Nayib Bukele kicks off his term to massive approval
Setting aside Bukele’s s addiction to Twitter,
political vendetta-like firing of government officials,
and slick style, not to mention ethe media’s snobbery,
the majority’s recognition of Nayib Bukele’s administration
has to do with it demonstrating that it’s constantly on the go.
Bukele is making action his priority, and the showier, the better.
He favors action over rethoric, and with the biggest payload possible.
Luis Antonio Monterrosa
According to public opinion polling first by La Prensa Gráfica and followed by the Institute of Public Opinion at El Salvador’s Central American University (IUDOP-UCA), the administration of Nayib Bukele, President of El Salvador since June 1 of this year, enjoys over 90% approval. For a moment people thought La Prensa Gráfica might have inflated the figures to get on the good side of someone embroiled in bitter disputes that ended up in the courts. But the IUDOP data reaffirmed Bukele’s immense popularity. How then can we explain the highly agitated rejection of Bukele’s administration by thoughtful, seasoned political analysts on both sides of the political spectrum?
A new direction appears
Recent presidential administrations were not commonly given poor grades in their first few months. The case of Bukele’s predecessor, Salvador Sánchez Cerén—unpopular from the start—was an exception. But it is also rare for a government to reach such high approval ratings off the bat:Antonio Saca (74%) and Muricio Funes (71%) were highly rated at the beginning of their administrations, but never at the levels achieved by Bukele.
In polling terms, popularity means a sizeable portion of the Salvadoran population recognizes and approves of the actions being taken by the executive branch. Nothing more. It should not be interpreted as a definitive endorsement of his administration, or even as political affinity with his project.
If the polling data truly hew close to reality, such high popularity means that a large proportion of militants of both the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the National Republican Alliance (ARENA), historically arch ideological adversaries, approve of Bukele’s administration, while the leaders of both parties, together with scholars, political analysts and ideologues-for-hire, are huddled at the other extreme in their rejection. They constitute what is being called “the 4% Movement”, a minority political niche where the traditional Left and Right come together, insisting that there is nothing good in the new government.
Of course, it’s neither all good nor all bad. It’s possible the “local and thick” people (in the words of Rubén Darío), have gotten confused and lost in the rhythm of the President’s tweets, and in their ignorance can’t discern good from bad. But it’s also possible to recognize some elements in Bukele’s administration that people find both interesting and positive. It’s likely that the critical analysts aren’t finding the right categories to rationally judge key elements of the process now underway. If the masses are really enthralled with Bukele’s administration, these analysts run the risk of failing to focus their analysis in a way that adequately assesses the country’s new direction.
The new Cabinet
On orders from Bukele, all ministries in the new administration were populated with fresh faces, generally younger people and more women. Practically all come from sectors far removed from politics, excluding the President’s inner circle, which is organized within the New Ideas party.
Exceptions to this new profile include a couple of officials from the center-right Great Alliance for National Unity (GANA), the party that split off from ARENA and on whose ticket Bukele won the election since his own movement wasn’t yet registered as a party, and María “Chichilco” Navarrete, an historical FMLN leader with deep roots among working-class and rural sectors.
The suspense Bukele generated in the process of naming his ministers was calculated. In the lead-up to his inauguration, he named his Cabinet members one day at a time, putting the women first as a way to dispel the shadow of violence against women the FMLN accused him of and used to expel him from its ranks in 2017.
After the presidential swearing-in session—held at Gerardo Barrios Square outside the National Palace in historical downtown San Salvador, thus abandoning the traditional transfer of power held in a formal VIP environment—the President kicked off his administration announcing selective dismissals and the elimination of several institutions. He started withthe Social Integration Secretariat, led for ten years by Vanda Pignato, ex-wife of former President Mauricio Funes (2009–2014). She is currently on trial for illicit enrichment, tarnished by the excesses of Funes, who took refuge from justice in Nicaragua. Bukele also axed the Governability Secretariat, previously known as Strategic Affairs, and the Technical and Planning Secretariat, which the FMLN had intended to raise to ministry level had it won the elections.
Another group, this time tagged as family of FMLN leaders, was selectively dismissed from various government institutions in his first month. They included siblings, children and other relatives of former President Sánchez Cerén and other FMLN leaders, including Funes’ brother, who was a director for the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI).
