Mon May 27, 2024
May 27, 2024

El Salvador: Who is Nayib Bukele?

By Daniel Sugasti

As expected, on February 4, Nayib Bukele was re-elected president of El Salvador. At the height of his popularity, the presidential candidate garnered 85% of the votes. The regime’s party, Nuevas Ideas, won 54 of the 60 seats in the Legislative Assembly.

For its part, the fragmented bourgeois opposition received a real beating. The Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA), once representative of the traditional right-wing, which governed the country between 1989 to 2009, received two seats. The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), which ruled the country from 2009 to 2019, received such an electoral punishment that it was left without any seats in Congress.

Thus, Bukele, self-styled “the coolest dictator in the world,” could a priori govern until 2028 with parliamentary superiority. This is undoubtedly bad news for the mass movement and the Salvadoran and Latin American left. Understanding the process and its dynamics is essential.

On March 3, municipal elections were held after the number of seats was reduced from 262 to 44, a precise maneuver used in order to concentrate more control and territorial power. Bukele, once again getting ahead of the electoral tribunal itself, announced an overwhelming victory in which Nuevas Ideas and its satellite parties supposedly won in 43 of the country’s 44 municipalities [1].

Bukele was able to run as a presidential candidate even though six articles of the Salvadoran Constitution prohibit consecutive reelection. Through a controversial ruling by the Constitutional Chamber, a body controlled by him, Bukele was allowed to compete on the condition that he be discharged from office six months earlier.

It is true that, in the context of the hardening of his regime, the State controlled the elections and, according to denunciations, the electoral process was riddled with fraud [2]. This government changed the bourgeois democratic regime, with all its limitations, into a Bonapartist-dictatorial one, although it formally maintained the elections. Since 2019, it has promoted a series of maneuvers to change and definitively subdue the judicial system, parliament, and the Armed Forces. Now, these institutions have a Bonapartist character. This process is similar to what happened in Turkey and Hungary and what Milei intends and Bolsonaro tried to do in Brazil.

It is also clear that Bukele, despite his repressive measures and the dictatorial drift initiated in 2019, has a significant amount of popular support or, at least, a good margin of tolerance by broad sectors of the masses.

The popularity of Bukele’s repressive “model” of “zero tolerance” towards gangs transcends the borders of Central American countries. Unsurprisingly, the leading advocates of the world’s far right are praising him, presenting him as an example of what should be done with criminality and the “preservation of order” in their own countries. Bukele, the millennial president, is a sensation in many countries. The president of Ecuador, Daniel Noboa, has announced the creation of two mega prisons. Several politicians in Peru, Chile, and Argentina, among others, campaigned on the assurance that they would follow in his footsteps. Trump has also supported and encouraged Bukele. The heads of State or ministers who admire him are Milei and Bullrich, the Paraguayan president Santiago Peña, and the Bolsonaro family in Brazil.

But he not only has the backing of the far-right but also so-called “progressive” governments, such as Honduras’ Xiomara Castro and Guatemala’s Bernardo Arévalo.

In a context of economic, political, and social crisis, general uncertainty, rising inflation, unemployment, and street insecurity, it is not unusual to hear: “We need a Bukele.”

For the non-Salvadoran public, it may be helpful to address some questions: Who is Nayib Bukele? How do we explain his rise to power? What contradictions will he face during his second term?

The Bourgeois Son who Integrated into the FMLN

Bukele was born in 1981 in a “cradle of gold.” He is the son of the rich and influential businessman Armando Bukele Kattán, of Palestinian descent. Bukele owns textile industries, commercial, pharmaceutical, and advertising firms, as well as the press.

Kattán built his fortune through an association with the State, through which he enjoyed a series of privileges, such as tax exemptions on the importation of machinery and raw materials, which was granted by different local authorities in the 1970s.

Nayib studied at the Panamerican School, from which he graduated in 1999. It is a bilingual school exclusively for the wealthy, where he began to create ties with the current strong names of the regime.

Before entering politics, Nayib Bukele held management positions in his father’s companies, mainly in advertising agencies and a passport manufacturing company. He was also president of the country’s Yamaha Motors distributorship.

One fact that may come as a surprise now is that he did business with the FMLN for a long time, which is considered the main leftist force. He would later become one of its candidates. For 12 years, his family’s publicity companies were in charge of the FMLN’s political propaganda. In 2004, through his father’s contacts, the young Bukele was hired to carry out the advertising campaign for the presidential candidacy of Schafik Hándal, also known as “Comandante Simón.” Handal is a historical leader of the Salvadoran Communist Party and the FMLN.

In 2011, Bukele became affiliated with the FMLN. He was elected mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán (2012-2015). In the following period, he was elected mayor of the capital, San Salvador (2015-2018), on behalf of a coalition led by the FMLN.

