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  Number 469 | Agosto 2020
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El Salvador

What does Bukele represent? What do people see in him?

Where is El Salvador heading? Tensions between a legislative branch that wants to govern and an executive branch that wants to legislate have caused extreme polarization, made worse by the pandemic, and it seems it won’t be resolved until the February 2021 elections. So far, the majority backs the Executive.

Luis Antonio Monterrosa

The polarizing political confrontation that is making El Salvador so tense is being played out between the legislative branch, which wants to govern, and the executive branch, which wants to legislate. Sometimes, for added flavor,
the judicial branch gets involved. And the context of the coronavirus pandemic is making it all even worse.

From the start…


When Nayib Bukele took office as President in June 2019, he delivered a very belligerent inaugural speech blaming “the same aones s always” for the country’s limited progress in security and economic opportunities. He accused them of being responsible for ransacking public finances. With former Presidents in judicial processes and one of them—Antonio Saca—already in prison, the argument was irrefutable.

While winds of change are felt in the executive branch, representatives of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the two largest parties whose candidates lost to Bukele, have between them the majority of the 84 seats in the Legislative Assembly, ARENA with 35 and the FMLN with 23. Once fierce ideological rivals, they have found major common ground with their defeat in opposition to Bukele.

That’s why Bukele’s government has faced an uphill climb from the start. Even though he has legislative representation through the 10 seats of GANA, the party on whose ticket he ended up running, and backing from the 9 legislators of the Party of National Concertation (PCN), who seemed willing to collaborate, it was clear that the FMLN and ARENA would have enough votes to block any initiative, starting with the approval of the budget for 2020. From that moment on, frequent stagnation of legislative processes was the context that led to the events of February 9, when Bukele showed up in the Assembly accompanied by the Army, to face the Legislative power that was obstructing his projects.

Tensions due to the quarantine


The COVID-19 pandemic worsened relations between the executive and legislative branches. Bukele quickly opted for strong containment measures to stop the coronavirus spread and urged the legislators to support sheltering at home.

Technically, the Health Code gives the executive branch the authority to impose a quarantine in times of epidemics. But to make it real it would have to restrict the free movement of citizens who don’t comply voluntarily. The Legislative Assembly interpreted that to mean restricting constitutional rights and therefore were measures typical of a State of Exception. With that, it sounded alarm bells.

Was the executive branch ordering a health measure or a one that favored his authoritarianism? That old ghost had first reappeared with Bukele’s strange February 9 maneuver, which had ended ambiguously. The tension around whether or not there was a quarantine didn’t last long. Analysts, businesspeople and intellectuals all stressed its authoritarian bias by violating individual liberties. The Legislative Assembly only renewed it once.

The Church suspended religious activities during Holy Week, but the typical non-religious excesses went on as usual. Beaches and other vacation spots were crowded with people. Thirty days later, infections started to increase. While the President tried to legislate by resorting to secondary laws such as the Health Code to make another quarantine possible, the Legislative Assembly busily passed laws intended to establish the measures the executive branch should take to stop the pandemic. Bukele vetoed them because he considered them to be violating his powers. And even though the judicial branch tried to balance the tension by urging both sides to reconcile their positions and agree to a mutually acceptable decree, it was impossible.

“Amanda”: Another emergency


At the end of May, tropical storm Amanda, the cause of two dozen deaths and quite a bit of damage, heightened tensions again. Just as all other governments had done when faced with similar catastrophes, Bukele declared a national emergency. The legislative and judicial branches countered by annulling the executive’s power to issue that declaration, renewing the tug-of-war between the branches of government.

According to the Legislative Assembly, the President’s only interest in declaring an emergency was so he could use the emergency funds to make direct purchases and reassign funds between ministries, which they interpreted as opening a door to corruption and illegal enrichment.

Legislators responded by subjecting any loan request to strict and slow approval processes and designating legislative verification commissions and accountability processes to oversee executive use of the money.

No solution until February 2021


Both sides are clear that this battle won’t be resolved until the municipal and legislative elections programmed for February 28, 2021. Both aspire to wear down their rival as much as possible in the meantime. So far, different opinion polls are progressively showing New Ideas, Bukele’s party, in a better position for those elections. Bukele had created New Ideas at the end of 2018 but it wasn’t ready in time for the 2019 elections so he had to run on the GANA ticket.

The absence of a “third force”


Where is El Salvador heading? The dimension the national polarization has reached requires several reflections.
Let’s try some out.

