From the Left: El Salvador: Good or bad example for the U.S.?


By Lance Simmens

The state of the world right now is, to put it into wildly pathetic and dangerously ominous perspective, uncertain. We are without a doubt facing perilously difficult circumstances that threaten our coexistence and with the prospect of nuclear weapons and one fatal miscalculation could find humanity near the edge of extinction.

The prelude to such a catastrophe is reflected in the growing battles over whether nation-states are inclined to choose autocracy over democracy. Even in our country, we find ourselves threatened with a struggle internally that could damage or even relinquish our leadership as the world’s standard bearer for freedom, liberty, justice, civil rights, the rule of law, transparency, accountability, empathy, diversity, reason, religious tolerance, freedom of speech, or other forms of equality ingrained in our short history. 

In 1935, Sinclair Lewis published a book entitled “It Can’t Happen Here” just as Adolph Hitler was making Germany great again, and proceeds to outline how an authoritarian individual could manage to wrestle control of our government at a time when raging conversations of American isolationism, fascism, socialism, and communism were being seriously debated. 

Writing in the New Yorker in October 2016, Alexander Nazaryan captures the period in which the novel character Buzz Windrip, who manages to win election as an authoritarian president, is modeled after Huey Long, the Louisiana political demagogue who was assassinated the month before the novel was published. Nazaryan asserts “Lewis was never much of an artist, but what he lacked in style he made up for with social observation … and though a novel it may be, the gripes about Roosevelt and the New Deal here have the quality not of fiction but of reportage.” And now here we are in the 21st century questioning whether authoritarian predispositions are preferable to democratic ideology. 

Who would have thought that Putin in Russia, Xi Jinping in China, Kim Jong Un in North Korea, Orban in Hungary, and Nayib Bukele in El Salvador could be looked upon as role models worthy of our consideration! While Republican Donald Trump is cruising to accept the GOP nomination later this summer, he is known to have quite an affection for these individuals and sounds downright jealous and envious of their leadership. For purposes of this article, let me introduce you to the little-known Bukele, who was elected president of El Salvador at the age of 39, and if he has not caught Trump’s eye as yet the self-proclaimed “world’s coolest dictator” may appeal to the “dictator for one day.”

The push for authoritarian status, which by its very nature entails concentration of power and loyalty not to the precepts of democratic governance but rather to the power concentrated within both the leader and/or their leadership is at issue here. According to the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) in 2021, “his party was the first to control both the presidency and a legislative majority since the restoration of democracy in 1992 and after the new Assembly was sworn in, his bloc acted quickly with a series of measures that deeply undermined the independence of the judiciary.”

In addition, on May 1, 2022, the Assembly “removed the Attorney General and all five members of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice, replacing them within hours …. effectively ended the ban on presidential reelection, which allowed the president to seek his immediate reelection … and Bukele and his Assembly are considering a constitutional reform that would authorize a one-party state, codify the nationalization of pension funds, and require all lawyers and public prosecutors to be approved and affiliated with the national government,” according to the HRF.

Bukele has attacked gender theory and decided he would not allow gender ideology in schools. Ana Piquer, Americas director of Amnesty International, states “every use or trace of gender ideology has been removed from public schools,” without giving more details about the implications of this decision in one of the countries that has one of the highest femicide rates in Latin America. Data from U.N. Women show “in 2019, the rate was 6.48 murders per 100,000 women. In addition, the organization cites reports from the Attorney General’s Office of El Salvador, which indicate that, in the first half of 2021 alone, 315 women were reported missing. Meanwhile, the 2019 National Sexual Violence Survey reported 63 percent of women nationwide expressed having experienced at least one incident of sexual assault.” 

According to Allison Meakem, an associate editor at Foreign Policy, “Bukele has amassed a genuine support base by measurably improving the lives of many Salvadorans. But to get there, his government has committed grave alleged human rights abuses and shown a disdain for democracy and the rule of law.”  

Forgoing democratic principles and shunning democracy altogether may help in the short run, but when confronting major policy issues and impacts upon the population, it can lead to human rights violations that last for decades. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is! Do we really want to toy with this potential course of action?