El Salvador’s Bukele must change course before it’s too late

The Salvadoran president is increasingly shrinking civil spaces and undermining institutions.

El Salvador’s president Nayib Bukele participates in the closing party of the “Bitcoin Week”
El Salvador’s president Nayib Bukele participates in the closing party of the 'Bitcoin Week' where he announced the plan to build the first 'Bitcoin City' in the world, in Teotepeque, El Salvador on November 20, 2021 [Reuters/Jose Cabezas]

December 1 marks the end of the first half of Nayib Bukele’s five-year term as president of El Salvador. When the young leader took office on June 1, 2019, the nation’s homicide rate was among the highest in Latin America, women’s rights were severely under threat due to some of the toughest anti-abortion laws in the world, and victims of the country’s bloody armed conflict were still awaiting justice, truth and reparations nearly 30 years after peace accords were signed.

When Amnesty International met him shortly after he was inaugurated, to share our concerns about the grave human rights situation in El Salvador, Bukele committed to tackling some of the country’s historic challenges, becoming a distinct voice in Central America and remaining open to international scrutiny.

Fast forward two and a half years and instead of progress, what we see is an astronomic rollback on human rights as the president has turned from a bright promise into a leader whose “with me or against me” approach is destroying the gains made by many generations of activists during the past three decades.

Since he took office, the rights to free expression and freedom of association and women’s rights have been ignored, if not outright undermined.

Today, in El Salvador, there is very little space for anything other than supporting the president. As a Salvadoran who, as a child, lived through the country’s bloody civil conflict, I have watched with despair how the current government has been dismantling one by one each of the institutions that should work to strengthen human rights, and has been backtracking on the path initiated with the Peace Accords back in 1992. The prospect of having the safe country where human rights are respected that my family wanted my generation to inherit is vanishing into thin air.

Bukele’s strategy is not new. He took office armed with a roadmap borrowed from his neighbour, Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega, a man who has shrunk civil space so much that it is now practically invisible.

First, Bukele effectively declared open season on independent journalists, lawyers, human rights activists, and anybody who dared criticise him or his administration’s policies. The campaign began online, where he badmouthed and dismissed their work. He branded activists as “criminals”, “seeking the death of more people” during the toughest months of the COVID-19 pandemic and of being “front organisations” for the political opposition.

When the leader of a country with a relatively small population starts smearing people and entire organisations, it gives a green light for something much more dangerous. What followed was the development of a hostile environment in which people started to feel they could no longer speak their minds without facing reprisal or being publicly discredited by the authorities.

Journalists are also working in an increasingly hostile environment. In this year’s Reporters Without Borders report on press freedom, El Salvador dropped eight places. Some of the reasons included severe challenges to accessing public information, government officials’ refusal to answer questions or give interviews about issues including the COVID-19 pandemic and police seizing materials from reporters. Meanwhile, dozens of journalists have reported that they have reason to believe they are under surveillance. Despite the growing risks, many brave media professionals continue to work to uncover wrongdoing.

Second, in March, Bukele’s political party, Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas) won the majority of seats in the Legislative Assembly, which opened the door for more changes. With its help, the president has managed to undermine the independence of the judiciary.

In May, for example, the legislature replaced the magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice and the attorney general of the Republic. In August, it passed amendments to existing legislation facilitating the removal or replacement of judges and prosecutors. These measures were considered by many an attack on the right of access to justice and judicial independence.

At the same time, the legislators also backed Bukele’s attack on civil society. They are currently considering a Foreign Agents law which would significantly limit funding for civil society organisations and their ability to function in the country. The Legislative Assembly has also struck down bills to protect human rights defenders and journalists, to create a system to help the search for the disappeared and to make abortion accessible.

In September, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court issued a ruling allowing for immediate presidential re-election, in contravention with the country’s constitution.

On the surface, Bukele, with his high approval ratings, may seem like a capable leader, who is charting a positive path of development and human rights in El Salvador. The reality, however, tells a different story.

Bukele’s growing intolerance for dissent is threatening the foundations of the country, which Salvadorans have put so much effort into laying after the armed conflict. But it is not too late for him to change course and open dialogue with those who criticise him. Only through meaningful, public conversations and respect for human rights can he build the country he promised in his election campaign.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.