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El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele: hero or villain?

El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, has been a disruptive leader since the day he took office in 2019. While attempting to deliver on his promises to be tough on crime and be different from the previous political elites, he has taken unorthodox and unprecedented measures which have been met with polarizing opinions. Many claim he is the salvation that the country needed, others fear we might be witnessing the birth of another autocratic government in Central America.

After a successful term as San Salvador’s mayor, the capital city of El Salvador, Bukele won the presidency, breaking for the first time in 30 years the alternation of the two major political parties (FMLN and ARENA) of El Salvador. The 39-year-old ‘millennial’ president has had high approval ratings throughout his presidency - which is a rare occurrence in El Salvador. In a country tired of the political elite, as an ‘outsider’, Bukele promised to do things differently than previous administrations. On that, he has not disappointed.

Bukele and First Lady Gabriela Rodriguez. Photo: Carlos Moronta/Presidencia República Dominicana

The millennial president

Throughout his presidency, Bukele has maintained a high approval rate. Over his mandate he has enjoyed for most of the time an approval rate above 85%, making him one of the most popular presidents in the Americas.[1] After two years in government, Bukele’s administration has managed to place El Salvador in the spotlight of Latin American politics, and for moments, the world. His government has been defined by taking actions that were long overdue in El Salvador: from raising teachers' salaries, modernizing public schools equipment, to raising the minimum wage. The many measures the government has taken to boost the economy are working: the IMF and the World Bank predicted a 4.9% economic growth for El Salvador in 2021. The average economic growth in recent years has been 2.3%.[2] He has also been known for his unorthodox methods. In his first week as president of El Salvador, Bukele made headlines by using Twitter – his favorite method of communication – to fire several family members of the previous president who held public positions.[3] Criticism of his lack of regard for the use of official channels was quieted down by a supportive crowd that was tired of the nepotism and corruption in the previous administration. The president’s recent law to make Bitcoin a legal currency in El Salvador has been a topic of discussion worldwide. While many see it as a dangerous move given Bitcoin’s volatility, others claim this will be a game-changer and will open a new avenue for remittances coming from abroad. Remittances currently form 20% of El Salvador’s gross domestic product, amounting to $4 billion USD a year.[4] Whether this will be a brilliant move or a significant blow to the country’s economy remains to be seen. A source of praise to Bukele has been the management of the COVID-19 crisis. From the start, strict lockdowns were introduced in the country, the borders were closed and a COVID hospital was built to double the ICU capacity in the country.[5[ Economic relief was also provided: the payment of electricity, water, and the internet was suspended for three months, and the government handed out stimulus checks to families who lost their income during the pandemic. El Salvador managed to maintain a low rate of infections and COVID-related deaths in comparison with other countries in the region. One of his biggest accomplishments so far has been the significant reduction of violence. One of the most violent countries in the world, El Salvador had a rate of homicides as high as 103 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015, one of the highest in the world.[6] His strategy consisted of deploying larger numbers of police and military personnel to the streets, attack the gang's finances and structures, recuperate the city centers in the country – a known territory of the major gangs – and modernizing the equipment and capacity of public security forces. It seems to be paying off: in 2020 the homicide rate of El Salvador had been reduced to 20 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, a 45% reduction from 2019.[7]

The use of social media has been key to the president’s popularity. Photo: Fred Ramos (El Faro)

A firm hand or abuse of power?

The implementation of his security strategy, however, has not gone without controversy. When violence in the streets rose again after conflicts between the main gangs, Bukele ordered that imprisoned members of rival gangs MS-13 and Barrio 18 be put together in jail cells, a known place from where gangs impart orders. While the measure did stop the rise in street violence, the overcrowded facilities (especially in the COVID times) and the potential for violence outbreaks in prisons raised concerns among the international community. His security strategy caused controversy again when the Legislative Assembly refused to meet to block the approval of a 109 million USD loan requested by Bukele to the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (BCIE) to be used in public security equipment and training. At the refusal of representatives to join the session, Bukele took over the Assembly by force with the help of the military. Unsurprisingly, this move was deemed an attack on democracy by local and international organizations. In February 2021 Bukele’s political party, Nuevas Ideas, won by a wide margin the majority in the Legislative Assembly’s election. With an absolute majority in the Assembly, the party took the controversial decision to destitute the 5 Supreme Court Justices and the Attorney General. Bukele’s party claimed they did not have El Salvador’s best interest at hand and cited occasions in which the Supreme Court blocked Nuevas Ideas-backed emergency measures during the COVID crisis. This was his most controversial move yet, and it was met with fierce criticism, from local organizations to international leaders (such as Kamala Harris, the EU, and human rights organizations) citing concern over the fundamental need of an independent judicial system in order to maintain democracy. Bukele responded by saying El Salvador has opened doors for the international community to trade, cooperate, and work together, but in El Salvador “we are cleaning house… and that is none of your business”.[8] While some interpret these moves as an abuse of power, others believe that a firm hand is what the violence and corruption-ripped country needs. Despite the criticism, his government is delivering results: the pandemic has been contained, violence and crime have decreased, and the country is growing economically. But, do the ends justify the means? And more importantly, are we witnessing the beginning of an authoritarian regime?

What to watch out for

The recent 2021 midterm elections where a new Legislative Assembly was elected marked a big win for the current president. His political party, Nuevas Ideas, won 56 out of the 84 seats available which gave his party an absolute majority over the legislative. This gives Bukele a wider margin for action, which he has already used in a controversial way by removing the Supreme Court Justices. It will be important to look out for new developments on this front. Presidential elections will take place again in El Salvador in 2024. Under Salvadoran constitution, reelection for continuous periods is not possible. In the next few years, it will be crucial to observe if Bukele or his party will attempt to amend the electoral law in the country. So far no steps have been taken in that direction.


2021-08-12 Bukele - Isabel
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About the Autor: Isabel Oriol

Isabel Oriol Llonin is a contributing analyst at Dyami. She holds a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and has a post-graduate degree in Public International Law from Utrecht University. She has expertise in the Latin American region and the public international law implications of conflict analysis.

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