The Salvadoran Election: backward steps

Nayib Bukele

On 3 February 2019 Nayib Bukele, an ex-member of the ruling Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), was elected president of El Salvador. The 37-year-old opportunist, formerly mayor of the capital San Salvador, stood as leader of the Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA) which was founded in 2010. He left the FMLN in 2017after an ethics committee in San Salvador voted to expel him. He formed his own party, ‘New Ideas’, and united this with GANA. Bukele will now replace the incumbent, the FMLN’s Salvador Sánchez Cerén. Bukele, a millionaire, outspent his opponents with a campaign costing around $9.4m, hiring four campaign managers with close ties to the Venezuelan right-wing opposition to run his presidential campaign. ALVARO MICHAELS reports.

For the first time since the peace accords in 1992 that ended the horrific US-led extermination campaign against the indigenous civilian poor, El Salvador has a president who is not formally from either of the two major parties: the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) or the leftist FMLN. Bukele refused to enter campaign debates and used social media to beat his closest rival, ARENA candidate Carlos Calleja - heir to the Super Selectos grocery chain – who gained 31.7% of votes to Bukele’s 51.3%. Calleja ran in coalition with several smaller right-wing parties; the National Coalition Party (PCN), Christian Democratic Party (PDC), and Salvadoran Democracy (DS). The FMLN candidate Hugo Martinez came third with 14.4%.

ARENA governed the country from 1989 until 2009. Then the FMLN’s Mauricio Funes became president and the party has governed for two five-year terms. Both major parties have past presidents accused of embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars. Former ARENA president Antonio Saca admitted such last year, and Funes was granted asylum in Nicaragua in 2016. In 2016, El Salvador fell 23 places, to 95 out of 176 countries, in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. In 2018 it had fallen to 105 out of 180.

Bukele held few press conferences, avoiding ‘right-leaning’ media outlets to avoid exposing his conservatism. GANA is called a ‘centre right’ party, but previously tactically voted with the FMLN in Congress against ARENA. In the run up to the election it attracted ARENA deputies to its ranks. US Ambassador Jean Manes wasted no time. She said ‘We will work with the president-elect’s transition team to see what their priorities are, how we can accompany their new agenda.’ US National Security Advisor John Bolton tweeted: ‘We discussed ways to strengthen the US-El Salvador friendship and to collaborate to restore democracy in Venezuela and counter Chinese predatory practices in the hemisphere.’ One of the first to congratulate Bukele was self-proclaimed ‘president’ of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó.

In the March 2018 legislative elections ARENA won 35 seats, FMLN 18 and GANA 10. This gives ARENA legislative power even if Bukele’s party was to continue to vote with the FMLN and get the support of some of the 21 other legislators – 5 of which are sympathetic to the FMLN.

Blind aspirations

The ‘shape-shifting’ Bukele has tried to create the image of a ‘third’ way, to escape the consequences of both the past horrors inflicted upon the people by US imperialism and its current demands. Without taking revolutionary steps he will not succeed. The country faces levels of extreme inequality. The richest 10% of the population receives approximately 15 times the income of the poorest 40%, who live below the poverty line. Only 40% of schoolchildren reach high school, and only 20% of those go on to college. More than 600,000 people in a population of 6.5 million lack access to drinking water. Abortion is completely criminalised, and there is no sex education in schools. An appalling level of oppression against women is the result. LGBTQ rights are non-existent.

El Salvador ended 2018 with a murder rate of 50 per 100,000 people, the highest in Central America, higher that year than both Guatemala and Honduras. The UN recently expressed anxiety about ‘the return of death squads,’ extrajudicial executions perpetrated mainly by police and soldiers, as well as the violent criminality of 60,000 gang members most of whom turned to such activities out of ignorance, desperation and poverty. In recent years in isolated rural areas, entire populations of villages having been forced out of their homes. El Salvador has one of the highest rates of femicide - the killing of women because they are women - in the world.

The Economy

The state in El Salvador was compelled to adopt the US dollar as its joint currency in 2001 - alongside the Colón, which promptly disappeared - and the five biggest banks are foreign owned. This was a result of the disastrous US war of intervention until 1992, forcing governments to concede to investors demands for market orientated reforms. Land was transferred to over 520,000 landless peasants – much stolen from indigenous lands without compensation - to create a new petty peasantry, while large landowners were compensated by the US with $60m. Banks, the pension system, electric and telephone companies were privatised, leaving a 74.1% debt to GDP burden (2017) of which 87% is foreign debt, to be financed by the state. However, tax collected is only 11% of GDP, as 15 tax-exempt ‘free trade zones’ are promoted, producing clothing, plastic products and machinery for export to the US. Over 300 US companies operate in the country, importing capital of $331m in 2017. By 2016 ten times the value of commodities was exported compared to 1992, yet GDP growth rates have been only 2.4% for the last two years and not risen above this figure in ten years. Official unemployment is 7% of a 2.8 million person workforce. Two out of three people work in the informal economy. Services make up 60% of GDP, with 80 call/outsourcing centres providing US corporations with key support.

Violence, poverty, and oppression, have forced nearly a quarter of all Salvadorans to migrate to the US, Mexico, other parts of Central America or Spain. Migrants send back more than $5bn a year in remittances - about 18% of El Salvador’s GDP. Thus emigration forms one of the most lucrative branches of export trade, and provides foreign currency for the purchase of US exports. In 2017 the country imported $4.3bn goods and services more than it exported – 62% more. To intimidate the new government the US cancelled ‘Temporary Protected Status’, now extended to January 2020, a policy that gives around 260,500 Salvadorans deportation relief (among 435,000 such refugees in the US). Washington also recently threatened to remove El Salvador from the CAFTA-DR free-trade agreement. Any new Salvadoran president would have to respond. The new government is ‘re-evaluating’ diplomatic ties with Nicaragua, Cuba, China, and Palestine, countries where the FMLN’s positions were at odds with the US. Last year, El Salvador switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing, prompting Washington to recall its ambassador.


El Salvador is one of the most water-stressed countries in Latin America; 95% of the country’s surface water is contaminated. Despite this the right-wing is determined to pass legislation to privatise water.  From 2014 the US lobbied the Legislative Assembly to approve reforms through the US drafted Public-Private Partnership (P3) Law. Some $277m Millennium Challenge Corporation funds were then dangled before the country as an ‘incentive’. A growing national mobilisation is now led by the National Alliance against the Privatisation of Water, which forced a nominal retreat by ARENA politicians. This coalition of NGOs, religious groups and environmental activists, marches under the slogan, ‘Water is not sold. It’s protected and defended’. In June 2018 El Salvador’s bishops spoke against plans to privatise water, anxious that the poor could not afford to pay the cost of a vital necessity. The ruling class is now considering privatising the national water authority or giving the private sector more control over the National Administration of Aqueducts and Sewers.