Is El Salvador’s young president leading the country down the path to old-style dictatorship?

May 11, 2021 | 7 comments

By Andres Oppenheimer

El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele has a 90 percent popularity rate in his country, perhaps the highest one in the region. But power has gone to his head, and his latest takeover of the Salvadoran justice system threatens to turn him into Latin America’s newest elected dictator.

On May 1, Bukele’s New Ideas Party’s congressional majority fired five key members of the Supreme Court and the country’s attorney general, in what most legal scholars agree was an unconstitutional move. Bukele immediately posted a celebratory tweet saying, “And the Salvadoran people, through their representatives, said, “DISMISSED!.”

The Supreme Court had ruled several times that Bukele, 39, had overstepped his executive powers, and the ousted attorney general was investigating Bukele’s ministers for alleged corruption.

El Salvador President Nayib Bukele

To its credit, the Biden administration was quick to denounce Bukele’s power grab, which — unless reversed — will allow the president to control the three branches of government.

Vice President Kamala Harris said in a May 4 speech that, “Just this weekend, we learned that the Salvadoran parliament moved to undermine its nation’s highest court. An independent judiciary is critical to a healthy democracy and a strong economy. On this front — on every front — we must respond.”

U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken tweeted May 2, “Spoke today with Salvadoran President @NayibBukele to express serious concerns about yesterday’s move to undermine El Salvador’s highest court and Attorney General (Raúl) Melara. Democratic governance requires respecting the separation of powers, for the good of all Salvadorans.”

And Juan S. Gonzalez, Biden’s top adviser on Latin American affairs, tweeted in Spanish, referring to Bukele’s actions, “Así no se hace” — “That’s not the way things are done.”

I don’t remember such a coordinated response from the highest levels of U.S. government about a Central American country’s abuses in decades. It stood in sharp contrast with the Trump administration’s shameful silence on the previous abuses of El Salvador’s right-wing president.

But I wonder whether the Biden administration should not take a step further: Team up with Latin American democracies to press Bukele to reinstate the ousted jurists and restore the rule of law. Unlike with the Venezuelan and Cuban dictatorships, the United States has enormous economic leverage in El Salvador.

Santiago Canton, a human-rights and democracy expert who led an Organization of American States (OAS) fact-finding mission to El Salvador in March, told me this week that he found “a serious deterioration of democratic rule.” Since then, “Things have gotten a lot worse,” he added.

Canton told me that the 34-country OAS should convene a hemispheric meeting of foreign ministers under the 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter. The charter allows the OAS to suspend the membership of countries that interrupt the rule of law, a last-resort decision that could result in cancellation of loans from the Inter-American Development Bank.

Biden faces a difficult decision here, because El Salvador is one of Central America’s Northern Triangle countries that is at the center of the surge in migration at the U.S. southern border.

Some Latin American diplomats fear that economic sanctions on El Salvador would only make things worse, and that it would drive Bukele to hunker down. That would lead to more poverty, violence and migration, they argue.

Others say that, unless pressed to reverse his latest power grab, Bukele will become an all-out dictator, and El Salvador will run into a new cycle of political violence and a worsening humanitarian crisis.

There is a way out. El Salvador has huge foreign debts to U.S.-backed development institutions, and Biden has promised $4 billion in aid to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala as part of his plan to reduce the root causes of migration. Conditioning loan repayment terms and new funds on Bukele’s democratic behavior are powerful tools in U.S. hands.

The OAS should invoke its Inter-American Democratic Charter, as Canton proposes, and ask Bukele to invite a new fact-finding mission to El Salvador.

If that mission finds that Bukele overstepped his constitutional powers and offers a face-saving way for him to reinstate the ousted jurists, El Salvador’s democracy could still be rescued. Otherwise, we will have to add El Salvador to the increasingly crowded list of Latin American dictators.

Credit: Miami Herald