More than a few were unjustly accused of being someone’s relative and fired only for having the person’s same last name, evidence that the measure was really a political vendetta. Following the hubbub such groundless firings caused, Bukele argued that most of the jobs had been held by FMLN activists who had not necessarily been engaged in technical work. Curiously, ex-Vice President Óscar Ortiz’s relatives and friends were left unscathed. Ortiz’s wife stayed in the director’s office of the Institute for Children and Adolescents and his closest collaborators remained in the vice presidential and agencies... at least for the time being.
Crises in ARENA and the FMLN
After the heated electoral campaign, in which Bukele sought to distance himself from both the FMLN, his own former party, and ARENA, with which he shares affinity given his own business activities,
it was time to calm the waters. But the waters within those two traditional parties remained troubled by their own ongoing internal crises following their electoral loss. The conflicts highlighted historical, generational and programmatic rivalries on both the left and the right. In fact, both parties have been on the verge of splitting since their defeat at the polls in February. Internal processes for electing new leaders were equally prone to bitter recriminations and despondency.
While both ARENA and the FMLN debated the renewal or continuity of their ideological underpinnings, virtually no one dug deep—at least not publicly—into the causes of their respective electoral defeat. Both parties did, however, discuss the creation of new political channels outside the traditional ones. They also debated the need to create a new Left and a new Right, as well as the possibility of creating honest ones. The very fact that they posed these issues showed the level of internal crisis wracking each party.
With Ortiz or with Muyshondt?
As the crises continued, messages were sent back and forth between the two parties seeking a truce. On the FMLN side Óscar Ortiz—who ended up taking over the party’s leadership—and on the ARENA side, San Salvador Mayor Ernesto Muyshondt also began to send Bukele conciliatory messages. Should a deal be signed with one group or the other?
Although Bukele could appear critical both parties’ structures and especially of their defeated leadership, he was seen sharing spaces and official events with Mayor Muyshondt, who has repeatedly expressed the need to support the executive branch and get along with the new President.
Moreover, while Bukele prided himself on having fired all of Sánchez Cerén’s relatives from their public posts, he remained silent on those ofOrtiz, all of whom continued to work in government offices. There was clearly some deal between Bukele and both Muyshondt’s and Ortiz’s factions of their respective parties, motivated by need for their support. Both sides are keeping mum, broken only briefly shortly after Ortiz was chosen as the FMLN’s new leader, when he criticized Bukele’s administration by accompanying a march of war veterans demanding attention. Almost immediately, Ortiz’s wife was dismissed from her job at the ISNA Director’s Office and his other relatives suffered the same fate.
Security: A new plan
or more of the same?
One of the new government’s first decisions was to set in motion Bukele’s Plan for Local Control, which he intended to make his insignia project for confronting public insecurity and violence. To this end he has not only vehemently pushed for funds from the Legislative Assembly and approval of projects based on international loans; he has also renewed leaders in the Armed Forces and the National Civil Police.
The Plan emphasized two specific measures. One was dissuasive joint Armed Forces and Police patrolling in selected territories, including San Salvador’s historic center. The other was repressive police action in some specific areas, often accompanied by some kind of mitigating intervention including public works or social programs.
In the first month alone there were 2,031 arrests, more than 60 per day; and over 13,000 cumulative arrests between June 1 and September 15, which pushed that average up to more than 250 arrests a day. The heavy impact of these actions: overwhelmingly brings to mind the Iron Fist and Super Iron Fist plans implemented by the ARENA administrations of Presidents Francisco Flores (2003) and Antonio Saca (2004). Neither plan had the desired effect; both resulted instead in a spike in delinquency and violence.
Although prioritizing the security problem to later address the root socioeconomic problems may make sense, the forceful means used could also lead to an outcome that’s more for show than effect. But whatever the plan’s results may be, polls show the population’s appreciation of improvements over the previous exhausting insecurity.
we must recognize that the last 30 years —20 of ARENA and 10 of the FMLN—as well as these first 100-plus days of this administration continue to show how hard it is for our country to respond systemically to the problem of violence. The social and economic dimensions that lead to the violence should be prioritized, taking into consideration its causes and solutions, over and above the emphasis on the gangs and the repressive police activity.
