Opinion, Politics

HOW A DICTATORSHIP IS BORN

The polling stations had just closed.

No official results of the elections in El Salvador had been made public, but Nayib Bukele had declared himself the winner. He was that certain of victory. Five days later, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal announced what everyone knew, that Bukele would remain in the presidency, with 82 percent of the vote.

That’s how a dictatorship is born.

It is absolutely true that Bukele is very popular and won a broad margin in the recent elections. But El Salvador’s constitution says something different.

I did what a lot of other journalists have done. I went on the Internet and read the country’s constitution, approved in 1983. And there I found not one but many references that forbid presidential reelection. Article 75 says those who support or promote “the reelection or continuation of the president” shall “lose their rights as citizens.” Article 152 says anyone who has served more than six months as president, “whether consecutively or not” during the previous term cannot be a candidate for election. And Article 248 says the constitution cannot be amended to change “eligibility for the presidency of the Republic.”

It could not be more clear. If Bukele wanted to be reelected, he had to first change the constitution. And he did not. Instead, a 2021 maneuver before the country’s Supreme Constitutional Court – which included several Bukele allies, according to the BBC –allowed him to seek reelection. That court put itself above the constitution. And when it did, it cast doubt on the legitimacy of the recent election.

And Bukele knows it.

Perhaps that’s why he was so aggressive with the foreign journalists who covered the elections. At one news conference, he attacked foreign journalists who questioned his candidacy. Félix de Bedout, my co-worker at Univision, asked if a constitutional reform was not needed to allow reelection, now and in the future. Bukele replied that it was not needed. He went on to criticize our coverage – “all the Univision reporting is negative” – and asserted that “if you ask Hispanics in the United States, 100 percent agree with what we’re doing here.”

I’ve never seen that sort of survey. But this is not a matter of polls or popularity. It is a matter of following the law. And Bukele jumped over it.

His discomfort continued even during his victory speech. “If the Salvadoran people want this, why should a Spanish journalist come to tell Salvadorans what we have to do,” he declared in reply from tough questions from Juan Diego Quesada, correspondent for the El País newspaper of Spain. Quesada asked if Bukele was “disassembling” Salvadoran democracy.

In that same speech, Bukele boasted that his party also won the legislative elections by huge margins. “It would be the first time for single-party rule in a fully democratic system,” he said. “All the opposition, together, was crushed.”

That is precisely the problem. That El Salvador is leaving democracy aside and that one party – one person – controls almost everything. Bukele, trying to make a joke, has called himself “the world’s coolest dictator.” But what is happening in El Salvador is no laughing matter.

A couple of days later, Bukele allowed foreign reporters to tour the CECOT, the mega-prison he built to hold thousands of gang members, terrorists and criminals. The images are impressive. They are the result of massive roundups of possible suspects of violence. It is true that crime rates in El Salvador have dropped significantly.
But the question is how many of these people in prison are innocent, or did not receive due process before being jailed for life.

Amnesty International criticized Bukele harshly in a December report titled “El Salvador: Behind the veil of popularity:Repression and regression of Human Rights.” It documents tortures, illegal arrests, disappearances, censorship of the press and other abuses by Bukele government forces. What Amnesty International described should not happen anywhere in a democratic country.

Bukele, like Hugo Chávez, won the presidency in a legitimate election. Chávez assured me during an interview in 1998 that he was willing to surrender power, even before the end of his presidential term. But he was lying, and held fast to power until his death in 2013. Although Bukele’s ideology is the opposite of Chavez’, he’s also juggled laws and words to remain in power. Neither of them is a real democrat.

Will Bukele seek a third term as president of El Salvador? No one doubts it. When democracy disappears, everything is possible.

PS on violence: The United States is a very dangerous country. What should have been a celebration of the Kansas City victory in the Super Bowl turned into a shooting that left one dead and dozens of wounded, including children. This is in the United States, 2024. The next day, the shooting was not news any more. Mass shootings in public places are the norm. And nothing will change, since Congress refuses to adopt gun controls. That’s why we’re waiting for the next massacre. It’s the end of the party.

By Jorge Ramos Ávalos

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Jorge Ramos has been the anchorman for Noticiero Univision since 1986. He writes a weekly column for more than 40 newspapers in the United States and Latin America, and provides daily radio commentary for the Radio Univision network. Ramos also hosts Al Punto, Univision’s weekly public affairs program offering analysis of the week’s top stories, and Fusion’s AMERICA with Jorge Ramos, a news program geared towards young adults. Ramos has won eight Emmy awards and is the author of ten books, most recently, STRANGER - The Challenge of a Latino Immigrant in the Trump Era.

A survey conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center found that Ramos is the second most recognized Latino leader in the country. Latino Leaders magazine chose him as one of “The Ten Most Admired Latinos” and “101 Top Leaders of the Latino Community in the U.S.”

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