On February 9, just weeks before the coronavirus hit El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele forced his way into the Legislative Assembly surrounded by armed soldiers. He had spent the previous days warning lawmakers that he had constitutional grounds to dissolve the legislative body if it didn’t approve a security loan he was asking for, paving the way for an attempted coup. He believed his approval rating (at that point over 90 percent) gave him enough leverage to get away with it. Bukele sat in the seat reserved for the chairperson of the assembly, hit a gong to open the almost empty legislative session he had summoned, and prayed. Then he suddenly left the hall and told hundreds of followers waiting outside that God had asked him to be patient. He gave lawmakers one more week to approve the loan (as of this writing, they have yet to vote on the proposal). The coup was averted.
The scene seemed preposterously outdated. But it was a sign of the times. In El Salvador, as in most of Central America, democracy is being dismantled. And very few people outside the region are watching.
To much of the world, Central America is synonymous with gang violence and migrants trying to reach the United States. Images of our children caged in Texan facilities or drowned in the Rio Grande illustrate front pages. Our youth are portrayed as tattooed criminals from shithole countries.
In the 1980s, Central America made headlines around the world for very different reasons. It was a Cold War battleground. In the years when the Sandinistas first ruled Nicaragua, commander Daniel Ortega represented the hopes of millions of Central Americans for more equal societies. The Reagan administration saw the country as a threat to its geopolitical game, and Washington gave billions of dollars in military aid to El Salvador to support an army accused of massive human rights violations in its long fight against Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) Marxist guerillas. Like hundreds of thousands of other Salvadorans, my family went into exile in the early 1980s. I grew up in Mexico City, watching my country’s events every day on the news from a safe distance.
When the Berlin Wall came down, geostrategic interest in Central America disappeared. The Sandinistas peacefully surrendered power to Violeta Chamorro, a liberal who won presidential elections in 1990. El Salvador’s civil war ended in 1992 with the signing of UN-brokered peace agreements, becoming an international poster child for conflict resolution.
I moved back to San Salvador, the country’s capital, in 1997, long after the foreign correspondents had left the region. The country was in the process of building new democratic institutions, establishing free and fair elections, and opening human rights offices. The armed forces were cut off from political life, and politicians declared pluralism and tolerance as core values of the new system. Any difference, no matter how big, could be resolved within state institutions. Political violence would never be allowed again.
The international community again invested billions, this time not on arms but to consolidate institutions, to establish effective mechanisms to fight corruption, to secure freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and to strengthen democracy. For a while, it worked. And then it began to rot.
The Shaky Foundations of Central American Democracy
Not long before the UN Truth Commission published its conclusions on war crimes in El Salvador in 1993, the assembly passed a law giving amnesty to those accused of atrocities during the armed conflict. Some lawmakers saw it as a pragmatic measure to guarantee stability and turn the page on the civil war. But in the long term, the amnesty has hindered Salvadoran democracy: the state granted impunity for the most heinous crimes. It ran contrary to the much-needed rule of law, and left the entire justice system contaminated.
The peace agreements eradicated political violence, but not violence itself. As soon as they were signed, thousands of Salvadorans who had fled to the United States as kids were deported and flown handcuffed back to San Salvador. They had become gang members in the streets of Los Angeles and Virginia. Most of them didn’t even speak Spanish. Thousands more were sent back to Honduras and Guatemala.
At the same time, international economic institutions made demands for Washington Consensus policies in exchange for postwar financing. They called for massive privatizations of state institutions, theoretically to make them more efficient and the countries’ economies more competitive in the global market. But the wealth that the neoliberal model promised never trickled down to the masses. Inequality grew alongside the wealth of the elite.
Meanwhile, a U.S. task force had successfully closed the Caribbean corridor for drug trafficking, pushing Colombian and Mexican cartels to open new routes through Central America. Criminal organizations found a needy population, plenty of weapons left behind by the civil wars, and soldiers and guerrillas—many of them jobless—who knew how to handle them. In many countries, greedy elites and a corrupt political class, ruling over societies still damaged from years of political violence, completed the hopeless landscape. A perverse cycle began to take shape: criminals kept getting deported back to Central America, while other people started to emigrate to the United States in search for work. The cycle of political emigration gave way to an economic one.
Under these conditions, democracy was an immense challenge—a sublime promise for people facing urgent needs. Today (with the exception of Costa Rica), we see the failure of that promise. Rampaging corruption, organized crime, human rights violations, high violence rates, and a lack of justice compound the poverty the region has been unable to overcome.