Ministry of Defense
With respect to public safety institutions, the shift has been clear and significant. In the Ministry of Defense—for 10 years headed by General David Munguía Payés, trusted by the FMLN and forger of the 2012 Gang Truce—Bukele chose to set aside the whole roster of generals who had advanced under Munguía Payés. Instead he selected as his new minister a Navy officer with a rank equivalent to coronel, leaving the future of all those with the rank of general in the air.
While the gesture did’t fail to generate unhappiness within the army, the chosen Naval Captain, René Merino, who lacks both polish and even average leadership, has figured out how to run things from the Defense Ministry. His new role will likely be temporary while internal forces are adjusted and a trusted person can be identified to once again lead the Armed Forces from within the Army. At least for now Bukele has managed to neutralize potential instabilities.
The case of the National Civil Police (PNC) is less encouraging. One of the PNC’s biggest weaknesses is its founding constitution. After the signing of the 1992 Peace Accords that brought the civil war to an end, percentages were agreed to for participation in leadership of the new police force by demobilized Armed Forces officers and FMLN combatants, while the majority of officers would be strictly civilian personnel.
During the ARENA governments, ex-military officers prevailed in the PNC, and for the 10 years of FMLN governments it was the turn of their ex-combatants, beginning with the leadership of Carlos Ascencio, followed by Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde and Howard Cotto, with a brief interlude in 2012 when an Army general headed the PNC.
Now, with the new government, while the expectation had been to finally have a clearly civilian police chief, Bukele decided on Mauricio Arriaza Chicas, a former military officer trained by Chile’s Carabinero police force. This shift was a move toward the old hardline paramilitary blueprints, the same ones, incidentally, that the FMLN-aligned leaders were unable to escape. Bukele’s adoption of hardline security policies favoring arrest statistics and covert extermination structures, combined with his naming of Arriaza Chicas to head those policies suggest that his perspective is “more of the same”.
While the new government prided itself on achieving a few days with zero homicides, following days with more than ten, it’s noteworthy that one of its first measures was to restrict statistical information on homicides and other crimes. And despite the brief posturing to generate a sensation of relative security, we already know from historical experience that hardline strategies are neither effective nor sustainable. We will therefore have to await a more serious change or lament the well-known failed strategies.
Facebook and Twitter/
Bukele has set himself apart with his frenzied use of the social networks. During his presidential campaign he captured the electorate’s attention with his live Facebook feeds and Twitter messages. In his administration’s first months, Twitter became its main channel of communication, with tweets declaring “It is ordered that...” or announcing his decisions and actions.
He was even accused of creating a parallel reality with his use of the social media. Politicians and civil society personalities began to complain about what they have come to consider his outsized addiction to these media, in which he further sinned with politically and diplomatically incorrect attitudes, like the selfie he took while speaking at the United Nations on the need for reform at that world organization.
The events that developed around what became known as the Arab Spring demonstrated the power of social media as vehicles for communication and organizing public opinion. Later, Trump’s election and Russia’s interference in it put the topic back in the spotlight, now from the angle of fake news.
Bukele is a businessman from the advertising industry, a world where knowing how to sell products and oneself is important, as is exploiting niches and positioning oneself in the market. Now in government, he is only taking advantage of the 21st-century technological edge, for which most of us mortals of advanced age are unprepared. The new President belongs to a world the young know better than anyone. And it’s thus likely that we’re wrongly identifying the analytical categories by which to correctly evaluate him, just as we fail in our analysis of many current phenomena.
Social networks in El Salvador
All in all, we must consider that the social networks, while constituting a decentralized informative power, cannot resolve the issues at the heart of El Salvador’s political administration. Statistically, the numbers force us to think otherwise.
It is commonly accepted that El Salvador’s population of over 6 million,has more than 10 million cell phone subscribers, from which one can conclude that the business of cellular telecommunications is booming. In effect, the penetration of wireless or mobile phone service is colossal. Nonetheless, it must be kept in mind that while mobile phone users normally have Internet available on their phone, the service is paid for separately and usually at a high price. In fact, registered Internet users in El Salvador are calculated at 3.8 million, only around half of the population. Facebook registers 3.7 million Salvadoran users, while on Twitter there are only 241,000.
