Frustrated expectations

Central American University, El Salvador

A year ago, when Nayib Bukele took office as President of the Republic on June 1, many Salvadorans were excited about the new government and had expectations of great and good changes for the country. A year later, whoever follows the government's work with care and realism can only be deeply disappointed: almost all those expectations have been frustrated.

In this first year, the main change has been the drastic decrease in homicides. This cannot be attributed to the administration's Territorial Control Plan, since, as indicated by the upsurge in murders over the weekend of April 25-26, the gangs' power in the territories is intact, and they continue to be able to kill whenever they want to. This is the most obvious sign that the crime problem has not been solved.

The various plans that the President has announced throughout this year, such as the National Health Plan and the Economic Reactivation Plan, have been no more than mere announcements, and have not materialized in reality. Both plans are fundamental, and currently, with the COVID-19 crisis, they are even more urgent, but since they are only on paper, they do not help to deal with the pandemic and its consequences. Worse yet, Bukele scrapped the protection plans of previous governments, leaving the poor more vulnerable.

On the other hand, the President has spent more time criticizing and attacking opposition parties and other powers of the State, with special emphasis on the Legislative Assembly, than governing and promoting works and changes. In the process, he has committed significant violations of the rule of law that governs our country according to the Constitution. The assault on the Legislative Assembly on February 9 was the clearest violation of constitutional order. On that day Bukele, surrounded by dozens of police and soldiers carrying combat rifles, barged into the Assembly chambers and tried to intimidate legislators into approving a loan for his Territorial Control Plan. Many saw this as an attempt to dissolve the assembly and as a violation of the doctrine of the separation of powers. It was a sign of how far he is willing to go in his desire to have total power.

In recent months, this dynamic has worsened. The fight against the COVID-19 pandemic is being waged without a defined plan and, instead, by improvisations. Serious mistakes have been made, and have led to more contagion. One example is the mismanagement of the "containment centers" where people are sent after being arrested for alleged violations of the government's quarantine plan. Another example was the government's telling people to go to public offices to receive economic aid, the result being huge crowds outside the offices in total violation of social-distancing rules. 

The president's excuse has been that no one -- in El Salvador or in any other part of the world -- was prepared to deal with the pandemic. He has also blamed the political opposition, which, he claims, has denied him the resources and the laws he would need to deal properly with the pandemic. But the truth is that the Government has shown itself incapable of facing the COVID-19 crisis with the required professionalism and scientific approach. 

The president's aggressiveness only increases. First he turned against the FMLN (1) for its nepotism, then against the gangs and more recently against the people themselves, whom he accuses of not complying with the quarantine because they're disobedient and ambitious. He virulently attacks the business community because it has asked that the economy be gradually reopened, and attacks the assembly for not legislating as he wants it to, and for exercising its role as auditor of the government. He also attacks the opposition and his critics, accusing them of wanting the people to die. These attitudes have exposed Bukele's immaturity and inability to govern a country in a situation as critical as the current one. Internationally, he has projected the image of a divided country whose president has dictatorial attitudes. This has put El Salvador in a very bad position, one which will make it more difficult to obtain the resources it needs to face the epidemic and the first natural disaster of the season.

Another problem is excessive government spending. The president doesn't want to let anyone audit this spending. This was precisely the reason why the UCA and all four other civil society organizations resigned en masse from a committee which the government had invited them to join. The committee's purpose, supposedly, was to supervise and monitor the spending of vast amounts of pandemic-related funds, but the committee members quickly found out that the government was distributing the funds behind their backs.

The spending has been on - among other things - the construction of a hospital on the grounds of the national convention center; financial aid to families when the crisis began; the purchase of medicines without showing that they were effective for treating COVID-19; and payments for rent and food at the containment centers where thousands of people are held. This adds up to millions of dollars awarded without due transparency, and speaks very badly of a president who promised to fight corruption.

It is true that a large part of the population still believes in Nayib Bukele. Its evaluation of his first year in office is positive. Nevertheless, an objective and realistic analysis, taking into account the combination of facts and attitudes that have marked his first year in office, shows that there is no basis for such an evaluation. The harsh reality of the country, which beats down and excludes so many of our people, has worsened in some key dimensions. What is new is an extremely populist and aggressive president, who tries to get people fired up and polarize the country even more for his own benefit. We know that this reading is not shared by a large sector of the population, but our commitment to truth and justice obliges us to make this objective judgment.

Adapted from an editorial published on June 3, 2020 by the Jesuit-run Central American University (Universidad Centroamericana José  Simeón Cañas) in El Salvador.

(1) FMLN: The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, El Salvador’s leftist party. President Bukele was formerly a member of the party.
(2) UCA: Central American University, the Jesuit-run university in El Salvador