Thousands Protest on Independence Day in El Salvador
Despite roadblocks, military presence, threats, and intimidation, social movement and civil society organizations took to the streets on September 15th, El Salvador’s Independence Day, to denounce abuses under the Bukele regime. In a powerful rebuke to the repressive Bukele administration and in stark contrast to its (US-funded) weapons, tanks, and uniforms on full display in the government’s own military parade, the social movement marched peacefully but defiantly armed with urgent demands, clear analysis, and remarkable courage.
Several Central American nations recognize September 15th as Independence Day, marking the 1821 declaration of independence from Spanish rule. Indigenous communities in the region, however, say there is “nothing to celebrate,” as the creation of nation-states led to further dispossession of communal lands, cultural erasure, and genocide. Meanwhile, anti-imperialist voices continue to ask “independence for whom?", given that Central America remains captive to a neoliberal order in which US geopolitical interests, international banks, and transnational corporations prevent true sovereignty.
As a result, the day isn’t one of celebration for grassroots social movements in El Salvador as much as a day of ongoing struggle. And this year, like last, in the face of authoritarian rule and attacks on independence of powers and other democratic principles that the day is meant to extol, the movement took the struggle to the streets:
“We launch from the streets once again a powerful cry of struggle and unity in defense of the Salvadoran people and our aspirations for justice, democracy, and full freedom–which today are threatened by a new type of dictatorship headed by the [president] and his ruling business family clan," said one organizer.
"We are supposed to be celebrating the independence of a democratic country, but we are not really living in a democracy."
Broad coalitions that have been coalescing over the last several years in response to the crisis under the Bukele regime marched together in the thousands. Among the emerging coalitions are the Coordinadora Salvadoreña de Movimientos Populares, the Bloque de Resistencia y Rebeldía Popular, the Asamblea Feminista, and the Alianza Nacional El Salvador en Paz.
Protesters came together despite undermining attempts on the part of the administration to limit turnout. From around the country, people reported multiple police and military checkpoints, roadblocks, and closures.
“These frisk and search checkpoints remind us of what it was like in 1979 when we would go to protest at the capital. By 1981, we were in a full war due to the repressions,” said a protester who asked to remain anonymous.
Other tactics included the government’s announcement just days before the march that it would be convening its own national parade–mandatory for many of the country’s school-aged children and public employees–that would cover the same course as the social movement march, but in the opposite direction. Movement organizers denounced the provocation and the threat of force behind it given that all units of the Salvadoran military–Army, Navy, and Air Force, national police, and the “cavalry”–would be present.
Organizers held fast, however, quickly rerouted, and continued to mobilize despite the confusion and intimidation. The route departed from a new meeting point, proceeded without serious incident through the center of San Salvador, and ended at the historic Plaza Libertad, an emblematic site that has witnessed many demonstrations in previous decades. For the social movement, it was a triumph, with an estimated 10,000 protesters participating:
“Despite all the blockades and the malicious intentions on the part of the government to undermine the mobilization, #El15Marchamos has been a total success,” said the Bloque de Resistencia y Rebeldía Popular. “Despite the fear under the State of Exception, people have overcome all these acts [of intimidation].”
First and most urgently, social movement and civil society organizations are calling for an immediate end to the State of Exception that, after five months and counting, has left more than 70 people dead, over 50,000 people arbitrarily detained, and an alarming normalization of human rights violations.
“There are thousands of victims who are being tortured by the State. The anguish grows every day to know about their loved ones. This, along with the State of Exception, must end."
The State of Exception criminalizes youth, especially the poorest and most vulnerable, organizations say. As the popular Salvadoran education organization Equipo Maíz put it, paraphrasing Monseñor Romero:
“The State of Exception is a snake that only bites those who are barefoot. . . The State of Exception is only for poor people, including thousands of innocent people: It does not apply to white-collar criminals, those at the top, those who govern, those who traffic drugs and weapons, those who evade taxes, or those who steal from the State. Those people are protected by the government.”
In the days leading up to the march, the movement published extensive material explaining the many other reasons they are protesting. These include:
- The loss of more than $58 million in public funds to the Bitcoin crash and hundreds million more wasted in the implementation of “Bitcoinization”
- Unlawful detention of political prisoners as a tactic to silence dissent
- Privatization of water
- Repression of LGBTIQ communities
- Non-transparency, dismantlement of the Institute for Access to Public Information (IAIP) and the General Directorate of Statistics and Censuses (DIGESTYC)
- Widespread corruption, especially during the early stages of the pandemic
- Suppression of the press
- Displacement of Indigenous peoples, persecution of Indigenous leaders who defend their lands, rivers, and communities against development and extraction
- Feared displacement of residents of the planned “Tren del Pacífico” railroad line
- Expanding and deepening poverty: The price of the food staples, known as the “canasta básica” or basic basket, has doubled
- Construction of a new, supermax prison in Tecoluca that will displace people and harm the environment
- Massive layoffs: More than 15,000 from the public sector
- Resurgence of forced disappearances and mass, clandestine graves
- Disproportionate social and economic impact of the State of Exception on women, who bear the greatest burden of government repression
- Stagnant incomes for the last two years
- Abandonment of rural areas and local governments through withholding of municipal funds (FODES)
- Nonpayment of the “universal basic pension,” to at least 37,500 people aged 70 and older who are among the poorest in the country
- Criminalization of youth
- Consolidation of power in the executive and the complete dismantling of democratic institutions.
All together, the coalitions–each with their own priorities and representing various sectors–denounced with diverse but united voices the human rights violations and the rapidly deteriorating living conditions for individuals and families who are victims of the State of Exception. They decried the high cost of living and the lack of proposals by the government to address this serious situation and the grave setbacks in democracy under the Bukele administration.
President Bukele responded to the massive turnout by announcing an unconstitutional bid for reelection. On the night of September 15, while protests were trending on social media, Bukele declared his intention to run for president in 2024 despite explicit prohibitions in the Salvadoran Constitution on consecutive presidential terms, “setting the stage for a major national and international showdown regarding the legitimacy of the next elections.” At least six articles in the Constitution reiterate the prohibition–and Bukele himself outlined them in 2013 as mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán, before he became president.
Salvadoran popular movement organizers are condemning the reelection bid as yet “another violation of the constitutional framework of the country, carried out with the complicity of the magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber [of the Supreme Court], who were illegally imposed by the ruling clan.” It is, “a setback in democracy comparable with the years of the social and armed conflict.” They denounce Bukele’s attempt to “divert attention away from the country’s severe problems, from his loss of legitimacy, and from the surge in popular movement struggle, which was again renewed through the successful marches on September 15th.”
The Salvadoran social movement also has growing solidarity among diasporic Salvadoran communities and allies in the United States. From cities around the country including Los Angeles, Washington DC, and the California Bay Area, groups joined to call out the Bukele dictatorship as well as its ongoing support from the United States.
“Unsurprisingly, we again see the United States government on the wrong side of history, continuing its close ‘partnership’ with the Salvadoran military and police. But yesterday’s protests showed that the Salvadoran people’s commitment to defending the democracy they built out of the ashes of the civil war is stronger than fear, and that when we say, ‘Never again’ to dictatorship, we mean it,” said CISPES Program Director, Yesenia Portillo.