Therefore presidential administration via Twitter really doesn’t have the reach ascribed to it. Or rather, it only reaches those who imbibe Bukele’s information. Twitter users get tangled up in their own labyrinth. Major print media such as La Prensa Gráfica or El Diario de Hoy, which last year were Bukele’s sworn enemies and slowly repositioned themselves in the digital world, plus the new, strictly digital media outlets like El Faro, La Página or El Blog (clearly aligned with Bukele) are the real consumers, processors and distributors of the presidency’s output.
In reality, we continue to consume the information the media outlets want us to, while we believe we are rebelling against presidential administration via Twitter. I state for the record that I have no accounts with Facebook Twitter or Instagram) and, therefore, at least theoretically, have no bias typical to that realm—although I confess that I do consume a lot of digital information.
In constant movement
Beyond Twitter, the political vendetta-like dismissal of officials, the media’s snobbery and the President’s slick style, how can we explain the majority’s thumbs up on Bukele’s administration? First of all, I would argue that it has to do with demonstrating that he’s in constant movement. The President puts action first, and the showier it is, the better. This is where traditional philosophy, with Parmenides at the forefront, has tried to insist that there is no movement while Heraclitus the Dark insists that movement exists; that everything flows.
It must be considered that Salvadoran voters decided on Bukele largely because he distanced himself from both the ARENA and FMLN administrations, which ended up partisan bureaucracies based in state power with the sole aim of remaining in power for their own benefit and that of their partisan structures and any power brokers they may represent. This doesn’t mean Bukele’s government isn’t going to generate its own groups who intend to remain in power, or that the new government isn’t backed by the usual powerful business groups. It only means that today, the government wants to present itself as active in contrawst to the past’s stagnation. And that’s what makes it popular to the tune of 90%.
Doing and showing
The new government wants to prioritize action, facere, over rhetoric, and with the biggest payload possible. Bukele orders the hiring of a young recent graduate who had paid for his studies by selling crafts, and his minister answers, “Right away, Mr. President.” He orders the construction of a bridge that the community had asked for a thousand times and his minister immediately answers, “We’re on it, Mr. President.”
He orders the dismissal of Commissioner Godofredo Miranda—related to the historic case of 9-year-old Katya Miranda, raped and murdered 20 years ago, which symbolizes the impunity characterizing such crimes—recently named to a strategic PNC post by its director. Arriaza Chicas didn’t answer, “Right away, Mr. President,” but Miranda was dismissed.
During the government’s first 100 days we find in this constant doing, and showing what is done, the explanation for why the new eastward railroad system went from being a mere project on paper to starting construction, even though Korea’s technical advisory firm and the CABEI have only just agreed to support the first studies on its development. It also explains the speed with which it was confirmed that the International Commission against Corruption in El Salvador (CICIES) has already started working, while the OAS and the UN have barely made their first forecasting visits and the ink is fresh on the cooperation agreements.
The zeal to show that the homicide rate had indeed dropped over the government’s first 100 days was intended to present a government that takes action, as opposed to prior ones that were always just about to start the work, but always succumbed to some eventuality.
What will Nayib Bukele
do about structural issues?
It’s not true that the past has always been passive and the present is constantly active. But the idea of constant movement sells well. And comparatively, Bukele seems to be meeting the population’s specific demands, especially regarding public security, addressing corruption and launching innovative projects.
It remains to be seen how Bukele addresses structural socioeconomic issues with more time. Will government investment really be directed to benefit the working classes or will it end up prioritizing private big business as represented by the National Agency for Assessment and Forecasting (ANEP), which has already begun to approach the President and remind him that the country’s pro-oligarchy model means turning El Salvador into a marketplace of financial and logistical services.
The real tipping point will be revealed when the discussion turns to government resources available for development. That will be the moment when, inevitably, the central issue needs to be a tax reform that makes those who have more, pay more. The FMLN failed to achieve that reform, although it had been announced way back in 2009. We will have to see if New Ideas, Bukele’s party, really takes action in that area.
Luis Antonio Monterrosa is a professor in the Sociology and Political Science Department of El Salvador’s José Simeón Cañas Central American University.