Opinion / Politics

With Bukele Consolidated, Salvadorans Enter Uncharted Terrain

Carlos Barrera
Carlos Barrera

Wednesday, February 7, 2024
Jorge Cuéllar

In past times that I’ve been in El Salvador to witness presidential elections, there has been a palpable sense of dynamism, of possibility and excitement, of fear and anxiety. This round, where democratic alternance has been emptied of all meaning, Salvadoran society feels like it’s standing still, people awaiting what’s to come. Back in 2019, there was a sense that Bukele’s victory would transform politics and usher in a brave new world away from that ossified two-party system that dominated in the governments of the postwar. Despite this symbolic breakthrough, one that helped cradle our new principito, few could predict that this would entail the dismantling of El Salvador’s fledgling democracy. Last Sunday, the 2024 elections were a mere formality, a last gasp for some historic parties, a boring celebration for what was already expected.

Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party has annihilated the opposition, captured the imagination of ordinary Salvadorans, and preyed on the country’s weak and taken-for-granted institutionality that we all, perhaps blindly, believed was a tad more resilient than it turned out to be. Most Salvadorans continue enamored with Bukele, now radicalized in their defense of the strongman, justified by the holy work of winning the gang war, for building a few tourist-focused roads, and perhaps most importantly, for raising national self-esteem. The gang war has earned unquestioned support from Salvadorans, where now “breathing tranquility” as some put it, is lived fanatically, a jubilee delivered by the caped crusader who put all the monsters away.

His unfulfilled promises and rule-changing are secondary to most, and for many, a justified move of an effective leader in a country full of corrupt naysayers. The opposition’s fragmentation and self-combustion continues, too, with the exception of some dank eleventh-hour election memes, yet to large swaths of the population, Bukele’s personalism seems the only option worth pursuing when those still standing appear so dull and exhausted. In the last five years, Nuevas Ideas has grown its congregation and worked to reconfigure inequality by advancing an antisocial contract that pits the honorable against the delinquent, where people remain none the wiser, as their concerns are satiated by periodic food boxes, cheap laptops, and fireworks. Yet, from what I know, Salvadorans just seek gainful employment and affordable living, they long for economic self-sufficiency, and not perpetual dependence on state patronage.

What remains clear is that Nuevas Ideas’ comprehensive pulverizing of the opposition is, while in part organic, more the modeled result of a publicity blitz, circulated via a costly, publicly-funded media apparatus that produces only an unblemished, studio-lit image of Bukele that doubles as a tool for fear-mongering. For the past few years, people have consumed Bukelista propaganda through a hose, in a media environment where if one stumbles into its pull, it almost assures some form of consent. In this world, filled with predatory algorithms, Salvadorans took to the polls, where the vote for Bukele was set up as a historic struggle of good against evil: a vote for personal safety and Instagram-friendly development versus the reckless return of the caged savages to El Salvador’s streets.

Strengthening the bulwark against social undesirables was a huge part of this election, and frightened Salvadorans handed Bukele an unprecedented political opportunity —the first in our country’s postwar— where he is now tasked with correcting pandemic and security spending, and delivering on unfulfilled public works and social needs, all the while juggling a debt-saddled economy that, despite the experimental and spectacular (e.g., Bitcoin and surf tourism), has stimulated little investment or growth. Undisputedly, Bukele’s reelection and Nuevas Ideas’ probable sweep of the Legislative Assembly reveal that there are, at this moment, no alternatives to cut through the light-blue zealotry. Even the once mass-movement parties are shells of their former selves, emergent movements avatars of the same, all still limited by the ghosts of past avarice and costly political errors.

