Nayib Bukele has just obtained an extraordinary and predictable electoral victory in his re-election in El Salvador. A triumph of weight as significant and controversial as those achieved by Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. The comparison may sound unfriendly, but it is not capricious. Venezuela and El Salvador share similar stories in different corners of the ring.
The Bolivarian parachutist emerged in a country that had come from 40 years of corruption, apathy and complicity between the two main parties that alternated in power, the social democratic AD and the Christian democratic Copei. A flaw in the Punto Fijo pact that President Rafael Caldera promoted in 1958 during his first term to organize a tormented nation that came from a complex dictatorship.
In El Salvador, the right of the Nationalist Republican Alliance and the pseudo-left of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, They shared power in the same toxic way the last thirty years after the peace agreements that closed more than a decade of internal war.
In this endogamous system, like his Venezuelan colleagues, the policy admitted all types of rinses. In one case, detonating decadence and devastating poverty; in the other with enormous urban violence in a decomposing State.
Bukele, like Chávez, emerged on the back of that scene of popular fury. Both with authoritarian tendencies, one from the supposed left, the Venezuelan. The other, of political origin in Farabundo, but finally within the wave alt-right or illiberal right that grows in the world.
Like Bukele now, the Bolivarian had won one and another election without fraud and widely by placing the poor abandoned by that conspiracy at the center of his speech. The Salvadoran did it successfully mastering brutal violence of the gangs, the extortionate and bloodthirsty gangs founded by the orphans of the devastating Central American war.
This street violence, according to the UN Development Program, generated an annual cost to El Salvador of no less than 16% of GDP. A pirated country. Bukele focused on that monster whose heads had multiplied in the larga was of previous corruption. The chosen methodology is part of the controversy: 71,000 people, equivalent to 7% of all males between 14 and 29 years old, are imprisoned, many awaiting trial.
According to The Economist The number of prisoners in El Salvador compared to the population exceeds that of any other country. Human rights groups are outraged, but most Salvadorans they seem delighted. The homicide rate went from 106 per 100,000 people to eight or even less in 2022, only slightly worse than that of the United States. The electoral support should not be surprising then. Security is a primary commitment of any government.
Nayib Bukele, greeting his supporters with his wife, Gabriela de Bukele. Xinhua Photo
But, as in the case of our comparison, these achievements were contaminated by certain messianism and cult of personality, even forcing legality to retain power. Bukele calls himself the “CEO of El Salvador” or “the philosopher king” on social media. Even more complex: “The coolest dictator in the world.”
The expired limits began to be noticed in 2022 with a law that punished those who transmit or reproduce messages “created or supposedly created” by gangs that could foster “anxiety and panic” with 15 years in prison. An abstraction applicable to any report that upsets those in power. Bukele himself has questioned certain journalists who later received torrents of threats. Several fled the country.
After winning his first term and achieving a majority in Congress, the leader overthrew the judges of the Constitutional Court and the attorney general who was investigating his ministers for embezzlement. He replaced them with his people and also with that army he relieved a huge group of judges. He thus obtained the green light for the re-election prohibited by the Salvadoran Constitution. But more importantly, as in Venezuela, it left the balance of powers by the wayside.
Finally, the verticalized legislature reduced the number of seats “by law” in 2021 from 84 to 60 and converted the country's 262 municipalities into 44 districts, a direct benefit to his political strength.
That concentrated power is important today, but Bukele is possibly thinking about the future. His management has the Achilles heel in an erratic and unpredictable economy. A problem that throbbed after the nightmare of violence, but that takes force with the new scenario. According to the Latinobarómetro survey, only 2% of Salvadorans now perceive violence as the country's main problem.
What comes next? Here another uncomfortable similarity appears in our game of similarities. The economy is close to disaster and there is a certain future social tension, warn analysts, especially those on the right side where this intense admirer of Donald Trump feels most comfortable.
The country, they claim, is vulnerable to a balance of payments crisis due to a double trade and fiscal deficit. The highest dollar income It is produced only through remittances from Salvadorans abroad. It represents 25% of GDP and 40% of domestic consumption along with a stagnant labor market. In this scenario, the implementation of bitcoin as an alternative official currency has not been a good idea.
The IMF recommended that the government abandon that resource, which Bukele embraces, because it characterizes it as very volatile. There was no response from the president, except for the request that the Fund not publish the annual report on the country. Votes matter. But the public debt It already reaches 76% of the Product and it is not clear how a growth of 3.5% would be achieved, which is what would provide a break-even point.
The challenge of poverty
Analysts such as Manuel Orozco of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington warn that “the saviors will resent and in a year there will be signs of discontent.” It is the opposition's bet to try to be reborn. It will seek to ride on an objective fact: extreme poverty jumped from 4.5% to 8.5% with inflation in food of around 16%.
Gang members of the Salvatrucha gang, arrested. Reuters Photo
Omar Serrano, vice-rector of Social Projection of the José Simeón Cañas Central American University, cited by Economic value, agrees that after security “the concern is the economic situation and, although government propaganda says otherwise, there is a very serious crisis“.
“State suppliers they do not receive their payments for months, in some cases, more than a year. The crisis in public finances is evident in the closure of institutions that serve the most vulnerable sectors, such as the Youth Institute, the Vocational Training Institute, organizations that serve the indigenous population, etc.,” he explains.
On the plain this problem emerges with shocking falls of 54% in the diet of protein, meat or chicken, due to costs. “More than 34% of Salvadorans are in debt and a quarter of the population says they intend to leave the country in 2024 to escape poverty,” says Orozco. Only 20% of the economically active population has a formal job and the rest of Salvadorans earn their living in informal urban jobs.
A shock absorber of this panorama is the simple key that the drop in violence attracts investments, increases tourism and revives internal trade. But it's a part. It will be seen if Bukele is more than what he has shown so far and The leader gives way to the president. It would be positive, only then would the comparisons be cancelled.
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