Democracy Under Siege: The Region’s Reaction to Bukele

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photo of panelists in El Salvador event CESCOS

In El Salvador, the government of Nayib Bukele has posed a significant challenge to democracy in the region. His security policies, which have yielded positive results in reducing insecurity rates, have led to serious abuses and were made possible through prior measures that concentrated the power in the executive branch. These policies have also boosted the popularity of the Salvadoran president. This highlights the need to promote democratic and effective alternatives to address insecurity in the region. 

The Inter-American Dialogue, along with CESCOS (Center for the Study of Contemporary Open Societies) and the University ORT in Uruguay, hosted an event to analyze the popularity of President Bukele despite allegations of abuses committed in the context of the state of exception adopted in the country, the impact of punitive security policies on the rule of law, attempts to export Bukele's model to the region, and alternative strategies to counter abusive security policies. 

Tamara Taraciuk Broner, director of the Rule of Law Program at the Inter-American Dialogue, analyzed the democratic context in the region, the current situation in El Salvador, and the challenges posed by the Bukele government's success in addressing insecurity. She pointed out that there are three categories in the region: dictatorships, authoritarian governments arising from democratic elections, and fragmented or fragile democracies. She detailed how Bukele consolidated his power and control over democratic institutions and compared his government to that of former President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, arguing that Bukele achieved the same level of power concentration as Chávez in a much shorter period. Despite controversies and abuses, Bukele maintains his enormous popularity due to results in reducing violence and his effective communications strategy. Taraciuk Broner emphasized the importance of seeking long-term democratic solutions rather than exclusively focusing on short-term punitive options. 

Nicolás Saldías, analyst from the Economist Intelligence Unit, addressed the relationship between the Bukele government and democracy. He highlighted that, according to Latinobarómetro data, democratic satisfaction in El Salvador is high, suggesting a paradox in which, despite institutional weaknesses, Bukele enjoys strong popular support. He recalled that Bukele's rise to power was not sudden but represented a rupture in the Salvadoran political system. He highlighted that Bukele signifies a break from the Salvadoran political system, pointing to a more extensive deterioration of political parties in Latin America. He referred, for example, to parallels with Javier Milei in Argentina, where a crisis of the party system exists, and to former President Donald Trump, who co-opted an existing party. Saldías also analyzed the role of social media in current politics and highlighted President Bukele's large number of followers. He also warned of the growing authoritarian trend in the Bukele government, which, he argued, raises questions about the future of democracy in the region. 

During the Q&A period, roundtable participants discussed the role of independent press, the crisis of liberal democracy failing to address people’s needs, the rise of "outsiders" in the region, and the links between politicians and criminal groups, among other issues. 


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