El Salvador / Politics

Beneath Bukele’s Popularity, Tension and Fear Cloud His Second Inauguration

June 1 marks the inauguration of Nayib Bukele’s unconstitutional second term. Senior diplomatic delegations including from Argentina, Ecuador, Spain, China, and the United States are arriving in San Salvador. But underneath the expected fanfare is an ever-thickening atmosphere of fear among families upended by the state of exception and tensions following dubious police allegations of a bomb plot by former FMLN leaders.

Brendan Smialowski
Brendan Smialowski

Friday, May 31, 2024
Roman Gressier

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On Saturday at 12pm ET, Nayib Bukele will step into his second presidential term, capping a yearslong effort to stay in power despite the constitutional ban on consecutive periods. Bukele himself admitted the prohibition of reelection in many interviews, the latest as recently —or, as the political clock turns, as far-flung in the past— as March 2021. “There is no reelection and I’ll be out of the presidency at 42 years old,” he told Mexican YouTuber Luisito Comunica in a rare interview granted at the Presidential Palace.

Now the question appears to be how long Bukele fancies to stay. He is at his most powerful in five years, bolstered at home by his vice grip on all public institutions, a communications shield covering widespread corruption and an aching economy, and the twin swords of popularity and fear of his flagship security policy, the 26-month state of exception.

All three solitary opposition legislators, from Arena and Vamos, will boycott the oath ceremony. On Thursday night, expecting weekend protests, police arrested seven human rights defenders from the National Alliance for Peace in El Salvador, on accusations of planning to rig explosives at “gas stations, supermarkets, and public institutions,” and accusing FMLN ex-legislator José Santos Melara Yánez of “financing these plans.”

As alleged proof, authorities posted an audio to social media stripped of context, speaking of “delivery of a product” that “cannot fail”. On Friday morning, the X account of the Police published pictures of what appeared to be homemade bomb materials. Former top FMLN legislator Nidia Díaz dismissed the charges as “another political capture.” Ingrid Escobar, from human rights organization Socorro Jurídico Humanitario, wrote on X: “The audio they presented as evidence is for firecrackers that are normally used at protests.”

Meanwhile, thousands of Salvadorans are expected to attend, of their own eager volition, in the Historic Center of San Salvador. By contrast, employees of La Libertad Oeste, a municipality near the capital city won in March by Bukele-allied party Gana, on Thursday leaked a letter from human resources mandating that they show up.

Broad international criticism of Bukele’s authoritarianism in his early years was reduced to diplomatic hand-washing during election season and will morph to polite applause on Saturday: The presidents of Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Argentina confirmed their attendance; King Felipe VI of Spain is also making the trip, while Xi Jinping will send Chinese Minister of Culture and Tourism Sun Yeli.

Joe Biden has chosen a cadre of five top U.S. officials led by DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, wiping away doubts that migration cooperation is key to Washington’s silence on Bukele’s reelection amid efforts to thaw the relationship with San Salvador. The delegation will also include White House national security advisor Daniel Erikson.

Even so, Bukele has not been shy about the fact that he is betting on a Trump victory in November. As an unsubtle public reminder, he made a point of sending a ceremony invitation to Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, a Republican rabble-rouser and architect of the removal last year of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

The rest of Central America is split: Bernardo Arévalo of Guatemala, playing a balancing act, has criticized Bukele’s reelection but was the first head of state to congratulate him after his victory, and has now announced he will send Foreign Minister Carlos Ramiro Martínez in his place, suggesting a crowded agenda including a trip to Washington on Sunday —the following day— to meet with UN Secretary General António Guterres.

Nicaragua has not publicly confirmed —in 2019, Bukele did not invite Daniel Ortega, having called him a “dictator”, even though they now steer clear of criticizing each other— while the Panamanian Minister of the Presidency has reportedly landed. The Honduran Foreign Ministry told El Faro English that Xiomara Castro will make the trip.

“Like the 1980s”

A climate of fear and coercion has festered in recent months, chiefly among the victims —regardless of whether they are innocent or guilty of crimes— of the state of exception, which per Security Minister Gustavo Villatoro has surpassed a staggering 80,000 arrests. On Friday morning, families marched in front of the Ministry of Security and Justice and both demanded and pleaded to see their incarcerated relatives.

Many others have chosen to not expose themselves. “I'll be honest with you,” said a woman whose son died in state custody, after repeatedly denying parentage to El Faro’s Efren Lemus. “I am his mother, but all I want is for my son to rest in peace. He is dead. Why talk about the past?... The government does what it wants and there is nothing we can do.”

“I get it that you are journalists, and you have a certain freedom to ask these questions,” said another man named Daniel three weeks ago. “As a civilian, where can I go? Where do we hide if talking about this causes problems?”

That same sentiment was present throughout last year’s voting season: the only Supreme Electoral Tribunal magistrate to abstain from signing off on Bukele’s candidacy denounced “fear” as his colleagues’ motivation, spurred by the specter of prison time if they disobeyed. Opposition parties denounced that business people avoided cutting campaign checks as the government refused to pay out public financing and altered the electoral rules.

Nayib Bukele greets sympathizers at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, on Feb. 22, 2024. Photo Brendan Smialowski/AFP
Nayib Bukele greets sympathizers at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, on Feb. 22, 2024. Photo Brendan Smialowski/AFP

This Thursday, an association of women municipal officials denounced widespread gender-based attacks during the campaign that many did not report out of “fear of not being chosen for positions.”

In an interview with El Faro published last week, Juan Rosa Quintanilla, rector of the public University of El Salvador —known for its history of staunch resistance to the military regimes of the 1970s and 1980s— admitted that “people here inside are afraid to express themselves as a result of the situations that have occurred, and many would like the rector to directly confront the government, but when you go after them [the state] you find yourself —I find myself— alone.”

The UES has rented out its grounds for the Bukele administration to house “international and national press” to cover the inauguration, despite being owed $51 million in public funds. In the media accreditation partially relying on university facilities, and overseen by the Press Secretariat and the Presidential General Staff, the Salvadoran Journalists’ Association (APES) has denounced the denial of press badges to at least seven journalists.

“Bukele’s propaganda team seeks to mass-produce their single narrative of the swearing-in,” APES President Angélica Cárcamo wrote on X. “There is a dominance of accreditation for pro-government (non-independent) content creators and a considerable reduction of journalists.”

Lemus’ reporting put words to widespread enforced silence. “He was my nephew, but I can't give you any information because that's what his mother has decided,” said Daniel of a 30-year-old who died in Mariona Prison. “She rides the bus and they can follow her, they can do something to her, accuse her of something.”

Asked about who would follow the mother if she spoke to the press about his death, the uncle replied: “The government. Things are like they were in the 1980s.”

On Wednesday, the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly shelved the proposed Law of Transitional Justice, an initiative propelled by victims of the armed conflict, which lasted from 1980 to 1992. After Bukele vetoed the first iteration of the bill four years ago, ruling-party legislators had promised for the last year and a half to pass a replacement.

On the Assembly floor, Nuevas Ideas legislator Raúl Castillo promised that the president’s party would try again, and claimed: “We are not denying access to justice to anybody.”

*Correction at 5:30pm ET on May 31: An earlier version of this article misstated the first name of former U.S. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy as Matt.

This article first appeared in the May 28 edition of the El Faro English newsletter. Subscribe here.

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