The Pressure Cooker in El Salvador

At the political level, I find it very similar to Donald Trump, and I consider Trump’s government authoritarian, with neofascist characteristics. These are disguised, however, as populism, and in the case of Nayib Bukele, disguised as a millennial, as a break with the prior political classes. But he represents perhaps the worst thing that has happened to El Salvador politically since the Peace Accords were signed.

Bukele has many authoritarian and fascistic features, for example, the way he communicates with the people is exactly the same way Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro do, via Twitter. He doesn’t address people directly. And this is a form of governance that is apparently transparent and open, but really it’s indirect and opaque. Those on social media who might oppose his politics or question a decision are immediately blocked by the president’s account. This is very similar to Donald Trump’s practices in the United States, where a judge ordered that he was violating the freedom of expression.


The government positions Bukele as Moses leading the people to the promised land, and all those disposed to follow him without questioning and to obey down to the letter, those are the people that he has included as his advisers and in his cabinet. The difficulty is that often that loyalty to the dear leader doesn’t come with the necessary technical abilities, the proof of which is the current crisis of potable water that the San Salvador metropolitan area is currently experiencing.

The director of the water authority is unconditionally at the beck and call of the president, obeys him completely, but is totally incapable of understanding the water crisis in El Salvador, understanding that you can’t just grab water from wherever and pump it out. There’s a total inability not just to comprehend the country’s economic and social problems, but to manage those problems, since everything is centralized in the figure of the leader.

There’s another worrying indicator, which is that he talks about a plan to control national territory. I believe that we do have to recoup territory and restore the institutional state, since that is one of the sources of social violence, of the gangs, and of drug trafficking. But the control he imagines is more centralized. For example, it’s been some eight months of his term, and he hasn’t even appointed governors for all fourteen provinces, and the governor is the administration’s first link to the territory. But he says he doesn’t need governors because he can do it all himself, directly, on social media.

Furthermore, going back to the authoritarian and neofascist elements, Bukele tries to influence people through the information matrix that he now controls, thanks to the alliance that he has established with the big media companies: Telecorporación Salvadoreña, the Diario de Hoy, the Prensa Gráfica, the Diario El Mundo.

He doesn’t just work through social media like he did during the campaign, when he even had some disputes with the mainstream media — the Prensa Gráfica even sued him for cloning their site. Now, nearly 70 percent of all government advertising has been channeled into those media. They have more government ads than they did under either prior FMLN administration, so they’re satisfied. They provide positive coverage of the government and try to keep him happy so that the money keeps coming in.

One example of this special treatment is in January 2020, when the UCA presented its poll about the first six months of the Bukele administration. His rating fell from 8.4 at 100 days to 7.8. If this had happened to the FMLN, the headlines would read, “Government’s rating falls,” but instead, the major headlines don’t mention the decline, and instead they focused on things like “The president is the best evaluated official.” There’s a bit of a fascist trait in all this, which is corporativism, the alliance between authoritarian governments with certain sectors of national capital, in exchange for their silence when they are violating the constitution.

Then there’s his cozying up to the fundamentalist evangelical churches, who invoke him like the messiah. In the UCA poll, the evangelical churches rate above the Catholic Church. This alliance isn’t out of conviction, it’s the same as Bolsonaro or Trump.

Now, in economic terms, I’ve dubbed [his approach] “neoliberalism 3.0.” He has an economic program that no one has seen, but it’s there. He created it with the National Association for Private Enterprise (ANEP), together with the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and, of course, the US Embassy — USAID and the State Department. This program continues the same neoliberal inertia that’s dominated since 1989 and was expanded following the Peace Accords, and which continued with the FMLN administrations.

By neoliberalism, I’m referring to the continuity of this paradigm for interpreting problems and designing solutions for economic problems that consists of weakening the public and strengthening the private — strengthening capital by weakening the state.

