Nayib Bukele, El Salvador’s charismatic young president, brings plenty of social-media savvy, and a strong hand that has produced a noticeable drop in the country’s ongoing wave of violent crime.
Yet the millennial, Palestinian-descended businessman, who has an 80 percent approval rating, is facing condemnation for his “rising authoritarianism.”
At issue is a February 9 event, since called 9F by regional media, in which the president showed up on the floor of the national legislature flanked by an escort of armed soldiers and police officers.
The incident was intended to pressure lawmakers into supporting Bukele’s request for a $109 million loan to fund the military and police.
But for outraged politicians on the left and the right, it brought back bitter memories of El Salvador’s long and bloody civil war, which produced ongoing atrocities against civilians and cost the nation 75,000 lives.
A former member of the FMLN, the country’s major leftist political party, Bukele, 38, is now a fan of President Trump and a member of a small centrist party with an anti-corruption agenda.
He is also opposed to amnesties for war crimes committed during the war in the 1980s by the extreme-right government of the ARENA political party in its battle against the communist uprising of the FMLN rebels.
Yet despite the 1992 peace accords between the two antagonists, El Salvador became one of the world’s most violent countries, as criminal gangs became a widespread presence on the street and in communities.
Presidents on the political left and right were unable to get a handle on the crisis of violence, which had peaked by the mid-2010s.
Bukele was elected in 2019 on a pledge to get tough on crime, and in recent months, the crackdown appears to be paying off.
The country experienced its first day without a recorded homicide in many years, and February 2020 saw homicide levels dip to a new low.
Although the recent assassination of a member of the military was a setback, overall, Bukele remains a popular figure on the streets.
Vendors, for example, appreciate the fact that they no longer have to pay protection money to gangs just to stay in business.
Yet for lawmakers, the president’s armed escort in the legislature building is a clear and very serious violation of the 1992 peace accords.
Even the United States, a close ally of the Bukele government, criticized the show of force.
Bukele claims that he brought armed forces into the legislature in order to protect the lawmakers from protestors outside.
Yet those protestors were also the president’s supporters, and prior to entering the building, he gave a fiery speech denouncing members of both the FMLN and ARENA parties as “shameless” and “criminals,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
Power and personality
Bukele’s cult of personality and arguably authoritarian approach is bolstered by his 1.3 million followers on Twitter.
In a country with a population of 6.5 million, that’s a lot of retweets.
The president showers scorn on both his old party and on ARENA, most recently for the legislature’s passage of a new amnesty and reconciliation law.
Yet the law, if enacted, would mean that perpetrators of atrocities in the 1980s — including some of the lawmakers that passed the bill — might never have to answer for their crimes.
A press release from the president’s office stated that the law is “a disguised amnesty” that “does not provide guarantees” for actual “truth, reparation, and justice.”
Since the incident, El Salvador’s Supreme Court has ordered Bukele to dial down the militarism, which he has agreed to do.
And lawmakers, despite the presence of Bukele’s troops in the legislature, ended up putting aside the loan request for the time being.