A half-yearly comment and update on political developments in El Salvador by the El Salvador Network (ESNET), a UK-based solidarity network.
We are grateful to ESNET for permission to reproduce their latest Update (November 2019) in our website.
Key words: ARENA; FMLN; GANA; Nayib Bukele; gang violence; corruption; Archbishop Oscar Romero.
The former Marxist guerrilla army (the FMLN) demobilised, as Peace Accords were signed, in 1992 to bring the 12 year long civil war to an end in El Salvador. There was space for the FMLN to organise politically, and contest elections locally and nationally. This finally resulted in the first ever Left Presidency from 2009 – 2014. President Mauricio Funes is now in exile in Nicaragua after being charged with large scale corruption. Previous right wing (ARENA) Presidents have also been charged, conveniently died or been imprisoned for even greater corruption offences.
The second FMLN term, 2014 to May 2019, of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, saw little social progress as the FMLN tried a variety of tactics to tackle massive gang related violence, which has forced many into exile and resulted in many murders each day. Against this violent background it was clear that the historic opportunity so many had fought for – and many had died for – had not achieved a lot. Programmes to give out free school uniforms, and fund co-operatives to grow maize seed for food sustainability were a good start, but there was never a radical transformation of society. Ten years of the FMLN in government left them exhausted by the gang wars, mired in many accounts of favouritism, ineffectiveness, nepotism and worse.
In the February 2019 Presidential Election, the FMLN candidate came a distant third, with ARENA (extreme right wing) second and a clear first round victory with well over the necessary 50% for Nayib Bukele, formally of the GANA centre right party.
An initial wave of euphoria that here was something new politically to move El Salvador beyond the 2 party paralysis of the post-civil war period has given way to a more nuanced reflection. Bukele has allied himself with Trump and against Cuba and Venezuela and has recently expelled Venezuelan diplomats. Some of his more left wing supporters hope this is to keep onside with the US in order to be left alone to initiate some social and economic progress. Announcing that all teachers will move to ‘flexible’ (in effect zero hours) contracts shows the economic direction of travel of Bukele.
Who is Nayib Bukele?
Son of a wealthy family and working originally in the family business, Bukele (now 38) worked as a PR specialist on the 2009 FMLN Presidential election campaign for Mauricio Funes, and subsequently joined the party. He was quickly elected Mayor of a small town, and then of the capital city, San Salvador. He proved to be dynamic, controversial, slick, a maverick who never fitted well in the FMLN. He was expelled from the FMLN for a number of acts against party rules, and then became candidate for President of the GANA centre right party in 2019.
Bukele is a figure similar to Macron in France – a young dynamic outsider who has shaken the political mould – with no clear ideology, but clearly of the centre / right. Above all he is a ‘self-brand’, adept in using social media. He has had some early successes against the gangs, reducing the daily murder toll. El Salvador recently hosted the Latin American surfing championships, and Bukele encouraged all the surfers to go back home and tell everyone how wonderful El Salvador is for surfing, and how they should all come and stay a while! It seems that attacks on trade unions, public sector social programmes and the alternative press show that Bukele is going all out to attract US private sector investors.
Meanwhile Archbishop Oscar Romero (murdered while saying mass by a death squad in 1980) has been finally officially canonized by the Argentinian Pope Francis as ‘San Romero de las Americas’. The ceremony in Rome was a national celebration of Romero and his legacy – which is still disputed, since the right have tried to reclaim Romero as one of their own. March 2020 will mark the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Romero, which will be commemorated widely in El Salvador, and around the world, including here in the UK.