The first is the absence of a “third force.” Any change in the executive branch, especially when there has been a change in the governing party, tends to arouse illusions, hopes and suspicions. There are advocates and opposition. During this year so far, we have progressively seen how all proposals and almost all analyses are immediately aligned politically and the classic “with us or against us” has taken on an absolute and decisive quality, above all because both sides demand alignment.

During the civil war of the 1980s, the high level of polarization between the two bands drove the continuation of the armed conflict. The only thing both sides agreed on was rejection of dialogue and negotiations. In November 1989 the FMLN launched an offensive in which it took over the capital in an unprecedent military maneuver. In that same context an elite Army unit killed six high-profile Jesuits and their two employees on the Central American University campus in San Salvador. It became clear that the FMLN wasn’t as weak as the government thought and also that the government’s forces weren’t on the brink of defeat and could prolong the war with its US support.

It was around that time, soon before the offensive that Ignacio Ellacuría, one of the Jesuits soon to be murdered, wondered who might be able to convince those unyielding polarized forces to “get to work for the good of the majority and the country!” Ellacuría believed in the possibility of a new “historical subject” assuming the form of a third force that could represent the interests of the majority. He identified it as a broad grassroots organization with a Socratic spirit and Christian inspiration.

The idea of a “third force” or “new historical subject” was an attempt to break the polarrizing nature of the classic “bourgeois-proletriat” contradiction, introducing into the equation the newly emerging voices at that time of grassroots sectors such as peasants, indigenous peoples and women.

Today, a “third force” like that sin El Salvador seems even farther away than back then. Several times Archbishop José Luis Escobar has called the parties to their senses and urged them to dialogue for the good of the country with little success. Voluntarily or involuntarily, all sectors have continued encouraging the polarized alignment, many times claiming neutrality.

Is it time for the
revolutionary bourgeoisie?


If what Karl Marx said is true, that a government is nothing more than the administrator for big businesses, it’s useful to profile the nature of this confrontation. Does Bukele represent the bourgeois fraction that claims to be revolutionary?

During the ARENA governments (1989-2009) from Alfredo Cristiani, now the suspected mastermind of the 1989 massacre of the Jesuits, to the imprisoned Antonio Saca, the role of administrator for big business was clear and transparent.

During both the FMLN governments (2009-2019), even though their leaders tried to appear as agents for big changes, the reality was that big business interests were barely affected. The FMLN didn’t dare modify the correlation of forces or
the economic or political environment. What was experienced was a sensible bipartisanship that seemed to be waiting for the opportune moment either for social change or for its setback. It was a bit like Chile: no more Pinochet, but best not to rock the boat by changing anything he in place…

The current government and its President have been profiled every possible way: it’s a government with no direction in mind; it’s neoliberal; it’s wishy-washy; it’s fascist, populist; it’s the new-grassroots Left; it’s oligarchic… There have been reporters and analysts who have aligned Nayib Bukele with the trend that unites Trump with Bolsonaro and Ortega in their way of managing the pandemic… But, “stripes on a cat don’t make it a tiger.”

Nayib Bukele comes from the Left, from the FMLN in fact, the party through which he was elected mayor of San Salvador until he was expelled in 2017. But his class background is typical bourgeoisie. New Ideas, the party he created, gets its grassroots members from both the FMLN and ARENA and also recycles officials from both parties as well as taking in new public figures without any previous political careers.

“Revolutionary” because
of its potential for change


To explain the novelty that Bukele represents or could represent, one must consider the fact that the current Cabinet represents the efforts of a class fraction historically relegated from the political and economic management of the country.

It presents itself as a political alternative to the Right, which opted for the FMLN machine to develop itself for two reasons: because the FMLN opened its doors and because in this bourgeois group’s self-identity it sees itself as revolutionary.

“Revolutionary” in this case doesn’t mean that it represents the interests and will of the proletariat or even the grassroots majorities as a whole. It’s simply what Marx pointed out in the Communist Manifesto regarding the bourgeoisie:
its potential for change. He said that “the bourgeoisie has played a most revolutionary role” and added that “the bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.”

The origin of this class fraction associated to the bourgeoisie is in the Palestinian emigration. It’s not part of big business. The Handals from the Left or the Right, the Bukeles, the Dadas, the Simáns and the Salumes have progressively been prospering and now, in a certain way, are claiming their right to run the country, pointing out the inadequacy of the bipartisan ARENA-FMLN political model, worn down by corruption and by slow advances in social progress. And also questioning the economic model based on remittances, migratory expulsion and the country’s development as a regional logistical center.

