Friday, March 24, 2023

El Salvador turns itself around - kind of

El Salvador is having a bit of a moment. That's an improbable claim, I know, but the perennial basket-case of Latin America (a basket case among basket cases) is listed by Lonely Planet as one of its top destinations for 2023.

If you thought, as I did, that El Salvador was a no-go area, run by violent gangs presiding over one of the world's worst murder rates, then you're now only partly right. President Nayib Bukele, who came to power in El Salvador in 2019, appears to have achieved the unthinkable. During that time, the country's murder rate has come down from a world-leading 106 per 100,000 inhabitants to just 7.8 (on a par with the United States, and four or five times better than neighbours like Honduras). The IMF calls its economic activity "robust", and tourism has already returned to pre-2019 levels, following an "unprecedented reduction in crime".

Bukele has made it his overriding goal to stamp down on gang activities like never before. He has done this using a "state of exception", which allows police to arrest anyone without needing to show any cause. An estimated 2% of the whole adult population has been locked up since then, and a new prison has just been inaugurated which will be the largest in the world, with a capacity of 40,000 detainees. 

Area that used to be the perilous battlegrounds of rival gangs now ring to the sound of youths playing soccer. Salvadoreans see this and respond. Bukele's approval rating has not dropped below 75% since his inauguration in 2019, and has recently reached an unprecedented 90%. Term limits are being dropped specifically to allow Bukele another stint in office. Neighbouring countries with similar problems are keen to adopt at least some of his policies, and El Salvador is opening an office in Haiti to advise on gang control there. Some of Bukele's less-than-stellar innovations, like making Bitcoin legal tender, and inviting soldiers into the National Assembly to support his security budget, are being willingly overlooked.

But, Bukele's achievements come at a substantial price, and the country is rapidly sliding into dictatorship. As the El Faro digital newspaper notes, El Salvador now has "No gangs, but no more democracy". (Bukele has threatened to sue El Faro, and it seems only a matter of time before it gets closed down completely.) The Attorney-General and the whole Supreme Court have been summarily sacked and replaced with Bukele loyalists. The people are no longer so scared of gang activity, but now they fear the well-paid and increasingly violent army and police that patrol the communities. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, only Burkina Faso, Haiti and Russia rank lower than El Salvador in its ranking of democracies. 

Bukele's El Salvador is just the latest example of the Latin American love affair with the mano dura (iron fist), which has been tried many times before, all ending in unfortunate (and usually bloody) failure. Meanwhile, unemployment and grinding poverty persist; education has seen no improvement; gangs re-group in increasing numbers in the overcrowded jails. We know how this is going to end.

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