By: HILARY GOODFRIEND *
**Publicado originalmente en espaňol, en O Istmo (Junio 2020)
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In El Salvador, the crisis induced by the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked the first expressions of popular protest against a president whose controversial mandate has been characterized by tremendous — and persistent — internal popularity.
Nayib Bukele became President of El Salvador on June 1, 2019 with strong support. He had decisively defeated the previous ruling party, the Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (FMLN) —part of the demobilized guerrilla — as well as the Republican Nationalist Alliance (ARENA), the traditional electoral instrument of the great national oligarchic capital. Bukele, the young heir to a Palestinian business family, entered politics as an FMLN mayor, but was expelled from the party in 2017. In his presidential campaign, he positioned himself as a post-ideological renovator against a decadent and corrupt political class — a cynical claim, because Bukele registered his candidacy with GANA, a party of ex-ARENA politicians accused of corruption and ties to organized crime.
At his inauguration, Bukele declared the end of the post-war period. And indeed, no president has done more to reverse the fragile institutional achievements of the Peace Accords that, in 1992, put a negotiated end to the civil war and demilitarized the state. One year after his inauguration, his management has been characterized by improvisation, disinformation, nepotism, and a lack of transparency, as well as media driven, personalized, and increasingly authoritarian governance. Bukele, who governs through online social networks, demonstrates a disregard for journalism, human rights, and separation of powers — an attitude that has sparked a series of constitutional crises. Faced with growing criticism from social organizations and analysts, he has honed a proto-fascist discourse, wrapped in evangelical Christianity and the exaltation of the Armed Forces.
In this context, the Bukele government's response to the COVID pandemic was the militarization and suspension of constitutional rights, as well as the open conflict with the judicial and legislative branches. Hundreds of citizens trapped abroad were prevented from entering the country, making exception for the regular flights of deportations from the United States. Authorities detained thousands of people in makeshift "containment centers" for violating quarantine measures. The suspension of public transport and draconian restrictions on movement in public spaces have left the country's impoverished majorities — where almost half of the economically active population works in the informal sector — in conditions of desperation.
After weeks of militarized quarantine, during the month of May various expressions of discontent erupted in different parts of the country. On May 5, people who had spent 40 days in a containment center in San Salvador were repressed by riot police after demanding their departure; on the 22nd, about twenty people detained in Ciudad Delgado went on hunger strike for violations of their rights. In the middle of the month, white flags appeared in urban worker neighborhoods and the entrances of rural communities, indicating the urgent lack of food and basic supplies, which quickly spread throughout the country. Around the same time, in the most exclusive areas of the capital, a collective cacophony of car horns and blows to saucepans began to sound at night.
Of these multiple popular protests, the "whistles" and cacerolazos are the only ones that were explicitly directed against the President. Boosted by wide dissemination on social media, in a few days these noisy nightly protests — evidently stemming from an inter-bourgeois dispute between the capital faction represented by Bukele and that of the traditional right-wing — spread to middle-class neighborhoods. In any case, the protests brought together a multiplicity of motives and actors: both impatient capitalists and opportunistic politicians and democratic dissidents.
Some protesters defended themselves against Bukele's disqualification of their actions highlighting the peaceful and trans-ideological nature of the protests. It's about "demanding more information, more order, and more adherence to the Constitution from the government," wrote one commentator. “It seems that, although late, El Salvador joined that awakening of countries, such as Guatemala, where, years ago, they went to the plazas to make demands; and that is transcendental,” said the author.
The comparison with Guatemala is striking, since, like the outraged marches in that neighboring country, the protests of the urban middle class have been celebrated for being spontaneous citizen expressions, not contaminated by discredited party politics. But the outcome of that Central American spring of 2015 was profoundly ambiguous, if not disappointing.
In El Salvador, the crisis is unfolding at a time of historical weakness for the organized left, whose main electoral representative has been reduced to a parliamentary minority. Dissent from the regime is mainly limited to middle-class professionals: journalists, academics, and activists from non-governmental organizations. The popular classes of workers, peasants, and informal workers that make up the vast majority of the population, remain firm in their loyalty to the president, as the latest polls corroborate.
During his campaign, Bukele made the effort to appeal to progressive professional sectors with a Silicon Valley-style neoliberal technocratic discourse and a youthful and rebellious image, a position that he has been abandoning throughout this first year of his mandate. Increasingly, the Salvadoran president resorts to the discursive style of terror, melodrama, and prophecy, positioning himself as the savior of the people against the diabolical threats of the virus, gangs, and corrupt politicians.
Bukele has calculated that he can do without the middle class. And to date, it seems to have been successful. The "whistles" could become germs of a wider discontent, but for now, do not transcend the gates of the middle class residential areas.
* HILARY GOODFRIEND is a PhD student in Latin American Studies at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), a member of the NACLA editorial committee and a member researcher of the Clacso Working Group "The Central American Isthmus Rethinking the Centers".