The Failure of Left Governments
Banned or marginalized from Central American political systems during most of the twentieth century, the left managed to win presidential elections in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua in the twenty-first. All these experiments in democratic rule from the left ended in disappointment.
It could be argued that, in each case, the situation was different. Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was ousted by a coup d’etat; the Salvadoran FMLN didn’t have majority in Congress; Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom was a leftist but not really the head of a leftist government; Ortega, elected in 2006, simply became the opposite of what he once was—the Sandinista comandante who led revolutionary Nicaragua in the 1980s turned into a populist authoritarian ruling a party state.
It could also be argued that, as poor and dependent as Central American countries are, the left didn’t have a source of international support; the Soviet Union no longer existed to fund governments opposed to Washington and allied international financial institutions. Venezuelan oil money helped sustain some of them, particularly Nicaragua, but it never was enough for the economic programs that people needed.
It could also be argued that the left is a very wide political spectrum, and former revolutionary organizations wrongly came to symbolize it in its entirety during this period. In El Salvador, for example, President Mauricio Funes (2009–2014) campaigned with the grassroots of the FMLN, but his cabinet was filled not just with socialists but also social democrats, progressive liberals, and Christian democrats. (Full disclosure: during the first half of his government, my father, a social democrat, was the minister of economy.)
But in broad terms, while the right’s politics have traditionally rested on calls for order, security, and economic growth, the left is rooted in social justice, equality, and environmental and cultural protection. And that is exactly where Central American leftist governments fell short. They proved unable to significantly transform the state or, more important, the lives of the poorest citizens.
Some former officials argued that they never had enough leverage to counterbalance powerful elites, the military, or the United States. Others explained that the left had spent decades planning on how to govern socialist societies but instead they had to manage capitalism. Some of this may be true. But it doesn’t fully explain the catastrophic results.
The truth is that these administrations were as corrupt as the ones that preceded them, and most of their politicians chose the protection and defense of their comrades above the ideals they had fought so long for. In other words, they lost their biggest political asset: their moral standing. They had spent a lifetime in struggle, first through revolution and later in the political arena, against corruption, impunity, and the patrimonial use of the state. In power, they accommodated themselves to these conditions.
When Funes, a former journalist, ran for president of El Salvador in 2009, his campaign inspired hopes reminiscent of Barack Obama’s campaign around that same time. Funes became the first leftist president in the country’s history, with enough popular support and legitimacy to produce major structural change. But he chose a different path: he marginalized most of the cabinet and made all decisions with an inner circle of loyalists. He wasted the opportunity to put in practice transformative public policies and pursued politics as usual: propaganda to disguise corruption. Today he is an outlaw living in Nicaragua, wanted in El Salvador for the theft of more than $300 million.
Left ideals and policy agendas were never really given a chance in Central America. But if the left is defined by the people who claim those ideals, then we must consider these governments as left failures.
A Fertile Ground for Authoritarianism
El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala remain poor, unequal, and unsafe, with some of the world’s highest murder rates. Millions leave their homes every day in survival mode. Without formal jobs, they set out to get enough money to eat without being killed by extorting gangs, drug traffickers, corporate thugs, or the police.
Under these conditions, commitment to democracy is a luxury very few can afford. Authoritarian and corrupt politicians have found fertile ground in desperate populations willing to allow any measures, constitutional or not, if they appear to help solve their problems.
The brief era of democracy in Central America is fading. We face demagogues whose success relies on their capacity to suppress dissent. The new populist authoritarianism has some characteristic signs: a lack of political credo or ideology, an obsession with power, and an insistence that those who criticize the government want the people to remain poor and unsafe. Those who desire to harm the nation are no longer communists or Yankee imperialists, but simply opposed to the ruler, an obstacle to his total grip on power. That makes an enemy of legislatures and courts, too, unless they fall under the leader’s control.
The goal is the elimination of public debate, accountability, and checks on power, all in the service of unleashing corruption.
Daniel Ortega, the face of the Sandinista Revolution that ousted dictator Anastasio Somoza Debalye in 1979 and inspired other revolutionary movements in Latin America, reigns today over a regime built in alliance with Nicaraguan economic elites. They are in charge of economic policy, while Ortega dictates political and social measures. His wife, Rosario Murillo, is his vice president, and their sons are now in charge of several state institutions, media companies, and businesses.
