The United States has a long history of involvement in regime changes for Latin American countries, which has led to conflicting opinions on whether the United States’s efforts left parts of Latin America worse off in the name of protecting democracy. This history of the United States poses the question of if the United States will act toward stopping the democratic backsliding in El Salvador even with the public’s overwhelming support for their Authoritarian President, Bukele.
The people of El Salvador are expressing overwhelming support for their Authoritarian President, Bukele, at a high rate, roughly around 90%. A key reason for their overwhelming support is rooted in the nation’s history of issues with the violent gang MS-13 and high rates of homicides. One of Bukele’s campaign promises to the people of El Salvador was to address the high number of homicides in the nation. Upon reflection, since he has taken office, he has kept his promise to voters with the falling murder rate.
However, his falling crimes and homicide rates results have led the people of El Salvador to turn a blind eye to his atypical “caudillo” nature. His actions and words towards the gang members of El Salvador have been made very public through his public speeches to the nation, which include direct threats towards the gang members. His remarks also address the voices of concern towards democratic backsliding and how he has addressed gang violence by expressing populist statements in attempts to remind the public of the high amounts of violence the gangs have forced the people to suffer and his role in diminishing their suffering. Bukele describes how the voices against his actions are against the public’s safety and do not understand the pain inflicted by these criminals. President Bukele also garners public support through his ideas of a better El Salvador with a focus on its economy and tourism. His remarks towards the nation continue to be populist even when focusing on issues aside from crime and gang violence.
Applying Gultchin and Kyle’s three main types of populism to characterize Bukele’s populist nature would focus on a mixture between Cultural Populism and Socio-Economic Populism since Bukele has not only othered the criminals but the wealthy of the nation. Human rights organizations have watched his populist and authoritarian nature. The Economist interviewed Celia Medrano, a candidate for the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, who cautioned the public and hinted at the possibility of having history repeat itself by saying, “We have seen this story many times before in this region,” and “The president wants to, and can, make history but needs to learn from history.” This caution holds importance as it stems from the reflection of President Bukele’s rise, and his actions as President show unchecked power.
President Bukele controls the executive and legislative branches of the nations. Bukele is the founder of his party Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas) after being removed from the communist party Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberación Nacional (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front). The party Nuevas Ideas holds a supermajority in the legislative assembly allowing for President Bukele’s control over the third branch of government since the assembly picks a new attorney-general and the five Supreme Court justices. Bukele’s alarming authoritarian nature is depicted by his efforts to show force and pressure for the legislature to do his bidding by having heavily armed police and soldiers in the parliament building. At the time, the legislators debated whether to approve funding for a $109 million equipment loan to support his war on the gangs of El Salvador. Bukele’s authoritarian nature has human rights activist Tatiana Marroquin expressing concern for the future of El Salvador and whether the people will unnecessarily sacrifice their right to control certain societal problems. Her alarm also stems from Burkele’s clear disregard for the Constitution of the Republic of El Salvador, which states term limits for the President. The current term limit is five years and holds restrictions on reelections. Concerningly, current President Bukele is seeking re-election for the year 2024. Bukele states that “the people should have the right to reject or continue down the road on which they are traveling.” However, the President is ineligible to seek re-election as there is a constitutional ban on consecutive terms. This effort of his to undermine the Constitution can be interpreted as an effort to remain in his authoritarian presidential regime and could lead to concerns towards a potential dictatorship (Economist).
President Bukele’s authoritarian nature has received a large amount of attention across the globe. President Bukele has sparked a “Bukelization of Mexico” where Ricardo Anaya, ideologically on the right in Mexico, has imposed similar ‘solutions” inspired by President Bukele. The President has also inspired a clone of his party, Nuevas Ideas in Guatemala, which has gained traction against the current president of Guatemala.
As President Bukele’s regime causes a domino effect, the global leaders are posed with an interesting battle of whether or not to try and address the democratic backsliding in El Salvador even though there is a significant amount of support for President Bukele.
As a Salvadoran American, I have even heard my parents and family members on social media preach a lot of support to President Bukele, but I think it’s mostly because they claim that not other president has done anything to help them and solve those issues with gangs. My mother did not let me visit El Salvador for many years in fear that something would happen to me, I only then went when Bukele was president, and there was a large difference seeing police outside as security, protecting the people. People go out more now than before. People would be afraid to go out at a certain time in fear of being attacked and killed by gangs. Even today, my mom can’t consider a star tattoo in fear of being attacked if she decides to visit El Salvador. I can understand why so many people support Bukele, but I cannot deny that you have a point that he is taking advantage of all of this support and abusing his power in a way that threatens the democracy in the nation. He is doing a lot to fix such a big issue in the country that has been ignored for years, but he has to stay democratic for the better of El Salvador. Just to fix one issue, a bigger issue should not come out of it. If El Salvador loses its democracy, the country will be worse off, and knowing the conditions of the country, it would lead to a lot of economic devastation and possibly even cause a mass migration in the future to the U.S. or any other area that isn’t El Salvador to escape from the problems.