This group’s critique of the political and economic model doesn’t mean its “revolutionary” effort is to disrupt it. What they demand is to be better included in the distribution of the pie.

Whether the modification of the model they want will happen only with the participation of their companies in the profits the model generates or will mean a concrete change of direction that benefits the majority is still to be seen. It’ll be seen especially in the possibility of making a consistent change in the imposing scheme that today so greatly benefits big businesses.

Salvadoran big business
continues unscathed


At the moment it is less possible to visualize the terms of the dispute with respect to big business than to the rest of the groups associated with the dominant class in the country. Big businesses remain unscathed and in fact are stronger after 30 years of the country’s successive governments. All have been able to protect their interests and support their international projection, not only in the financial sector that was their favorite during the 1990s.

In fact, the Pomas (Roble Group), the Murray Mezas (Agrisal Group), the Simáns (Simán Group), the Krietes (former TACA-AVIANCA Group, now Volaris), the Callejas Group and others have positioned themselves in the Central American region seeking to make El Salvador a privileged regional logistical center, leaving the finance capital sector in the hands of their main Honduran and Colombian shareholders.

The best expression of the conflict in this sector of the dominant class was seen in their tug-of-war over Bukele’s measures to deal with the pandemic.

Javier Simán, head of the Private Business Association (ANEP) and ARENA’s presidential candidate who lost to Bukele, withdrew ANEP’s support from Bukele’s process to deal with the pandemic. This caused actions and reactions. Bukele had to resort to a very publicized work session with big business representatives that ended with support for the necessary measures and a call to the Legislative Assembly to back them.

This group seems to want changes


While the direction this government will take is still not clear, what is clear is that one group of capitalists is opening a path for itself to get back into power and fighting those who have been in the shadows of big business. It seems they want to expand welfare for many, which in a country like El Salvador, with such noticeable inequality, demands that one be modestly revolutionary in the classical bourgeois sense.

This reading leaves a question floating in the air: What did the two FMLN governments between 2009 and 2019 represent for “revolutionary change? The only answer we’ve heard so far is from José Luis Merino, who was an important FMLN leader. He has declared that the FMLN had an “anti-system” profile. Given
that Merino is tied to the questionable businesses of Alba Petróleos, former President Funes is a fugitive from justice, different former FMLN officials are questioned and the FMLN itself suffered an acute drop in votes in the last elections, this question will remain unanswered for now… The lack of a better response opened the possibility for other figures to step in, because the “leftist” party couldn’t do it or didn’t care to.

The Integrated
and the Apocalyptic


In the mid-1960s, Umberto Eco published his book Apocalypse Postponed analyzing the various postures toward the boom in mass media. Eco proposed two categories, “Apocalyptic” and “Integrated,” to exemplify two opposing ways of seeing that reality.

For Eco, the “Apocalyptic” saw mass communication negatively. Starting from an elitist conception of culture, they were terrified of mass culture and were capable of seeing the threads of manipulation that hide behind the production of mass culture through the media.

The “Integrated” saw ass media as the opportunity to express themselves about the majority and criticize the elitist conception of culture; they didn’t suspect any threads of manipulation. Where the Integrated see an opportunity, the Apocalyptic see a threat. And while the Integrated accuse the Apocalyptic of an elitist attitude, the latter deny it.

These two categories could be useful to analyze the polarization we are experiencing in El Salvador today, in these times of coronavirus.

A rise in authoritarianism?


Beyond whether the quarantine was right or not, or its moment or its intensity, the Apocalyptic have tended to see the measure as a confirmation of the President’s increasing authoritarianism, especially if the measure includes deploying the armed forces to the streets and police can arrest those who break the quarantine and take them to containment centers. The closing of the borders, airports, commerce and productive activities have also been seen
as measures whose only objective is the authoritarian exercise of power.

They see in this “rise of authoritarianism” an affront to the sacred right of freedom of expression, movement, residence…and even worse, an attack against economic freedom. They argue that confinement paralyzes the economy and claim that “in the end, some people always have to die to save others,” playing with the idea of herd immunity, even though Sweden was not able to achieve it and didn’t save either its economy or lives.

The polarized quality of this position means that whoever criticizes the Apocalyptic vision as inadequate or for any other reason immediately gets placed in the opposing camp. There are no gray areas open for discussion.

Health over freedom


How do the Integrated view the confinement measures? As a necessity to control the pandemic. Despite having decreed them, around 300 cases of infection a day were already being counted in mid-July, with the attendant complications for our precarious health system.