Ortega has converted democratic Nicaragua into a party state. The Sandinista red-and-black banner waves next to the blue-and-white national flag in all government institutions. Any hopes of social mobility are attached to affiliation with the party. Ortega has successfully dismantled or corrupted Nicaragua’s democratic institutions, including the police, the judicial system (including the Supreme Court), the National Assembly, and the electoral authority. Last year, an independent international mission under the auspices of the Organization of American States (OAS) concluded that the subordination of the judicial and legislative branches of the government made democracy unviable in Nicaragua.
In April 2018 protests erupted demanding Ortega’s resignation. The regime responded with paramilitary and police repression. Hundreds were killed; hundreds more became political prisoners; hundreds of thousands became exiles. The independent press was also targeted: some journalists have been killed, and dozens more are threatened and harassed. By the end of 2018, armed police agents seized the offices of Confidencial, a magazine critical of the government. They are still in control of the building. Editors and reporters have been working remotely ever since, some of them from outside the country.
No one was surprised that when the pandemic hit Nicaragua, Ortega’s regime chose denial. While hospitals were already overwhelmed, the government claimed there was no contagion and kept organizing spring festivals and beauty contests.
This summer, I talked with a political prisoner who participated in the student protests of 2018. He told me that the prisoners he is with don’t have proper medical supervision, and the crowded cells make it impossible to take any preventive measures against COVID-19. “We are afraid it’s going to hit hard and it’s going to hit soon,” he told me. “We’ve seen inmates taken away with all the symptoms. Only evacuated when on the verge of death.”
Nothing remains today of the so-called poets’ revolution. The intellectuals and artists that gave so much joy and depth to the culture of the Sandinistas left the party decades ago. Despite the revolutionary rhetoric, Ortega’s government is populist, authoritarian, politically conservative, and pro-capitalist. He became the mirror of the horror he fought to eradicate forty years ago. Ortega’s political prisoners are kept in the same cells where he was once a Somoza political prisoner, at a time when he aimed to liberate Nicaraguans from the grip of dictators. Today, old and wealthy, the comandante has remained in power longer than Somoza did. More than just his moral standing, he has lost his identity.
I went to Honduras in 2016 to report on the murder of environmental activist Berta Cáceres. She opposed the building of a hydroelectrical plant on the Gualcarque River, a sacred place for the Lenca people. She was shot to death by intruders who broke into her home in Santa Barbara, a western town surrounded by mountains and rivers—a region home to isolated indigenous communities living under striking poverty conditions.
I visited other hydroelectrical projects and found the same matrix: rivers cut and dried up for the benefit of businesspeople, some of them politicians. Governments guaranteed profits by signing decades-long contracts to buy all the energy generated by the plants. Poor communities were divided among those who wanted the meager development (a paved road, a clinic, a school) promised by project owners, and those who saw them as a threat to their own subsistence.
In the last decade, dozens of land defenders have been assassinated or incarcerated. According to a report by Global Witness, Honduras is the most dangerous country for environmental activists anywhere in the world. Mining, hydroelectrical projects, land grabs, agricultural megaprojects, and water pollution—carried out by economic elites, corrupt politicians, and transnational corporations, and approved by government officials and watched over by the army and the police—have deprived indigenous populations of natural resources and put them under threat of eviction, imprisonment, or death.
Honduras is a kleptocracy ruled by President Juan Orlando Hernández, who subverted the Constitution to run for reelection in 2017 and won by fraud. (The vote-counting system went off when Hernández appeared to be on a steady course to defeat; when the system came back, he was up again.) The European Union and the OAS concluded there were too many irregularities to trust the official results.
Massive protests against Hernández after the election were answered by harsh repression from the police and the military. Journalists and protesters were tear gassed so frequently that we joked we had become addicted to it; we bet on what kind of gas we were inhaling each time (was it triple-charge projectiles from Pennsylvania or the more peppery single-shots?). Rubber bullets and real bullets were also fired. Many protesters were killed, and dozens were injured. Riots all over the country were matched by intense political pressure from the opposition, civil society, and the international community.
When it seemed that Hernández could no longer stay in power, the United States recognized the official results, blessing his re-election. The riots, the tear gas, and the deaths multiplied. Hernández still presides over the country. To protect himself, he has empowered the military. Almost every state institution has an army officer at the helm. The military also controls Honduran airspace, borders, and highways.
