Salvadorean President Nayib Bukele was busy last year. In February last year, barely a year after taking office, he marched soldiers into the congressional chambers to intimidate the ostensibly obstreperous legislature. He stopped shy of a coup apparently because God told him to stand down.
A month later, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he sealed borders and ordered a severe lockdown, shunting about 16,000 violators into insalubrious quarantine camps.
The detentions generated 1,600 human rights complaints and more COVID-19.
When the constitutional bench of the Salvadorean Supreme Court demurred, he defied it too, three times.
Yet while Bukele’s heavy hand drew rebuke from the likes of Human Rights Watch and media watchdogs, most Salvadoreans applauded. So strenuously, in fact, that his allies are poised to capture a majority — perhaps even a supermajority — in a legislative election today.
Securing two-thirds of congressional seats would allow Bukele to name Supreme Court judges and the attorney general, making him the most powerful Salvadorean leader since the return of democracy three decades ago.
“This is a once-in-a-generation sort of clout,” Economist Intelligence Unit analyst Giancarlo Morelli said.
To be sure, other Latin American countries have seen such power plays before. From former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori’s autogolpe to former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s permadynasty, overreach by elected leaders is one reason that democracy has fallen into ill repute in the region.
What is disturbing in El Salvador is how few voters seem unperturbed by its demise.
A recent poll in San Salvador, the capital, found that more than 30 percent of those surveyed agreed that an authoritarian government might be necessary “in some circumstances,” at least 70 percent believed that the country functions better under “strong authorities,” while 61 percent favored “mano dura” or hardline governments.
El Salvador is not alone. Bottom-feeding populists, hyperfragmented political party systems, toxic partisanship and captured institutions have carved a path for the return of the man on the horse — or in El Salvador’s case, the millennial martinet.
“Latin America thus enters 2021 shadowed by an ominous sense that democracy is under extraordinary strain,” said a new report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which warned of potential “political rupture” that “disregards or degrades democratic norms and processes for the sake of demagogic goals.”
Compounding the worries in El Salvador is the parlous national economy. Even before the pandemic, the country was reeling from tropical storms that left 10,000 people homeless and gutted agriculture.
Throw in COVID-19 in a land where two out of three workers rely on the shadow economy and for whom the government’s stay-home orders meant hardship if not going hungry.
Bukele laudably rolled out robust emergency aid measures for the most vulnerable, but that left a fiscal sinkhole and deep recession.
El Salvador last year saw a 63 percent drop in tourism and a 14 percent fall in exports, Manuel Orozco and Jessica Spanswick concluded in a forthcoming report on global remittance flows for the Center for Migration and Economic Stabilization.
A surprising 4 percent increase in US dollar remittances, despite the US economic turndown helped, but not nearly enough for families on the edge; many are again risking stealing north.
No doubt the strain on democracy in El Salvador also owes to the endurance of the political rogue’s gallery that emerged following a 13-year civil war ending in 1992.
“After a bloody civil war, there was huge frustration with both the large political parties on the left and right, neither of which proved capable of dealing with corruption, containing crime and helping people get by from day to day,” said Stephen McFarland, a former US ambassador with wide service in Central and South America.
A court recently found that former Salvadorean president Antonio Saca and his wife guilty of illicit enrichment, while former Salvadorean president Mauricio Funes fled corruption, embezzlement and money laundering charges for Nicaragua, where he won asylum in 2016 and citizenship in 2019.
El Salvador’s epidemic gang violence and street crime only worsened.
Enter Bukele — 30-something, social media-savvy and never at a loss for a soundbite — and restive Salvadoreans were set to swoon, democratic niceties be damned.
“Even though his policies are not so different from those of his predecessors, he is a skilled communicator, fantastic at messaging and marketing,” said Risa Grais-Targow of the Eurasia Group.
No wonder dissident lawmakers recently scrapped their impeachment petition against him, she said.
Not all of Bukele’s gestures are obscurantist. Heading into the pandemic with a dilapidated public health system — 94 intensive care beds in a country of 6.5 million obscurantistle — the Salvadorean government converted a convention center into a hospital, eventually adding 731 more critical care beds.
Despite the government’s iron hand and a recent surge in infections, nine in 10 Salvadoreans say that they approve of Bukele’s handling of the pandemic.
For Salvadoreans “the idea that you should recoil from Bukele because he has amassed power through the ballot box and is poised to amass more, isn’t so persuasive,” McFarland said.
Yet Bukele’s ambitions come with risks. Until now he has adroitly blamed his nation’s worst troubles on unloved establishment adversaries. Should the polls consolidate his power, Bukele will own the mess.
The greater risk is to El Salvador’s democracy.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, fears that Bukele’s power play could be a move to capture institutions and change the constitution to extend his mandate.
“Bukele is following the classic populist script, dividing citizens between unconditional supporters and enemies, and intimidating adversaries,” he told me. “We went through this for the last four years in the US. The difference is, while El Salvador is a vibrant society with a strong supreme court and independent media, it is still a very young democracy.”
Can the change of management in Washington make a difference?
Bukele enjoyed a long leash under former US president Donald Trump, who was willing to overlook antidemocratic excesses so long as El Salvador agreed to play the penitent border cop and stop clandestine migration.
Judging from the chilly welcome Bukele received when he turned up unannounced in Washington earlier this month, apparently hoping to gatecrash the administration of US President Joe Biden, US indulgence is not likely to last.
Even the best intentioned external pressure cannot firewall a neighbor from homegrown authoritarianism, any more than it can export democracy.
In El Salvador, that means the hard part will be left to the voters.
Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America.
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