Facing Multiple Crises, Left and Right Keep El Salvador in Gridlock

A hearse arrives to a home in rural El Salvador to take the body of a Covid-19 victim to the cemetery. (Courthouse News photo/Miguel Patricio)

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (CN) — Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele is facing a concerted attempt from the political right and putative left, who are blocking his reforms and trying to persuade the public that his administration is no different from its corrupt predecessors.

Bukele was elected president in 2019 running under the banner of the New Ideas Party, which he created ex nihiloHe has no deputies in the National Assembly and will have none until national elections in February.

So the right-wing Arena party, once known as the party of the death squads, and the corruption-riddled FMLN, whom Bukele displaced, are doing everything they can to prevent Bukele from carrying out his programs, which polls show enjoy broad support from the public.

Among their tactics are efforts to curtail donations from abroad that finance public projects. Rightists in the legislature have prevented the Treasury from disbursing funds that already have arrived from the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. The result: Despite a nationwide medical and employment catastrophe, Bukele’s enemies refuse to let him spend money that would help the people and small businesses on the brink.

A bombshell article in the influential opposition digital site El Faro accused the president of negotiating with the major gangs, M-13 and Barrio 18. El Faro claimed that in exchange for reducing homicides, the 28,000 imprisoned gang members are receiving benefits from the Bukele administration. 

Opinion on the street will have nothing of it. Perhaps a majority of adults in this country of 6.4 million knows someone in prison. So they know that one of Bukele’s first moves was to confiscate the cellphones the previous administration had allowed in the prisons, and reduce violence by mixing enemy gangs in the same cell.

America’s Watch and the U.N. human rights office warned this “social mixing” would result in violent mayhem, but in fact it brought a truce. Unlike Brazil, Honduras and Guatemala, where gangs have fought to the death in the prisons, in El Salvador there have been no such incidents under Bukele. In taming the prisons, Bukele also has quieted the streets, where gangs took their orders from imprisoned capos. Homicide statistics have plunged, extortions are in decline and the public is grateful.

After these accusations of a secret deal with the gangs, the president invited local news media and the international press to visit three prisons dedicated wholly to gang members. Asked about the alleged benefits, the prisoners came up empty. None were visible and none were reported.

Nonetheless, The New York Times, Washington Post and BBC recently ran stories backing up the allegations made by El Faro. CNN in Spanish then ran stories discrediting El Faro and its reports.

“It’s all a matter of sources,” one reporter with years of experience in Central America told Courthouse News. “The political powers that be are dead set against Bukele.”

It’s difficult in any country to know what’s really going on inside prisons. What’s clear is that Arena and the FMLN are losing their grip on the country. Thirty years after the accords that brought an end to a gruesome 10-year civil war, Bukele was swept into office by a public fed up with cronyism and corruption.

The February elections will determine all seats in the National Assembly and all of the municipal governments. Polls show Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party and its allies comfortably ahead. The public longs for a complete rejection of the old ways.

The United States provides generous amounts of humanitarian and security assistance to El Salvador, as do China and many European countries. With more money, and a national legislature that allows him to spend it, Bukele will be able to deal with serious pension issues, dilapidated schools and infrastructure. It’s not a new situation in world politics: a reformist government facing an entrenched political class willing to do anything it can to make the reformers fail.

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