Autocracy in El Salvador? The Historical Challenge in Time of Pandemic


El Salvador, like many other countries in Central America and the world, is in a situation bordering on tragedy, facing a pandemic under the immense structural failures resulting from centuries of environmental and human exploitation. Few alternatives remain when there have been dictatorial regimes, civil war, and the opening of representative party democracy – either democratic citizens' participation or a return to dictatorship. 

El Faro: Carlos Barrera
Teaser Image Caption
Foto de El Faro: Carlos Barrera

The Salvadoran Political Crisis before the Pandemic

El Salvador has important historical records pertaining to its evolution towards a relatively nascent democracy. Only in 1992 did a 12-year civil war end, the ideological spectrum for party representation in free elections open, and a harsh chapter of social and criminal amnesties and economic liberalism begin, which affected the majority of the population with separate processes of privatization. The establishment of criminal groups and corruption networks followed, as well as forced migration as the last expression of the search for survival and dignity. All this and more has happened with political parties representing the civil war, which for 30 years held executive power, without being able to solve the main structural problems of the country: poverty and inequality, environmental degradation, violence, and disrespect for human rights among others. This drain, and other incidental factors, generated the alternation in power with the presidential victory of Nayib Bukele in June 2019. 

However, just eight months after taking presidential office and continuing policies to strengthen the armed forces in an effort to stop the violence, the president carried out the greatest of his abrupt threats in taking control of the Legislative Assembly for denying approval of a loan on February 9, 2020. Military, around 30 congressmen, mostly like-minded, and a mob supporting Bukele were the main witnesses to a kind of "failed self-coup". Although the national and international pro-democracy community, including a strong influence from the United States Ambassador to El Salvador, stopped Bukele's apparent attempt to abolish the Legislative Branch altogether, the spectre of the "targeted insurrection" promoted by Bukele and his followers was still latent before the pandemic. 

The current central government, with the president as the only figure of command and incorruptible illusion, permanently promotes the conflict between state powers to continue with the political wear and tear that helped bring him to the executive power. Bukele represents a strange hybrid for Salvadoran political culture; he is someone with a business legacy which has given him privileges in his personal and family life, with little formal academic education, linked to a leftist party in his beginnings, and currently linked to people of the far right who are dedicated to the merciless attack of figures opposed to authoritarian decisions. Media manipulation, as in the case of Trump in the United States or Bolsonaro in Brazil, are concrete examples of what also happens in his communication strategy. 

Therefore, the President of El Salvador represents both the caudillismo that most people demand for confronting violent historical phenomena, as well as the average person who acts on his or her instincts, emotions or "common sense". All this causes contempt and even attacks on people and entities that could collaborate before, during, and after the pandemic to make the best scientific and academic decisions – prompting the president to opt for trial and error as the only way to establish and improve public emergency policies. This practice begins as a possible act of ignorance of the laws, but then turns into disrespect for the constitutional order with malice and advantage. 

Global Crisis: The COVID-19 Pandemic as a Threat to a Country at Risk 

In a country like El Salvador, where social, environmental, economic, and democratic vulnerability has existed for decades, a pandemic results in a complete attack on the very existence of the nation and its inhabitants. For that same reason, the initial decisions of the Salvadoran government were drastic but necessary; the border closure was carried out even before there was a case of contagion in the country, and although many people were directly affected at the international airport and land borders, the well-being of the majority was prioritized. However, the messages of President Bukele via Twitter and the national radio and television network began to instill fears of death by contagion as the main reason for the population to obey restrictive measures on their mobility and the imposition of household quarantine. In addition to promoting the fact that the voice of President Bukele is the only voice authorized to establish government action, it is also assumed by the executive power that the population will not follow instructions other than by the imposition of force or even violence. This has led to a case of "self-fulfilling prophecy", where the need for the police and military to enforce public health measures is seen as essential – in a country where even the president himself does not follow the laws of the democratic rule of law, as Bukele has repeatedly demonstrated. 

