The Pressure Cooker in El Salvador

Julia Evelin Martínez

El Salvador president Nayib Bukele has been in office eight months, and his post-ideological pretenses on the campaign trail have quickly veered to the right. In an interview, Salvadoran economist Julia Evelin Martínez assesses Bukele’s first eight months in office, the sad state of the Salvadoran left, and why she’s fervently hoping for a Bernie Sanders presidency.

El Salvador president Nayib Bukele meets Chinese premier Li Keqiang at the Great Hall of the People on December 3, 2019 in Beijing, China. Noel Celis - Pool / Getty

Interview by
Hilary Goodfriend

On February 3, 2019, El Salvador elected insurgent candidate Nayib Bukele to the presidency, ousting the party of the former leftist insurgency, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), after two consecutive terms in office. Bukele, a millionaire millennial from a wealthy Palestinian family, positioned himself as an irreverent outsider against a corrupt and obsolete political class, claiming to transcend left-right divisions and overcome the deep partisan antagonisms that continue to structure Salvadoran politics decades after UN negotiations brought an end to a twelve-year civil war between the US-backed military dictatorship and the guerrillas. Despite his post-ideological pretenses on the campaign trail, Bukele’s administration has steered El Salvador sharply to the right.

Over ten years in power, the FMLN instituted major social programs, institutional reforms, and investment in El Salvador’s historically marginalized poor majority. But the former Marxist-Leninist insurgents failed to ameliorate the country’s deep-rooted crisis of gang violence and extortion, or to reform El Salvador’s profoundly unequal, US-dependent neoliberal economy. Mounting right-wing destabilization together with the regional rightward turn left the FMLN increasingly isolated internationally and debilitated internally.

Bukele, never an FMLN cadre, was drafted to run as an FMLN mayor in 2012 through the influence of his late father, a major party donor. The young advertising executive brought refreshing vigor to a party still led by aging former comandantes, but his ambitions and insubordination to party discipline culminated in expulsion in 2017. After failing to establish his own “New Ideas” party in time for the 2019 elections, Bukele sought the presidency with the conservative GANA (Grand Alliance for National Unity) party and won a sweeping victory.

Following devastating defeats in 2018 and 2019, the FMLN has been reduced to historic lows in the legislature and municipal governments, and its downward spiral is projected to continue in the 2021 midterms. Many militants, long critical of anti-democratic decision-making and the distancing of public officials from the rank and file, have clamored for introspection and a return to the party’s revolutionary roots. But the party appears rudderless, with the leadership mired in internal power struggles and the base beleaguered and demoralized. The organization that once inspired a rebellious spirit of hope and transformation now teeters on the brink of obscurity.

In this interview with Jacobin contributing editor Hilary Goodfriend, Dr Julia Evelin Martínez, a feminist economist and professor at the Jesuit Central American University (UCA) in San Salvador, analyzes Bukele’s first eight months in office. She describes with concern his misogynist authoritarian style and free-market economic agenda, and she raises questions about the much-touted drop in the official murder rate since his inauguration. Martínez is pessimistic about the FMLN’s revival, and she worries that the demise of the Salvadoran left has cleared the path for Bukele, who remains enormously popular, to lead the country toward fascism.

Hilary Goodfriend

During his campaign, Bukele avoided committing to concrete policy proposals. Instead, he focused on drawing equivalences between the FMLN and ARENA, the ultra-conservative party of the traditional oligarchic elite, claiming he represented a new form of doing politics in El Salvador. How would you characterize his administration so far?

Julia Evelin Martínez

At the political level, I find it very similar to Donald Trump, and I consider Trump’s government authoritarian, with neofascist characteristics. These are disguised, however, as populism, and in the case of Nayib Bukele, disguised as a millennial, as a break with the prior political classes. But he represents perhaps the worst thing that has happened to El Salvador politically since the Peace Accords were signed.

Bukele has many authoritarian and fascistic features, for example, the way he communicates with the people is exactly the same way Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro do, via Twitter. He doesn’t address people directly. And this is a form of governance that is apparently transparent and open, but really it’s indirect and opaque. Those on social media who might oppose his politics or question a decision are immediately blocked by the president’s account. This is very similar to Donald Trump’s practices in the United States, where a judge ordered that he was violating the freedom of expression.

