El Salvador’s new president must tackle crime, unemployment and migration — but nation is hopeful

Can 37-year-old Nayib Bukele get El Salvador back on track? Reuters/Jose Cabezas

El Salvador’s new president must tackle crime, unemployment and migration — but nation is hopeful

Ever since its civil war ended in 1992, El Salvador has been governed by two parties: the conservative National Republican Alliance and its former wartime enemy, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, a guerrilla insurgency turned political party.

That old antagonism ended when 37-year-old Nayib Bukele won the country’s presidential election on Feb. 3.

Representing the Grand Alliance for National Unity, or GANA, Bukele promised to move El Salvador beyond its dark and polarized past and forge a future of “new ideas.” GANA, founded in 2010, is a center-right party, but in parliament it often allies tactically with the leftist FMLN.

“The civil war … continued in the post-war era as we divided ourselves by the two parties. El Salvador has now turned the page,” said the president-elect in his acceptance speech.

Setting things right in El Salvador – with its high poverty, unmanageable street gangs and world-record-setting violent crime – will be a gargantuan task.

The two mainstream parties have each tried to solve these problems. The National Republican Alliance sought to stimulate the economy by privatizing electricity, telecommunications and health care and took a tough-on-crime approach to street violence. The Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front instituted new social programs and negotiated a successful but short-lived 2012 truce between MS-13 and other gangs.

Bukele is not bound by the political traditions born of war.

I have spoken to dozens of mayors, city council members and residents across El Salvador during my doctoral research on municipal policymaking in Central America. Many are hopeful about Bukele’s focus on the future – but unsure about what that future holds.

Stemming migration north

Migration out of the country is sure to be a focus of the new administration, which takes office on June 1.

Driven out by a lack of economic opportunity and extreme violence, nearly a fifth of Salvadorans have left the country. Six-and-a-half million people live in El Salvador. Another 1.4 million live abroad, largely in the U.S.

Thousands of Salvadorans have joined the Central American migrant caravans marching toward the U.S. border.

The result is “family disintegration,” says one mayor I interviewed in the Santa Ana region of El Salvador. “People are going to the United States, and then the youth are raised alone.”

According to El Salvador’s 2007 census, there are 85 men to every 100 women in the country. Analysts say this imbalance reflects “greater mortality, accentuated by violence, and … emigration abroad of the men.” Immigration specialist Jeffra Flaitz estimates that 8 percent of Salvadoran children have both parents living abroad.

In a moving campaign speech on Jan. 13, Bukele, a wealthy former San Salvador mayor, said mass migration is a problem of hope.

“Salvadorans say that they migrate because here there is no healthcare or there is no education, there is only violence and unemployment. And that’s true,” he said. “But what kind of healthcare does the caravan offer? Almost none. … [W]hat kind of education? None. … [W]hat kind of security does the caravan have? None.”

What “moves the Salvadoran,” Bukele said, is the “one percent chance that he will cross the border and find a country with security, jobs and healthcare.”

Migrants from El Salvador crossing the Rio Bravo to reach Texas. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

Bukele aims to address the root causes of migration by improving the quality of life in El Salvador.

He wants to boost employment by promoting tourism along El Salvador’s Pacific Coast, redesign school curriculum to focus on technology and offer scholarships to study abroad. He has also invited the United Nations to take a bigger role in rooting out government corruption, as it has done in neighboring Guatemala.

Bukele’s message of hope resonates with young Salvadorans.

“I don’t really have an interest in leaving El Salvador. I love this country,” said one millennial whose brother and father went to the United States in 2010. I spoke with her the day after the election, her finger still ink-stained from casting her ballot for Bukele.

“But I wish I could achieve more here,” she said.

Limits to power

It’s not clear how much of his ambitious agenda the president-elect can actually achieve.

His party, GANA, holds just 10 of 84 seats in El Salvador’s national assembly, and he has not yet explained how he will finance his proposed development projects.

El Salvador’s has a sizable national debt, and Bukele’s leadership as mayor of San Salvador from 2015 to 2018 reportedly left the capital US$270 million in debt.

Still, many Salvadorans are enthusiastic about Bukele’s campaign proposals.

The United States likely is too.

President Donald Trump has criticized Central American governments for not stopping the caravans, and threatened to end foreign aid if mass migration continues. In 2017, El Salvador received over $115 million in U.S. development assistance.

Since meeting with President-elect Bukele, the U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, Jean Manes has pledged to “build on the enduring ties between our countries … to improve the exchange of information and collectively address security challenges and illegal migration.”

Local impacts

The local officials I’ve spoken with since the election view Bukele’s win with a mix of anxiety and optimism.

Partisan budgeting and pork-barrel projects are a longstanding tradition in Salvadoran politics. Corruption is too: Three of five post-war presidents have stood trial for diverting millions of government funds to their personal and political allies.

El Salvador has made efforts to direct development funds to municipalities based on need rather than party affiliation, and a 2015 reform has made city councils more representative. Still, local officials can generally predict how a presidential election will impact their town’s bottom line.

They don’t know what to expect of Bukele, who was expelled from the leftist FMLN before he joined GANA.

Police take a suspected gang member to a maximum-security jail in Zacatecoluca, El Salvador. Reuters/Jose Cabezas

GANA has little power at the local level. Only 27 of 262 mayors nationwide are from GANA. In 12.5 percent of municipalities, Bukele’s party does not hold a single city council seat.

In my interviews, local government officials have expressed concern about funding for several popular social programs launched under the FMLN, including school and agricultural subsidies and social security payments recently expanded to cover individuals with disabilities.

Vice president-elect Félix Ulloa has indicated that the Bukele administration doesn’t believe in government handouts, saying that “you don’t fight poverty by giving people food.” However, Bukele has pledged to maintain existing social programs.

The path ahead is daunting and untrod, and the stakes are high for all Salvadorans. Yet another caravan recently began the trek northward from El Salvador, chasing the dream of a better life.