El Salvador’s Pivotal Election

El Salvador’s Pivotal Election

Is presidential candidate Nayib Bukele a social media-savvy maverick, or a shape-shifting political opportunist?  


Why do Salvadorans migrate?” Nayib Bukele, the front-runner in the upcoming Salvadoran presidential elections recently asked. “They migrate because of lack of hope. We see it in the caravans. It’s hope that moves the Salvadorans.”

Both hopeful and despairing Salvadorans head to the polls on February 3, and a political shakeup of the small Central American country is expected. After ten years in power, the left-leaning Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) seems likely to be unseated by the young, wealthy, shapeshifting former mayor of San Salvador, Nayib Bukele, who recently took the mantle of the young Great National Alliance (GANA). But Bukele’s compromises to old-guard conservatives and his easy embrace of the right-wing GANA—despite the fact that as recently as 2017 he was a member of FMLN—makes it hard to judge which way he would take the country if elected.

The topics that typically bring El Salvador into the US news cycle—migration, caravans, and gangs—are hardly the predominant themes of the current Salvadoran election cycle. The candidates typically avoid speaking about gangs, as their parties (or themselves, in Bukele’s case) stand accused of being involved in negotiating with the gangs in the recent past, and migration remains a consistently sore subject. And yet, with the cancellation of Temporary Protected Status in the United States—a policy that gave around 200,000 Salvadorans deportation relief, and which is now held up by an injunction in the courts—and with Washington recently threatening to remove El Salvador from the CAFTA-DR free-trade agreement, US relations are something the Salvadoran candidates must contend with.

Nearly a quarter of all Salvadorans live in the United States, and those expatriates send back more than $5 billion a year in remittances—around 18 percent of El Salvador’s economy. As Salvadorans continue to flee north towards the United States, the policies of a new government could have implications for migration patterns and the overall security and economic stability of the region.

El Salvador ended 2018 with a homicide rate of 50 for every 100,000 thousand people, the highest homicide rate in Central America, higher than both Guatemala and Honduras. Although the country’s civil war—which pitted a right-wing government and its death squads against the left-wing guerillas of the parties and organizations that united under the banner of the FMLN—ended 27 years ago, many of the same problems that drove the violence then remain latent today. The UN recently expressed its worry about “the return of death squads,” as well as extrajudicial executions perpetrated, in some cases, by police and soldiers.

The country also faces extreme levels of inequality. According to government statistics, only four in 10 schoolchildren reach the equivalent of high school, and only two of those 10 kids will go on to college. There remain in the country more than 600,000 citizens who don’t have access to potable water. Abortion is completely criminalized, LGBTQ rights are unrecognized, and politicians balk at the idea of sexual education in school. Because of the violence, poverty, and oppression, millions of Salvadorans in the past decades have left the country, mostly heading to the United States and Mexico, though the diaspora is also scattered throughout other parts of Central America and Spain.

Despite all of these challenges, El Salvador is relatively financially stable, compared to neighbors Guatemala and Honduras, with their authoritarian-leaning leaders and continued mass emigration. Despite epidemic levels of homicide, rampant sexual violence, and political corruption, El Salvador has “become an example of what the US wanted a country in Central America to be” by taking steps to reduce migration and continuing to be pliant with investment demands, according to Alexis Stoumbelis of Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), a US-based organization focusing on ending US intervention in El Salvador. (This despite the fact that El Salvador’s recent opening up of relations with China led to a fit among State Department officials.) And while Salvadorans did join the exodus this fall and January to migrate via caravan, Salvadoran migration to the United States has gone down slightly, according to State Department data.

That does not mean Salvadorans are satisfied with politics as usual. For the first time since the signing of the peace accords in 1992 that ended the civil war, the front-runner hoping to contend with these issues is from neither of the two major parties: the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) or the left FMLN. Heading right-wing GANA, Bukele has leveraged his social media savvy to pull ahead of his closest rival, ARENA candidate Carlos Calleja, by between 15 and 20 points.

Bukele first rose to prominence as a member of the FMLN and only left the party in 2017 as he set his sights on the presidency. ARENA had governed the country for 20 years, from 1989 until 2009. After FMLN’s Mauricio Funes became president in 2009 the party hung on to the seat through two five-year terms including the current president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén. Both major parties have past presidents accused of embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars. Former ARENA president Saca admitted as much last year, and Funes was granted asylum in Nicaragua in 2016, even while three arrest warrants have been issued for him.

Understandably, a 2017 poll found that 63.4 percent of Salvadorans do not want the FMLN to continue running the country, while an even higher percentage, 68.1 percent, doesn’t want ARENA to return to power. That leaves Bukele in a prime position.

One of Bukele’s principal campaign promises has been the implementation of a commission against impunity, an institution that, in neighboring Guatemala, put a former president and a vice president in prison. But, as Geoff Thale explained, Bukele’s other positions remain vague—he’s relatively a “clean slate.” Both Bukele and his running mate, Félix Ulloa, have refused to participate in the presidential debates. Bukele often makes announcements on Facebook Live rather than in actual press conferences, and rarely give interviews to journalists, denying interview requests to well-respected Central American news magazine El Faro and other independent outlets. He also has a long-standing animosity towards right-leaning media outlets—calling them “fake news.”

