Less than a week after the El Salvador Legislative Assembly ousted five judges and the attorney general and replaced them with party loyalists, international condemnation seems to have made no dent, as lawmakers faithful to President Nayib Bukele are carrying on with their unilateral agenda. On Wednesday of this week, two new laws were rapidly passed, once again without any public debate: the most startling of the two grants impunity to officials criminally investigated for government purchases to respond to the pandemic. The other law further hamstrings an already cash-strapped media landscape. The bills were not made public until the hour they were approved.
An El Faro editorial published on Thursday concludes that the actions of the past week have marked the death of the republican system of government in El Salvador constructed after the 1992 Peace Accords.
“Nayib Bukele is no longer bound by law. And to the extent there are laws, they will be disregarded, eliminated or rewritten. He is the law. Perhaps millions of Salvadorans haven’t yet realized it, but this is how a republic dies and a dictatorial regime is born,” reads the editorial.
The fast-track approval of these two new laws provides clues as to the route Bukele will take the country now that he controls the three branches of government. Last November, the Ministry of Health’s pandemic response came under intense scrutiny from the Attorney General’s Office, which raided its office buildings to gather information on two-thirds of its pandemic spending believed to be illicit. Since this Saturday, when Attorney General Raúl Melara replaced by Bukele ally Rodolfo Delgado, it was for days unclear whether that investigation would continue. The new law, the language of which specifies it will be applied retroactively, settled the matter: prosecutors’ investigations into the Ministry of Health have been altogether invalidated.
Another aspect of Bukele’s propaganda strategy happened on Wednesday, stripping Salvadoran news organizations of a tax exemption on paper imports.
For the past two years, the government has accused newsrooms, including El Faro, of evading taxes or masking the source of their income. Wednesday, on the Assembly floor, Nuevas Ideas (NI) deputy Dania González claimed —again, baselessly— that newsrooms evade paying $10 million in taxes annually. “They’ll say that the deputies who voted to approve this measure are attacking press freedom. Of course, nobody here believes that,” said Guillermo Gallegos, a deputy with GANA who sits on the Assembly’s executive committee and is one of the country’s most popular politicians.
“Tributary justice is important. For 70 years, they haven’t paid taxes,” he continued. “They’ve used their newspapers to spread disinformation and lies.”
The truth is that traditional print newspapers have always paid income and sales tax, with the legal exception of paper imports, as Angélica Cárcamo, journalist with the ARPAS community radio network and president of the Association of Salvadoran Journalists (APES), reiterated on Wednesday.
Los medios impresos pagan impuestos (renta e IVA), lo que no pagaban es la importación de papel. Ojalá la @AsambleaSV también revise una veintena de leyes que permiten la elusión tributaria. Ej.: ley de inversiones, turismo, zonas francas, servicios internacionales, etc.
— Angélica Cárcamo (@Anxelique) May 5, 2021
Nonetheless, the narrative of the president’s political circle and online trolls arrived Wednesday to the Assembly floor and was reason enough for the deputies to reform its existing printing law.
Independent media has been a consistent target for Bukele since he’s taken office, even as newsrooms and journalists in El Salvador and throughout Central America have faced persistent undermining and attacks.
The legislative changes this week consolidate a new political and institutional landscape in El Salvador, following the Legislative Assembly’s decision this Saturday to remove and replace the five magistrates from the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber, as well as attorney general. All six have since resigned, insinuating intimidation and threats from the administration. In resigning, they have indicated that they will no longer seek to challenge their removals, which breached parliamentary rules requiring the advance publication of a meeting agenda, formal debate, and the presentation of nominee information in advance.
The law establishes that judges may only be removed for knowingly breaking the law in their rulings, not merely for ruling against the president’s agenda. The president and his allies argue that the legislative results on February 28, which gave the party in power two-thirds control of the Assembly, make any move in the legislature unquestionably democratic.
Other major legislative moves may be on the horizon. Since this weekend, members of the president’s party have threatened, via Twitter, to remove the Human Rights Ombudsman. Independent observers and those with an ear to the administration also believe that the Court of Accounts and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal could face similar expulsions soon. From independent experts in El Salvador to the corridors of the U.S. Congress, it is widely believed that the president’s party will ultimately leverage its newfound supermajority and Supreme Court backing to push through a new constitution.