Shortly after his inauguration, he convened a forum on competitivity. He brought [Mexican billionaire] Carlos Slim, and he said clearly: “Dinner is served.” That is to say, take whatever you can, I won’t get in the way, I won’t put up obstacles. They say he already authorized some $1.6 billion in environmental permits that were held up by the previous administration because of issues with environmental impact, or because they hadn’t been adequately consulted with the community.

I watch a lot of bad movies, and it reminds me of Anaconda, when they’re going down the river and come across a huge barrier. The guy who’s in a big hurry says, “We have to get through there!” They say, “But surely that’s there for a reason.” But no, they dynamite it and move forward, they remove the obstacle, and further on they find the giant snake that’s going to eat them for lunch. Bukele refuses to recognize the climate emergency in El Salvador, he refuses to recognize the water crisis, the problem that El Salvador is in the Mesoamerican dry corridor. If he is going to do more infrastructure megaprojects, and they don’t have environmental impact studies, no consideration for the communities, then he’s removing the barrier, but on the other side, there’s an anaconda.

He believes the private sector will solve everything. And as long as ANEP gives him their support, and Bukele continues with his economic agenda of neoliberalism 3.0, or neoliberalism recharged, then he can relax and guarantee governability when it comes to capital — something that was one of the principal obstacles to changes the FMLN administrations wanted to make, but they couldn’t, simply because of ANEP’s opposition.

There’s something else: this is a sexist, misogynist government. There’s this axis where we see Bolsonaro, Trump, and now Nayib Bukele — there are others, too. He has a cult of the presidential family, with his wife, the first lady, and his daughter, and he has totally obscured the gender equality agenda in El Salvador. It’s been substituted with social welfare policies in which women are served and their rights are recognized so long as they are mothers, so long as they care for their children and assume traditional roles.

There’s been a setback in terms of policies of equality, not just gender equality but also the recognition of sexual diversity and human rights. Several of the officials in Bukele’s government, including the president of the Development Bank of El Salvador (BANDESAL) and the president’s communications secretary, Ernesto Sanabria, are the subject of open investigations, the first for sexual harassment and the second for gender-based violence. Bukele hasn’t paid attention to either case.

Now, that’s the reality, or at least my perception of the reality. But we have to look at people’s perceptions. Despite everything I’ve said — authoritarianism, neoliberalism, human rights violations, setbacks with regards to equality, to the secular state — this president enjoys unprecedented levels of popularity, according to two of the most serious polls in the country. They show that the shine is starting to fade, like I said, his ratings have fallen, but people report feeling more secure, that things are getting better.

Nevertheless, this popularity is his Achilles heel, because it can only be maintained so long as he maintains his agreement with the gangs. Police sources have indicated that there is some sort of agreement that allows the president to declare zero homicides on certain days. The number of deaths in confrontations between gang members and police has also gone down, and this was one of the principal causes of death for gang members.

Others point to — and this needs to be looked into further — what’s happening now in the National Civil Police under the leadership of Mauricio Arriaza Chicas. It seems that there is a state policy of extermination of all those who are called gang members, drug traffickers, criminals, suspects even. They’re being disappeared, they’re being buried in clandestine graves. It’s something that will have to be looked into, probably in a few years, when we have access to this information and to the graves, and we can start to reconstruct how it was that this apparent period of pacification and security was achieved.

That same UCA poll says that people have the perception that migration is decreasing, but people are still leaving. In fact, the number of deportations from Mexico to El Salvador has increased, because they aren’t allowing them to reach the US southern border. And this is forcing people to explore more dangerous, more costly routes. The repression against migrants has increased. In El Salvador, now they have drones surveilling the border. I wonder, if they have drones to surveil the border, why aren’t they following the drug traffickers?

All of this is generating a pressure cooker in El Salvador. I think the illusion will hold in 2020, but after the 2021 elections, when Nayib Bukele controls the legislature and no longer needs his popularity, no longer needs the people, then we will see what this administration really is, and what the political, economic, and business interests behind Bukele’s presidency are.

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