Bukele’s leading rival, the 42-year-old Calleja, is the young representative of El Salvador’s old right-wing elite. Calleja, a graduate of Vermont’s Middlebury College and NYU’s graduate business school, is the son of Francisco Calleja, a prominent businessman and the owner of El Salvador’s largest chain of supermarkets. During the most recent presidential debate, positioning himself clearly along ideological lines, Calleja affirmed: “We need to remake our relations with the United States. The governments of Venezuela and Nicaragua do not share our democratic principles. We are damaging our relationship with the US, we are going to put in the effort to repair this relationship.” And yet, Calleja only delivered an actual governing plan as late as January 18, just a few weeks before the election. On his website, he makes no reference to migration.

FMLN’s candidate, Hugo Martínez, is one of the most recognized Salvadoran politicians in Washington, having worked on and off, since 2009, as foreign minister. In the recent debate, Martínez defended his diplomatic work, countering Calleja’s accusation and claiming that El Salvador’s “relationship with the US is in one of its best moments.” He pointed to El Salvador’s cooperation with the United States in the seizure of 10,000 kilos of cocaine in 2016 and in the 60 percent reduction of deportees to El Salvador. Martínez also proffered the idea for Salvadorans living abroad to invest in their home country: “Invest three dollars, and the State will contribute one dollar.” That promise, however, may be hard to turn into a reality.

The last of the candidates is Josué Alvarado, an evangelical who migrated to the United States in the 1980s and worked as a pastor in Maryland. He’s a businessman, having founded a Latino-focused grocery chain, who has reached out to the most conservative, right-wing sector of El Salvador, but has gained little traction as the leader of the fringe party Vamos. Alvarado is the only candidate who has proposed to renegotiate TPS, also suggesting that Vamos would work to initiate a “portfolio of projects for Salvadorans abroad” who want to reinvest in El Salvador.

The FMLN has been “a big bugaboo for the US right,” as Geoff Thale, the Washington Office on Latin America’s vice president for programs, put it. But the Trump administration, without an assistant secretary of state for Latin America, hasn’t seemed to have paid much, or any, attention to the elections. “They could live with all of them,” Thale said of the leading candidates. “The US don’t have a horse in this race,” which is a departure from past elections, in which the United States has traditionally backed the right-wing ARENA. That changed in 2009 when both Obama and Funes came to power. Thale accounts for Trump’s animosity toward Central American refugees as more “a White House obsession, not a State Department obsession.” Indeed, many Latin American diplomatic positions remain unfulfilled. Despite the errant tweet from the White House, or a finger-shaking trip from the vice president, there seems to be less substantive policy work happening in Central America these days.

But US policy still affects Salvadorans both in the United States and in Central America. Jesse Acevedo, writing in The Washington Post, reported that during the Great Recession remittances to El Salvador dropped 8 percent, which changed Salvadorans’ basic relationship with the government, making them more reliant on redistribution, and causing them “to demand more government services to make up for losses in remittance income.” The fact has become fodder for critiques against the FMLN—that, because of a poor relationship with the United States, TPS is being canceled. It was during an ARENA government that TPS was first instituted.

Stoumbelis described how ARENA, since losing the presidency, has consistently leveled critiques against the FMLN as being less in line with the United States. Political parties use US support—either for or against—as evidence of functionality. When addressing Salvadoran emigration, Bukele has fallen into the same narrative: blaming incumbent parties. It’s a simple stance, and is similar to that of Bukele’s closest rival, Carlos Calleja, the ARENA candidate. Backed by Florida’s Senator Marco Rubio and Texas Representative William Ballard Hurd, Calleja has based his campaign on an employment drive, which is also his answer to emigration. “This is the last generation of Salvadorans who will leave the country for lack of opportunities and decent jobs. Our proposal is to create the conditions so that our brothers and sisters don’t have to leave their families,” Calleja tweeted last October, at the same time that around 2,000 Salvadorans were heading north in a migrant caravan.

Nayib and Calleja, as Stoumbelis explained to us, are both trying to scare people into believing that the US relationship will be imperiled if FMLN wins again. It was the same line that Marco Rubio took recently after Tweeting a photo of himself with Calleja:

It [sic] met with @jccalleja today who is running to be the next President of #ElSalvador. The current left wing government has made some terrible decisions that have hurt the relationship between our two countries. I am hopeful that will change after the next election in El Salvador.

Salvadoran presidential candidates have been campaigning in the United States since at least 1999, but it has always been more to influence their families back home, and to raise money, than to get out the vote in the United States. In 2014, only about 6,000 Salvadorans in the United States voted absentee in that year’s election. This year the numbers may be higher, though it’s hard to count how many Salvadorans with permanent residency or dual citizenship are returning to El Salvador to vote. For over half a century, the United States has been meddling in Salvadoran politics—sending in arms, military “advisers,” training leaders of death squads, backing military dictatorships or the coffee-baron elite. Today, the United States deports tens of thousands of Salvadorans a year and Central America continues to be a battlefield in our wildly destructive “war on drugs.” As Salvadorans go to the polls in February, their choice remains inextricably influenced by relations to the United States. At least one way to begin building towards a healthier relationship is for Americans to pay attention to the needs of Salvadorans.

“There’s lack of medical care here, but what kind of medical care is there on the caravan?” Bukele recently intoned to an auditorium full of his sympathizers, which was off-limits to the press. “Here there are bad schools and lack of security, but what kind of schools and security are there in the caravan? Here there are no jobs, but what kind of jobs are they offering on the caravan?… We need to create hope.” As the United States tries to slam the door on Central Americans with more proposed wall construction and tightening asylum policies, it is education, jobs, and security—much more than hope—that are desperately needed in El Salvador.

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