Caracas (OrinocoTribune.com)—The reelection candidacy of the president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, is unconstitutional, which makes the upcoming presidential elections in the country illegal, commented Salvadoran economist and political analyst César Villalona in a special interview with Orinoco Tribune. “These elections are actually illegal regardless of whether they are legitimized with the participation of the opposition,” he said.
César Villalona is a Salvadoran-Dominican economist with 38 years of experience in economic research and university teaching. He has authored the books Disputas en el CAFTA (Disputes in the Central American Free Trade Agreement), Declive de la Hegemonía de Estados Unidos (Decline of US Hegemony), and La Guerra en Ucrania y el Contexto Internacional (The War in Ukraine and the International Context). Orinoco Tribune spoke to him on Tuesday, January 9, about the political, economic, and social situation in El Salvador a few weeks before the presidential and parliamentary elections in the country, scheduled for February 4.
Illegal elections amid a stagnated economy
The main controversy surrounding the elections is Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s attempt at reelection. When consulted on the reasons, Villalona explained, “The Constitution of El Salvador prohibits continuous re-election. That is, a person can serve as president for five years, but when that period ends, cannot become president again in the following five years… Bukele should finish his term on the last day of May. On June 1, another government must emerge where he could not be president and he would have to wait for five years.”
Although there are at least five articles of the Salvadoran constitution that prohibit continuous re-election, President Bukele managed to appoint in the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice judges who support him, illegally pushing their appointment through the qualified majority in the parliament that his party, Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas), won in the 2021 legislative election. The new Constitutional Chamber, whose four judges out of five “respond to the president,” interpreted the constitution the way Bukele wanted, allowing him to run for the presidency for two successive terms. Thereafter Bukele registered his candidacy for Nuevas Ideas party before the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.
The elections are being held amid an economic decline and a nearly stagnant economy, with projected growth of 1.7% for 2024 according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the lowest in Central America. In 2022 El Salvador received the lowest foreign direct investment in Central America. Villalona explained that these issues are part of the structural problem of the Salvadoran economy which has been a dollarized economy since 2000. The Central Bank of El Salvador cannot issue currency; therefore, the country cannot have a monetary policy, it only has a fiscal policy. “That makes it difficult for the economy to take off because with fiscal policy all you have is the budget,” he said. Bukele inherited the problem but has exacerbated it because of his government’s lack of concrete economic policies. Between 2019 and 2022, 200,000 people fell into extreme poverty, while about half a million emigrated, forced by deteriorating economic conditions.
Citing the Salvadoran government’s own data, the economist explained that Bukele started with a public debt of $19.1 billion, but by November 2023 it reached $27.5 billion. By the time his term ends on May 31, 2024, the public debt would cross $28 billion, meaning that the Bukele administration would have increased it by almost 40%. Since there has been no demand for Salvadoran debt bonds since 2021, the government is forced to take out debts from the national banks and the pension funds to finance its budget. In turn, about 30% of the budget goes into repaying the debts, plus interests, creating a vicious cycle for the economy. In Villalona’s opinion, the huge public debt, coupled with economic stagnation and inflation could be a destabilizing factor for Bukele’s second presidential term.
Campaign plan: War on gangs and ‘don’t look back’
The issues of Bukele’s illegal candidacy and the stagnated national economy have been pushed to the background by his most stellar achievement as president, controlling gang violence in a country that used to be infamous for organized crime and narco-trafficking. The principal theme of Bukele’s presidential campaign is his public security policy, presumably achieved through a “Territorial Control Plan” that includes a state of exception since March 2022. Criminality figures have been on the decline since then, and there have been no massacres in the country for months. However, César Villalona explained that this security achievement is a construct, actually achieved through pacts between the government and the gangs and manipulation of data.
According to data published on the Twitter accounts of Bukele and the Ministry of Public Security, there are 72,000 gang members imprisoned in El Salvador. On the other hand, according to data published by the National Civil Police, only around 2,700 weapons were seized from the captured gang members, which would signify that out of every 26 gang members arrested, 25 did not have weapons. “How is it possible that they don’t have weapons?” Villalona wondered, given that all the criminal gangs in El Salvador are armed to the teeth, and even possess weapons of war. According to previous research, there are more than 300,000 weapons in the hands of the Salvadoran population.
Similarly, the police seized about $3 million from the captured criminals, meaning each gang member had only $40 on average. Meanwhile, 16,000 cell phones were seized, which, again, would indicate that out of every four gang members, three did not have cell phones.