The Integrated believe that the right to collective health is superior to the right to individual or economic freedom. Collective health can justify the restriction of individual freedom and even justify the use of public forces to guarantee that confinement. It can’t be voluntary or even obligatory, but actually must be enforced. They see the use of force as a necessary evil.

The polarized quality of this position means that whoever criticizes the Integrated vision as inadequate or for any other reason immediately gets placed in the opposite camp, again with no gray areas for discussion.

An intermediate
position is needed


Intentionally or not, the Apocalyptic don’t realize that by crying for freedom they undermine the discipline needed in times
of a pandemic, which is extraordinary. More than one illustrious jurist has said that nothing is above the liberties established by the Constitution, not even the right to health.

And the Integrated, also intentionally or not, don’t realize that to justify resorting to armed force is a very dangerous and well-known risk in this country ever since 1932, when the military was used to resolve political differences at the cost of many lives. This risk takes shape with the precedent of February 9, when Bukele briefly took over the legislative building with military help.

It should be possible to reach an intermediate position. Something like “let’s protect everyone’s health, thinking above all about the most vulnerable, guaranteeing that the restrictions will be temporary, the military won’t get any more power and trusting in personal responsibility.” Or something like “let’s guarantee fundamental rights while we protect everyone’s health.”

Even though that idea sounds good, the encounters between the work teams of the executive and legislative branches to achieve legislation with this purpose have ended with no results.

Nayib Bukele’s majority approval


Some surveys show more than 90% approval for Bukele’s positions regarding the pandemic, which indicates that if the opposition’s objective is to deflect sympathy for him, it seems not to be working. And the feared executive control of the State seems to be served to him on a silver platter by ARENA and the FMLN.

This will be verified if the legislative and municipal elections in February 2021 turn out to be a major victory for New Ideas, drastically shrinking the power of ARENA and the FMLN in the Legislative Assembly.

Both are simply antinomies of democracy. The diversity pushes towards conflict and the polarization, seeking greater control of power, pushes toward authoritarian excesses. The authoritarian tendencies dispersed everywhere are as much to be feared as the blind inability of the traditional parties to be intelligent opposition.

The legislative representatives of ARENA, the FMLN and other opposition parties, intellectuals, academics and analysts—good, bad and mediocre—don’t stop criticizing the Bukele administration. They tend to focus on the presidential figure—his vanity, his millennial character—and allot the same evils of other governments to
his: enrichment at the expense of public finances, political cronyism and the like. Above all they accuse him of his alleged authoritarian nature. Nonetheless, even the polls in which he gets the lowest favorable rating show him with around 60% approval and most of them show more than 90% support for his response to the pandemic.

This calls into question apparently serious opinions by respected individuals aligning Bukele with Trump, Ortega and Bolsonaro for his “disastrous” management of the pandemic or for warning that the country is about to sink. Certainly, El Salvador could have fewer infected people and fewer dead. Just like any other country. However, are those who back Bukele’s administration just stupid or don’t see the violation of constitutional liberties?

What do the people see in Bukele?


Even with the limitations polls and surveys always tend to have, the incredible support and even enthusiasm Nayib Bukele arouses cannot be denied. This should at least motivate deep analysis.

But it’s not happening. Criticism from the traditional political parties seems to be squandering all their acquired political capital, while the intellectuals’ criticism, based more on their gut than their mind, is undercutting their prestige. And when some individual who is not a party member or intellectual says: “I’m locked up here because of a crazy apprentice dictator,” it is an error of judgment because the blame belongs not to the government but to the coronavirus.

What do the people see in Bukele? Where some center their criticism on the offensive language the President uses on the social networks, ordinary people applaud this politically incorrect language, considering that some people deserve it. Where some see Bukele opening a gate to corruption, others hear his speech—with all the propaganda you want—at the opening of the first stage of a new hospital he furnished with 400 emergency units in only four months in mid-pandemic for ordinary people in which he said, “This hospital is for the people who have never had access to the health system,” and that he hopes to inaugurate 600 more units.

Why not take advantage
of the revolutionary bias?


As long as excesses and criticisms don’t stop, the polarization will continue. And while Bukele continues fighting corruption, cronyism and the lack of transparency, political vices that any group in power develops, wouldn’t it be smarter to make use of the possibilities the revolutionary bias heprovides to advance in projects of inclusion for the majority, focusing on a tax reform that guarantees that the wealthiest pay more?


Luis Antonio Monterrosa is a professor in the Sociology and Political Sciences Department of the José Simeón Cañas Central American University, El Salvador.

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