The five years of Bukele -- government behind closed doors

In the five years in which Nayib Bukele has been president of El Salvador, there has been a dramatic shift in the availability of public information for citizens to hold their leaders accountable.  El Salvador has a government which vigorously defends its control of the narrative of what is happening in the country, and that includes restricting access to any information which might shed a different light on that narrative.

 Transparency International has written:

Access to information acts are grounded in the recognition that information in the control of public authorities is a valuable public resource and that public access to such information promotes greater transparency and accountability of those public authorities, and that this information is essential to the democratic process. The purpose of these acts, also known as access to information laws, is to make a government more open and accountable to its people.

In transitional democracies, laws that give effect to the right to information are part of the process of transforming a country from one with a closed and authoritarian government to one governed by and for the people. The right of citizens to know what governments, international organizations and private corporations are doing, and how public resources are allocated, directly reflects anti-corruption concerns. Corruption flourishes in darkness and so any progress towards opening governments and intergovernmental organizations to public scrutiny is likely to advance anti-corruption efforts.
Transparency International, Using the Right to Information as an Anti-Corruption Tool, 2006, pg. 5

This theme of the importance of transparency and access to information to protect democracy and fight corruption was echoed in a 2019 Report – Transparency in El Salvador: Assessing Access to Public Information – by WOLA and the UCA:

When a nation is sovereign — as required by the democratic doctrine — society must be able to scrutinize public affairs. Those who manage these affairs must be held accountable in a timely and reliable manner. Transparency can be understood as a timely and reliable flow of economic, social and political information, accessible to all relevant stakeholders. Using this information, the public must be allowed to evaluate the same institutions that produce that information and form well-founded opinions of those who make, participate in, or are subject to the decisions made by said institutions.

The report goes on to note that there are two kinds of transparency required of governments – active transparency – in which the government actively publishes accurate information about its activities, uses of resources, and other data, and passive transparency – government responding with information when requested by a citizen.  

The five years of Nayib Bukele’s time in office have seen dramatic reversals in areas of both active and passive transparency.

El Salvador actually has a good law, the Law of Access to Public Information (LAIP), passed in 2011, which is ranked in the top 10% of public information laws globally according to the Global Right to Information Ratings study. Unfortunately, having the best law is not sufficient; it must also be effectively implemented and enforced. 

With respect to affirmative transparency, I have first hand experience in the reversals in this area.  For the first eight years after the passage of the LAIP, there was ever greater amounts of information being shared on the different websites of the ministries of the government.  One could find information such as statistics of standardized testing of students in schools, the population counts of the prisons in the country, the number of people deported to El Salvador that month, and patterns of hospital utilization. The websites were genuine sources of information about how the government and the people of the country were doing.

Today, however, the websites of the Salvadoran government have been transformed from sites to disseminate relevant information to sites whose purpose is to burnish the image of the Bukele government.  Might a reduction in pupil test scores look bad? – eliminate access to scores from the website.   Instead, post multiple posed photos of smiling students at one school receiving new desks.  

With respect to passive transparency, the Bukele regime has continuously flouted the LAIP and has either claimed the nonexistence of information requested, ignored requests, or declared the information to be confidential and not available to be released.

The human rights organization Cristosal took an extensive look at government responses to information requests in its January 2024 report Reporte sobre el Estado de la transparencia: La instauración de la opacidad.  Cristosal concluded:

With the evidence collected for this report, it is possible to affirm that the Salvadoran Government hides information with the objective of establishing a single narrative or a hegemonic narrative, since this allows those in power to show what is convenient and hide what is not, for example, possible crimes. 
The Cristosal report looked at 1463 requests to the Bukele government for information between June 2019 and December 2023.  Of those requests, no information was provided to the requestor in 73% (1069) of the cases.  In 411 cases, the request was simply not responded to by the government entity, and in 476 cases, the government claimed to not have the information sought. In almost 70 cases, although the information existed, the government decided to declare it confidential ("reservada") and prohibited its release.
 Just some of the examples include of documents the Bukele government refuses to release include:
  • The National Health Plan
  • The National Plan for Vaccinations Against COVID-19
  • The number of actual beds available in Hospital El Salvador
  • The Territorial Control Plan
  • The construction of the CECOT mega-prison.
  • Femicide statistics
  • Statistics on homicides and disappearances.
  • Information on clandestine graves and cemeteries
  • Minutes of Cabinet meetings
  • The trips and expenses of Legislative Assembly deputies and employees.
  • The feasibility study of the proposed Airport of the Oriente
  • Plan of technology resources acquired for schools by Ministry of Education
  • Audits of the new internet voting system for the Salvadoran diaspora.
  • Many more in this GatoEncerrado article with a compiled list through June 1, 2021
And in a complete irony, the Institute for Access to Public Information, the government body charged with overseeing public information access, declared confidential its own report on how entities of the government are performing their obligations under the public information law.
According to a report by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) titled Corruption Under the State of Emergency in El Salvador: A Democracy Without Oxygen, the current State of Exception has accelerated the process of closing access to public information:
The state of emergency has not only allowed the suspension of constitutional guarantees but has also eliminated legal controls over administrative processes for the use of public funds and state contracts and the right of access to public information. In other words, it has fostered a lack of transparency and accountability in the management of public resources.
 On December 3, 2023, Nayib Bukele tweeted “Don’t trust, verify.”  He was commenting on a foreign visitor who had come to check out if what was being said about El Salvador was true. But in actual practice, the Bukele regime has actively worked to put behind closed doors all the information which would be necessary to verify the claims and promises made by Bukele and his government.  As Nayib Bukele approaches inauguration to a second (unconstitutional) term as president, Salvadorans have less and less access to the data and information needed to hold him accountable.