The young Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele broke into the congress of his country, accompanied by heavily armed troops of the Army and the Police, took the seat of the president of Parliament and proclaimed: “Now I believe it is very clear who has control of the situation,” in reference to the conflict of powers he maintains with the Legislative Assembly.
This transgressor image of Bukele and the military at the congress, recorded on Sunday, February 9th, has been “traumatic” for Salvadorans. “Bukele has provided enough displays of his authoritarian, undemocratic disposition and of being a danger to the political stability of the country,” says journalist Carlos Dada.
In an interview on “Esta Noche” (Tonight) program and Confidencial, Dada, founder of the newspaper “El Faro” (lighthouse), warns the irony that Bukele, a president who enjoys high popularity after having buried the bipartisanship of Arena and the FMLN and is considered “the king of symbols,” has himself been responsible for “blowing his image as a cool president.”
The political crisis baptized as “El Bukelazo” (Bukele affair), by some media outlets, has triggered fear and alarm, but has also provoked a unanimous reaction of condemnation by business chambers, political parties, human rights defenders, feminists, think tanks and victims of the past armed conflict. “We are seeing a new country,” says Dada, and “we must see how everything is reconfigured,” around the crucial legislative elections of 2021.
President Bukele has said that the presence of the army, (for which) he is blamed of taking over Congress last Sunday, is a superficial matter. How has this act of force been read in Salvadoran society?
It has been read exactly as the opposite. The reactions we saw on Sunday, and continue to see, are from a society, as a whole, very concerned, alarmed, afraid to see the entrance of armed soldiers equipped as if they were going to war, with long weapons, bulletproof vests, helmets, combat uniforms, and also heavily armed policemen, entering the Blue Room, and positioning themselves in the Blue Room, which is the plenary hall of the Legislative Assembly.
It is not a superficial thing. It is, even, paradoxical because this is the president who pays most attention to images. So, it is a deliberate image.
Is there any precedent in Salvadoran history, before or after the 1992 Peace Agreements, about an incident like this?
We haven’t found it. I am going to tell you a short story. My father was an opposition deputy during the years of military dictatorships. That same Sunday afternoon, when the soldiers left the Assembly, trying to understand what was happening, I called him. I asked him if this reminded him of his years as an opposition deputy to the dictatorship. And he said no. That not even in the years of military dictatorship they had dared to cross that line. That armed soldiers had never entered the plenary hall of the Assembly. There is no precedent for this.
Bukele alleges that he has invoked a constitutional power so that Congress does not continue to impede the approval of a loan necessary to reinforce his security plan. Does this argument have any constitutional basis?
There is an article of the constitution, 167, that “empowers the Council of Ministers to convene extraordinarily the deputies to a plenary session when warranted,” it reads almost textually. I am quoting from memory, “the interests of the Republic;” it is that ambiguous. That’s to say, if you do not review the spirit of the Constitution, that would basically allow the Council of Ministers every week to go to the Assembly, because all matters that are subject to legislation, by definition are of interests of the Republic. That is, to make the correct interpretation of that constitutional article, the intervention of the Constitutional Chamber was needed, which barely arrived just yesterday. It arrived late.
And has the Constitutional Chamber made a decisive ruling, pointing out “that it denies” Bukele’s invocation of this constitutional article, and calls on him to desist of this pretension to subdue Congress, and use the Army for that. Will Bukele yield? Or is El Salvador going towards an even more serious crisis of powers?
That’s a good question that I am not able to answer. I believe that on that Sunday, what we saw was, I have no doubt, the threat of a coup to Congress, which is a coup d’état. We saw the encroachment and militarization of the Salvadoran Congress. What happened is very serious, because it is also, the political instrumentalization of the Army, which cost us so much to separate from our politics.
I believe that Nayib Bukele has provided enough displays of his authoritarian, undemocratic disposition and of being a danger for the political stability of the country. If somewhere we are to sow hope that this will not be repeated, it has to be in State institutions, their operations, and in civil society.
Something very curious has taken place. Since a long time ago I have not seen a unanimous reaction in civil society. I am talking about the business chambers, to human rights defenders, feminist collectives, universities, think tanks, victims of the armed conflict organizations, foreign governments, political parties. Everyone agrees on the condemnation of what they saw on February 9th. I believe that it frightens all of us.
Despite these criticisms and the reactions you point to, Bukele has a majority political support with which he dismantled the bipartisan system. Is there any real political counterweight to the force and the convening power of the president?
