Monday, February 04, 2019

Can the new President be a Salvador (saviour) of El Salvador ?

Nayib Bukele has won the presidential elections held last Sunday in El Salvador. Bukele is the first outsider who does not belong to either of the established ARENA (right wing) or FMLN ( left wing) parties which dominated the politics of the country in the last two decades. He got around 54% of the votes which was more than the combined total percentage of the votes obtained by the candidates of the two main parties.  The ARENA candidate got 32% while the ruling party FMLN’s got only 14%. With his impressive victory of getting more than fifty percent of votes, Bukele has avoided a second round of elections. He was the candidate of an alliance of smaller parties called as GANA. 

The young ( 37 years old) Bukele has earned his reputation as an able and visionary administrator as the mayor of the capital city San Salvador from 2015 to 2018. He is a social media star who used tools such as Twitter and Facebook effectively reaching out to millions of voters directly. He announced his candidature and manifesto through Facebook Live. This  had appealed to the young generation disillusioned with the traditional parties. Supremely confident of the social media strength, he refused to participate in the traditional debate with the other presidential candidates. Nor did he hold any press conferences. 

Bukele has kept away from the ideological polarisation of the country and promises to govern pragmatically. The voters liked his quote, I don’t talk about left or right anymore, this is outdated in the modern era.” Although his alliance includes right wing elements, he had started off his political career as member of the left wing FMLN party, which expelled him when he questioned the party’s leadership. Bukele is of Palestine origin.

El Salvador, the smallest country (in area) in Central America with 6.5 million people, has huge problems. The main issue is the ongoing gang violence and crime. The country has become notorious with one of the highest murder rates in the world. Mara Salvatrucha, popularly known as MS-13 and the Barrio 18 (18thstreet gang) are the two dominant gangs which hold the country to ransom with killings, crimes and drug trafficking. The rivalry between these two became so violent at one stage in 2012, the government intervened and brokered a ceasefire between MS 13 and the Barrio 18. In order to bring the two sides to the negotiating table, the government relaxed conditions in the prisons in which the members of the two gangs were held. Following this peace deal, the murder rate had dropped immediately. But this truce broke down in 2014 and crime has gone up again.

The origin of these two gangs is Los Angeles.  During the civil war in Central America in the eighties, several hundred thousands had fled to US to escape the violence. The US had destabilised El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras during the cold war and Contra War and had subverted democracy by supporting right wing military dictatorship. The Americans had armed and trained right wing militias which killed thousands of people including the famous Archbishop Romero in 1980.  Many of those who wanted to escape the civil war went to Los Angeles. In the nineties, the US authorities cracked down on the gangs and deported thousands of the gang members to El Salvador. But many of the deported, who were born or brought up in US, found it difficult to adjust in Central America and continued with their LA gang culture. They regrouped themselves locally with guns smuggled from US and scaled up their crimes, taking advantage of the weak law enforcement and justice system of El Salvador. The gangs have evolved a culture of tattoos, brutal rites of initiation, extortion and crime. 

The Salvadoreans are again fleeing to escape the violence of the gang wars. This is the reason for the caravans trying to enter US for seeking asylum.The US which is responsible for the violence has a moral duty to accept the victims of their destructive policies and guns. In this context it is worth noting that the remittances of Salvadoreans in US is a major source of foreign exchange for the country.

The second major problem of El Salvador is the rampant corruption. Some of the previous presidents of the country have been accused and convicted of massive corruption. Bukele’s campaign slogan was,“There’s enough money when no one steals.” He has promised to establish an international anti-corruption agency, as it was done in Guatemala.  

Of course, the most fundamental problem is poverty. The country needs poverty alleviation and job creation programmes. 

The Salvadoreans are praying that Bukele turn out to be the saviour of the country which needs rescue from its acute problems and suffering. 

India’s exports to El Salvador were 70 million dollars in 2017-18. There is scope to increase the exports to 200 million if Indian companies explore the opportunities seriously. El Salvador has established an embassy in New Delhi and is seeking Indian investment and development assistance.

While the two biggest democracies of the Americas chose to elect crazy, polarising and right wing extremists Trump and Bolsonaro and that too after so much controversies and hoopla, the little El Salvador has elected a young, sensible, balanced and pragmatic outsider Nayib Bukele as President. The clean election and the decisive victory of an outsider and social media star is a sign of the growing maturity of the young democracy of El Salvador and is an inspiration for the hemisphere.