The narrative around President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador is one full of paradoxes.
The 39-year-old former ad agency executive, who was elected as a political outsider in 2019, has been called a hipster authoritarian and a Trump-like populist president. Bukele, who often governs via Twitter, is constantly at war with the Salvadoran independent press, accusing it of publishing “fake news” and banning reporters from official press conferences. Last year, in an intimidating military stunt, Bukele sent heavily armed soldiers into the country’s Congress in a literal show of force as lawmakers debated his anti-crime, pro-police package.
Despite all of that, Bukele enjoys widespread support — his approval rating has hovered around 90 percent since he took office. Could it be that some of his policies are working? A few years ago El Salvador was the world’s most dangerous and violent country outside a war zone, but murder rates have been on the decline and hit a historic low last year. Similarly, migration flows from El Salvador to the United States, while still significant, have gone down relative to those of Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico.
Yet events last weekend leave little doubt of the direction Bukele is taking. His New Ideas party, which controls the country’s top legislative body, voted to remove the top five judges in the country’s Supreme Court as well as the attorney general, and replaced them with Bukele’s allies. The move, which most legal scholars deemed unconstitutional, earned international condemnation as a dangerous power grab.
“The history of El Salvador shows that the concentration of power leads to the country’s elites controlling the government, and that leads to human rights abuses,” Geoff Thale, president of the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank in Washington, D.C., said in an interview. “That’s why El Salvador had a civil war, that’s why most Salvadorans who have been here for years came to the US in the first place.”
Indeed, the ousting of the top prosecutor and judges sends a defiant and troubling message. Bukele’s party alleges the five judges had blocked the government’s public health response to the coronavirus pandemic and that the president and his cohort are “cleaning our house,” as Bukele tweeted. But those judiciary officials were among the last checks on Bukele’s power. There is a legitimate fear that having an attorney general who is friendly to Bukele will result in increased prosecution of political opponents and journalists as well as government-condoned harassment of the opposition. All of that could eventually mean an increasing number of people fleeing the country.
Bukele may think that because he’s consolidating power as president, he’s better positioned to improve the economy, Thale said. “But there is no evidence that’s true. Bukele is sending a signal to the international business community and the International Monetary Fund, with whom he is negotiating a major loan deal, that he is not a reliable partner.”
Worse, US-El Salvadoran relations are off to a rocky start under President Biden. Bukele recently declined to meet with the Biden administration’s envoy to the Northern Triangle region — Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. In February, Bukele visited Washington and was reportedly denied a meeting request by the Biden administration. On Tuesday, Vice President Kamala Harris expressed concern about the weekend’s events in El Salvador, in prepared remarks at the Washington Conference on the Americas. Harris will visit Mexico and Guatemala next month.
“An independent judiciary is critical to a healthy democracy and a strong economy. On this front, on every front, we must respond,” Harris said. “However, no matter how much effort we put in — on curbing violence, on providing disaster relief, on tackling food insecurity, on any of it — we will not make significant progress if corruption in the region persists. If corruption persists, history has told us, it will be one step forward and two steps back. And we know corruption causes government institutions to collapse from within, preventing people from getting their children educated, from getting a business started, from getting a fair trial.”
Harris is right. The declining overall migration and homicide rates in El Salvador won’t make much difference if the country’s democratic institutions remain weakened or under attack. El Salvador and other Central American countries may seem remote and practically irrelevant to most Americans. But there’s a direct line between the stability and level of functioning democracy in those countries and the number of immigrants who show up at our borders. The United States can’t properly contend with immigration issues without also recasting its relationships with Central American leaders, especially the Trump-lite Bukele.