Last year, Human Rights Watch issued a report on Honduras that found that “Journalists, environmental activists, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals are vulnerable to violence. Efforts to reform public-security institutions have stalled. Marred by corruption and abuse, the judiciary and police remain largely ineffective. Impunity for crimes and human rights abuses is the norm.” Tony Hernández, the president’s brother, was convicted last October by a federal court in New York for trafficking cocaine to the United States (Honduras is the main port of entrance for cocaine making its way north). During the trial hearings, Honduran kingpins testified that Hernández received a million dollars from Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán to support his brother’s presidential campaign.
Why is the United States so supportive of such a corrupt, fraudulent, and criminal regime? The answer, in short, is Manuel Zelaya, the main opposition leader. Zelaya was elected president in 2006 as a traditional liberal politician. Soon, however, he began showing an affinity for Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. In 2008, Honduras became a member of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, Chávez’s alternative to the free trade agreements that marked Latin America’s entry into globalization during the Clinton and Bush administrations.
In June 2009, the Honduran military staged a coup d’état against Zelaya. Despite the violation to the OAS’s Inter-American Democratic Charter, Zelaya’s ousting was blessed by Washington and ultimately accepted by other Latin American countries—a realpolitik acknowledgment that there would be no reversal to his ouster. After living in exile in the Dominican Republic for over a year, he returned to Honduras, and he now leads a new political party called Libre.
Both the Obama and Trump administrations have considered Zelaya a problem. They made a bet that Hernández was a man who they could control. In exchange for their unlimited support, Hernández does whatever is demanded from him: he allows the active presence of U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents on Honduran soil and the extradition of accused traffickers (the United States was kind enough to capture his brother elsewhere). Last year Honduras, like El Salvador and Guatemala, signed a Safe Third Country agreement with the Trump administration, which allows the United States to send asylum seekers to Honduras despite the fact that every year hundreds of thousands of Hondurans flee the poverty, violence, corruption, and environmental problems in their home country.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Hernández’s government has once again become embroiled in major corruption scandals—this time for millions in irregular emergency expenses.
Not long ago, Guatemala was a beacon for the region. Asphyxiated by drug cartels and the penetration of organized crime into state institutions, in 2006 the government asked the UN to assemble an independent body to help clean up the country’s justice system. An international commission without local political or criminal stakes, they believed, could not only investigate corruption but also protect local partners and sustain a new generation of investigators, police officers, and judges.
The result was the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). The commission started at the top, investigating prosecutors and police directors. And it worked. In a decade of steady work with the attorney general’s office, CICIG dismantled criminal structures and took down corrupt networks of police officers and government officials. Most boldly, in 2015, CICIG accused Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti of heading a corrupt network inside the customs administration. Both ended up in prison.
At the urging of CICIG, Congress passed an electoral reform that put restrictions on campaign financing, effectively opening the door to a more plural legislature. Investigations against illicit campaign financing brought members of the economic elite to prison. This was the beginning of the end of CICIG. Wealthy Guatemalans hired lobbyists in Washington to diminish bipartisan congressional support for the commission. Republican Marco Rubio started a campaign against CICIG, and Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales declared Iván Velásquez, the head of the commission, persona non grata. In 2019 the Morales government ended the agreement with the UN, and CICIG was dismantled.
Since then, the country has witnessed the aggressive return of the old political corrupt class, and drug cartels are again penetrating politics. To take just one example: Sofía Hernández, vice president of Congress, is a member of the National Change Union (UCN), a party whose founder and 2019 presidential candidate, Mario Estrada, couldn’t make it to the elections that year because U.S. authorities had captured him in Miami. A few days before, he had met with DEA agents disguised as El Chapo Guzmán’s envoys. Estrada asked them for $12 million to fund his campaign and to kill two presidential candidates who were ahead of him in the polls.
The people affected by CICIG’s investigations seem determined to retake state institutions still controlled by the commission’s former partners in the fight against corruption, including the ombudsman and the judges on the Constitutional Court. Lawmakers are trying to sack them because of their ability to stop congressional acts designed to protect corruption.
Last year, I visited banana plantations in southern Guatemala, close to the border with Mexico. In the last half century, ownership of these lands has passed from United Fruit to Guatemalan companies, who sell their products to Chiquita and Dole for worldwide distribution. For local communities, little has changed. They still live under very poor conditions and survive only by the charity of the landowners. Banana emporiums dry the marshes and rivers and poison the land, making it impossible for them to cultivate their own food. They also have to cope with drug traffickers, who control the local governments and seize land for money laundering.
Most of the peasants I spoke to see only two ways out of poverty. The fast track is a job in the drug trafficking business. It guarantees a step or two up the social ladder, in exchange for a rather short life. The other way out is emigration to the United States. They have been told they can start from scratch there, and earn a decent living doing honest work. They just have to get there.