The government positions Bukele as Moses leading the people to the promised land, and all those disposed to follow him without questioning and to obey down to the letter, those are the people that he has included as his advisers and in his cabinet. The difficulty is that often that loyalty to the dear leader doesn’t come with the necessary technical abilities, the proof of which is the current crisis of potable water that the San Salvador metropolitan area is currently experiencing.

The director of the water authority is unconditionally at the beck and call of the president, obeys him completely, but is totally incapable of understanding the water crisis in El Salvador, understanding that you can’t just grab water from wherever and pump it out. There’s a total inability not just to comprehend the country’s economic and social problems, but to manage those problems, since everything is centralized in the figure of the leader.

There’s another worrying indicator, which is that he talks about a plan to control national territory. I believe that we do have to recoup territory and restore the institutional state, since that is one of the sources of social violence, of the gangs, and of drug trafficking. But the control he imagines is more centralized. For example, it’s been some eight months of his term, and he hasn’t even appointed governors for all fourteen provinces, and the governor is the administration’s first link to the territory. But he says he doesn’t need governors because he can do it all himself, directly, on social media.

Furthermore, going back to the authoritarian and neofascist elements, Bukele tries to influence people through the information matrix that he now controls, thanks to the alliance that he has established with the big media companies: Telecorporación Salvadoreña, the Diario de Hoy, the Prensa Gráfica, the Diario El Mundo.

He doesn’t just work through social media like he did during the campaign, when he even had some disputes with the mainstream media — the Prensa Gráfica even sued him for cloning their site. Now, nearly 70 percent of all government advertising has been channeled into those media. They have more government ads than they did under either prior FMLN administration, so they’re satisfied. They provide positive coverage of the government and try to keep him happy so that the money keeps coming in.

One example of this special treatment is in January 2020, when the UCA presented its poll about the first six months of the Bukele administration. His rating fell from 8.4 at 100 days to 7.8. If this had happened to the FMLN, the headlines would read, “Government’s rating falls,” but instead, the major headlines don’t mention the decline, and instead they focused on things like “The president is the best evaluated official.” There’s a bit of a fascist trait in all this, which is corporativism, the alliance between authoritarian governments with certain sectors of national capital, in exchange for their silence when they are violating the constitution.

Then there’s his cozying up to the fundamentalist evangelical churches, who invoke him like the messiah. In the UCA poll, the evangelical churches rate above the Catholic Church. This alliance isn’t out of conviction, it’s the same as Bolsonaro or Trump.

Now, in economic terms, I’ve dubbed [his approach] “neoliberalism 3.0.” He has an economic program that no one has seen, but it’s there. He created it with the National Association for Private Enterprise (ANEP), together with the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and, of course, the US Embassy — USAID and the State Department. This program continues the same neoliberal inertia that’s dominated since 1989 and was expanded following the Peace Accords, and which continued with the FMLN administrations.

By neoliberalism, I’m referring to the continuity of this paradigm for interpreting problems and designing solutions for economic problems that consists of weakening the public and strengthening the private — strengthening capital by weakening the state.

Shortly after his inauguration, he convened a forum on competitivity. He brought [Mexican billionaire] Carlos Slim, and he said clearly: “Dinner is served.” That is to say, take whatever you can, I won’t get in the way, I won’t put up obstacles. They say he already authorized some $1.6 billion in environmental permits that were held up by the previous administration because of issues with environmental impact, or because they hadn’t been adequately consulted with the community.

I watch a lot of bad movies, and it reminds me of Anaconda, when they’re going down the river and come across a huge barrier. The guy who’s in a big hurry says, “We have to get through there!” They say, “But surely that’s there for a reason.” But no, they dynamite it and move forward, they remove the obstacle, and further on they find the giant snake that’s going to eat them for lunch. Bukele refuses to recognize the climate emergency in El Salvador, he refuses to recognize the water crisis, the problem that El Salvador is in the Mesoamerican dry corridor. If he is going to do more infrastructure megaprojects, and they don’t have environmental impact studies, no consideration for the communities, then he’s removing the barrier, but on the other side, there’s an anaconda.

He believes the private sector will solve everything. And as long as ANEP gives him their support, and Bukele continues with his economic agenda of neoliberalism 3.0, or neoliberalism recharged, then he can relax and guarantee governability when it comes to capital — something that was one of the principal obstacles to changes the FMLN administrations wanted to make, but they couldn’t, simply because of ANEP’s opposition.

