El Salvador: How Much has COVID-19 Hurt President Bukele?

By Héctor Silva Ávalos*

President of El Salvador Nayib Bukele

President of El Salvador Nayib Bukele/ Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons License/ Official Photography from the Presidential House of El Salvador

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele – Latin America’s most popular leader one year into his presidency– has raised concerns about his Administration because of his authoritarian approach to governing and managing the COVID‑19 pandemic. He won kudos for his strong and early effort to stem the spread of the virus, scoring a 95 percent favorable rating in a recent La Prensa Gráfica poll. But the resulting economic downturn – and his obvious frustration at the need to engage in political give-and-take as he tries to respond – are fragmenting his alliances and highlighting his Administration’s weaknesses.

  • The anti-COVID measures that Bukele instituted back in March were among the first and most bold in Central America, winning him strong domestic and international praise. He closed airports and public schools, enforced isolation-in-place, and ramped up government assistance to hospitals and vulnerable citizens. As remittances from abroad to families in El Salvador nose-dived, a sustainable aid program became even more important.

The crisis has brought to light some of the President’s weaknesses as a manager and leader, however, and how he has compensated with increasingly authoritarian measures, such as a move to augment spending without Congressional approval, that have alienated many. In social media, he has cyber-bullied opponents, and critics report an increase in harassment by government authorities over taxes, labor practices, and other regulatory issues. He has pushed away former political allies in the country’s two strongest parties – ARENA and the FMLN – and thereby reduced his mobilizational capacity in both San Salvador and the departments. The President had resorted to such tactics even before COVID‑19 – he directed heavily armed police and soldiers to occupy the National Legislature back in February during a confrontation over budget issues – but the pandemic has sparked an escalation.

  • As the scope of the pandemic has hit home since March, Bukele has taken actions that, although conceivably attracting popular support, have drawn strong pushback. The Supreme Court overruled his attempt two weeks ago to unilaterally extend emergency measures that would allow him to continue unchecked public spending to deal with the pandemic. The Attorney General is also investigating whether actions by the President and senior staff amounted to criminal behavior.
  • Public protests have begun in forms appropriate for the age of social distancing – cacerolazos, car honking, protest music, and other signs of anger. International human rights groups have also begun expressing concern about the implications of the government’s rough enforcement of pandemic measures. Bukele directed police to be harsh against and detain individuals perceived as violating quarantine, even as they ventured out in search of food for their families. Amnesty International and others have criticized “arbitrary detentions and excessive use of force,” and Human Rights Watch has criticized Bukele’s “flagrant disregard of the role of the Supreme Court” and called on the Organization of American States (OAS), which has remained silent, to “push Bukele to respect the rule of law.”

El Salvador is now nearing one hundred COVID cases per day, and the public health system is pushed to the limits. The economy, which has already ground to a halt, almost certainly is sustaining long-term damage that will prove increasingly costly politically for Bukele. While his personal popularity has held so far, his honeymoon with the economic and political sectors upon whom he depends to move forward ended months ago and – short of a drastic overhaul in his approach – he seems likely to continue facing a number of challenges. In his most recent move, he got into a fight with Congress when the legislative body rejected his request to postpone the state of the union address scheduled for June 1. His staff keeps struggling with ARENA and the FMLN in Congress to pass one last amendment that would allow him 15 more days of unchecked spending to deal with COVID‑19.

  • The pandemic has laid bare a number of social, economic, and institutional problems about which Bukele could push a broad national debate aimed at driving reforms. Popular distaste for the business elites as well as ARENA and the FMLN give him space for such a venture. But, at least as evidenced in recent months, his concerns about his personal power seem likely to preclude any such initiative.
  • U.S. support for Bukele has been crucial and shows no sign of abating in the immediate term. But growing human rights concerns beyond the Administration of President Donald Trump, including among Members of the U.S. Congress, if not addressed, will become a liability.

May 29, 2020

* Héctor Silva Ávalos is a senior researcher and editor at InSight Crime and former CLALS fellow.

 

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1 Comment

  1. Estela Henriquez

     /  June 2, 2020

    Más parece un deseo del periodista, esa no es la realidad .A pesar de su natural Fra nqueza e impulsividad com joven sin dobleses ha hecho lo que se tenía que hacer nuestro presidente legal dado más valor ala vida ,la salud,al bienestar social de los Salvadoreños . Que les cuesta hacer un pequeño esfuerzo a los empresarios,no ganan más dinero pero tampoco pierden?

    Reply

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