Leader’s actions raise concerns for El Salvador’s future

El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele delivers his annual address to the nation before Congress in San Salvador on Tuesday, June 1. Photo: The Associated Press
By Barbara Gutierrez

El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele delivers his annual address to the nation before Congress in San Salvador on Tuesday, June 1. Photo: The Associated Press

Leader’s actions raise concerns for El Salvador’s future

By Barbara Gutierrez
The United States has sharply rebuked Nayib Bukele, the 39-year-old president of the Central American country, because recent actions point to him being on a path toward dictatorship.

El Salvador is one of the countries in the northern triangle—a section of Central America that also includes Guatemala and Honduras. The region has long been troubled by poverty, national disasters, political corruption, and gang-related violence resulting in thousands of its residents immigrating to the United States.

Since 2019, the president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, has been ruling the country with unbridled popularity but also with questionable motives that are drawing increasing criticism and fears that he could become a dictator.

Young, charismatic, and bright, Bukele and his “Nuevas Ideas” Party was chosen by 65 percent of Salvadorean voters in the last presidential election. He crushed the two parties that had held power for decades—the FMLN (leftist) and ARENA (right)—and promised to lower the number of homicides related to gang violence and provide more transparency and better governance.

“He was young and had new ideas, and the accusations against the ARENA and FMLN parties made him popular,” said George Yudice, professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences. “You could say that he ran as the candidate who, like former President Trump, was going to drain the swamp.”

The young president continued to gain popularity by handing out care packages during the COVID-19 pandemic as well as establishing an orderly vaccination plan. He also funded a special force to reduce violence between notorious gangs. The number of homicides related to gang violence has been reduced.  

“Before the pandemic there were questions of corruption and nepotism and favoritism to enterprises that were close to his family,” said Yudice. As reputable news agencies began to question dubious business deals and the purchase of medical equipment by the government from companies that had no previous medical experience or history, the president called those reports fake news, said Yudice.

The highly respected news organization El Faro then reported that Bukele had held secret negotiations with gang leaders inside the jails, promising them certain privileges if they curtailed the violence. The president denied the charge.

Then on May 1, lawmakers from Bukele's New Ideas Party passed a motion to remove five judges from the Supreme Court's constitutional chamber. New Ideas lawmakers, who have held a majority in the Legislative Assembly since landslide election victories in February, alleged the judges were deterring Bukele's ability to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Hours later, lawmakers voted to remove the country's top prosecutor, Attorney General Raul Melara. Ruling party lawmakers claimed Melara, whose office carries out investigations into crime and corruption, lacks independence. Members of the assembly then voted to appoint five new magistrates to the court and a new attorney general seen as more friendly to Bukele's initiatives.

“This was kind of a self-coup,” said Yudice. “He may not be a dictator yet, but he is moving in that direction.”

Washington’s response was swift. Vice President Kamala Harris tweeted soon after the incident in congress: “Washington is concerned about El Salvador's democracy. An independent judiciary is vital to a healthy democracy and a strong economy.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also reacted to Bukele's decision to remove Melara. 

“We urge President Bukele not to interrupt El Salvador's democratic path, respect the separation of powers, defend the press, and support the private sector," he noted.

The U.S. Agency for International Development announced that it would redirect its funding from El Salvador’s state institutions to civil society groups. Similarly, the Biden administration has pledged it would grant El Salvador and the region $4 billion to stem root causes of immigration to the U.S. But this money would also be directed to non-governmental organizations that could directly help the Salvadorean people.

To impose further sanctions on the government of Bukele by the U.S. could be a two-edged sword, said Yudice. If remittances to Salvadoreans were cut back in retaliation for Bukele’s authoritarian actions, that would mean worsening the fate of many families in that country.

“There are 3 million Salvadoreans in the United States sending $6 billion in remittances a year,” he said. “That constitutes that countries’ national budget.”

Further sanctions would also mean more migrations of Salvadoreans to the U.S. southern border, where thousands are still seeking refuge.