Less than one hour after the polls closed in the evening of Feb. 4, 2024, Nayib Bukele announced his victory in the presidential election and invited the public to join him at 9pm in Barrios Plaza, in front of the National Palace, for his victory speech. Photo Carlos Barrera
Less than one hour after the polls closed in the evening of Feb. 4, 2024, Nayib Bukele announced his victory in the presidential election and invited the public to join him at 9pm in Barrios Plaza, in front of the National Palace, for his victory speech. Photo Carlos Barrera

This is a dark new terrain for Salvadorans; we’ve never really been here within living memory. Yet there is no uncertainty about where we are headed. Technically, we are in a dictatorship ushered in by the people through a sham contest, where the vulnerable already pay the price for the engorgement of a Bukele clan chomping to take its leading spot among traditional oligarchs. Noticeable in the displacing, detention, and harassment of informal vendors in downtown San Salvador, to small farmers and fishermen from Tecoluca to Espíritu Santo, or in the everyday intimidation of environmental defenders and water protectors from Cabañas, who have been among the first to be sacrificed for Bukele’s greater good. And there will be more.

This is an unprecedented concentration of power, a dictatorship delivered by “the will of the people,” as Bukele said, and as Vice President Félix Ulloa confirmed. Yet for university-dropout Bukele, he hailed El Salvador as today’s perfect democracy, and himself as the embodiment of popular power and God’s instrument. This is the will of the people manipulated, the country as a megachurch, weak representative democracy devolved into mob rule.

It depends on where you experience El Salvador and, of course, your class position. Things look different from the countryside, the city, and the diaspora across Australia, Canada, or the United States. But, within the national territory, there is an eerie feeling, a silent exuberance around this tectonic power shift. Much of these are expressed in moments: in Nuevas Ideas-dominated municipalities, the Plaza Barrios nightclub that Bukele made to serve as his stage, in conversations with folks unwilling to waver on Bukele’s prophethood, despite the violation of constitutional frameworks, citizen protections, financial corruption, gang and cartel dealings, and institutional rigging. Despite this, safety remains paramount — nothing else matters.

When the dust fully clears, abstention and nullified votes will help imagine other possibilities, but they will be of little consolation. If Bukele’s first term drew a wedge in Salvadorans here and abroad, producing a troubling inability of Salvadorans to speak with each other about politics beyond the gang question, after Sunday, February 4, there will be more polarization caused by the drip-feeding of Nuevas Ideas into society, to further reassemble the moral world of Salvadoran families. As if a moral failing, one woman I spoke to, who lost her ID card and was unable to cast her vote on election day, softly told me that she hopes President Bukele can forgive her for not voting for him.

It is insufficient to say that on 2/4 Nayib Bukele trampled over the Salvadoran Constitution and engineered electoral fraud to seize an unprecedented second term. Even calling it dictatorship or even authoritarianism feels imprecise and incomplete. In their technicality, they don’t quite capture the cultural impact of his popularity, the scale of global admiration, how it all deftly plays on Salvadoran religiosity, patriarchy, classism, to offer fleeting respite through a cult-like experience where you feel the euphoria of belonging. What is undeniable, however, is that on June 1, Salvadorans will be on uncharted political terrain, awakening to something that will be called democracy but that, in practice, will be Nayib Bukele consolidated, caudillismo for the networked age.

For now, we are on the edge of our seats. Will the metallic mining ban be lifted? Will we return to a state of normalcy beyond exception? Will we sink into an abyss where the political opposition is merely symbolic, set up for Bukele to easily knock down? Will El Salvador be a country of preordained, show elections, like neighboring Nicaragua?

But as the Bukele project stutters, discontent will emerge, new ideas will become bad ideas, disobedience will swell, and more will be targeted by the seemingly permanent state of exception. Exile and migration will continue. Yet, investigations from journalists, scholars, and human rights watchdogs will closely follow. More corruption scandals will surface, folks will grow tired of one-party rule, and Bukele’s ghouls —whether mara, military, or police— will cease to scare. The maimed, the offended, the violated, the arbitrarily detained, will defy the President’s distinction between the honorable and delinquent, to show, as the saying goes, that while ‘a new broom sweeps clean,’ it will eventually need to be replaced.

Jorge Cuéllar is an interdisciplinary academic focused on Central America and its diasporas. He is an Assistant Professor of Latin American, Latino & Caribbean Studies at Dartmouth College.

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