El Salvador: Democracy and Hope

By Daya Ayala Galdamez

Democratic regression is a problem that is quickly spreading all around the world, plaguing countries in Europe, Asia, and even North America. But one country which is rapidly accelerating toward an authoritarian regime is El Salvador.

Breaking free from its own civil war in 1992, El Salvador was supposed to walk on a path toward a solid democracy after experiencing the hardships of war. Unfortunately, the opposite happened. The war left a trail of violence, dysfunctional institutions, and a population cleft by misinformation and pandering to the masses, stating promises that were destined to remain unfulfilled from the beginning. This is exacerbated by a lack of education, making a large portion of the population easily influenceable. Clever politicians use this to their advantage, propagating corruption and feeding the idea that it is remarkably easy to get away with it. Thus, they end up reinforcing the cycle and implicitly encouraging the next politician in line to engage in these same activities.

The Democratic Index by The Economist classifies El Salvador as a hybrid regime due to corruption which creates a difficult environment for democracy to thrive, paired with a weak political culture, where people either demonize politicians or eagerly promise their votes to the candidate that gifts them the most basic goods. Moreover, El Salvador’s recent past left it marred with corruption, some even stating that the very peace accords that ended the war were underdone and rushed. This led to many of the issues the country has today, like the constant back-and-forth between political parties, and the shameless theft, usually disguised as investments or laws meant to benefit the people.

A Cyclical Political Culture

Ever since the civil war ended, all presidents have faced some sort of accusation – many of them true – resulting in political parties condemning each other while accomplishing little to nothing at all. This pointless game of cat and mouse mainly took place between the two major political parties, “Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional” (FMLN) and “Alianza Republicana Nacionalista” (ARENA). The latter had held power from 1989 to 2009, until the FMLN won the elections. It held executive power up to 2019.

Nayib Bukele launched himself into the presidency in the same year, using the strife caused by the political parties, continually stating that he would not be like the past presidents. Bukele took advantage of the severe disillusionment experienced by the population. But ever since he has been in power, he has proved to be more of the same as his predecessors. In February 2020, he surrounded the Legislative Assembly with military officers to pressure the legislature and force it to approve a $100 million loan. In June 2021, he dismantled the CICIES, an anti-corruption body. In July, he expelled a journalist who criticized him, exemplifying oppression of the media. Then in September, the Supreme Court approved the re-election of Bukele, even though the constitution prohibits this.

On September 15th, which is the country’s Independence Day, people went out to protest the presidential abuse of power and the presidential re-election. Bukele’s response to the protest was to accuse the international community of “financing the perverse opposition”. He also implied that the use of tear gas might be necessary in future cases, although the protest was peaceful.

While the past presidents have not necessarily been great in their actions, Bukele marks a breakthrough in what is the most apparent and impactful abuse of power, carelessly criticizing the media, disregarding and dismissing concern of his haphazard procedures, and passing laws as he sees fit, as demonstrated by the aforementioned events. As The Economist rightly states, “there is ultimately a risk of permanent scars on Salvadoran democracy.” The Economist even calls Bukele a “dictator in the making.” Nonetheless, although heavily criticized internationally, Bukele remains especially popular amongst the lower-income class who demands change and easily takes the bait without realizing the president is not part of the solution, but rather, the problem.

The Need For Education

It is clear that the situation is dire, and if not taken care of, El Salvador could transition from a hybrid to an authoritarian regime. However, it is not too late to reverse the damage done, and El Salvador and its people are actively supported by other nations. President Biden’s advisor stated that they have to avoid “El Salvador from becoming another Venezuela.”

It makes no doubt that the first step in tackling this growing issue is to educate the people. People should be informed enough to decide who to vote for on their own, rather than being swayed by a simple basket with bags of rice and corn flour. Indeed, education is of the utmost importance when it comes to solving issues such as income and gender inequality, poverty, and endorsing both economic growth and social development, all of which are factors that would help mitigate and prevent corruption. Although in the past decade, education has seen significant improvements and high enrollment rates, reaching as high as 91% for primary school in 2013, many children still end up dropping out. The Norwegian Refugee Council found out in one of its studies that 40% of the children it interviewed were out of school, and almost one third had dropped out before even completing middle school.

Clearly, this issue must be properly addressed if the politically corrupt environment is to see any betterments at all. Politicians like Bukele should not be put on a pedestal for their supposed commitment to the country, and the people should be given the tools to discern progress from false promises. Although democracy has struggled throughout Salvadoran history, this problem is not endemic to the region, as we can see in the case of Costa Rica, which is ranked as a “full democracy” by The Democratic Index, and holds the third highest ranking in all of Latin America and the Caribbean, proving that there is still hope and that these issues can be resolved for the benefit of the country and its people.

Daya Ayala Galdamez is a student in International Business at SLU-Madrid.

To quote this article, please use the following reference:  A. Galdamez (2022), “El Salvador: Democracy and Hope” https://crisesobservatory.es/El Salvador: Democracy and Hope/

The OCC publishes a wide range of opinions that are meant to help our readers think of International Relations. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and neither the OCC nor Saint Louis University can be held responsible for any use which may be made of the opinion of the author and/or the information contained therein.