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World & Nation

Is El Salvador’s millennial president a reformer or an autocrat?

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele enters Legislative Assembly guarded by military and police
Armed troops and police officers appear at El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly chambers during President Nayib Bukele’s visit on Feb. 9, 2020.
(Rodrigo Sura / European Pressphoto Agency)

The media in El Salvador quickly dubbed it “9F.”

On Feb. 9, President Nayib Bukele walked into the Legislative Assembly flanked by dozens of police officers and soldiers armed with assault rifles and decked out in body armor and riot gear.

The move was a pressure tactic to win approval of a $109-million loan for law enforcement and military equipment, which the president says is needed to continue a crackdown on gangs that has helped him earn approval ratings of more than 80%.

President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador
President Nayib Bukele during his intervention in the legislature in San Salvador.
(Rodrigo Sura / European Press Agency)

But to older Salvadorans and much of the political establishment, the display of force triggered memories of civil war and raised fears that the country was backsliding into authoritarianism.

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The fallout from 9F has taken the sheen off 38-year-old Bukele, who won the presidency last year in a landslide on an outsider platform of fighting corruption, transcending political partisanship and restoring security.

His youth, his penchant for sunglasses and leather jackets and his agility on social media — he has 1.3 million Twitter followers — all helped solidify his image as a reformer who could help El Salvador escape its past.

Bukele was just 10 years old in 1992 when peace accords officially ended the Cold War conflict that pitted successive U.S.-backed governments against leftist guerrillas and in 12 years claimed more than 75,000 lives.

“El Salvador has turned the page on the postwar era,” he declared after his election victory. “And now we can start to look toward the future.”

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But critics of the president say his hipster image obscures a deep intolerance for dissent. Detractors point to what they view as a pattern of intimidating the news media and critics even before 9F.

The military occupation of the legislature is widely regarded as the gravest violation to date of the peace accords, which called for a nonpolitical military and the separation of powers among the branches of government. Lawmakers on both sides of the political spectrum denounced it as an attempted coup.

“No Salvadoran can be in favor of this,” said Felissa Cristales, a legislator from the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance, or Arena, who walked out of the Feb. 9 session in protest. “El Salvador is a country where democracy has cost blood.”

But appeals invoking the war may resonate less and less here. More than half the population of 6.5 million were born after the civil war.

Among the biggest concerns here is gang violence. El Salvador has one of the world’s highest homicide rates.

The president’s strategy to combat the lawlessness has focused on deploying the military and law enforcement.

“We don’t want a war,” he tweeted last year. “We are only looking to control territory so that all Salvadorans can live in peace.”

“But if they attack police or soldiers, this will be the result,” Bukele added, linking to a photograph of the bodies of three gang members killed by police.

He claims credit for a drop in homicides — though it began in 2015 — and presents himself as a bulwark against both crime and craven lawmakers.

“Lamentably, the politicians are more worried about protecting criminals, financing criminals, protecting drug traffickers than protecting those who protect us,” Bukele recently told a group of police recruits.

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Bukele has asserted that troops and police were deployed in the legislature not to bully lawmakers, but to shield them from protesters calling for their ouster.

“Anyone who suggested I was using our security forces for anything other than to protect the safety and integrity of the National Assembly is misreporting the truth,” Bukele said in a letter to the Washington Post. “Separation of powers is not at risk in my country.”

But critics note that Bukele encouraged protesters to converge on the legislature in the first place.

Before entering the chambers, Bukele addressed thousands of his supporters outside, denouncing lawmakers as “shameless” and “criminals” and proclaiming that the people had the right of “insurrection.”

Tensions inside quickly escalated.

“It was at the point of becoming a bloodbath,” said retired Col. Carlos Rivas, an expert in military affairs whose sources reported that some opposition supporters were on the verge of confronting the soldiers and police.

International human rights groups also expressed concern about the show of force, as did the U.S. government, which considers Bukele a close ally.

Representatives from El Salvador’s two long-dominant political parties — Arena on the right and the FMLN, or Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, on the left — ultimately said they needed more time to study the loan request and put off making a decision.

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In the meantime, the Supreme Court ordered Bukele to cease pressuring lawmakers to approve the loan, a ruling he said he would obey, easing tensions.

Bukele, who is of Palestinian heritage, worked with his late father, a prominent businessman, and ran a motorcycle distributorship before being elected mayor of the small town of Nuevo Cuscatlan in 2012. Three years later he ran for mayor of San Salvador, the capital, and won.

He entered office under the banner of the FMLN, the party of the former guerrillas. But in 2017, the party ousted him for what it called ethical violations, including stoking divisions.

Bukele called the expulsion payback for his criticism of party leadership and declared himself an independent. He won the presidency as candidate of the minor center-right Great Alliance for Unity party and has continued to lambaste both major parties.

Last week, Bukele publicly excoriated lawmakers to a visiting delegation from the Inter-American Development Bank, a key source of financing for projects throughout the hemisphere.

“Believe me,” Bukele told the bankers, “if you lived for one day in El Salvador, you would set fire to all the politicians together.”

No longer a leftist, Bukele has celebrated President Trump as “cool,” inked an immigration deal with Washington condemned by human rights advocates and broke off diplomatic relations with the socialist government of Venezuela.

Despite lingering acrimony from 9F , Bukele remains a popular figure on the streets of the capital, especially among the poor and working classes. Many credit his administration with reducing gang violence and extortion.

A poll released Thursday from Francisco Gavidia University in San Salvador found that 78.5% of respondents approved of Bukele’s actions on Feb. 9 partially or totally, while 21.4% disapproved.

“The president was correct in pressuring the lawmakers, that’s very important” said Oscar González, 38, a street vendor hawking cellphone accessories in downtown San Salvador. “Look, where we are now, the Army is here, so I don’t have to pay protection to the gangsters. I can sell my stuff without problems.”

Staff writer McDonnell reported from Mexico City and special correspondent Renderos from San Salvador. Special correspondent Cecilia Sánchez in Mexico City contributed to this report.


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