Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

What Will Bukele’s Second Term Mean for El Salvador?

Nayib Bukele and Gabriela Rodríguez de Bukele Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele and his wife, Gabriela Rodríguez de Bukele, celebrated his re-election victory on Sunday night. The president spoke to supporters from the National Palace. // Photo: Facebook Page of Nayib Bukele.

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele was re-elected Sunday in a landslide, garnering 83 percent of the vote, according to provisional results. Critics have said that Bukele’s run for immediate re-election violated the constitution and that his security crackdown has led to human rights violations. However, his fight against gangs has also led to a dramatic decline in the homicide rate and has won him strong support in El Salvador. What did Sunday’s results and voter turnout mean for Bukele and for the country’s direction? What policies can Salvadorans expect from Bukele during his second term? To what extent will the results inspire leaders of other countries to pursue similar security policies?

Leonor Arteaga, program director at the Due Process of Law Foundation: “Bukele declared victory before official results were announced, claiming to have won over 85 percent of the vote—a margin so large that the country comes close to being a one-party state. His consecutive re-election not only ‘normalizes’ a president staying in power despite legal prohibition; it also signals, dangerously, that combating crime while having no due process or judicial independence, negotiating with organized criminal groups and systematically using torture on people being held without trial are acceptable ways of governing. We will likely see increased media discourse stigmatizing the work of human rights defenders and vilifying those who seek government transparency, harassment of independent journalists and those voicing dissent, and concealment and manipulation of public information —all keystones of a country with no democratic rule of law. In El Salvador, the picture is frightening. The government and security forces are rapidly accruing power while Salvadorans are stripped of rights, protections and freedoms. Rather than resulting in a stronger government, these changes create a system easily manipulated by a few individuals. Today, Bukele and the nation’s focus is on gangs. But who will it be on tomorrow?”

Peter Hakim, member of the Advisor board and president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue: “There is no question that President Bukele has made life better for the great majority of El Salvador’s citizens. The proof is the election result, which gave Bukele 83 percent of the vote for a second term. In just four years, he has succeeded in ending the security nightmare confronting Salvadorans, who had been subjected to a reign of terror: sexual abuse, homicides, extortion and other horrors. El Salvador is now a peaceful country. This was an extremely rare accomplishment in Latin America. But it was only achieved by massive violations of basic human rights, judicial standards and the rule of law. The victims are the large numbers of Salvadoran youths arrested and imprisoned on little or no evidence and with little prospect of a fair trial or minimally humane treatment. While a few nations are considering the adoption of similar measures in the interests of security and safety, human rights advocates along with many democratic governments across the globe have forcefully and persistently condemned Bukele’s approach. Still, the central question remains without an answer. Is there is an effective alternative? Could the hellish situation of El Salvador have been remedied without massive arrests and jailings? What can and should countries overwhelmed by the ravages of vicious gangs do to control the gangs and end their destruction? At this point the only choice seems to be either the government’s expansive disregard for human rights or the population as a whole suffering the continued destruction of their livelihoods and lives.”

Beatrice Rangel, member of the Advisor board and director of AMLA Consulting in Miami Beach: “As much as I would love to see a Latin America characterized by liberal democracies, the truth is that the region is not ready to achieve such a feat. Election results in El Salvador attest to the state of the region. For over 30 years, democratic rules were followed in the country. And for over 30 years, the living conditions of most of the population deteriorated to where people were subject to self-imprisonment in order to preserve their lives. Income per capita during this time grew between 4.3 percent and 5.2 percent. Inequality progressed and so did migration outflows. Over this period, the country was run by either the party representing the interests of the economic groups or former guerrilla leaders. None seemed to have answers to the people’s plea for security, economic advancement or improved public services. This despite having the benefit of being party to a free trade agreement with the United States. In comes Bukele, who takes care of the security concerns. The people’s response has been astounding simply because they feel he is working for them. Bukele, however, does not seem to care much about rule of law, constitutional acuity and prisoners’ human rights. And the people are ready to overlook this flaw as long as they feel their interests are taken care of by his administration. It remains to be seen whether Bukele will seek to remain in office indefinitely. This would make him a dictator—effective as a public manager but an elected dictator, nonetheless.”