So, what is the real situation? “First, there were not 72,000 gang members in the country,” Villalona explained. “The talk was about 30,000. Second, the contrast between the number of weapons confiscated and the number of people imprisoned indicates that there may be 3,000-4,000 imprisoned gang members. There cannot be more. If there are 3,000 weapons seized, it is impossible that gang members were unarmed. Then we would be in a country where criminals do not have weapons, money, or cell phones, and allow themselves to be captured peacefully because there has been no resistance.”
However, thousands of people not guilty of anything were rounded up by the police in the framework of the state of exception. According to the government itself, 15,000 innocent people were imprisoned, of whom about 5,000 have been released. Therefore, the opposition and the social movements believe that there was a pact between the Bukele administration and the gangs, by which the gangs reduced assassinations and extortions to help create an image of an exceptional government combating organized crime, in exchange for allowing the gangs to keep functioning and not capturing the gang leaders. This agreement has been in existence since 2021, as revealed by gang members who are being tried in the US for crimes they committed there. A gang member even revealed that the gangs had contributed to the victory of Bukele’s party in the 2021 parliamentary elections by preventing opposition supporters from voting.
According to Villalona, another aspect of the pact was employing gang members and their family members in the public sector. Citing data from Social Security, he explained that the Bukele administration fired 21,000 public sector employees, hired 21,000 in those positions, and appointed 29,000 more people. “There is evidence that there are many criminals and their family members working in the mayors’ offices and state institutions, in low-level positions, motorcyclists, security guards, and in some cases, managerial positions,” he said. “Therefore, organized crime has not disappeared, it has reached the State.”
According to Villalona, the main purpose of the emergency regime was to discredit the left, especially the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), Bukele’s own former party which governed El Salvador for 10 years (2009-2019), and to spread fear among FMLN sympathizers. The Bukele administration has been persecuting the left and the social movements with vengeance and has accused the FMLN of corruption during its two presidential terms and of the assassination of civilians during the Civil War of the 1980s. Bukele has tried to rewrite history, equating the revolutionary movement FMLN and the party of the oligarchy ARENA, and constructing the narrative that the war of the 80s was terrorism by the “two sides” for control of power, and even tried to ban events commemorating the 1992 Peace Accords. Armed with this narrative, his campaign has focused on urging voters “not to look back” and not to bring back “the thieves” to power.
Villalona also highlighted Bukele’s capacity for communication and use of social media, which has been effective in convincing at least half the population that “the country is getting modernized amid increasing poverty.”
What to expect in the elections and beyond
Showcasing his security achievement, by whatever means it may have been achieved, Bukele has been able to gain one of the highest public approval rates in Latin America. Combined with his exceptional capability of communication especially through social media, the defamation campaigns directed against the left, and promises of improving the economic situation if given a “second chance,” an overwhelming victory for Bukele is already foretold. The United States is also inclined towards a Bukele presidency in El Salvador for the time being, irrespective of whether it is legal or not, given that he has been able to do what not even the US could, that is, weakening the FMLN, as Villalona explained. Bukele had been in the FMLN, and had been mayor of the capital, San Salvador, from the FMLN; therefore, when he defames the party and persecutes its leaders for alleged corruption, it makes an impression on the people. In addition to this, the FMLN “is in an organizational crisis, with internal problems, a leadership crisis, a moral crisis because it has been defamed… and a crisis of strategy. There is no alliance policy, mass policy, communication policy, international policy, nothing. So Bukele faces an opposition that is really in a very deep crisis.” On the other hand, the right-wing opposition to Bukele, the traditional party of the oligarchy, ARENA, has adopted the policy of supporting Bukele, so it is not really an opposition party.
Given this situation, Villalona believes that Bukele will easily win the presidential elections and his party will win a majority in parliament as well as most of the municipalities.
The conditions, according to him, will worsen afterward, in a few months to a year into Bukele’s second term. “The economy is heading towards stagnation with unsustainable public debt. And there is a contradiction that is going to explode, the contradiction between what the people expect from the government and what the government will do for the people, which is nothing,” he explained. “The people are waiting for the government to solve their economic problems.”
“For a commoner, economic problem does not mean balance of payment; it does not mean gross domestic product,” the economist continued. “First, solving economic problems means that the government is going to generate employment. Second, it will improve people’s income. And third, the government is going to control prices. None of the three things is going to happen… People are going to wonder in the next two years or perhaps this year why things are not improving. I believe that in the second term, disappointment will come. And if an option appears here, something complicated could happen.”
Special for Orinoco Tribune by Saheli Chowdhury
Saheli Chowdhury is from West Bengal, India, studying physics for a profession, but with a passion for writing. She is interested in history and popular movements around the world, especially in the Global South. She is a contributor and works for Orinoco Tribune.
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