Different Means, Similar Ends
What the governments of El Salvador and Venezuela have in common (and what they don't)
Latin America has big elections in five countries this year— El Salvador, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Venezuela and Uruguay— and it was a week of highest hijinks in two of them.
Though countries in very different situations, with very different leaders, Venezuela and El Salvador have experienced serious irregularities in their election processes— and both have would-be strongmen at their helm.
One of the main differences is Bukele’s overwhelming popularity. El Salvadorans go to the polls this Sunday, February 4, and are expected to re-elect President Nayib Bukele by a wide margin.
Bukele is running despite the fact that six articles of the Salvadoran Constitution expressly prohibit presidents from re-election. However, the Constitutional Chamber — a judicial body controlled by Bukele — has made a more than questionable interpretation of the law in which Bukele could stand for re-election if he leaves office six months earlier.
Congress, also dominated by Bukele allies, has endorsed the decision, as have lower courts, which Bukele packed with supporters after purges of dissenting voices.
Bukele has, at least in theory, stepped away from the presidency leading up to elections. Though his absence seems to be mostly symbolic in practice.
This week newspaper El Faro released audio and written communiques they claim show that in 2023 Bukele was in secret negotiations with the Mexican New Generation Jalisco Cartel (CJNG) in an attempt to recapture Élmer Canales Rivera, alias “Crook”, a leader from MS-13 in El Salvador.
Bukele offered CJNG a million dollars in return for the kidnapping and return of “Crook”, according to El Faro documents, but another motive of Jalisco Cartel informants may have been revenge.
Ironically, Riveras himself was party to secret agreements with the government in 2019-2020, after Bukele assumed office. That agreement was shattered by a series of murders, however, and replaced by Bukele’s seemingly permanent “state of emergency”, which grants security forces broad powers to detain and surveil citizenry without warrants.
Riveras was secretly released by the Bukele government in 2021, despite a 40-year sentence for murder and narco-trafficking.
The plot by CJNG to recapture him failed, but Rivera was eventually arrested on November 8, 2023, by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Mexican authorities in Chiapas, Mexico, and transported to the U.S. to await trial.
Bukele faces no serious challenger in upcoming elections.
Meanwhile, Venezuela this week abandoned months of US-mediated negotiations with opposition leaders and formally voided the candidacy of right-wing María Corina Machado. Machado was retroactively barred from political office last year in an opaque process by Venezuela’s ruling party (a subject we covered in depth as part of our podcast series).
Venezuelan government spokesman Héctor Rodríguez accused the country's opposition of planning a "coup d'état" that included the assassination of President Nicolás Maduro. Venezuela’s Prosecutor’s Office has arrested more than 30 opposition politicians in recent weeks, including 3 managers from Machada’s campaign.
In a televised press conference Saturday afternoon in Caracas, Rodríguez said, without offering evidence to support the dramatic claims: "No negotiation process can be used to justify a coup d'état. There are people in the opposition who have been directly involved in plans to kill the President and call for a military uprising. That is unjustifiable."
Machado strongly leads Maduro according to internal polls.
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Venezuela is due to have elections this year, though a date has not been set.
The move to disqualify Machado was met with condemnation from the Organization of American States, opposition lawmakers, various South American governments, and the U.S., who released a statement saying they are “re-evaluating sanctions relief” that was granted as part of negotiations in Barbados.
Maduro has spent the last year creating several distractions to draw attention away from their promise to hold free elections this year, including false threats to invade their neighbor Guyana (by the way, we were right on the money about how that played out).
But Maduro has also been signaling that they want investment from European and U.S. companies, particularly in the energy sector. This latest move is likely to complicate that.
Bukele and Maduro have both dismantled parties that oppose them, stacked the judiciary with supporters, and used the armed forces to intimidate political rivals.
Bukele’s popularity, (Maduro’s approval rating is dismal), however, has inspired copycat policies in Honduras and Ecuador, as well as the campaigns of political candidates across Latin America.
There is no denying that violent crime has dropped since Bukele dissolved civil rights and arrested more than 70,000 people, but Bukele’s critics wonder what price the El Salvadoran people have paid to achieve it.
When Bukele took office, El Salvador was the most dangerous country in the world outside of war zones. That is no longer the case.
But critics point to mysterious deaths in prison, false convictions, mass arrests targeting poor men, and disappearances of detainees. The country has also surpassed the United States as the country with the highest per-capita prison rate in the world.
After this election, any remaining opposition to his policies will be left powerless, as his party is expected to gain a large majority in the National Assembly.
Valeria Vásquez, a senior analyst at the consulting firm Control Risks in Central America, told El Pais that El Salvador has seen a significant decline in democracy since Bukele began his “temporary” state of emergency almost two years ago.
“If Bukele wins by a large margin, as anticipated, it will be a clear message from Salvadorans that desperation in the face of insecurity was such that the rule of law may take a backseat,” she told the Spanish newspaper. “Bukele changed the attorney general, several judges and basically there is no longer any separation of powers. And that is going to deteriorate further.”
Much like what happened in Venezuela after Maduro took power in 2013.
There are some important differences between the two leaders. Maduro’s election was fraught with irregularities, while Bukele’s first term was won within Constitutional norms. Both leaders however have chosen to ignore the Constitution when it suits them and dismantle the checks and balances that constrain their powers.
And though Bukele has called journalists who oppose his policies “gangsters”, and intimidated them publicly, he has not imprisoned opposition politicians as Maduro has done— though he has sent armed soldiers to the halls of Congress to intimidate them.
Nonetheless, after Sunday, El Salvador will have taken another step towards autocracy. Meanwhile, Venezuelan elections are anything but predictable— it isn’t even a certainty they will happen at all.
It is ironic though that Bukele’s supporters tend to demonize Maduro, and vice versa. The two presidents have quite a bit in common when it comes to governance. And Maduro’s predecessor enjoyed considerable popular support as well.
The Big Stories in LATAM
Thousands of Argentinian workers participated in a “general strike” against President Javier Milei’s broad economic reforms on Wednesday, January 23, in the first such action since 2019.
Marches protested his proposals for economic deregulation, sweeping labor changes, and the privatization of state-owned companies. Milei has threatened to take away social benefits from anyone organizing protests against his government, though the social movement, which lasted a day, went off without any serious complications (other than hundreds of canceled flights).
Colombia recalled its ambassador to Argentina after Milei called President Gustavo Petro a “communist” and “a murderer” who “is sinking the country” in public comments.
Petro, who was once a member of the guerrilla organization M-19, has never been accused of murder, and claims to be a lifelong social democrat.
At any rate, those two like to feud publicly. That is unlikely to change in the near future.
Spanish Word of the Week
Gilipollas: This isn’t a word I hear often in Latin America. It’s more common in Spain. But someone called me a gilipollas last week. I always thought it meant “nerd” or “doofus” but when I got home I looked it up and it’s stronger than that: suggested translations were: “shithead, butthead, asshole, idiot, and dumbass”.
Made me wonder what I did to that lady at the supermarket who called me one. (Joshua makes sad pirate face). It’s alright. I imagine some people on social media will be calling me worse names after they read this week’s piece.
I guess our lesson for the week is don’t be gilopollas/ no sean gilipollas
Hasta pronto piratas!