Bukele's ‘Neither Secret nor Public’ Meeting with Right-Wing Power Brokers During COVID Lockdown Included US Ambassador Johnson


During a nationally-televised address on June 13, President Nayib Bukele tried to gain public sympathy by telling the population that he had been betrayed by his opponents, who had initially agreed to his quarantine measures and later turned against them. Bukele's revelation came on the heels of a June 11 vote by the Legislative Assembly to override his presidential veto on a law to resume economic activity in El Salvador while maintaining public health measures.

According to the President’s account, his meeting months prior with Attorney General Raúl Melara, leaders of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party, representatives of the National Association of Private Enterprise (ANEP), justices of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, and U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Ronald Douglas Johnson, had resulted in the pre-approval of a quarantine “Regulation Law” that was passed in the Legislature on May 5. Bukele characterized the meeting, for which he is unable to share records, as “neither public nor secret."

The “Regulation Law” received 56 votes in favor from ARENA, Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA), the political party affiliated with the president, the National Coalition Party (PCN), Democratic Change (CD) and a vote from an independent. With 26 votes against, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party and two legislators from the Christian Democrats (PDC) argued that the law “violated constitutional rights of the Salvadoran people."

The “Regulation Law” was meant to provide a legal framework for the President’s strict quarantine orders, first imposed under executive decree 'Health Decree 12,' which the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional on March 27. The "Regulation Law" allowed for the suspension of constitutional rights, gave the police and military the green light to round up thousands of people, and pushed countless of Salvadorans to the verge of desperation due to lack of access to income and food, among other needs. The law itself was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court on June 8. 

Many were initially surprised that ARENA, having postured itself as a champion of human rights in opposition to Bukele’s executive decrees, suddenly agreed to enshrine Bukele’s heavy-handed quarantine into law. Notably, the same day the “Regulation Law” was passed, ARENA also voted to approve Bukele’s request for an additional $1 billion in foreign loans, of which $360 million would be used to provide loans to Salvadoran businesses without any transparency or oversight mechanisms. The joint passage of these two legislative decrees caused some speculation that ARENA and Bukele had come to an understanding, with ARENA promising legislative cover for Bukele’s authoritarian tactics in exchange for no-strings-attached aid for the traditional business elite.

Media in El Salvador quickly reported on the president’s public revelation regarding the off-the-record meeting that had taken place months prior to negotiate the now widely-denounced Regulation Law. Soon after, the Constitutional Chamber issued a statement denying the President's allegations. Similarly, U.S. Ambassador Ron Johnson posted a tweet that his participation in the meeting was merely that of an observer, affirming, “We respect Salvadoran sovereignty.”

But it is clear that Ambassador Johnson is playing a very active role in the Bukele administration and in its response to the pandemic. On April 24, Trump tweeted that he would be rewarding Bukele’s cooperation regarding continuing to receive deportation flights from the U.S. with a shipment of ventilators. The U.S. State Department also recently cleared El Salvador to continue receiving U.S. security funding and other assistance despite its own documentation of Bukele’s growing authoritarianism and human rights abuses.

According to journalists with the Participatory Broadcasting Association of El Salvador (ARPAS), Ambassador Johnson's participation "confirms not only the enormous influence and interference of the American Ambassador in Bukele's administration but also that the Ambassador formally participates in government discussions and decisions... [This] represents a clear violation of the sovereignty and self-determination of the country, in addition to undermining the presumed independence and self-sufficiency of the president in government management."

Below we share the full editorial by the Participatory Broadcasting Association of El Salvador (ARPAS), a coalition of alternative and community media that promotes the democratization of communication, in response to the meeting between the Bukele and right-wing power sectors.  (Translation by CISPES)


President Nayib Bukele confessed - in the most recent of his usual radio and television addresses - to have met privately with the U.S. Ambassador Ronald Johnson, the head of the right-wing ARENA parliamentary group, the President of the National Association of Private Enterprise (ANEP), the Attorney General and the Magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber [of the Supreme Court of El Salvador.

The meeting held in the month of March, according to Bukele "was neither secret nor public" (the both-ways logic in his presidential speech juggling); for this reason he could reveal what happened and immediately revealed that they agreed to "approve the law to regulate the quarantine."

The president's confession should be a national scandal for at least three reasons:

The first is that said meeting constitutes a flagrant violation of the institutional order related to process to create laws. The Constitution of the Republic, as well as the Organic Law and the Internal Regulations of the Legislative Assembly, establish a different procedure from that used to approve the quarantine law: 1. The President, through one of his cabinet ministers, formally presents the bill to the Assembly; 2. Legislators, after analyzing, discussing it and obtaining the necessary votes, approve it; 3. The President approves it, observes or vetoes it (if it is approved, it becomes law and if it is observed [edited by the President] or vetoed, it returns to the Assembly); and 4. Finally, if someone files a lawsuit, the Constitutional Chamber intervenes, declaring the total or partial constitutionality or unconstitutionality of the law in question.

However, President Bukele agreed to approve the quarantine law in a private meeting with the ARENA legislative chief (not even with the president of the Assembly), the magistrates of the [Constitutional] Chamber, the Attorney General, the then-president of ANEP and the "Ambassador."

The second reason is that it confirms not only the enormous influence and interference of the American Ambassador in Bukele's administration, but also that the Ambassador formally participates in government discussions and decisions. Mr. Johnson clearly acts as the mentor of the Salvadoran president: he accompanies him in his decisions, calls his attention to his outbursts and shows him the way at political crossroads.

The above represents a clear violation of the sovereignty and self-determination of the country, in addition to undermining the presumed independence and self-sufficiency of the president in government management. Bukele has consistently pretended that he and only he makes the decisions in the Executive.

And the third reason is that it uncovers the discursive fallacy with which Bukele constantly prods his fans (97% of the population, according to him) and exacerbates popular hatred "towards the same old people." The President who attacks the legislators, the Attorney General and the magistrates because they "want and seek the death of the people," has no qualms about meeting with them, secretly and behind the backs of his applauders, to make agreements.

With this, President Bukele reissues the deplorable modus operandi of the hypocritical and corrupt policy that should be banished from the ideology and practice of parties, officials and institutions. Hopefully sooner rather than later, the crowd that uncritically endorses the president's behavior will begin to realize this.

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