In 2017, however, after several internal conflicts, Bukele forced his own expulsion from the party by the FMLN Ethics Tribunal. It is worth noting that, as mayor of the capital’s municipality, the ambitious politician frequently sought the spotlight and political autonomy, even criticizing leaders of his party.

The conservative ARENA, which governed the country for 20 years, and the FMLN, which did the same for a decade, had become highly discredited in the eyes of the masses. While Bukele was considered in 2017 to be the FMLN’s presidential candidate, he may have sensed that wear and tear and made his way by openly questioning the former FMLN presidents, Mauricio Funes and Salvador Sánchez Cerén, who was currently in office.

In October 2017, in the context of a rising global right-wing encouraged by Trump’s presidency, Bukele announced the formation of the Nuevas Ideas movement with an “anti-system” discourse. To get the traditional parties ”out of where they are” and “change the political system with which we are all fed up,” among other slogans. Since he could not compete through Nuevas Ideas, he registered his candidacy for the Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional (GANA) party, a small and highly questioned party of the traditional right.

President in 2019

In February 2019, he was elected president with a resounding 53% of the votes, eliminating the need for a second round. ARENA obtained 32% of the vote, and the FMLN only received 14.4% of the electorate. This result presented a historic break in the political situation since the signing of the Peace Accords in 1992.

In May 2019, he began unconventionally naming his future ministers through his Twitter account, claiming to be looking for people without a “dark past” and avoiding the “recycling of civil servants.” Although cynical, the “anti-corruption” profile he intended to show was evident.

He began his government by announcing a rapprochement with the U.S. Among other measures, he ended the Social Action Secretariat and other emblematic projects of the FMLN by cutting budgets for support to women, youth, and other areas linked to welfare. Through Twitter, he fired close to 3,000 previous government officials, among them relatives of the former president and the FMLN leadership, while appointing his half-brother and uncle to important positions.

The political direction and profile that now distinguishes him became evident in 2020.

On February 9, 2020, Bukele interrupted the Legislative Assembly session surrounded by military personnel. The parliamentarians had denied a $109 million loan to strengthen the police and combat gangs. Bukele sat on the Assembly’s president chair, said a prayer, and called for a “popular insurrection.” The opposition denounced the attempt as intimidation and called this posture a “self-coup.” Not even during the previous dictatorship did the army enter parliament. Subsequent polls reflected that Bukele’s popularity had grown.

In the February 2021 legislative elections, the New Ideas party finally obtained a majority in the Legislative Assembly. In May, it allied with three other conservative parties to gain control of two-thirds of the 2021-24 legislature. The opposition was reduced to 20 deputies out of 60 seats.

“War on Gangs”

In 2019, Bukele announced the “Territory Control Plan,” a large-scale repressive scheme. Soon after, according to him, El Salvador’s intentional homicide rate had dropped from 52 murders per 100,000 people in 2018 – the highest in the world at the time – to 36 in 2019.

In his first year in office, there was a pact between the government and the gangs. These criminal groups, very powerful economically and militarily, plague the population. Extortion payments represented 3% of GDP, and the annual cost of violence was 16%, which is an immense figure.

In March 2022, the pact was broken, and the country suffered a wave of murders and violence in the streets. March 26 was the deadliest day in Salvadoran history since the end of the civil war, with 62 murders.

On March 27, at Bukele’s request, the government-controlled Legislative Assembly approved the State of Exception. It eliminates a series of democratic and individual liberties and grants discretionary powers to repressive forces. The State of Exception has been extended 23 times. Bukele then officially declared  a “war on  gangs,” the “Maras,” especially Mara Salvatrucha, Mara Barrio 18, and Mara Mao Mao[3].

In April 2020, Bukele authorized the use of “lethal force.” Congress proceeded to reform the Penal and Procedural Code to criminalize gang members with sentences of up to 20 years in prison and 40 to 45 years for gang leaders

In the last two years, the regime has taken on increasingly dictatorial features. In practice, gang violence was replaced by the permanent and treacherous violence of the State. In other words, Bukele imposed State terror.

Under the banner of a “war on gangs,” more than 75,000 alleged gang members were imprisoned, almost all without any due process or basic individual liberties. Police and military roam the streets, using and abusing special powers. Bukele, however, boasts that the “margin of error” for arrests is 1%. Today, El Salvador has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Several human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have denounced abuses during the exception regime.

They have documented torture, arbitrary detentions – a boy with Down’s syndrome – as well as nearly 220 suspicious deaths in custody. Lawyers and relatives of prisoners report that they have no contact with them and that they have been subjected to secret trials.

A year ago, the Terrorism Confinement Center of El Salvador (CECOT) was inaugurated, a maximum-security mega-prison, the pride of Bukele, which houses a large but unknown number of alleged “terrorists.”

