Bukele calls on God and the military to bend Congress to his will in El Salvador

An interview with Rubén Zamora, the Salvadoran politician and diplomat, who talks about the recent authoritarian actions of President Nayib Bukele. Español

Rubén Zamora José Zepeda
23 March 2020, 12.01am
President Nayib Bukele at his inauguration ceremony with the army
Wu Hao/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

By storming the Congress of the Republic with heavily armed military and police on Sunday, February 16th, President Nayib Bukele heightened the political and social crisis in El Salvador. When Congress failed to approve a loan of $109 million for the President’s Territorial Control Security plan, he said he had lost patience:

"If these scoundrels don't approve the Land Control Plan this week, we'll summon them again, we'll ask God for wisdom and we'll say: God, you asked me for patience, but these scoundrels don't want to work for the people. If they do not approve the loan, the Council of Ministers will summon them again and if they still do not approve, the people will have to put Article 87 of the Constitution into practice” (this article establishes the right of the people to insurrection in order to re-establish constitutional order).

This speech has cost Bukele national and international prestige. Inside and outside El Salvador, there was hope that change would happen after years of corruption and violence, but no one doubts, except from his supporters, that the speech in Congress was unacceptable and undemocratic. The country is exhausted by war and was angry with the reappearance of weapons, threats and authoritarian language. The bloodshed and the years of suffering are still too fresh.

The influence of the United States in El Salvador is significant across all aspects of national life, so it matters what Washington's congressmen think. Eliot Engel, chairman of the Congressional Foreign Relations Committee, spoke in no uncertain terms:" The eyes of the world are on President Bukele. The military should not be used to resolve disputes between the president and congress. Civilian disputes should be resolved by civilian institutions.”

President Bukele's authoritarian action reveals several things that are hurting democratic coexistence.

The first is a lack of clarity that he is not the only representative of the popular will. The opposition, the dissidents, are all an integral part of El Salvador. These minority groups have duties and rights. To ignore them is to suffocate freedom.

The second issue is related to the president's fiery personality. Temperamental outbursts are not a good way to conduct politics. It’s true that bravado, blackmail, threats and insults are in fashion, so it is not surprising that there is a good number of people who are willing to submit to thugs and bullies. When they realise their mistake, it is often too late.

In truth, we do not have a dictatorship in El Salvador. What there is, is an attack on democracy and authoritarian practices to neutralize the powers of the state that do not obey the executive. These institutions were created, precisely, to establish balance and avoid abuses of power and prevent any attempt at dictatorship.

Rubén Zamora, a politician, diplomat and international analyst, responds here, first, to four perceptions of the Bukele’s supporters. The two final questions come from the interviewer.

It must be said that the representatives have not denied the loan. They are considering it and have asked the government for details

President Nayib Bukele says that, thanks to the Territorial Control Plan, the country, has registered the lowest number of homicides since the Civil War during the month of January. He is asking for legislative support for a $109 million loan to consolidate national security and deputies are denying him that support. At first glance, this seems inconceivable.

Official figures show a notable decrease in homicides in El Salvador, from 51 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2018 to 35.8 in 2019.

It must be said that the representatives have not denied the loan. They are considering it and have asked the government for details. First, on what has been spent so far, because already more than a hundred million dollars has been spent in a few months, which for El Salvador is a lot. Secondly, the congress has expressed doubts about the destination of this new loan, because, for example, there was the purchase of a ship costing 30 million dollars listed as part of the fight against the Maras (gangs). The question is what is a ship doing in all this.

The loan approval process has two stages. In the first stage, a simple majority vote is required to approve the procedure. In the second part, a qualified majority is required for approval or rejection.

The granting of loans takes months to resolve. There is no real delay from the Assembly. What there is, is a request to the President to give an account of how he has spent the millions he has already received.

The storming of the congress by President Bukele, accompanied by the military, on Sunday, February 9th, has been commented on and criticized. However, the constitution allows the president to call such a meeting if the security of the country is at stake. And if he has gone with the military it is because he obviously wants to press for support for the government project. But no one has been arrested, no one has been beaten, no one.

Let us make it clear at the outset that there was no parliamentary session because more than two thirds of the parliamentarians refused to attend the meeting called by the president and the Council of Ministers. What the executive does not say is that the constitutional article on which they have based their argument does not authorize the Council of Ministers to request an extraordinary Congressional sitting, which is only legitimate when there are extraordinary cases of urgency in the country. It is not justified in this case because the law was under discussion between the executive and the legislative. What the President has done is completely distort article 147, paragraph 7, of the Constitution.

