Supreme Court set aside constitutional prohibitions in ruling that Bukele can seek reelection in 2024, interim U.S. ambassador Jean Manes compared Bukele to Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and accused the Bukele administration of having “a clear strategy” “to undermine judicial independence and eliminate a critical counterweight.” Manes added: “Democracy is in decline in El Salvador, and that decline harms bilateral relations between the United States and El Salvador.”
State Department spokesperson Ned Price followed up on her remarks, writing that “the United States government condemns” the Supreme Court’s ruling on reelection, and adding that “this decline in democratic governance damages the relationship that the United States strives to maintain with the government of El Salvador and further erodes El Salvador’s international image as a democratic and trustworthy partner in the region.”
The Bukele administration has argued that the souring stance of the United States doesn't have to do with promoting democracy, but rather with foreign domination. He punctuated his Independence Day remarks in a bid for the Salvadoran public’s ongoing support and promised a future free from international interference and the yoke of post-colonial elites.
“The last 200 years that we commemorate today weren’t the best. No one will let me lie,” Bukele ended. “But the next 200 can be. Everything will depend on us.”
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