Unilateral decisions, as an expression of the absence of dialogue with many organized sectors of the population, have been the norm since the central government took power in June 2019 – accusing them of belonging to ideological partisan lines. The great successes of the presidential administration in the face of the pandemic to date have been the closing of the aforementioned borders, the economic subsidy of $300.00 dollars for one month for more than 70% of the population, suspending charges for basic services such as water, electricity, taxes, and telecommunications for three months, and the creation of containment centers for people who may have been infected while entering Salvadoran territory. 

For every success, it is extremely necessary that public policies aimed at facing the pandemic be reviewed and improved. For example, the economic subsidy corresponds to a percentage of a two billion-dollar loan, thus automatically increasing the historical external debt that as of January 2020 represented 71.3% of the Gross Domestic Product. As this is a subsidy for one month only, it leaves no certainty as to what most people working within the informal sector and with no daily income will do once hunger defeats fear – not to mention the logistical chaos with which this measure began. In dealing with loan repayment and the subsidiary measure, the central government could have avoided mistakes by involving various sectors in the decision-making process. As for the containment centers, and despite their vital mission, they have become centers of forced isolation without stable protocols that allow healthy people to return to their homes in a timely manner. 

In addition, containment centers have become a crisis symbol of the healthcare system, with professionals such as doctors, nurses, and respiratory disease experts finding themselves experiencing extreme fatigue and in grave danger of becoming infected. Furthermore, they are facing discrimination from a portion of the population that internalizes scaremongering messages from the executive branch and reacts with irrational fear against anyone suspected of contagion. The sector that has generated the most uncertainty is that of territorial control, before and during the pandemic. The last four governments since 2003 established varied “iron fist” plans to confront criminal groups in El Salvador. Gangs have been the most influential illegal factions in the region that forced a secret truce in 2010 during the first left wing party government. Prior to the current presidency, “extraordinary measures” were implemented, legalizing and normalizing the concept of terrorism linked to these criminal groups. Referred to as “the mafia of the poor” by a Salvadoran journalist, these people still represent the most vulnerable and dangerous sector of El Salvador’s population - the poorest and most marginalized who become an entity of power and lawlessness; they take advantage of a society that has for decades been based on corruption, inequality, and classism. Bukele’s government has applied his version of control, and it appears to be key in dealing with this historical problem as it has yielded the lowest homicide statistics in recent months. Unfortunately, this apparent success doesn’t apply to the protection of women. 13 feminicides during the quarantine are not considered an important matter in the president’s messages on Twitter, and there has been a 70% increase in gender-based violence reports during the pandemic. 

Although there are only hypotheses of a pact between the government and criminal groups to have brought about a decrease in murders in the country, and the unrestrained capacity of gangs to extortion, the 2019 budget for security and armed forces grew by 18.43% compared to the previous year, as well as the loan request for the purchase of military equipment. These details suggest that part of the president and his government’s solutions are and will continue to be based on the use of force. This will enable acts of violence and abuse as usually happens in countries with fragile legal institutions, due to both a historical and recent history of registered extrajudicial executions. 

During the pandemic, the police and military have captured several hundred people who, after national television networks broadcasted the president speaking on toughening the mobility ban, were taken to detention centers as punishment, not necessarily for having contracted the disease. The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice declared on April 15, 2020 that these arrests are unconstitutional, and that its rulings must be complied with by the executive branch. President Bukele has acted in contempt of that resolution, and the rule of law remains in an abstract crisis that manifests in reality as confusion and a tendency toward lawlessness on the part of the population, in addition to increased repression on the part of armed authorities in complicity with the president. 

These violations of the rule of law are not new to the current administration and will continue to occur as long as the president is favored. It will play out by maintaining control of political conflicts and popular support despite authoritarian collateral damage against the population itself. The Legislative Assembly, from its party majorities, is acting timidly in this situation declaring itself against authoritarianism, but generally resolving in favor of the president and invoking the state of emergency due to the pandemic. 