No sunlight enters the place. Prisoners leave their cells only 30 minutes a day in shackles. They cannot receive visitors or phone calls. There are two toilets per cellblock. Sentences are up to 700 years. The dictatorship’s propaganda constantly resorts to images of the CECOT, such as the impressive scenes of hundreds of prisoners sitting with their hands on their shaved heads, as a sign of submission to the established order.

The dictatorial onslaught is total. As denounced by the Working Class Platform section of IWL in the country: “…the role of the army in daily life is more and more present, and the persecution and criminalization of dissidence is real with dozens of social, union and popular leaders imprisoned, and even some who have lost their lives in the hands of the State” [4].

At first, the “war on gangs” showed positive results. The government claims, without allowing access to details or rigorous verification, that the homicide rate dropped from 38 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2019 to 2.4 in 2023. Being one of the most violent countries in the world, there is a momentary improvement in the population’s sense of security, which is the base of Bukele’s popularity.

At the same time, the dictatorship is trying to change El Salvador’s image by hosting major events, such as Miss Universe or a friendly match between its national team and Inter Miami on which Lionel Messi plays. In fact, Messi was photographed shaking the dictator’s hand. The flow of international tourists has increased by 40%.

However, the “war on gangs” raises many questions: What is the real scope of this security policy, which has become the government’s showcase. How long will the apparent “honeymoon” of broad sectors of the masses with Bukele last?

A Policy Destined to Fail

Beyond the conservative discourse, experience in many countries has shown that the “Heavy-handed” policies against common or organized crime, which are based solely on showy police or military operations, thousands of arrests, etc., fail sooner or later.

The suppression of human rights, individual guarantees, and mass incarceration may improve the climate of urban insecurity at first, but it is incapable of solving the root of the problem.

The reason for this is that crime and organized gangs, in this case, the Maras, are a product of misery, unemployment, brutalization, and the absolute lack of prospects for a better life, especially for the youth.

The Maras and gangs, which extort and intimidate the working class, are the result of the deteriorating social fabric caused by the impoverishment of millions of people under peripheral capitalism in our countries. This is the breeding ground for the lumpenization of huge contingents of society, from which the cartels and gangs dedicated to drug trafficking, arms, kidnapping, human trafficking, extortion, etc., feed. In many cases, young people recruited by gangs feel they have nothing to lose. On the contrary, they risk their lives with the illusion of being able to improve their lives and those of their families.

The shocking number of emigrants is proof of the country’s social decomposition. According to UN data, El Salvador has 1,599,058 emigrants, representing 25.41% of its population [5]. Of this contingent, 88% head to the USA. Between May and October 2023, the U.S. detained 98 migrants from El Salvador every day [6]. Working from abroad allows Salvadorans to send remittances, between 300 and 500 dollars, which are indispensable to many families.

Suppose we add inflation to this historical problem, unemployment, internal uprooting due to extractivism, external uprooting due to migration, and the just disappointment of the masses with the institutions of bourgeois democracy combined with the betrayal of the FMLN and other so-called leftist parties. It is not difficult to understand, first, the power of the Maras and, second, that broad sectors of the masses sympathize with the “iron hand” of Bukele. “They are all the same,” and the absence of an organized alternative rooted in the working class opens space for skepticism and support for supposed “saviors of the homeland.”

Bukele’s popularity will not last forever. It may crumble as fast as it grows as society’s expectations go beyond street security, which is a smokescreen. The weight of socio-economic hardship will reappear with force. Bukele, like other Latin American rulers, is sitting on a sleeping volcano.

Surveys show that in 2019, the widespread problems were insecurity and gang crime. In 2023, the main concerns are the economy (70%), unemployment, and the high cost of living. A survey conducted by the University Institute of Public Opinion of the Central American University José Simeón Cañas (UCA) found that crime (4.6%) and the exception regime (1%) are already considered secondary problems. The mood of the masses may turn around.

According to the IMF, in 2023, El Salvador grew 2.2%, the lowest in Central America. With 6.3 million inhabitants, almost 900,000 people are in a food “emergency” situation, and the country is on the verge of famine.

Poverty is 29%, and extreme poverty is 9% of the local population [7]. In 2023, an official report from the Ministry of Health revealed that 213 people had died from severe and moderate malnutrition in the last four years.

The cost of living is eating away at low wages. The minimum wage, $300, does not cover the basic food costs which are $450 or more. The money is not enough, and this is for those who have a salary. According to the UN, informal work affects about 70% of the working class. Millions lack a fixed salary, social security, and social benefits. In the meager formal sector, 60% of Salvadoran pension contributors can’t complete their pension payments [8].

According to the recent Household Survey( Encuesta de Hogares de Propósitos Múltiples 2022  or EHPM), conducted by the Central Reserve Bank (CRB), 38% of working-age Salvadorans are not looking for work or are unemployed, while the unemployment rate among youth ages 16 – 24 reached 11.8% [9].

