El Salvador’s Young President Turns Up the Pressure on the Political Establishment

Since assuming the presidency, Nayib Bukele has been on a policy blitz focused on two main points: security and economic development.
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February 20, 2020 08:25 EDT

Elected in 2019 as a political outsider to El Salvador’s two main parties, Nayib Bukele assumed the country’s presidency with the promise of ending gang violence and enforcing the rule of law in an institutionally weak nation. However, Bukele’s recent actions as president seeking to pressure the country’s legislature to approve a bill giving the executive the ability to negotiate a multimillion-dollar loan have provoked strong rebuttals both internationally and domestically.

On February 9, President Bukele marched alongside armed troops into El Salvador’s legislative assembly demanding an emergency vote. Bukele’s administration argues that, because the loan being negotiated is needed to upgrade the equipment of the country’s military and police forces in their fight against organized crime, the legislative bill must be reviewed in an expedited process.

Troubled History

Despite the fact that the emergency vote did not take place because the majority of legislators did not show up, the action highlights both Bukele’s priorities and the challenges that his administration faces. Accused by his detractors and members of the international community of orchestrating a coup, President Bukele’s overplayed sense of urgency underscores how much his success hinges on security policy. On February 15, Bukele published an op-ed defending his actions, underlying his commitment to El Salvador’s Constitution and rebuking his detractors in harsh terms, stating that his agenda targets “terrorist organizations financed by members of the National Assembly.”

Between 1979 and 1992, El Salvador faught a brutal civil war that left 80,000 dead and 8,000 missing, bringing social devastation and oversized debt. The conflict started because of heightened sociopolitical polarization in a region that was heavily marked by proxy wars in the context of the Cold War. At the time, successive Carter and Reagan administrations in the US followed a policy of containment, particularly in Central and South America.

The US government maintained strong ties with right-wing and center-right political formations in El Salvador to prevent the country from following along the path of Nicaragua or Cuba. In 1979, a coup against President Carlos Humberto Romero led to the de facto government by a revolutionary junta and marked the genesis of the civil war. In this context, Bukele’s march on the national assembly brings back the dark specter of a not-so-distant past.  

Who Is Nayib Bukele?

An entrepreneur who studied law at the Jesuit University of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele began his political career affiliated with the country’s establishment left-wing party, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), under whose insignia he was elected mayor of a small town of Nuevo Cusclatan in 2012. He went on to become the mayor of the capital, San Salvador, in 2015, but was expelled from the FMLN in 2017 for violating party principles, prompting his presidential bid.

Bukele was elected in February 2019 with an overwhelming 54% of the vote. Aged 38 and a son of Palestinian immigrants, he is the youngest president in El Salvador’s history and, currently, Latin America’s youngest sitting head of state. His election was a big surprise for the region, as Bukele shunned the Salvadoran political establishment choosing instead to run as a centrist, representing the Grand Alliance of National Unity (GANA) that came into being as recently as 2010. Bukele was sworn in on June 1, 2019, with a reputation of being entrepreneurial, business-friendly and innovative.

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Since assuming the presidency, Bukele has been on a policy blitz focused on two main points: security and economic development. Last year, President Bukele visited Beijing after recognizing the People’s Republic of China and cutting diplomatic ties with Taiwan. In China, the Bukele administration signed multiple cooperation and investment deals, mainly focused on infrastructure development. El Salvador’s recognition of Beijing over Taipei came in the footsteps of similar moves by Panama and the Dominican Republic, highlighting mainland China’s ongoing diplomatic campaign in Central America and the Caribbean. Nevertheless, the United States continues to be El Salvador’s most important strategic ally, given the large Salvadoran community in the US, a strong trade relationship between the two countries, El Salvador’s dependence on remittances from its diaspora in North America, and the country’s adoption of the US dollar as national currency in 2001.

Bukele’s other foreign policy victory was the announcement of an agreement with Guatemala that grants El Salvador the right to develop a port on Guatemala’s Atlantic coast, thus giving the smallest country in Central America access to not one, but two oceans.

Domestic Priorities

On the domestic front, a key issue that President Bukele has quickly addressed is security, which in turn is tied to the massive migration of Salvadorans to the US. These two social issues have stemmed from gang violence, drug trafficking and unemployment that have plagued El Salvador since the end of the civil war. Since taking office, Bukele’s strong security policies have resulted in a sharp decrease in the levels of violent crime and homicide in El Salvador.

Another domestic issue that Bukele is tackling is corruption. While neighboring governments have resisted international assistance in the fight against corruption, most notably Guatemala’s hostility to the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, President Bukele urged the creation of a commission led by the Organization of American States to investigate and root out corruption in El Salvador.

But even more difficult than eradicating domestic violence — El Salvador has one of the highest rates of femicide in the world — President Bukele’s main domestic challenge might be reforming the establishment, which so far refuses to transform. Currently, Bukele’s administration does not have the necessary majority in the legislature to secure lasting change. With the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) right-wing party holding 42% of the national assembly and opposing Bukele’s agenda, the president is forced to seek compromise and alliances to pass legislation. Otherwise, he is bound to rule by executive orders, which are increasingly denounced as executive overreach. Marching troops into the national assembly hardly helped his cause.

On February 10, the supreme court of El Salvador ordered President Bukele not to pressure the legislative branch as it deliberates on the approval of the $109-million dollar loan that the executive is seeking to enhance law enforcement’s resources to persecute organized crime. Though Nayib Bukele has a popular backing that far surpasses that of the legislative assembly — his approval rating is over 80% — the president stated that he will be patient and abide by the judiciary’s decision. Nevertheless, President Bukele’s term will last until 2024, and, if his popularity holds up for another year, he will have a chance to secure a friendlier legislative majority during the 2021 elections.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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