While its neighboring countries started their political decomposition a few years ago, El Salvador—even though it is a very violent country, with high poverty levels and widespread corruption—was much more stable politically, with functioning institutions, in part because its system was balanced by the contest between two main parties: ARENA on the right, and the FMLN on the left. The former guerrillas of the FMLN finally won presidential elections in 2009, marking a political transition that Salvadorans saw as the final exam for our incipient democratic life. If the army, the business elites, and the right-wing political establishment could all accept the rule of their former enemies in the civil war, the country would have finally achieved a healthy political stability.
In power for a decade, the FMLN demonstrated once again that corruption has no ideology. It was a crushing disappointment for those who thought that the first leftist government in the history of the country could bring structural changes to our unequal society.
The FMLN’s failure allowed for the rise of Nayib Bukele, a young and wealthy politician who had served as the mayor of San Salvador. He publicly criticized the government’s complacency with corruption while also pushing for the party’s presidential nomination, leading to his expulsion from the FMLN in 2017. He decided to run for president under the banner of a smaller center-right political party. Without access to mainstream media, the thirty-seven-year-old candidate ran his entire campaign online: through Twitter, websites disguised as news outlets, Facebook Live events, and supporters on YouTube and TikTok. In a major upset, he won the 2019 election with more votes than all the other parties combined.
Following Trump’s bullying model, Bukele disparaged political institutions even before he was sworn in, refusing to work on a transition plan with government officers or to talk to opposition parties. At his inauguration on June 1, 2019, he praised the military and asked his followers to swear allegiance to his political project. In the meantime, he maintained a popular online presence and appeared to be governing by Twitter. Almost no one in his cabinet has any political experience or knowledge of public administration. Bukele has chosen loyalty over governing capacity.
In September 2019, Bukele went to New York to attend his first UN General Assembly meeting, where he took a selfie at the podium and declared that the photo was going to be seen by many more people around the world than the speeches of the world leaders. He was right. I look back to that moment now and see everything that was to come: the arrogance, the empty discourse, the populist craving for approval, the disrespect for everything that came before. Bukele is a narcissist incapable of listening but always ready to lecture, even when he has nothing to say. His followers are proud that their leader had brought the world’s attention to El Salvador.
During his first year in office, Bukele declared all his critics enemies of the people, including women’s organizations, independent media, scholars and scientists, intellectuals, businesspeople, political parties, judges, Congress, the Supreme Court, the Attorney General, universities, human rights defenders, and even the medical guild for questioning official health policies. He has cut ties to almost every powerful entity in the country, with two exceptions: a specific group of wealthy businessmen (both local and transnational) and U.S. Ambassador Ronald Johnson, whose Twitter feed reads like a Bukele fan account.
Bukele has launched smear and harassment campaigns against several media organizations—including El Faro, the newspaper where I work—which recently prompted Mari Carmen Aponte, a Democrat and former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, to warn Bukele that November elections could bring a change in the United States. “Using state resources to crash the press will not be seen positively by a Biden administration,” she said.
As with several other Latin American governments, Bukele’s administration of the pandemic has been marred by corruption scandals linked to multimillion-dollar government emergency contracts. Meanwhile, hunger is spreading. I recently traveled across the country to report on the situation people were facing during lockdown and the closing of the economy. Everywhere I went I saw a sea of white flags, each one marking a family asking for food.
During the pandemic, Bukele has disobeyed Supreme Court rulings against his emergency decrees, which include measures allowing police to detain people on the streets for violating the quarantine. “Five individuals (the Constitutional Court judges) won’t decide the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans,” he said in his characteristically alarmist fashion. His actions have received condemnation from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch, as well as from the Salvadoran ombudsman.
Former Supreme Court Judge Rodolfo González recently told me that he believes that we should expect worse to come. I asked him about Bukele’s decision to disobey the Supreme Court rulings. After fuming, he told me that Bukele was right in one sense: the judges are just five individuals. “Defending the constitution is not up to one court,” he said. “It’s the collective work of citizens committed to the democratic order.” I reminded him that, despite trespassing Congress with armed soldiers and declaring the Supreme Court’s rulings illegitimate, Bukele has the highest approval rating in the hemisphere (at around 70 percent). Silence followed. Salvadorans, it seems, are more inclined to defend the president than to defend democracy, at least for now. After all, democracy has yet to prove it can make their lives better.
Carlos Dada is a journalist and founder of El Faro.