The Constitutional Court of El Salvador has already ordered the president, as a precautionary measure, to stop pressuring the Assembly because he has no grounds to do so in the Constitutional law.

The president has made several extremely incendiary statements. To quote a couple: "we are going to give these scoundrels seven days to make up their minds. " "Whose side are they on, not the people's.” These are tough words, no doubt, but many people in El Salvador think in this way. The crisis of representation is more serious here than elsewhere because three former presidents have all been accused of embezzlement of public funds, that is, money that belongs to all Salvadorans.

(Mauricio Funes, accused of unlawful enrichment. Elías Antonio Saca made more than thirteen million during his term of office. The late Francisco Flores was also involved in corruption cases). It’s enough to make you angry.

The truth is that there is a crisis of both the legislative assembly and the political parties. A global crisis of legitimacy in these institutions, in fact. But this does not mean that the President should insult and abuse them. In addition to scoundrels, he' s called them drug traffickers and pointless. He has used a lot of offensive language.

Nor does the crisis authorize breaking the law. He cannot order the legislature to act, because he is prevented from doing so by the democratic law of separation of powers.

The only thing Bukele has done is polarize and it is fortunate that the Assembly does not insult him in the same way he systematically does.

There is a reason for all this: the elections for Members of Parliament are next year. Since he does not have a majority in the Assembly, he wants to bring it down and that is what is behind this manoeuvre, which could be described as an attempted coup d'état.

The truth is that there is a crisis of both the legislative assembly and the political parties. A global crisis of legitimacy in these institutions, in fact

To add fuel to the fire, the previous FMLN government, according to President Bukele, gave millions of dollars to the Maras and provided them with shooting ranges so they could learn to kill better. Ugly stuff.

The truth is that both the political parties and the president himself when he was mayor of San Salvador constantly negotiated with Salvadoran gangs. This is the reality: in the capital and in other cities there are areas where gangs have control of the population. So, nothing can be done if they don't give permission.

However, giving money to the gangs is wrong and should not be allowed.

The president has a high-level official whose job it is to settle matters between the gangs, and he has said this publicly. This process, over time, has led to these dreadful practices. Nothing justifies it, but it has been practiced by all the political parties.

Changing sides now, outside of El Salvador there is practical unanimity that President Bukele has engaged in actions and declarations that are seriously at odds with democracy. His aggressive, populist, showboating stance seriously damages the relationship between the government and the opposition. But, unfortunately, there is nothing to suggest that the president wants to change his political practices. So...

That question is not only asked internationally, but also internally. In fact, what happened here is a failed coup. To the extent that a deputy who was in favour of the president escaped the occupation of the Assembly, saying, this cannot be endured, it is an assault.

Is the president going to change? The Constitutional Court told him he has no authority, and, as you say, the Council of Ministers has no power to order the Assembly to hold extraordinary meetings. The President says he will abide by the Court’s final resolution. But here we still have that saying, dating from colonial times with reference to the laws from the Spanish crown: "they are obeyed, but not implemented".

It all makes you wonder if he will be able to change and adopt a completely different attitude so that the country can move forward. El Salvador is paralysed politically. Instead of helping, he is throwing more wood on the fire.

The gangs, the policies of the president of the United States, the polluted atmosphere in the social political sphere do not bode well. I don't want to be a pessimist, it's really not advisable for anyone to be one. You seem to see some way out, some light, even if it is dim.

Right now, I don't see an immediate way out. In fact, there is one. The fact is that, instead of constantly fighting, the organisations of the state should sit down and together with the rest of society begin to face up to the fundamental problems of El Salvador. The gangs are a security problem. But we also have very serious problems with pensions, also a problem with water. There are serious health and education problems.

All emergencies require changes. I see few possibilities, but hope is the last thing to be lost.

As you know, President Najib Bukele turns to God to support his purposes. He is not alone. The fact is that in El Salvador 88.9% of the population are religious and more than 86.1% of them practice Christianity. I belong to a generation that was taught not to invoke the name of the Lord in vain. That is why, in view of President Bukele's habit of appealing to God in such a regular way, I called the priest José María Tojeira in San Salvador to hear his opinion.

There is a tendency for Latin American politicians to end their speeches by saying, God bless. It's habit. Now, in the case of President Bukele, it is notable that, in order to resolve a situation that should not have happened with Congress, he has justified his actions by saying that God asked him for patience, as if there has been a direct intervention by God. Such a course of action is wrong, atypical, and in a country with the secular rule of law not justified.