“May 1 was, in essence, a historic day” next to Bukele’s election as president, his swearing-in, and the election of the new legislature on February 28, wrote Diario El Salvador, the state-run print newspaper, in an editorial defending the removals. “They are key dates in the refounding of the nation, a powerful message in the year that El Salvador completes 200 years as a nation.”
Despite the official fanfare, the international reaction to the rapid political shakeup has been swift and nearly unanimously negative.
Over 100 civil and legal organizations from dozens of countries in the region released a joint statement calling out the “grave attack on the independence of the Salvadoran judiciary” which “eliminates the main checks on political power concentrated in the administration’s party.”
— Due Process of Law Foundation (@DPLF_info) May 4, 2021
Over 20 ex-presidents from the region, including Felipe Calderón and Vicente Fox from Mexico, and Álvaro Uribe and Andrés Pastrana from Colombia, and Laura Chinchilla from Costa Rica, signed a similar statement citing their “grave concern.” For now, the U.S. government has followed suit.
“Just this weekend, we learned that the Salvadoran parliament moved to undermine its nation’s highest court,” U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris said in a video statement released Tuesday. “On this front, on every front, we must respond.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the director of USAID, Samantha Powers, and a litany of Congressional Democrats have also condemned the removals. The U.S. Embassy also turned down Bukele’s invitation to a televised diplomatic meeting in which the administration argued that the international community had been misled in its interpretation of the removals by “the opposition.”
"On this front, on every front, we must respond." U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris on the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly's illegal removal and replacement of five magistrates from the Supreme Court's Constitutional Chamber and the Attorney General this weekend in #ElSalvador. pic.twitter.com/YX621gvfya
— El Faro English (@ElFaroEnglish) May 4, 2021
The moves are even causing consternation among Republicans. U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (Florida) and Jim Risch (Idaho) and Congressmen Michael McCaul (Texas) and Mark Green (Tennessee) issued a joint statement expressing their concern about the removal of the judges and the attorney general. “Gratuitous actions that undermine the independence of the judiciary negatively impact our longstanding partnership to improve transparency, security, and economic conditions in that nation,” the statement reads.
"Gratuitous actions that undermine the independence of the judiciary [and] negatively impact our longstanding partnership." U.S. Congressional Republicans have now broken silence on this weekend's moves by the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly. ? https://t.co/mzOa9yeSWF
— El Faro English (@ElFaroEnglish) May 4, 2021
The European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Policy, as well as the secretaries-general of the United Nations and Organization of American States, each warned the Bukele administration of their disapproval of the illegal removals.
#ElSalvador | More reactions from the international community are pouring in after Bukele's Legislative Assembly illegally removed and replaced magistrates from the Supreme Court's Constitutional Chamber and the Attorney General. A thread. ? pic.twitter.com/IFZSu7flrT
— El Faro English (@ElFaroEnglish) May 3, 2021
Bukele’s main defense in the coming months —that the legislative moves on Saturday were sovereign actions, and that the international community should therefore not get involved— has recent precedent in Central America. The plotters of the 2009 military coup in Honduras made a similar argument, and events panned out in their favor in the end, after the United States endorsed the coup in calling for new elections. Bukele, for now, has found at least one sympathetic ear: Beijing.
“China always applies the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of others,” tweeted the Chinese embassy on Monday, “and is convinced the Salvadoran people are capable and wise enough to handle their own internal affairs.”
The Chinese Embassy, meanwhile, has struck a different tone: "China always applies the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of others and is convinced the Salvadoran people are capable and wise enough to handle their own internal affairs." https://t.co/F6903qG1xX
— El Faro English (@ElFaroEnglish) May 3, 2021
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El Faro English is a project from the award-winning Central American media outlet, El Faro, which focuses on hard-hitting investigations, culture, and analysis from Central America and beyond. In addition to translating reporting from El Faro, we publish original investigations and opinion articles and translate stories from partner media outlets throughout the region about migration, politics, culture, historical memory, violence and more from Central American communities in the region, Mexico, Europe, and the United States. Twitter: @elfaroenglish. To subscribe to El Faro English’s letter, subscribe here.