Right now, we are seeing a new country, which we are barely getting to know and that is just getting reshaped. I’ll give you an example: the Legislative Assembly for the first time responded as a state power and not as an array of partisan factions, where everyone has different expressions. For the first time, it reacted with a single voice of condemnation to what happened, and it forcefully complained, we cannot legislate with a gun to our head. The fact is that, even the sectors that are closest to Bukele, some embassies, some members of the business sector, have expressed themselves with total vehemence against what happened. It is symptomatic of the delirium of the action we saw take place.
Let’s return to the origin of the recent political problem, the 109 million dollar loan that Bukele had requested to equip the Police with helicopters and buy a ship to reinforce his security plan. What is the deep-rooted controversy behind this request that was presented in November?
In November he presented this one, which is his eighth request for an international loan, and if I am not mistaken, the fifth one that has to do with security.
There is a general budget of the country, in which one billion dollars have already been approved, a little less, in terms of security alone. And on the loans, he has requested until today, a little more a little less, 2 billion dollars, almost half have also been approved.
This new 109-million-dollar loan has to do with equipment for the Police and the armed forces. But above all it has to do, and this is what has aroused suspicion, with the bidding process of certain equipment, especially video-cameras, where there are several million dollars; drones, facial recognition apparatus, optic fibers, there is even the purchase of a ship, which still nobody knows what it is because it has not been explained. However, suspicions arise from the fact that recently the director of the penitentiary system made a trip to Mexico in a private jet. And, now we know that that flight was paid by a Mexican security company, which in Mexico has many complaints of irregularities in state contracts. Therefore, this finding of the trip of the director of the penitentiary system has stopped the approval of the loan by the Assembly, because the deputies say they need to have more explanations on the control of the bidding process.
Where does this medium-term crisis point to? In 2021 there are legislative elections in which Bukele, based on his great popularity, hopes to win the majority of Congress. Is what happened on Sunday an early battle of those elections?
I believe that what we saw was a coup attempt to Congress. The president got to the point of sitting himself on the chair of the president of the Legislative Assembly and surrounded by soldiers asked God to enlighten him to decide whether to dissolve Congress at that time. Those pretensions that, I understand, were mainly stopped by some embassies and many organizations. Here in El Salvador he was told not to commit such madness. But he had summoned the people for that. He called them to insurrect against the deputies if they did not show up for the plenary session, he called for to dissolve Congress and call on a Constituent (Assembly).
Bukele has no deputies in the Assembly because his party did not compete in the legislative (elections), it did not exist. He competed for the Presidency with a vehicle party, let’s say which has only eleven deputies, insufficient to guarantee the approval of his entire agenda. What we have to protect now, everyone as a society, is that this does not happen, that there is no constitutional break. What has happened is that the constitutional order has been violated, and that break has now been slowed down. What has happened is that serious.
Can this have political consequences for Bukele’s presidency? Can Congress and the Constitutional Chamber investigate or deliberate if a crime has been committed?
The Prosecutor’s Office is already officially investigating, by request of the president of the Legislative Assembly, the military entering the plenary hall. For the time being the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court is still deliberating on the legitimacy of the convening of an extraordinary assembly by the Council of Ministers, and we have to wait for that institutionally to work.
Other things have changed, especially in political and international matters. I believe that on Sunday Feb. 9, the image of Bukele as a cool president ended. The guy who arrived with that fresh air, who was able to project very well, especially abroad; is the millennial president who takes selfies at the United Nations; who is very skilled with social networks; who speaks another language; who is very cool and he loves to present himself as a cool president.
I believe that he himself blew that image, because it is not cool to introduce the Army in the Assembly and it is not cool to see someone in the middle of the plenary hall of the Assembly locking in his eyes while speaking to God. Fortunately, God asked for patience so that he would not dissolve Congress at that time.
Can the political impact of this medium-term crisis be foreseen, on Bukele’s project to achieve an overwhelming majority in Congress?
I cannot say, because as we talked at the beginning, we are just discovering a new country, and we must see how everything reconfigures itself. I believe that the democratic game allows the strength of Nayib Bukele to present itself at the 2021 elections, and get all the seats, if that is what citizens vote for. I don’t see a problem with that. I see a problem when that is not the way to reach the legislature.
What do I think will happen in 2021? I don’t know how much what happened on February 9th will affect him. I do know that the images of such a violent transgression, seeing all those armed soldiers in the Legislative Assembly, are traumatic images that will mark a generation. We will have to see how this affects the election result.