Celebrate the Facts!
El Salvador, ravaged by proxy wars during the 1980s, struggled to grow economic and democratic institutions in the time since with some success but a new populist President and threatens to return the governance of El Salvador to autocratic rule. Trump Administration policies helped destabilize El Salvador and the region in general and it is unclear if it is too late to stop the bleeding.
Salvadorans bolted during the 1979 to 1992 civil war to the United States but also to Canada and neighboring Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Emigration to the United States increased again in the 1990s and 2000s as a result of worsening economic circumstances, natural disasters (a hurricane in 1998 and earthquakes in 2001), and family reunification.
El Salvador is a constitutional republic lead by President Nayib Bukele. Born in San Salvador in 1981, Bukele is of Palestinian descent, thirty-nine years old, and high school educated. Before becoming President, Bukele was mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán and San Salvador from 2015 to 2018. As mayor, he restored the historic center of San Salvador and encouraged violence-prevention programs.
Bukele formed a political party called Nuevas Ideas in 2018 won the 2019 presidential general election. Traveling to attract business opportunities for the country is one of Bukele’s approval rating strategies and has been fruitful. A principally younger populace elected him and he has continued to romance his social media followers by posting images and statistics about his business development efforts. Surveys have shown as much as 80% approval for his work in the office.
For a young person with little governing experience, Bukele has done a good job of courting overseas investment. In late 2019 Bukele met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in China, gaining Chinese funding to build several major infrastructure projects in El Salvador including a stadium and water treatment plant. China will also develop coastal tourist sites, including building streets, parks, restaurants, and shops. The terms of these projects were not announced but the Chinese quid pro quo was continuing El Salvadoran support in the United Nations including refusing to recognize Taiwan as a legitimate government.
Mid-term elections will proceed on February 28, 2021, and Nuevas Ideas could end up breaking the old-style ARENA/FMLN (the two traditional main political parties) duopoly in the 84-seat legislative assembly. Bukele’s first-round presidential victory in the February 2019 presidential election demonstrated popular disenchantment with the FMLN and ARENA parties that have governed during the post-conflict period. The scale of Bukele’s victory, combined with his continued popularity, has given him a strong governing mandate, but his party lacks backing in the National Assembly.
Opposition figures accuse Bukele of authoritarian and dictatorial tendencies. In February 2020, he sparked a constitutional crisis when he sent military officers into the legislative chamber to pressure legislators to approve a loan for his security plan. Bukele supported the defense minister’s request the constitution be revised to allow the armed forces to take a more active political role, a return to historical autocratic governance. He has also shown a disregard for a free press, prompting criticism from the United States and other countries. There also have been credible accusations of deals with gang members to lower the homicide rate.
Bukele’s eye-popping approval ratings during his year-and-a-half in office will likely help his party gain a significant number of seats in the February 28, 2021, mid-term elections. If Nuevas Ideas captures a majority of the 84 seats in the Legislative Assembly, it could further enable Bukele’s autocratic behavior, auguring ill for El Salvador’s democracy.
In March 2019, the Trump Administration suspended most foreign assistance to El Salvador (as well as to Guatemala and Honduras) as part of its focus to attempt to make those governments align with its anti-immigration policies. This action further undermined stability in the region.
President Joe Biden promoted a four-year, $4 billion economic development program in Central America to mitigate outmigration but he has limited ability to steer economic aid to El Salvador as that is the function of the United States Congress. On January 23, 2021, Biden issued an executive order suspending Trump Administration asylum agreements with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, one of his first acts to undo that administration’s hardline immigration policies.
Information about the Chinese development agreements was presented at https://www.thedialogue.org/analysis/is-china-going-to-help-el-salvador-develop-faster/. Information about the upcoming elections was obtained at https://www.centralamerica.com/living/daily-life/central-america-elections-2021/. The political situation ahead of the upcoming election was found at https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/29328/corruption-scandals-stain-bukele-s-image-ahead-of-el-salvador-elections. Economic projections can be obtained at https://www.imf.org/en/Home. Information on the suspension of asylum agreements was provided by https://www.france24.com/en/americas/20210207-biden-ends-trump-asylum-deals-with-el-savador-guatemala-and-honduras.
Michael Donnelly investigates societal concerns with an untribal approach - to limit the discussion to the facts derived from primary sources so the reader can make more informed decisions.