This dramatic context not only explains the recruitment of youth by gangs, it’s clear that, without solving the structural and historical problems of the Salvadoran economy and society, there will be no “iron hand” or “messiah” that will bring better days to the working class.

The basis for the emergence and proliferation of gangs and other expressions of organized crime is peripheral and dependent capitalism, as in the case of El Salvador.

It is impossible to end this plague with the stroke of a pen or with state repression alone. History presents examples of how Bukele’s “model,” or that of the Brazilian far right “A nice bandit is a dead bandit,” failed in Mexico and Brazil. Inspired by the state fight against drug trafficking in Colombia, Brazil’s Pacifying Police Units militarized the favelas of Rio de Janeiro in 2008; killing black and poor youth and imposing a state siege on the population. At first, the number of murders decreased. But, in the medium term, without any solution to the serious social problems, urban violence and the actions of old and new trafficking factions even gained strength.

Bukele has imprisoned 2% of the population in less than two years. This may pay off in electoral marketing, but it is a politics with clear limits. Without combating the pauperization of society, it is worth asking how far he intends to go? How many more will he put in prison? How many more will the State kill? There are not enough prisons to hide the social evils generated by an exploitative, unjust, dehumanizing, and corrupt system that is capitalism.

As the PCC states, “Bukele represents a bourgeoisie interested in plundering and exhausting the resources of the State, not having the slightest interest in improving the quality of life and combating the poverty that afflicts many Salvadorans” [10]. The working class cannot place any confidence in him and his repressive policy, which is dictatorial towards the poor but submissive to imperialism.

The opposition is not an alternative either: “Both ARENA and FMLN are guilty of what is happening today with the dismantling of democracy that the dictatorial regime has undertaken and are the forefathers of the spawn that Bukele is today” [11].

The working class must rely solely on its strength, organization, and methods.

The situation is not easy. There are no real political alternatives that are working class, socialist and revolutionary. The wear of the traditional parties will give rise to nefarious experiments like that of Bukele. “The people have tried different options in the last 40 years and have not seen their problems solved. However, at present, there is no alternative for the Salvadoran people. That is why the emergence of an option from the workers and the people is needed; they must not forget that only the worker saves the worker, that only the people save the people, and that we must only trust in our own strengths; it is urgent we build our own political instrument” [12].

In El Salvador, where a dictatorship reigns, it is necessary to combine democratic tasks, beginning with the slogan “Down with the Bukele dictatorship!” We must also combine this with the patient explanation of the need for the current or potential workers’, peasants’, and popular mobilizations, not to stop there, but to advance until this system and this regime are overcome. We must continue until the working class seizes power and constructs of socialism, on a national and international scale. That must be the strategic vision of every struggle, even when it seems to be a “one off.”

The struggle against the dictatorship, corruption, repression, the State of Exception, the abuses of the military and police, electoral fraud, hunger, unemployment, the social decomposition from which the gangs feed, propelling emigration, must be at the service of a class policy, with a revolutionary perspective and directed against the peripheral capitalism dependent on imperialism that reigns in El Salvador and Latin America. For this, we need the construction and strengthening of the revolutionary Trotskyist party is an indispensable condition. Let’s build that tool!

[1]Consult:

[2] Consult: https://litci.org/es/el-salvador-nulidad-y-repeticion-de-las-elecciones-legislativas/

[3] Las maras en El Salvador son un subproducto de la guerra y el fin de la guerra. Fueron los pandilleros deportados de Los Ángeles, EEUU, que instauraron las maras en medio de una sociedad destruida y con la aplicación a tope de las privatizaciones a tope. En ese caldo florecieron. A eso se suma la oleada migratoria que dejó a miles de jóvenes sin padres, ni madres o alguien a cargo suyo.

[4] Consult: https://litci.org/es/voto-critico-contra-bukele-sin-apoyo-politico-a-la-oposicion/

[5] Consult: https://datosmacro.expansion.com/demografia/migracion/emigracion/el-salvador

[6] Consult: https://www.elsalvador.com/noticias/nacional/el-salvador-estados-unidos-eeuu-migrantes/1111361/2023/

[7] Consult: https://www.prensalatina.com.br/2023/11/25/a-pobreza-extrema-aumenta-em-el-salvador/

[8] Consult: https://www.eleconomista.net/actualidad/Crece-el-empleo-informal-en-Latinoamerica-20231220-0004.html

[9] Consult: https://www.elsalvador.com/noticias/negocios/trabajo-oit-ministro-de-y-prevision-social-empleo-desempleo-encuesta-poblacion-activa-encuestas-bcr/1053011/2023/

[10] Consult: https://litci.org/es/el-salvador-nulidad-y-repeticion-de-las-elecciones-legislativas/

[11] Idem.

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