There’s something else: this is a sexist, misogynist government. There’s this axis where we see Bolsonaro, Trump, and now Nayib Bukele — there are others, too. He has a cult of the presidential family, with his wife, the first lady, and his daughter, and he has totally obscured the gender equality agenda in El Salvador. It’s been substituted with social welfare policies in which women are served and their rights are recognized so long as they are mothers, so long as they care for their children and assume traditional roles.

There’s been a setback in terms of policies of equality, not just gender equality but also the recognition of sexual diversity and human rights. Several of the officials in Bukele’s government, including the president of the Development Bank of El Salvador (BANDESAL) and the president’s communications secretary, Ernesto Sanabria, are the subject of open investigations, the first for sexual harassment and the second for gender-based violence. Bukele hasn’t paid attention to either case.

Now, that’s the reality, or at least my perception of the reality. But we have to look at people’s perceptions. Despite everything I’ve said — authoritarianism, neoliberalism, human rights violations, setbacks with regards to equality, to the secular state — this president enjoys unprecedented levels of popularity, according to two of the most serious polls in the country. They show that the shine is starting to fade, like I said, his ratings have fallen, but people report feeling more secure, that things are getting better.

Nevertheless, this popularity is his Achilles heel, because it can only be maintained so long as he maintains his agreement with the gangs. Police sources have indicated that there is some sort of agreement that allows the president to declare zero homicides on certain days. The number of deaths in confrontations between gang members and police has also gone down, and this was one of the principal causes of death for gang members.

Others point to — and this needs to be looked into further — what’s happening now in the National Civil Police under the leadership of Mauricio Arriaza Chicas. It seems that there is a state policy of extermination of all those who are called gang members, drug traffickers, criminals, suspects even. They’re being disappeared, they’re being buried in clandestine graves. It’s something that will have to be looked into, probably in a few years, when we have access to this information and to the graves, and we can start to reconstruct how it was that this apparent period of pacification and security was achieved.

That same UCA poll says that people have the perception that migration is decreasing, but people are still leaving. In fact, the number of deportations from Mexico to El Salvador has increased, because they aren’t allowing them to reach the US southern border. And this is forcing people to explore more dangerous, more costly routes. The repression against migrants has increased. In El Salvador, now they have drones surveilling the border. I wonder, if they have drones to surveil the border, why aren’t they following the drug traffickers?

All of this is generating a pressure cooker in El Salvador. I think the illusion will hold in 2020, but after the 2021 elections, when Nayib Bukele controls the legislature and no longer needs his popularity, no longer needs the people, then we will see what this administration really is, and what the political, economic, and business interests behind Bukele’s presidency are.

Hilary Goodfriend

Bukele began his term by turning the country over to the United States: he met with Trump, he signed a Safe Third Country agreement, he expelled the official Venezuelan diplomatic mission from the country and recognized Juan Guaidó’s self-proclaimed presidency. Recently, his government arrested a man for rallying Salvadorans to join a US-bound migrant caravan. But in December, he traveled to China and secured a major aid package. How would you define Bukele’s foreign policy?

Julia Evelin Martínez

His foreign policy is still a mystery. It’s paranormal diplomacy, something yet to be explained. Because, sure, he courted the United States, but he’s divided. He wants to maintain his close relationship with the United States, because he doesn’t want to be the target of threats and reprisals — because US aid to El Salvador is infinitesimal, it’s nothing! During the civil war, they gave a million dollars a day! It’s more a matter of appearances; he wants to feel like he’s a friend of the United States, that he’s an ally.

So, on the one hand, he’s performing the courtship and signing the migration agreements. This is peak paranormality: designating El Salvador a safe third country! Imagine the most insecure country in the Northern Triangle, one of the least safe countries in the world, signs an agreement with the United States to become a safe country for migrants!

The surprise came when he went on his tour of China. The thing is, his objective isn’t so much geopolitical or diplomatic, but fundamentally economic. He needs something that the United States can’t give him: investment. Rapid, public investment, like he’s seen in Costa Rica, in Panama, or in Africa, where China builds a stadium, or an airport, or a bridge where there’s no river.

It’s something that can’t come from the United States, because US companies come to buy out companies that already exist, to privatize. He needs investment in infrastructure, things you can see, things that he can show off: look at this hospital! Look at this water treatment plant for Lake Ilopango — even though they say that water can’t be made potable. Who cares! He loves physical works. So he goes to China, since the FMLN already opened those relations, and they offer El Salvador the same package that they offer everyone: a stadium, a water treatment plant.

The real confrontation, however, is going to be over the Gulf of Fonseca [whose coastline joins El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua]. The United States knows that if China enters the Gulf of Fonseca, they won’t just get the La Unión port concession, which is unprofitable, but they could build their famous artificial islands that serve as anchors for the expansion of what they’ve called the “new Silk Road.” The United States is worried about the Gulf of Fonseca. And there will come a time when Bukele and his government have to abandon their ambiguity and define who they want to waltz with: the United States, or China?

Hilary Goodfriend

Let’s talk about the FMLN. After their spectacular rise from rebel army to the presidency, the FMLN suffered debilitating electoral defeats over the last two years. What happened to the FMLN, and where do you see the Salvadoran left?

Julia Evelin Martínez

First of all, I’ll say that I understand the Left as an ethical position, a position against capital and the relations of exploitation and extraction that the system generates. It’s a proposal for new relations based on justice, cooperation, and solidarity — call it socialism or communism, but the Left runs from moderate expressions to radical ones.

The problem is, I don’t know where the Salvadoran left is. Maybe it’s hibernating. But right now, it’s not visible on an ideological or discursive level, not even in the form of the opposition, and least of all in the FMLN. The FMLN has long since ceased to be left. It became a social-democratic party, some say even a center-right party, in their economic policy. So there is no left party, no left movement.

That’s perhaps the most troubling thing, and that’s why Nayib Bukele won with his discourse of being neither left nor right. You’ll note how he changes: when he was in the FMLN, he said that he was on the radical left, that the problem was that he was to the left of the FMLN! Then he said he was neither left nor right. But when he went to the Heritage Foundation in the United States, he declared himself a liberal, on the right. He’s right wing, and the alliance of his New Ideas party with GANA is right wing. The sectors that follow him are right wing, even if they don’t know it.

The Right is gaining in El Salvador, while the Left is increasingly weakened, silenced, disarticulated, and shunned. No one today wants to say they’re leftist. This has permitted Nayib Bukele’s rise. It’s what has permitted the advance of fascism, of neoliberalism, and the erosion of human rights in El Salvador. As long as there’s no recomposition of left thought, of a left ethics, a transformational left project that could be contra-hegemonic to Nayib Bukele’s neoliberal fascist discourse disguised as millennial populism, he will continue to carry these elements forward until we achieve the full installation of fascism in El Salvador after 2021.

There’s a problem. In that UCA poll, political parties are the worst rated; only 2.2 percent of the population trusts political parties, and 49 percent trust the president. Political parties top the list of the most corrupt institutions. This is to say that political parties are in decay, even the traditional right parties haven’t been able to construct a counter-discourse, much less the FMLN. And there’s nothing we could call the seeds of what could be a future movement emerging from the social movements that could later transform into an electoral expression that could be a counterweight to the advance of fascism [in 2021].

Right now, I tell people that what we need is a contention wall against fascism with whatever we have on hand — stones, rubble. Think of the FMLN as rubble; it’s in ruins. Don’t expect a revolution from the FMLN, but at least it can help stop the advance of fascism.

Hilary Goodfriend

Finally, the United States is in the midst of a presidential election. What is at stake for El Salvador and the region?

Julia Evelin Martínez

For El Salvador and Central America, and I dare say the whole world, what happens in these elections is fundamental. If Donald Trump is reelected, we will see the continuity of the conditions that have permitted the expansion of fascism and the erosion of human rights, of minorities’ rights, of women’s rights in our countries, because it’s all done with the protection of the State Department. We will see more obstacles to migration, more criminalization of migrants, more violence, more exclusion, more neoliberalism.

I certainly don’t think that the Democratic Party will substantially modify these power relations, but at least we could have the same old imperialism that has characterized every US administration without promoting fascist governments and movements. That’s why a Democratic victory is so important for El Salvador and the rest of the world, because it will help contain fascism.

Now, there are Democrats and there are Democrats: former vice president Joe Biden is not the same as Bernie Sanders. We would much prefer Bernie Sanders, because he would begin to govern his people better.

The United States is really bad off. It’s almost like the eve of the 1929 crisis in terms of inequality, poverty, precarity, the number of people who don’t have health care or are food insecure. Bernie Sanders could start to reverse all that. In this way, he could influence this vision of a more people-centered, social economy, a non-neoliberal or post-neoliberal capitalism that could influence the rest of the world and our country. I hope he wins.