Douglas Farah, president of IBI Consultants: “Nayib Bukele’s landslide victory signals the consolidation of Latin America’s latest ideologically agnostic dictatorships, and his model closely follows the playbook of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, who was once popular. Bukele’s vice president explicitly acknowledged that Bukele’s goal was to eliminate democracy. Bukele’s re-election, powered by a massive and dominant social media propaganda and disinformation machine, was unconstitutional. His anti-gang strategy’s main component is negotiating pacts with the gangs to keep homicide rates low in exchange for financial benefits. He has incarcerated more than 75,000 people, and human rights groups estimate that less than 20 percent could be gang members. He has staged joint mass trials of up to 900 people while denying all due process. He has named tainted Supreme Court magistrates and an attorney general illegally. He has allowed harassment of independent media and human rights groups and has maintained complete opacity on government operations and spending, enabling massive corruption. These are all harbingers of policies that will accelerate in his second term. While the trade-off of security for democratic governance is popular now, it is not a sustainable model and it will lead to further repression. Daniel Ortega has shown that repression drives mass irregular migration, and unfettered power inevitably leads to criminalizing all opposition. Unfortunately, until the model collapses, it will be attractive to leaders across the hemisphere who are dealing with the intractable problems of citizen insecurity and violence. History shows that dictatorships end badly, and Bukele’s attractiveness as a modern-day caudillo will fade. But that will not happen before El Salvador’s democratic institutions are in ruins.”

Mneesha Gellman, associate professor of political science at Emerson College: “El Salvador’s presidential election results were predictable. After decades of gang domination, voters were willing to accept gross human rights violations in exchange for increased security for some. Votes for Bukele confirmed Salvadorans’ willingness to maintain the state of exception, which is likely to continue indefinitely and has already established authoritarian rule. The façade of democracy has fallen in El Salvador. Like Ursula LeGuin’s fictional story, ‘The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas,’ where one child is tortured in secret in order to maintain the happiness of everyone else in Omelas, more than 75,000 people are detained in El Salvador without the benefit of constitutional protections, and only a handful of detractors are willing to, in LeGuin’s language, walk away from Omelas and signal their dissent. Others stay quiet, either out of appreciation for Bukele’s policies or out of fear of being denounced themselves for voicing opposition. Countries like Ecuador are already citing El Salvador as a model, and it may be that El Salvador heralds the model for Latin America’s next authoritarian wave.”

Tiziano Breda, associate analysis coordinator for Latin America at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project: “The results of El Salvador’s elections are the chronicle of a landslide victory foretold. On the one hand, they have to do with Bukele’s unwavering popularity, boosted by undisputable results in the security realm, having shepherded the country from one of the most violent in the world to one with a murder rate comparable to many European countries. On the other, they are related to his government’s gerrymandering in reducing the number of legislative seats and municipalities and channeling the vote of the diaspora in the San Salvador district. For his part, Bukele’s speech on election day, before electoral authorities had announced any preliminary results, offered hints about what to expect in terms of ruling style and very little in terms of government plans. Bukele just merely said ‘wait and see what we are going to do’. For now, the combination of results and popular support will likely keep nurturing the appeal of Bukele’s methods elsewhere in the region. But the extent to which they are going to be mimicked will depend on his ability to sustain these results in the medium run, find alternatives to maintaining a perpetual state of exception, the continuous deterioration of security in other countries and the lack of an alternative security model that yields similar results without resorting to jailing 2 percent of a country’s population. Furthermore, elections in Paraguay, Guatemala, Ecuador and Argentina have shown that offers to replicate Bukele’s model are insufficient to win elections alone, and that concentration of power is a precondition, not a consequence, to be able to do so.”

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