El Salvador has had a difficult history when it comes to obtaining democracy in the country. They have been at the hands of multiple oppressive regimes since their independence and the first dictator of the country, Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, in the 1930s. Their current president, Nayib Bukele, is a populist and has been criticized for governing in an authoritarian manner based off his actions being president. Today, we will be taking a deeper dive into the growth of populism in the country, looking into their past and comparing to their present.
Looking into a brief history of El Salvador’s past with authoritarianism, it is evident that there has been a struggle obtaining democracy. Starting with Maximiliano Hernández Martínez organizing and leading a coup d’état to overtake the government in 1931. He was the start of the military dictatorships that carried on until 1979 when the Revolutionary Government Junta took power and the start of the Salvadorian Civil War. This war took place because the governments use of military forces to take part in oppression and arbitrary killings of their citizens, most notably the El Mozote massacre in December 1981 where over 1000 people were killed. The war was fought by the United States backed Revolutionary Government and the communist backed Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). This war finally came to an end with the Chapultepec Peace Accords in 1992 which amended their constitution and legitimized the FMLN as a major political party. This peace agreement amended the constitution to prohibit the military from having any involvement with internal government proceedings, modifications to the judicial and the electoral system with the defense of human rights, and the replacement of the national guard while disbanding all armed FMLN units.
During this post-war period, there was shift in the government. Armando Calderón Sol, an ARENA right-wing political candidate, was the first elected president of El Salvador from 1994 – 1998. He was seen as the first step in the path towards democracy for the country. He implemented numerous economic reforms and reduced the number of troops. His presidency was marked with corruption within the government and violent protest of former combatants who were trying to make their way into civilian life with the unfulfilled promises. His presidency marked a large increase in criminal violence, in part due to the large numbers of weapons that many Salvadorians had in the aftermath of the war. His presidency was succeeded by Francisco Flores Pérez, another member of the ARENA party. Flores’ administration became close to the U.S. way of life. He was accused of laundering money $15 million dollars that were donated by Taiwan for the survivors of the 2001 El Salvador earthquakes that occurred during his presidency. He was tried and charged but died before he could stand trial. Flores was then succeeded by Elías Antonio “Tony” Saca González who was also apart of the ARENA party. During his term, he was found to have embezzled more than $300 million of public funds, was convicted and is currently serving a 10 year sentence. Saca was eventually succeeded by Mauricio Funes who was a part of the FMLN political party. He was also found to have laundered more than $700,000 in funding into his personal bank account. Funes fled to Nicaragua to seek asylum and is currently residing there, rejecting arrest request against him. Salvador Sánchez Cerén was a FMLN party president, who was a guerrilla leader in the Salvadorian Civil War. He has had an unproblematic presidency up until 2019. The corruption of the previous presidents who were supposed to help the country build and grow into a democracy greatly hindered the countries expansion. Because of this corruption and the increasing crime rates, citizens sought after a new kind of leader.
El Salvador’s current president, Nayib Bukele, is a populist who ran under the central-right Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA) and is the founder of the political party Nuevas Ideas. He made his campaign promises to be to crack down on government corruption and improve security, which he won the election by a landslide. But he has recently been criticized for his manner of governing, in a very authoritarian manner. Bukele marched soldiers into El Salavdors Parliament, in order to intimidate them into approving a loan for new security equipment. He was thought to be a change from previous administrations but has shown himself to be similar to politicians that were in office during the Civil War. Much of the public has concerns over his recent governing actions, saying how it reminds them of what happened during the war. El Salvador has had this continuous struggle between authoritarian leaders and corrupt politicians. The crime rates continue to rise and corruption is never ending. It seems as though there is no relief for its citizens.
Your topic definitely has a lot of present day implications. Populist authoritarian leaders often attack their opponents physically, not just rhetorically, or tacitly support violence and intimidation against the opposition. Your article made me think back to an event at the end of January or the beginning of February 2021. Gunmen fired on and killed FMLN supporters who were returning from a campaign rally in the back of a lorry. The attack was four weeks before legislative and municipal elections. Bukele tweeted, not sympathy for the deceased, but a statement claiming the FMLN staged the attack to gain sympathy in the upcoming elections. The FMLN responded in kind that Bukele ordered their assassination.
I’d love to hear your thoughts, weighing in on this debate. Are you aware of any specific election intimidation incidents or violence against opponents by Bukele?
Good luck on your finals!