Bukele and Ortega, a Conversation We're Not Ready For
I am Nicaraguan and I live in a dictatorship. I live under a regime that killed 325 people in 2018 with rampant impunity and that, in the present day, has managed the Covid-19 epidemic with shameless negligence. Yes, those adjectives are necessary. We are governed by Daniel Ortega, a president who disappears for long stretches of time. When he reappears, with no explanation, he minimizes the risks of the pandemic and derides as “exaggerated” the preventative measures people are voluntarily taking. In the face of this lack of leadership, Nicaraguans have looked abroad for a guide among the uncertainty caused by coronavirus. They have found their answer without having to travel too far, right on the other side of the Gulf of Fonseca, in Nayib Bukele.
The Salvadoran president’s early preventative measures immediately captured the attention of Nicaraguans, who watched in distress as the Ortega regime organized marches for “love in the time of Covid-19,” along with marathons, dance parties, and other crowded events. Neither Ortega nor his Vice President—and wife—Rosario Murillo have enacted any real policy to deal with the epidemic. And so Bukele’s stream of tweets calling for quarantine, closed borders, and other measures were celebrated by Nicaraguans. “This is the president we wish we had” and “Bukele, the president that Nicaragua deserves” were some of the comments appearing on social media.
Compared to the inaction—and even cover-up of the real toll of the virus—of the Ortega regime, any preventative plan put in place by another government looks better and deserving of praise. But when Bukele’s strategy to deal with the virus came into conflict with the rule of law, institutions, and balance of powers in El Salvador, critiques of his management of the crisis irritated Nicaraguans.
On May 2, I shared an editorial from Costa Rica’s La Nación newspaper, whose headline warned: “Bukele, Dictator in Progress.” The article argues: “Using coronavirus as a pretext, the Salvadoran president is attacking democracy and the rule of law.” Criticisms from Nicaraguans stood out, accusing me of being an “outdated Sandinista.” The same happened when I condemned the assault on Parliament committed by the world’s “coolest” president. This was Bukele’s first transparently dictatorial act. That day, the same day he took a selfie from the podium while addressing the United Nations General Assembly, he was identical to the traditional politicians who he claims to differ from: the same ones who use the name of Jesus and invoke “the Almighty” to justify their excesses. In El Salvador’s Congress, the theatrical head of state declared God had spoken to him while he was accompanied by a military escort. How Central American, Bukele.
The alarm sounded in La Nación had already been sounded before in the Salvadoran press, the same press that Bukele disdains and discredits through his transnational public relations apparatus. For example, El Faro has reported on draconian confinement measures as well as failures and contradictions within the Salvadoran president’s containment plans. Furthermore, Bukele has demonstrated, through a series of tweets, a serious contempt for the Constitutional Tribunal (the branch of El Salvador’s Supreme Court that rules on the constitutionality of laws). Unfortunately, those Nicaraguans who oppose Daniel Ortega’s dictatorship defend Bukele tooth and nail, just like the followers of Bukele’s political party Nuevas Ideas (“New Ideas”). They easily and fully buy into Bukele’s narrative of “we are good, and they are bad.” They fall into a trap of simplicity that serves to justify the dismantling of democracy.
If it is indeed true that those who came before (FMLN and Arena, two Salvadoran political parties) were bad, Bukele, as a supposed political outsider, has not proved himself to fundamentally differ from the typical Latin American caudillos, in spite of the thousand ways in which he is “cool.” His authoritarian frame of mind, his messianic conceit, and his indisputable charisma and popularity are similar to the formula of many other men who have become dictators, who have used all these tools to eliminate or ignore the limits imposed by a democratic republic.
In 2006, when Daniel Ortega returned to power and started to implode Nicaragua’s fragile democracy, many of those who now oppose him were either with him or did not dare to criticize him. Just like Bukele—who uses approval ratings and popularity polls to justify his excesses—Ortega claimed he governed in the name of the “people as president,” when in reality he governed for himself, his family, and his megalomania. This is how the Sandinista caudillo slowly ate away at the country’s institutional foundations, despite warnings from journalists, feminists, and a large part of society organized against generalized civilian indifference that resulted in people viewing criticisms of Ortega’s authoritarian drift as either nonsense or politicians’ frivolity.
Today’s dictators do not turn into dictators overnight. Like Ortega, they slowly pave the way towards indefinite reelections and absolute power, and nobody stops them in time. Central America’s weak institutions cannot stop messianic caudillos on their own—they need support from citizens. Unfortunately, in Nicaragua, when both the unsuspecting and the wary tried to slow Ortega down, he, wielding absolute power, ordered his paramilitaries and police officers to shoot to kill. Thus, the police, for example—an institution charged with protecting and controlling citizens—violates basic human rights while characterizing those in power (who give orders to the armed forces) as precursors to a dictatorship. Many people tend to call this an “authoritarian regime.”
This is not a conclusive comparison. I am not saying that Bukele is Ortega, rather I am warning of what could come to pass. Our societies need to learn that it is not necessary, like in Nicaragua, to wait until a dictator becomes a killer to question his violation of the basic rules of the democratic game. To paraphrase the editorial in La Nación, the transformation must be stopped while it is happening.
El Salvador still has time, now that the coronavirus has exposed Bukele’s authoritarian nature even further. I insist that while on the surface he may be different from past examples, at his core he is the same. It would appear, as the viral meme says, that we Central Americans are “not ready for that conversation,” since we are unable to differentiate between what is necessary and what is excessive. We only have so much time before we are seduced by the strong man, the populist, the redeemer, he who talks with God. Hopefully, one day, we will stop plunging headfirst into illusions so as to avoid living, as we Nicaraguans are, face to face with a criminal and negligent dictatorship.
Translated by: Brendan Fields
FI name: May 2020