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David InczauskisJanuary 24, 2022
A prelate wearing a protective mask looks on as Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele takes part in a meeting at the Presidential House in San Salvador May 3, 2021. (CNS photo/Secretaria de Prensa de La Presidencia handout via Reuters)A prelate wearing a protective mask looks on as Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele takes part in a meeting at the Presidential House in San Salvador May 3, 2021. (CNS photo/Secretaria de Prensa de La Presidencia handout via Reuters)

Nayib Bukele broke through decades of bipartisan rule in El Salvador with a decisive victory in the 2019 presidential elections under the Grand Alliance for National Unity. He consolidated political power when the party he founded, Nuevas Ideas, took control of the Salvadoran Congress in 2021.

President Bukele enjoys strong popularity at home and in neighboring Central American countries, but his government faces accusations of authoritarianism and corruption. Mr. Bukele’s boldest move has been his decision to accept the digital currency Bitcoin as a national currency alongside the U.S. dollar.

David Inczauskis, S.J., met in San Salvador with José María Tojeira, S.J., director of the Central American University’s Human Rights Institute, to find out more about Mr. Bukele’s rise to power and controversial policy decisions.

Let’s start with some background on Salvadoran history and the biography and candidacy of Mr. Bukele. What was the country like in 2019? Who is Nayib Bukele?
The end of the civil war in El Salvador in 1992 gave rise to great hopes of social transformation and development. A segment of the bourgeoisie, under the Nationalist Republican Alliance—known by its Spanish acronym, Arena—put its faith in neoliberalism and international commerce. Then there was the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front party in favor of democratic socialism. These two ideas of progress, the neoliberal one and the social justice one, spread among the Salvadoran population.

President Bukele enjoys strong popularity at home and in neighboring Central American countries, but his government faces accusations of authoritarianism and corruption. 

But there was no big economic transformation during the 20 years of Arena’s rule, and the frustration of people’s economic hopes over these years led many into crime.

During the war, there had been no gangs in El Salvador. Now gangs began to be born during this era of peace.

The F.M.L.N. was in power for 10 years following Arena, but the F.M.L.N. opted for populist political rhetoric instead of making significant material social improvements. There was as much corruption under the F.M.L.N. as there was under Arena, and people grew frustrated with both parties.

Nayib Bukele emerged out of this context of increasing public disappointment with the main parties. He’s the son of a business executive; he had some progressive ideals. He began his career in politics in the town of Nuevo Cuscatlán, close to the capital, where he served as mayor. There he had some administrative success that drew people’s attention.

In his first year he solved a serious water crisis that had been around for 10 or 15 years. Now everyone has running water in their homes. He left the impression that he was an efficient man who responded to the concrete needs of the people. That success catapulted him into the mayor’s office in San Salvador.

As mayor of San Salvador, Mr. Bukele beautified the historic center of the capital and practically eliminated the risk of violence there, but he ran into a confrontation within his own party, the F.M.L.N., because he was critical of its political corruption.

Mr. Bukele’s decision to accept the digital currency Bitcoin as a national currency alongside the U.S. dollar has been his boldest move.

In 2018, thinking about a presidential bid, Mr. Bukele faced impediments to running under the F.M.L.N. because of that criticism, and Arena sought to block his candidacy altogether. The traditional media were critical of Mr. Bukele, too, since they were affiliated with the two major parties. I believe their resistance to his candidacy made people like him even more.

So he left the F.M.L.N and negotiated a bid for the presidency with G.A.N.A., a far-right party known for its own corrupt practices, and scandal resulted. People said: “Who is he dealing with now? He used to speak of justice and development, but now he’s in bed with the most corrupt party.”

Yet because of people’s frustration with the two, discredited main parties, his eventual electoral triumph was massive.

What were Mr. Bukele’s first few months in office like before the Covid-19 pandemic?
The other parties preserved a majority in the Salvadoran legislative assembly at that time. He only had a few representatives from his small minority party. The legislature was against him, but he pushed back with strong executive power.

His attitude was: “I’m the president, and I can pretty much do what I want.” He also began a confrontation with El Salvador’s constitutional court, which issued rulings undermining his decisions that the president insisted that he could ignore.

Mr. Bukele's actions to confront Covid-19 gave people the impression that he was protecting the population. The pandemic made him politically stronger.

On Feb. 9, 2020, Mr. Bukele entered Congress accompanied by the military and the police. He issued threats against the Assembly, insinuating that he was ready for a “nuclear option” to dissolve Congress.

He sat in the speaker’s chair and said, “I have the button. I can push it when I want, but I am not going to push it now.” People said that he was essentially carrying out a self-coup because of a threat like that, overthrowing the legislature in favor of his executive power. His actions then would have probably drawn more condemnation if it hadn't been for the pandemic, which was the exclusive focus of the media at this crucial time.

