El Salvador, in Brief: Rank-and-file legislators of President Nayib Bukele’s party, Nuevas Ideas, are showing the first signs of dissent for fear of U.S. sanctions and lack of budget, camera time, and access to decision-making. Some of them did not appear for key votes in recent weeks—forcing the party to look for substitutes to pass controversial initiatives while blaming rifts on U.S. sabotage. Feeble political opposition groups also face desertion and divisions as they fail to construct cogent political alternatives.
New Ideas, Old Playbook
Three critical and controversial votes in El Salvador opened the first window into tensions among legislators in President Nayib Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas (NI) party. One-fifth of the party’s legislative bloc did not appear on December 22 for the approval of a partial privatization of water. The next day, one-third was absent for the approval of the 2022 budget and one-quarter for the reappointment of de facto Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado, a key Bukele ally.
The party, which gained a supermajority of 56 of 84 seats in the legislative elections last February, instead relied on alternates —there is one for each seat in the legislature— to vote in absent legislators’ place and thereby pass the initiatives. It’s an old tactic borrowed from past Assembly majorities to bypass dissenters.
The absences were far from a case of holiday season absenteeism. On condition of anonymity, two NI legislators and four mid-level party leaders told El Faro’s Roxana Lazo that, as she writes, “the uneasiness in the legislative bloc revolves around the scant budget allotted to some deputies, their invisibility in the press, and a fear of being called out and sanctioned by the United States.”
Since the party’s formal creation in 2019 in the wake of Bukele’s election as president, he has chosen close confidants as his lieutenants. Bukele’s cousin, Xavi Zablah Bukele, is president of Nuevas Ideas. Legislative Assembly president Ernesto Castro, a longtime top aide to Bukele, now helps shepherd legislation crafted in Casa Presidencial.
For now the Biden administration has focused its sanctions on senior administration officials it believes to be the architects of bills that undermine democracy or enable impunity, such as the illegal removal and replacement of Supreme Court justices and the attorney general on May 1 or the bill granting public officials retroactive immunity from prosecution for government pandemic spending.
The U.S. Treasury blacklisted Bukele’s chief of cabinet Carolina Recinos in December for spearheading a “multiple-ministry, multi-million-dollar corruption scheme.” The Treasury also sanctioned two key public security officials for conducting secret government negotiations with MS-13 and other gangs.
Biden’s promise to continue expanding the list of sanctions with new names troubled party legislators unsure about the reappointment of Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado through 2024. “They are afraid that the U.S. will take away their visas and include them on one of their lists,” one party member in the legislature told El Faro. They haven’t dared, though, to outright break ranks during votes and face President Bukele’s ire.
NI has taken a hard line against those looking to leave its ranks and, in some cases, take others with them. Last October, the party released the audio recording of a meeting between NI founder Roy García (who has since left the party), a U.S. diplomat, and two previously low-profile party legislators. In the recording, the legislators allegedly told of a plot to divide the NI legislative bloc. One mentioned his fear that he and other pro-Bukele deputies would be included on the Engel list.
“I won’t jump in the water without knowing how to swim or receiving a life vest… At a bare minimum it needs to be citizenship [in the United States],” said one of the legislators. In the wake of the recording, Bukele accused the United States of seeking to divide his legislative bloc, an assertion the U.S. Embassy rejected. The party then expelled the legislators and promoted their alternates and legislative bloc chair Christian Guevara said that the expelled legislators could be criminally investigated for “bribery and illicit association.”
A Limping Opposition
El Salvador’s scattered opposition parties are weathering their own internal turmoil, both in the Legislative Assembly and at the municipal level.
On Monday, 18 mayors and six municipal council members announced their resignation from right-wing opposition party ARENA, according to GatoEncerrado and Diario El Mundo. The mayors stated that the party “does not hear or represent the interests of the people.” Former Quezaltepeque Mayor Salvador Saget also announced his resignation from the party, noting that “the municipal council and the Nuevas Ideas mayor of Quezaltepeque Fermín Henríquez are working hand in hand with the people.”
A week before the rupture, ARENA legislator and 2009 presidential candidate Rodrigo Ávila claimed that “people related to the administration and its allies” offered municipal public works projects “to some ARENA mayors and councilmembers” on the condition that they leave the party. He added that the projects would be approved by the National Directorate of Municipal Works, created by the legislature in November.
As of Monday, one mayor from the left-wing opposition party FMLN also deserted. And after securing just four seats in the current Legislative Assembly, the bloc split in two within a month of taking office, with two of the four supporting the party leadership of Bukele ally José Luis Merino and the other two a rivaling faction of the party’s old-guard leadership.
Bitter divisions even grip the tiny opposition party Nuestro Tiempo, founded by former ARENA member Johnny Wright Sol and touting a purportedly feminist platform including marriage equality and sexual and gender diversity. Sol, the party’s only deputy in the legislature, joined NI and three allied minority parties in voting in favor of the Water Law on December 22 to partially privatize the country’s water resources. The bill generated recriminations among advocates whose years-long advocacy for a water law preventing privatization was discarded after the arrival of the new Bukele-controlled legislature.
“I know this vote has a cost and that some disagree,” he tweeted, “but this country can’t wait another 15 years to have a legal framework for water.” Other high-profile members of his party condemned Sol’s vote. “The only way to approve a law in the common good was through an inclusive process,” tweeted San Salvador Councilman Héctor Silva, “and that wasn’t the case.”
Central American University pollsters found that 65 percent of Salvadorans living in El Salvador prefer no party—28 percent said they prefer that of the President. Two-thirds of respondents said political parties are at least somewhat corrupt, while only one-quarter said the same of Bukele. While they rated the President’s 2021 performance at 7.5 out of 10, they gave political parties in general a 4.4.
Before we go—Xiomara Castro will be sworn in today as president of Honduras. She claims to have defused an initial skirmish in her own party —that we dissected in our January 25 edition— over the congressional vote over the president of Congress, by negotiating a governing coalition with LIBRE party dissenter Jorge Cálix and with Liberal Party figurehead Yani Rosenthal. More on that soon.
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