El Salvador’s Trump Takes Office

Can Nayib Bukele cozy up to the United States?

Nayib Bukele speaks during the closing rally of his campaign in San Salvador on Jan. 26.
Nayib Bukele speaks during the closing rally of his campaign in San Salvador on Jan. 26. Oscar Rivera/AFP/Getty Images

On June 1, El Salvador’s politics entered a new era when Nayib Bukele was sworn in as president. Bukele, the country’s first president from neither the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) nor the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), won an outright majority of votes in the first round of elections in February. Now he will try to redefine El Salvador’s image with the United States, tackle corruption, and reach the masses through social media.

The 37-year-old Bukele, whose family is of Palestinian descent, was previously mayor of the small town of Nuevo Cuscatlán and of the capital, San Salvador, where he gained popularity. After being expelled by the FMLN in 2017 for alleged defamation of the party, he launched the New Ideas movement. New Ideas is touted as being unideological, but Bukele ran with a right-wing party, Grand Alliance for National Unity, when his movement was barred from participating in the vote.

During the campaign, he ran on an anti-corruption platform exclusively delivered on Twitter and Facebook Live. Despite suspicions that, among other shady dealings, he had committed tax evasion, he singled out the nation’s previous leaders for allegedly pilfering at least $500 million from state coffers.

Salvadorans’ main priorities, according to a recent poll, are the reduction of crime and unemployment, and Bukele’s anti-corruption rhetoric likely won him the vote. Meanwhile, his open criticism of the United States’ cancellation of the Temporary Protection Status for nearly 200,000 Salvadorans in the United States helped him win over the diaspora; over one-fifth of El Salvador’s population lives in the United States.

As president, Bukele will have his work cut out for him. Crime, corruption, and economic sluggishness plague El Salvador. From October 2017 through September 2018, 12,073 Salvadorans filed asylum cases in the United States, and the caravans of migrants that some Salvadorans joined to travel to the U.S. border were met with condemnation from U.S. President Donald Trump. And previously, the president had reportedly included El Salvador in his list of “shithole” countries during a private meeting with senators at the White House.

Bukele, during his first public appearance after the election, responded to Trump’s insult by saying that “the best way to answer is to make [El Salvador] better, so then the speech will change.” He told his audience at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank that his country would not need foreign aid if El Salvador were considered a business partner rather than a basket case.

In a subsequent meeting in June, El Salvador’s new vice president, Félix Ulloa, told me that the Salvadoran government wants a “win-win game” with the United States, where “we can make most of the free-trade treaties.” Ulloa, a former magistrate in the national electoral tribunal, was part of the revolutionary socialist movements during El Salvador’s bloody civil war in the 1980s.

The small Central American country depends heavily on the northern market. Between January and April 2019, 42 percent of El Salvador’s exports went to the United States, while 32 percent of El Salvador’s imports came from the United States, according to El Salvador’s Chamber of Commerce. The United States is also El Salvador’s largest investor, with $334 million invested in 2018. Remittances sent home by Salvadorans abroad, most of whom live in the United States, contributed 20.3 percent of El Salvador’s 2018 GDP (and that is not counting any money that can’t be traced).

Ulloa told me that El Salvador wants to attract further investment to modernize its textile, plastic, glass, and pharmaceutical industries. That will help the country grow its production capacity and reduce dependency on remittances and imports. The government also wants to build mechanisms to encourage the diaspora to invest their remittances in El Salvador’s private sector, instead of sending them home solely for direct consumption.

Perhaps because of Bukele’s desire for better trade relations, he has hewn closer to the United States than his predecessor.

Perhaps because of Bukele’s desire for better trade relations, he has hewn closer to the United States than his predecessor, former President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, who belonged to the FMLN. Unlike Sánchez Cerén, Bukele does not recognize the governments of President Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela or President Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. So far, he’s also mostly held off addressing controversial U.S. border policies. In the past few weeks, two Salvadorans died in U.S. custody without Bukele starting a diplomatic row.

When asked about Bukele’s policies, his political campaign consultant, Porfirio Chica, echoed a Trump administration talking point. “The United States’ restrictive migration policies are their prerogative and it’s understandable that you want to protect your borders. What we need to do is create employment and opportunities for our citizens,” he said. “It’s not Washington’s responsibility that we could not get rid of our corrupt governments.”

Ulloa categorically denies that El Salvador is submitting to the United States. “With the United States, there hasn’t been a drastic change in relations, neither of distancing itself from the United States, and much less of subordination,” Ulloa asserted. “President Bukele decides on foreign policy and does what is best for El Salvador.”

The Salvadoran press has noted some similarities between Bukele and Trump. In April, Bukele accused the investigative digital magazine Factum of propagating “Fake News” for its coverage of his tweets. There’s also the fact that, similar to Trump (and to previous Salvadoran presidents), Bukele seems to put outsize trust in family members and personal allies. His brother, for example, Karim Bukele, led his campaign, his uncle Miguel Kattán is now secretary of commerce and investment, and a commercial manager of Yamaha Motors, one of Bukele’s family-owned companies, has been sworn in as the minister of public works.

In some respects, the comparison to Trump may serve Bukele well. It may prompt the United States to treat El Salvador differently. “I can envision our relationship with El Salvador becoming much more about Nayib Bukele,” said Michael Allison, professor of political science at the University of Scranton. That would be unusual in Washington, where El Salvador’s leaders are often relatively unknown.

The comparison may also win support among Salvadorans. As Ulloa explained, old-fashioned governance would have not been enough to convince the population that the new government was tackling the urgent changes needed in the country. “People were tired, desperate, and disillusioned with the old system and so they wanted to see concrete actions. So the president decided to do it through executive orders,” Ulloa said. These are on Twitter for all to see.

Although the president’s team has assured the public that Bukele will respect the country’s institutions, some observers fear that its ministers will have little room to make decisions if he centralizes decision-making among his close allies. Already on Twitter, ministers acquiesce to his executive orders immediately.

For now, most analysts want to wait and see how Bukele’s leadership develops over the next three months. Yet he will likely remain popular as he rapidly delivers on some promises, such as publicly firing officials who receive outsize salaries, allegedly because of nepotism.

For now, over 60 percent of Salvadorans believe that Bukele’s administration will change things for the better. He is “El Salvador’s last chance,” said Santos Henriquez, a former guerrilla fighter, between cheers from the crowd at Bukele’s swearing-in ceremony.

Melissa Vida is a freelance journalist.