How has Mr. Bukele responded to the pandemic? What has been his record so far on human rights?
The government ordered an extended family “lockdown” period, and its response to anyone who broke that confinement was harsh. Mandatory quarantine centers were created for people who violated Covid-19 restrictions, often those who left their homes before they should have. People had to stay in these centers under poor conditions for 30 days. But many people liked this move because it gave the impression that Mr. Bukele was protecting the population. The pandemic made him politically stronger.

He described his opponents as people who wanted Salvadorans to die. He adopted an aggressive tone, and in this culture a man who rules with an iron fist in the face of difficulties looks attractive. He dictated strong measures, but Congress was not doing anything.

The result was a triumph so big in the midterm elections in 2021 that his party ended up with two-thirds of the seats in Congress. He would no longer have to negotiate with other parties; he now had almost absolute power. After this electoral victory, a period of much stronger authoritarianism began that in turn provoked a protest against him. This protest has yet to include a majority of Salvadorans, but it has been growing in recent months.

On the first day of the new Congress, Mr. Bukele’s party deposed the constitutional court, replacing it with the attorney general as the governing authority over all existing legal and constitutional procedures. Once more, many people saw that move as a self-coup.

President Bukele sat in the speaker’s chair and said, “I have the button. I can push it when I want, but I am not going to push it now.” People said that he was essentially carrying out a self-coup.

Since then there’s been a whole series of authoritarian measures. Two officials from Mr. Bukele’s administration moved on to the Supreme Court. He pressed the attorney general’s office to criminally pursue his political opponents. Laws have been passed with little-to-no discussion. Bitcoin was made an official currency alongside the dollar. Judges over 60 years of age must step down, and Mr. Bukele’s administration appoints the replacements. He’s begun to persecute the press.

Mr. Bukele’s “Bitcoin City,” a new Bitcoin-fueled center for finance, commerce and transportation, seeks to rival Wall Street and to accelerate economic development in El Salvador. You’ve said that the project sounds like the “city of the seven deadly sins” because of the pride and greed that envelope it.
The city was initially founded—or better said, it was initially announced, because there’s nothing there yet—with enormous fanfare. There’s a stage. There’s smoke. Suddenly, the president appears. It’s the pride of a power almost deified.

Then there’s greed in the sense that he promises a huge amount of money without creating any jobs. He’s set on multiplying money in the least human way possible. How do you generate value apart from human labor? True wealth is generated by labor, not by speculation. Money multiplied through speculation is just the desire to have money. It’s greed.

Recently, international relations between El Salvador and the United States have deteriorated. What’s happening?
El Salvador under Mr. Bukele and the United States in the times of Trump had a good relationship. Under President Joseph Biden, there have been conflicts from the beginning: conflicts about democratic values, corruption and the freedom of the press.

Mr. Bukele’s provocative style has exacerbated these conflicts. He always responds by attacking, so the conflict always gets bigger.

There was an incident in May 2021 that included not just U.S. officials but the entire diplomatic community in El Salvador. After the suppression of the constitutional court, Mr. Bukele invited the whole diplomatic corps to a confidential meeting in order to explain the reasons why he deposed the court. Nothing was released about this meeting until a few days later, when Mr. Bukele’s government went to a radio and television network and reported a few things that made it look like Mr. Bukele had dominated the assembled ambassadors. This didn’t sit well with the members of the diplomatic corps.

There’s a stage. There’s smoke. Suddenly, President Bukele appears. It’s the pride of a power almost deified.

Mr. Bukele had said, “You, too, in your countries put friends of your administration on the Supreme Court.” This response bothered other nations because, while it may be the case that they look for judicial candidates who have similar thoughts, they have more respect for judicial independence and certainly don’t exert pressure like he did by setting the police on national institutions.

How does Mr. Bukele put religious identity and rhetoric to use?
He frequently refers to God. The strongest reference to God that I heard was after he forcibly entered Congress and said that he had come ready to “solve the problem” with Congress but that God had asked him for patience.

I don’t feel like he has any special religiosity; rather he uses the Word of God transactionally.

You’ve offered a lot of criticism of Bukele’s government. Has he done anything that you approve of?
El Salvador has succeeded in getting 70 percent of its population vaccinated. That’s not bad compared with other countries in the area, including more developed ones. At the start of the pandemic, El Salvador had only 120 mechanical respirators. Now, through donations and purchases, we’ve tripled the number of respirators. In a country with few resources, Mr. Bukele has managed the pandemic well.

He’s also done other things to take advantage of the pandemic to reinforce his popularity. For example, when people get sick, they call a phone number, make it known that they Covid-19 positive and medicine will be sent to their homes.

How should the Salvadoran people respond to the present moment?
In a country like ours that’s been through a civil war, it’s very important to foster dialogue, but it’s difficult under Mr. Bukele because he has an imposing, authoritarian attitude. The present regime governs by force, but force is not the solution—neither “positive force” nor “negative force.”

By positive force, I mean force from governmental authority. By negative force, I mean force from an armed revolution. These expressions of force won’t lead to clear, progressive solutions in the long run.

This interview was edited, condensed and translated from Spanish to English by David Inczauskis, S.J.

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