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‘They Just Want to Feel Safe’

The single hardline revolutionary of Palestinian descent the Biden administration loved to hate and did their darnedest to shove out of power – something totally against their usual inclination to coddle and indulge authoritarian strongmen – has bested their every machination and emerged victorious.

Two years ago, Nayib Bukele, President of El Salvador, was putting Joe Biden and his diplomatic crew on notice that he wasn’t the guy they thought he was. El Salvador might well be poverty-stricken and crime-ridden, but he was going to clean it up his way. If that ruffled feathers and offended US sensibilities, well, that was just too bad for the US. 

And if the US got caught with their pants down meddling with Salvadoran internal affairs, then they could just be embarrassed when the whole world was exposed to exactly what US diplomats had been doing. 

Bukele could – and would fearlessly – play that game so everyone could see all the players’ moves.

When El Salvador President Nayib Bukele published a private WhatsApp conversation with the top U.S. diplomat in the Central American country two years ago, he was sending a message of his own: I will not take orders from the United States.

U.S. officials had for months been protesting Bukele’s support for moves like dismissing judges and bucking constitutional term limits – measures they said endangered the country’s young democracy.

Jean Manes, the chargé d’affaires whose messages intervening on behalf of a detained former mayor were unmasked, left the country. She said the bilateral relationship between the erstwhile allies was “on pause,” citing attacks on the U.S. by Bukele’s “paid media machine.”

Ah, Biden. Always concerned about those existential threats to democracy, be they here or in some other country not run by an Islamic sect.

The intervening two years have seen Bukele move with ruthless determination against the primary cause of his country’s misery – criminal gangs. And he has been ruthless; sweeping up almost 1% of the country’s population – 75,000 people, mostly males – without warrants, while building new prisons to hold them, and instituting a host of sometimes overtly unconstitutional measures in order to eliminate the violence and corruption.

…By arresting suspected gang members en masse, isolating thousands of them in the new prison and banning visits, his government cut off communications between criminal leaders and their street enforcers, often with transformative results.

Business is now flourishing in many town plazas and street markets where, before, the extortion rackets of the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs prevailed. Multilateral development banks estimated that crime cost El Salvador some 15% of its economy each year.

The number of homicides plummeted last year, making the impoverished Central American nation of 6.3 million people one of the safest in the Western Hemisphere.

Bukele has managed to stack courts with loyal supporters, coincidentally, the same ones on the country’s electoral court who gave him the green light to run for a constitutionally prohibited second term. This is one more alarming development for the human rights groups actively working in the country, especially as some people in the poverty-stricken communities where they work disappear incommunicado into prisons, sometimes for years.

…Rights groups say Bukele’s time in office has been marked by an erosion of checks and balances, widespread human-rights violations and arbitrary detentions, along with the weakening of opposition parties and attacks against freedom of expression and independent media.

…“The social causes that gave rise to gang activity not only continue, but have deepened,” Vega said.

What stymies the activist outrage having any effect at all is the overwhelming sense of relief and approval from the Salvadoran people themselves. They are beside themselves at the radical, seemingly miraculous change for the better and they thank one man for it.

…Bukele has responded to criticism from human-rights groups by saying activists are more concerned about the rights of gang members than those of their victims. He has acknowledged that prison conditions are harsh, even boasting about it.

…Polls show that most Salvadorans support Bukele’s willingness to go hard against organized crime. 

Bukele had the guts to confront the gangs. Other politicians who preceded him could have fixed it, but they didn’t,” said Flor de María, who runs a beauty-products stand in the municipal market of San Marcos, a working-class suburb previously targeted by gangs.

Unconstitutional or not, Bukele’s run for a second presidential term earned him an emphatic endorsement from his fellow countrymen on Sunday in the guise of a resounding victory.

He was literally swept back into office on a popularity tsunami. 

President Nayib Bukele on Sunday secured a thumping victory in El Salvador’s elections after voters cast aside concerns about erosion of democracy to reward him for a fierce gang crackdown that transformed security in the Central American country.

Provisional results on Monday morning show Bukele winning 83% support with just over 70% of the ballots counted. Bukele declared himself the winner before official results were announced, claiming to have attained more than 85% of the vote.

Thousands of Bukele’s supporters clad in cyan blue and waving flags thronged San Salvador’s central square to celebrate his re-election, which the 42-year-old leader termed a “referendum” on his government.

His New Ideas party is expected to win almost all of the 60 seats in the legislative body, tightening its grip on the country and bestowing even more sway on Bukele, the most powerful leader in El Salvador’s modern history.

He and his wife received a superstar welcome at the National Palace from tens of thousands of cheering citizens waiting for them in the plaza.

“…We have gone from being literally, and this is no exaggeration. This is not hyperbole. We have gone from being literally the most dangerous country in the world to being the safest country in the entire Western Hemisphere…”

He really is engaging, and those are happy faces in that crowd – not sullen revolutionaries or broken people forced to be there. These are people who now see a future and have just rewarded the man they believe gave them that future.

That power and success may well make him unpopular, even suspect in certain quarters for the foreseeable future because he is not a malleable subject.

But the current administration has been playing nice, at least in public, even as they hedge their bets on the “threats to democracy” line. Bukele’s policies, while an anathema to actual constitutionalists and defenders of natural rights (which demonstrably does not include the current administration judging by their own actions), have yielded benefits for Biden and Co. they now aren’t so willing to forfeit

And then there’s China snooping around in the Central American jungles to consider, too.

Best to play it cool with the popular and surprisingly effective young president, no?

…Now, more than ever, the U.S. needs Central American nations like El Salvador to curb migration to the southern border. It is also striving to offset growing Chinese influence in Latin America.

…And on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken congratulated Bukele on his win, saying the United States would prioritize “good governance” and “fair trials and human rights in El Salvador” as part of its plan to tackle the causes of migration.

Three U.S. State Department officials Reuters spoke to said they have moved more critical diplomacy behind closed doors, a tactic they have found effective given Bukele’s rebellious style and rebukes of perceived foreign meddling.

The more reserved public U.S. stance may be a tacit acknowledgement that Bukele’s success in smashing gang violence has led to a decline in migration, officials from both countries said.

Salvadorans fleeing violence and poverty have migrated to the U.S. for decades, hitting record levels in 2021. Following the gang crackdown that began in March 2022, the number of Salvadorans reaching the U.S. southern border fell, dipping 36% from 2022 to 2023, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Bukele has also implemented measures such as hefty taxes on flights from 57 largely African countries to dampen onward U.S. migration.

There is an exciting air of promise

…Shortly before Bukele launched his security offensive, Shirley Ramos took over management of El Hoyo, a gay bar in the capital with a dozen tables and a jukebox in the basement of a building. She had to pay $100 a month to the gangs, plus two cases of beer at Christmas for their collectors, in addition to paying for the lease and utility bills. Falling behind on extortion payments meant a death sentence, Ramos said.

For Ramos, and many others, the promise of ending the violence is enough for Bukele to win her support.

Despite Bukele’s conservatism, the gay community feels safer now. I voted for him on Sunday. But I also voted for the opposition in the legislature to ensure a balance,” she said.

If the charismatic Bukele can resist the Hugo Chavez dictator trap, jump-start the economy next, and bring up the standard of living for Salvadorans?

Katy bar the door.

El Salvador and her people could really be going places…instead of to our border.

That works for everyone. I hope he makes it.

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