New Leadership in El Salvador: Breaking from the Past?

By Eric Hershberg*

U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein meets with El Salvador’s newly elected President Nayib Bukele

U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein meets with El Salvador’s newly elected President Nayib Bukele / Joint Base San Antonio / Public Domain

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s stunning defeat of both of his country’s two dominant parties in February was propelled by promises of change and new approaches to challenges that vexed his predecessors. His initial six weeks in office have featured notable gestures toward fresh directions but also grounds for concern. The country’s problems are many and severe. Decades of paltry private investment has produced anemic economic growth, worsened in recent years by a devastating internal security situation. The limited economic growth that has occurred relies disproportionately on remittances from migrants – the value of which exceeds that of exports – but the circumstances of Salvadorans in the United States are growing more precarious, potentially eroding future transfers. In addition, plausible shifts in trade policy by an erratic U.S. administration could undermine the U.S.-CAFTA-DR trade agreement, threatening critical manufacturing jobs. Corruption, meanwhile, is perceived by the population as no less urgent a challenge as joblessness and impunity for the gangs whose extortion and violence torment much of the population.

Bukele’s winning campaign formula was to promise to turn things around with a new vision and new people. One important signal of change was the President’s order to immediately remove the big block letters “Monterrosa” from the barracks of the armed forces 3rd brigade, in San Miguel, and his hosting a dinner at the Presidential residence for family of the victims of the El Mozote massacre that Lt. Col. Monterrosa had overseen. A handful of initial cabinet appointments signaled an inclination toward meritocracy and gender balance. Yet Bukele has more recently appointed to key positions dodgy veterans of the administration of former President Tony Saca (2004-09), who split (and was later expelled from) his ARENA Party to form a new party, GANA. While Saca is serving a 10-year prison sentence for corruption, Bukele, who was expelled from the FMLN in 2017 and thus lacked a vehicle of his own with which to seek the presidency, opted to run on the vacant GANA ticket. The appearance of figures from Saca’s inner circle is thus not entirely a surprise, but it stands out given the degree that Bukele’s largely platform-less campaign highlighted the battle against corruption.

  • One of his pledges was to create a hybrid (national-international) anti-corruption commission – adapted from the experiences of CICIG in Guatemala and MACCIH in Honduras – to hold accountable political elites suspected of extraordinary levels of malfeasance. Yet both domestic and external constraints make such an effort less likely than Bukele might have imagined while on the campaign trail, and the Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en El Salvador (CICIES) seems to have been relegated to a back burner.
  • Equally striking is the new President’s doubling down on militarized responses to gang violence, departing from both his campaign rhetoric and his mode of governance as mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán (2012-15) and San Salvador (2015-18). Whereas he had entered into pragmatic if unspoken accommodations with the gangs in order to secure governability at the municipal level, he’s now declaring all-out war against the maras, sending the military into gang-ridden communities and clamping down on communication from the prisons from which gang leaders continue to direct operations. During the first week of July – a month after assuming office – he asserted that repression was but the first phase of a comprehensive anti-gang strategy, promising a second phase, focused on social opportunity, that would address the structural factors that draw youth toward lives of criminal violence. But details remain thin, and whether funds will be appropriated by a legislature in which GANA has only a small minority of seats remains to be seen.

Bukele represents El Salvador’s first Instagram and Twitter president – with a penchant for announcing sweeping personnel changes without having informed affected staff in advance. His recourse to social media for proclaiming “you’re fired” aligns him with other western hemisphere presidents eschewing traditional channels of communication with public employees and the citizenry, but in El Salvador as elsewhere this justifies concern over how governance through a cacophony of tweets may affect the quality of democracy.

Meanwhile, the new president has wisely emphasized that cordial relations with the United States are an imperative for his government. More than a third of his compatriots reside there, and he has already taken steps to gain Washington’s blessing for his administration. At U.S. urging, he invited the representative of Venezuelan assembly president Juan Guaidó to his inaugural, and when a Salvadoran father and daughter drowned in the Rio Grande, Bukele exonerated President Trump’s border policies, saying “La culpa es nuestra.” Nonethelesss, he has been critical not only of Venezuelan dictators who Washington abhors but also Honduran ones who the Americans enable. Meanwhile, observers in San Salvador opine that, contrary to Washington’s wishes, he will not reverse his FMLN predecessor’s decision to deepen relations with China – he needs Chinese investment and recent history offers little reason for expecting analogous resources to arrive from the U.S. Finding the money needed to provide jobs, security and social welfare to the vast majority of Salvadorans who have lacked them may prove as vexing for the outsider president as it was for leaders of the dominant parties of the post-war period.

July 16, 2019

* Eric Hershberg is Professor of Government and Director of CLALS at American University. He took part in a delegation of AU experts for a weeklong visit to El Salvador in June, during which they met with political leaders across the political spectrum, as well as leading journalists, scholars, NGO leaders, policymakers and diplomats.

Leave a comment

1 Comment

  1. This is very interesting, friend

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: