At Long Last, Glimmers of Hope in El Salvador

Tania Vanessa Avalos of El Salvador is the wife of the man who drowned with their 23-month-old daughter trying to cross the Rio Grande into Texas on June 23. The heart-rending photo of their bodies circulated around the world. (AP photo/Salvador Melendez)

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (CN) — Since the Salvadoran civil war ended in 1992 the country has been ruled by either the right-wing ARENA party (1989-2009) or the formerly left-wing FMLN, named for a coalition of armed groups that challenged the US-backed army from 1980-1992. The FMLN won the presidency in 2009 and left power on June 1 this year, after humiliating defeats in legislative elections in 2018 and this year’s presidential election.

Nayib Bukele, the 37-year-old old former mayor of San Salvador, is the country’s new president. After a dramatic break from the FMLN in 2018 he struggled to form a new party but was thwarted and ran on the ticket of a minor party.

In February, in a shock to both major parties, El Salvador overwhelmingly rejected the right-wing party of the death squads and the party of the once-leftist guerrillas. Bukele’s coalition won more votes than ARENA and the FMLN combined.

In his campaign, Bukele branded the FMLN as a right-wing party as corrupt as the disgraced ARENA, whose last president, Tony Saca, is in prison for stealing $150 million.

(El Salvador adopted the U.S. dollar as its currency in 2001. This means its exports must be paid for in dollars and it must compete with countries that have undervalued currencies. Though El Salvador has no control over the dollar’s value, it avoids the hyperinflation that has caused headaches for some currencies. The hope was that using the dollar would attract foreign investment, but the violence has made potential investors wary.)

Past president Mauricio Funes (2009-2014) of the FMLN is accused of stealing $350 million and has fled to Nicaragua, where he is a fugitive, evading charges of corruption and money laundering. Nicaragua refuses to extradite him and has given him asylum.

Bukele comes from a prominent family of Palestinian origin. His background is entrepreneurial rather than political. As mayor of the capital city, he is highly regarded for having restored the historical center of San Salvador and improving its infrastructure and municipal governance.

A recent poll by Mitofsky, a respected Mexican pollster, recorded his approval rate at 80% — unprecedented popularity for a Salvadoran president.

In June, Bukele’s first month in office, he sent the army and police to recover the commercial centers of 17 cities controlled by gangs. He declared an emergency in the many prisons filled with gang members and ordered cellphone companies to curtail coverage in the prisons to prevent gang leadership from communicating with the outside. All 28 prisons are in lockdown and visits to prisoners are forbidden.

This week he said he is sending the army to corral the teenagers who work as lookouts for the gangs, and will induct them into the army — an announcement that was greeted with little short of jubilation.

Bukele has announced a nationwide project to provide job training for 100,000 young people, to halt the gangs’ extortion of business owners and market vendors, and to expand free health care in marginal, mostly rural communities. He has promised to end the conditions that have forced hundreds of thousands to flee to other countries to seek safety.

Bukele has told young people to forget their plans to build a life abroad, but to stay and help construct a new country without the epidemic of violence and insecurity. He has promised to invite an international commission to investigate and prosecute the corruption that has emptied the public coffers through generations of impunity for those responsible for crimes of every description.

With overwhelming support both inside and outside the country for Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas Party, many Salvadorans have found a sense of optimism that has been absent since the end of the more than decade-long armed conflict in 1992. What criticism there is comes from disgruntled folks who are losing influence rapidly as the reforms are announced and implemented daily.

Some cynics expect things will revert to the old ways of indifference to the enormous social problems and squalor in mainland Americas’ most densely populated country, and suspect that Bukele is just another opportunist, who will end up like the long list of previous pathetic presidents.

Relations with the United States have started amicably. Rather than blame the United States for the suffering of thousands of Salvadorans detained in U.S. immigration prisons, Bukele says that El Salvador is to blame, for failing to provide security and employment opportunities that could have made the exodus unnecessary.

Of course, he says, he would like to see the tens of thousands of Dreamers regain legal status and return to the settled family lives they have had in the United States since 2001 — a status that president Trump is trying to cancel. But recognizing the importance of good relations with El Salvador’s biggest trading partner, Bukele has adopted a diplomatic tone with Washington and seems sincere in his policy of discouraging people from leaving the country without proper documents.

El Salvador will need plenty of assistance from foreign sources if it is to emerge from its multigenerational nightmare. If the anti-corruption campaign succeeds in restoring the trust of foundations and governments to assist with grants and loans, the new president may be poised to usher in a dramatic reversal in what was a failed state.

(Courthouse News Salvadoran correspondent Miguel Patricio is a human rights attorney and a former professor at the University of El Salvador.)

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