Loved and decried, the populist leader of El Salvador is provocative


SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) – In the narrow, gang-controlled alleyways of the Las Palmas neighborhood, struggling Salvadorans are unmoved by their president’s actions that exasperate his detractors so much.

They are not bothered by Nayib Bukele’s dictatorial maneuvers – sending armed troops to Congress to compel a vote, or oust independent judges of the country’s highest court, paving the way for control over all branches of government. They praise his relentless attacks on the politicians who ruled El Salvador for nearly 30 years before him, and the elites who benefited from their regime.

In this neighborhood, they are grateful for the boxes of basic foodstuffs they received from the government in Bukele during the pandemic. The adults proudly shut their shoulders and say they received the two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine long before most other people in Central America.

For all the observers and critics who condemn a dangerous concentration of power by a charismatic leader who sports blue jeans and leather jackets, Bukele enjoys an approval rating of over 90% among people who have seen three of the four previous presidents imprisoned or exiled. for corruption.

“They talk about democracy … I don’t know what else,” said Julio César López, 60, a street artist from Las Palmas. “It makes me really happy that they kick this class of people out.”

Bukele’s presidency so far is the story of one of Latin America’s newest populist autocracies: spending big on handing out gifts, labeling opponents as enemies, raising the profile of the military. Like former President Donald Trump, Bukele prefers social media to press conferences, so he can control the message, even if he doesn’t miss a good photo shoot to brandish his image.

The president has convinced most Salvadorians that his government is on the march against poverty and gang violence, said Leonor Arteaga, program director at the Due Process of Law Foundation, a regional rule of law organization based in Washington. “No one can deny that he does indeed have the support of the majority of the population and he is using that support and manipulating it to move his agenda forward.”

The people of Las Palmas say they recognize Bukele’s concentration of power and that at first, at least, they seem willing to trade democratic ideals for short-term solutions to their gaping needs.

Rigoberto Castellanos, a 57-year-old construction worker in Las Palmas, said the previous opposition-controlled congress and ousted constitutional judges were thorns on Bukele’s side that needed to be removed.

He noted that currently El Salvador’s constitution prohibits re-election, but if that were to change, “who wouldn’t like to have the president for another five years?”

Bukele, 39, a non-ideological pragmatist, is the latest in a series of Latin American presidents from all political backgrounds who have used the elections and their personal popularity to accumulate power.

Bukele’s office declined requests for an interview or answers to questions and comments for this article.

For nearly three decades, El Salvador has been ruled alternately by the conservative Arena party and the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front formed as a result of El Salvador’s brutal civil war. But the parties failed to deliver. Arena and the FMLN both had presidents who looted El Salvador’s coffers and left a society with few economic opportunities, besieged by powerful street gangs who extorted and killed with impunity.

Bukele, a former publicity official, rose through the FMLN ranks from small town mayor to mayor of the capital, San Salvador, until the FMLN ended up firing him for refusing to follow the party line. This cemented his status as an outsider and he formed his own political party, New Ideas, winning the presidential vote in 2019.

While El Salvador’s elections were seen as free, Bukele’s critics say the country can no longer be described as a functioning democracy.

February 9, 2020. Bukele was grappling with the opposition-controlled Congress. He wanted lawmakers to approve funding for a security plan to control gangs, but they had refused to meet for a vote, saying they wanted more information.

Heavily armed police and soldiers in tactical gear entered the Legislature with Bukele that Sunday. Hundreds of Bukele supporters had gathered to pressure lawmakers waiting outside. Snipers took up positions on the rooftops. Bukele took the chair of the body and prayed.

“If we wanted to press the button, we would press the button” and remove lawmakers from the legislature, he told supporters outside the building. “But I asked God and God told me: patience, patience, patience.”

A year later, New Ideas won the qualified majority in the legislative elections. On May 1, the first day the new lawmakers sat, they voted to remove and then replace the five judges of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court and the Attorney General.

As lawmakers prepared to vote, police surrounded the Supreme Court. A police patrol vehicle was parked outside the home of the President of the Supreme Court. The replacement judges, all linked to Bukele or his party, were then escorted into the building by the police.

Bukele was happy. “I know that most Salvadorians are looking forward to the second session,” he said.

Arteaga said: “El Salvador is building authoritarianism. It is very clear, there are all the signs.

During the first two years of Bukele’s administration, constitutional judges had been a key control of his power. His detractors described a feeling of sinking, realizing there would now be nowhere to turn.

Journalists, businessmen and others who criticize the administration increasingly find themselves under investigation or subject to audits.

El Faro, the award-winning independent media outlet in El Salvador, also suffered public attacks by Bukele and his supporters, an audit by the government and its staff reported that they were being followed by foreigners.

Last September, Bukele said on national television that there was an open investigation into money laundering and tax evasion in El Faro. In January, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordered the Salvadoran government to take measures to protect 34 El Faro staff and allow them to carry out their work as journalists.

Javier Simán, president of El Salvador’s largest professional association and outspoken critic of Bukele, said he had been the subject of more than 100 government audits. His family owns a retail empire with its department stores in El Salvador and other parts of Central America, as well as other businesses.

At the end of May 1, as international condemnation began to pour in against the ouster of judges and the attorney general, Bukele was defiant.

“To our friends in the international community: we want to work with you, trade, travel, get to know each other and help where we can,” he tweeted. “Our doors are more open than ever. But with all due respect: we clean our house … and it’s not your responsibility.


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