Furthermore, the problem of violence in El Salvador could be a time bomb. Over the last weekend in April 2020, seventy-six murders were committed in just four days, contradicting most of the positive reports put forth by the government. Whether the new truce expired, or the economic crisis due to the pandemic affected gang extortions, or if the gangs, being political actors, have old and new demands for the government, no one seems to have any certainty, explanations, or justifications for these events. In turn, the president has expressed that his government and military forces will not respond weakly. Taking into account the many Salvadoran families that have already lost loved ones to organized and political crime, many other crimes and abuses could take place in the short term. Territory control and social investment from the State continue to be major challenges made worse by the pandemic. 

From Pandemic Crisis to Democratic Crisis

In this scenario, and considering that the COVID-19 virus remains an enigma for medical care in much of the world, unilateral decisions only put vulnerable countries such as El Salvador at maximum risk. The Salvadoran president's custom of instilling fear and terror via the pandemic, asserting that restrictive and intolerant measures are only for the common good, in the long term constitute psychosocial abuse with strong similarities to abuse through violence. Although sanitary restrictions are necessary, the abolition of some fundamental human rights in order to protect the right to health remains a flawed thesis of the president and his government; human rights are complementary, not mutually exclusive. 

The main fear of the progressive sectors of the country is that this trend will continue or worsen after the pandemic, as an unequivocal sign of an authoritarian regime. Repression of freedom of the press and constant censorship of digital newspapers, human rights organizations, and media expressing criticism of the president's unilateral decisions are another perpetual symptom in weakened democracies that systematically morph into neo-dictatorships. Digital newspapers of critical and investigative analysis, the Journalist Association of El Salvador (APES), and the Board of Protection for Journalists of El Salvador agree that there is a block to information access and recurrent harassment of journalists before and during the COVID-19 crisis. This alert signal is reinforced by attacks of trolls against opposing comments or critical analysis to the government on social networks. 

The Ortega case in Nicaragua is the closest geographically, and with the exception of historical differences, it expresses a certain similarity in progression to Bukele's actions in El Salvador to take powers without restrictions. For the Bukele presidency, February 9 and April 15, 2020 symbolize the beginning of Step 4, “Dismantle Judicial and Political Mechanisms”, in the book entitled How to Lose a Country in 7 Steps by Ece Temelkuran, threatening legislative and disobeying judicial powers. The strong current of populism in Latin America continues to be effective in winning elections and perpetuating power in an autocratic exercise disguised as public demand and popular benefit. The pandemic is proving to be an ideal context for these anti-democratic scenarios to prevail and become stronger. 

Autocracy is defined as a system of government that concentrates power in a single figure, with actions that are not subject to legal or judicial restrictions, thus breaking and eliminating the rule of law. The Salvadoran government, through the actions, messages, and symbolism of the current president with the support of the armed forces, indicate unequivocally that he and his circle of trust consider absolute power the only way to govern. As an essential indicator of this tendency, any conjunctural political analysis of El Salvador must examine Bukele's actions or omissions as key game changers, invalidating the proposals and opinions of a part of the population – one that has dedicated itself for decades to the struggle to generate and strengthen a true participatory democracy. 

Tireless human rights organizations, economic analysis entities making the case for an economic reform and fiscal pact, progressive think-tanks that demand citizens’ participation in politics, national and international networks to protect the environment and vulnerable groups (childhood, adolescence, women, sexual diversity and adulthood) and to create alternatives against violence, are clear examples of the accumulated knowledge and experience that are key to the future of a nation. Their participation through dialogue with the powers of the State, including the executive power, may make it possible to tackle the acute and chronic crises of all kinds that will come about gradually with the pandemic in a collaborative manner, in a region that is crying out for self-sustainability. The legislative and mayoral elections planned for 2021 could be overtaken or even canceled, both by the consequences of the pandemic and by potential political actions. They could also lead to control of the legislative power by groups connected to the president, thus leaving a plenipotentiary scenario for the current executive power. Given the protection of life as the ultimate goal of the State's activity, all the roads to be traveled carry warning messages for the vulnerable Salvadoran democracy – a democracy that will only survive without authoritarianism.