A possible Bukele speech -- with footnotes

Tomorrow, June 1, 2021, marks the start of Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele’s third year in office.  He will appear before the Legislative Assembly, a body now dominated and controlled by his Nuevas Ideas party, to provide an account of the state of the country and his presidency to the citizens of El Salvador.

It will be a presentation filled with pomp and circumstance in keeping with Bukele's preference to showcase the majesty of his presidency, while still maintaining his image as the president "most cool" in all the world.  There will be enthusiastic applause by the new members of the Assembly from Nuevas Ideas.  

I predict that some of the messages we will hear in the speech will include:

The country is managing the coronavirus better than almost anyone else in the world. [note 1]

The homicide rate is down dramatically as a result of our Territorial Control Plan.[note 2]

The Salvadoran military are heroes of the country.  They have been patrolling the streets to reduce crime, delivering food to needy Salvadoran families, rescuing people from natural disasters, helping our farmers, and assisting with the rollout of coronavirus vaccinations. [ note 3] 

My popularity is extremely high. The will of the people in it support of our movement justifies us sweeping away all vestiges of the influence of ARENA and the FMLN even at the expense of democratic norms of separation of powers. [note 4]

The corrupt ones from the past are continuing to criticize me, but the Salvadoran people know better. [note 5]

El Salvador is about to enter a grand new glorious phase of its history [note 6].

But there needs to be some footnotes for a speech like the one I predict Bukele will give.

Note 1 – The Pandemic.  El Salvador does indeed appear to be managing the coronavirus pandemic better than many of its neighbors, at least since the first wave in El Salvador peaked in August 2020.  Bukele’s government has done a good job at public health messaging, pursued contracts to obtain shipments of vaccine from producers around the world, and made improvements to the public health system.

But it is impossible to know how much better than its neighbors El Salvador is doing because of the government’s determination to keep much health data under seal and to simply lie about some matters.  The death count is understated because only those who have been tested by the government are counted.  Bukele has consistently misrepresented the capacities of Hospital El Salvador, and adverse outcomes in that hospital for treating COVID-19 patients are not disclosed. Testing data and pandemic contracting information are also kept secret.  The current progress by the country also glosses over the human rights abuses of the early months of the pandemic as Bukele flouted orders of the courts and limits on his power under the law to pick people up off the streets and hold them in "contention centers."             

Note 2 – The Homicide Rate.  The country's homicide rate has dropped significantly, but probably not because of Bukele’s Territorial Control Plan. The country’s gangs appear to have made a decision to lower the rate of killing, but their control over neighborhoods and territory continues, and a recent rise in disappearances is troubling.  The government is denying the reports that it negotiated with gang leaders in prison.

Note 3 – The Elevation of the Military.  Under Bukele, there has been a dramatic increase in military spending in the budget. The problem with the current use of the military in many aspects of domestic affairs in the country is that such activities were intended to cease with the 1992 Peace Accords.  Today Bukele tells the military that it will need to combat “internal enemies,” the same kind of language that justified the atrocities of the 1970’s and 80’s.  Under Bukele, the military and security forces appear to have directed their loyalty to him, rather than the country or its constitution.          

Note 4 – The Popular Support of Bukele and Nuevas Ideas.   Everyone can acknowledge the very high levels of support for Bukele, as evidenced by the domination of his party at the polls in February in elections which were generally fair and free of fraud.  This popularity is produced, in part, by a massive public relations and social media campaign.  The PR effort includes large expenditures of public funds to produce videos and images which burnish the reputation of the government.  The government has launched a daily newspaper and television news programs, and controls another newspaper, which spout in near-synchrony the pro-Bukele story line which is then disseminated by a global network of social media accounts.    

Note 5 – The Critics.  Critics of Bukele are not just old line politicians of ARENA and the FMLN. They include respected non-partisan institutions like the University of Central America, human rights group Cristosal, the Due Process of Law Foundation, and international award-winning periodicals like El Faro and Revista Factum.  All of these institutions also investigated and critiqued prior governments of ARENA and the FMLN for their failures and corruption, and by so doing made it possible for Bukele's anti-corruption message to have traction when he campaigned for president.  Bukele’s preferred response to critics is not to address the substance of their criticism, but to engage in ad hominem attacks, claiming these institutions are captive to their financiers and no different that "los mismos de siempre."  

Note 6 – The Future.  Bukele paints an image of El Salvador's future as a modern country, leading the region in the digital age, with prosperity for all.  And that is one possible future. But the future carries many risks when a single leader has eliminated all checks and balances in the government, makes loyalty to the president the key qualification for holding office, is reducing public access to information about the functioning of government, and may use the attorney general's office to persecute political opponents. Bukele will speak of one vision of a promising future, but his recent actions make it impossible to rule out a future where a core group of loyalists to the president use the tools of government power to enrich themselves and to punish their critics and enemies.