You are the director of an important human rights institute, IDEHUCA, at the Universidad Centroamericana in El Salvador. In the 2019 report, there is a significant decrease in murders and feminicides. Although this is not perfect, it illustrates the success of President Bukele's security policy.

Homicides have dropped consistently since 2016, when we reached a shocking rate of more than 100 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. But under President Bukele's government, they went down even faster.

I think the more military and police presence in the territory has caused the homicides to drop. That's the clearest and most obvious explanation. Although we are still at a high level, last year there were 36 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. This is progress, and we have to acknowledge that. There are the facts and there is no reason to doubt them.

The only problem is that this progress is accompanied by an extended military and police presence in the country. And just as the police presence grows, so the presence of other state agencies should also grow, such as schools, health centers, housing projects. That is to say, the protective and developmental presence of the state is required and that is what has traditionally been lacking and has not yet begun.

The presence of the military can have a temporary effect but when they go tragedy begins again, rooted in poverty and inequality which are endemic evils.

In El Salvador we are on the verge of a democratic regression with little prospect of being able to neutralise it.

The priest Rutilio Grande, murdered in 1977 for his dedication to the poor, his condemnation of the authoritarian power of violence is today in a process of beatification. In one of his sermons, he said something that is useful to remember and relevant today:: "What does it mean to take seriously God, union and freedom, for the collective conscience and for the governing groups?" I know that those who should respond are those who are questioned, but what does a priest say 39 years later about this consultation.

This question has a lot of relevance in El Salvador since the words God, Union, Freedom, are found on the national flag. Rutilio asked this question to a country that has the name of the Saviour of the world, with clear allusions to God, at a time when there was no unity, when there was even more poverty than now, when there was profound inequality. These words still have a deep meaning. We cannot maintain the ideals of the Salvadoran constitution, in which the state is obliged to provide freedom and social justice without contrasting the beauty of those words with the sad reality.

That makes people desperate, disappointed and forces them to migrate. We have one percent of the population of Latin America, but five percent of the total number of migrants in the region.

A few days ago, a reconciliation law was passed. I admit that I did not know that national reconciliation could be a matter of law. I believe that there is no legislation capable of transforming what we carry in our hearts. With our backs turned to democratic coexistence, the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador approved a reconciliation law last Wednesday that establishes impunity. It reduces the penalties for those who confess and ask for forgiveness for the crimes committed by 75%. Judges can revoke sentences when there are reasons of age or health. This law promotes immunity from punishment, according to human rights organizations and the victims' families.

The law has its inconsistencies. We, from IDEHUCA, are going to present a document to the Constitutional Court, who are the ones responsible not only for drafting a law that on reconciliation and transitional justice, while declaring the unconstitutionality of the previous amnesty law, but also for recommending that the Prosecutor's Office have prosecutors; that the state have a budget to compensate the victims; pardons, not recommended, but ordered, because orders follow from a judgement.

In any case, as the text of this bill has been published, it is very important that the Constitutional Court intervenes and holds a follow-up hearing to see if the law actually adopts international human rights parameters and standards.

We also believe that it is pertinent to review all other events, actions, omissions, from the other government departments that were given orders to open military archives, to communicate with the Assembly to establish a clear, budgeted plan for reparations, and that nothing has been done so far. Everything relevant to the judgement needs to be looked at, and whether it is consistent with the Constitution. Once it is finalized, it will have go be implemented by all the relevant state organisations.

In the criminal justice system, the reduction of sentences should be reviewed because it can easily lead - as the law is currently written - to impunity. This should not be allowed to happen in the case of such serious crimes.

If you were pessimistic, you would say that in El Salvador we are on the verge of a democratic regression with little prospect of being able to neutralise it. I would very much like you to tell me that I am wrong.

Political conflicts are sometimes unfortunately resolved by authoritarian measures. I believe that we have to change the way politics is conducted in El Salvador.

There are also some elements that are interesting to consider from your perspective. President Bukele was prevented from forming a party, participating in elections and so on, by the traditional parties. And from that moment there has been conflict and confrontation that has not lessened, even verbally, and both sides tend to speak very harshly of the other.

It is clear that we cannot continue like this. There must be collaboration. We will see what happens in the next few months or next year. There are elections and hopefully a slightly more balanced position will emerge and more dialogue will be achieved, because authoritarianism, along with verbal, psychological, and sometimes militaristic tensions, threaten the beginnings of a stable democracy that we had in the country. We urgently need to change course.

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