May 13, 2023


When Populism Succeeds (FRANCISCO TORO, MAY 12, 2023, Persuasion)

The most dangerous political experiment in Latin America is underway in El Salvador. A strange breed of populism is tipping the scale in the region's age-old tug of war between authoritarianism and democracy. Rather than dividing the country, like populism usually does, it's uniting it solidly behind a new consensus. More than anything, though, it's succeeding, and doing so in the kind of impossible-to-miss way that turns heads up and down the hemisphere.

At the top of it all is the self-described "coolest dictator in the world," the startlingly energetic Nayib Bukele. Having rounded up tens of thousands of suspected gang members in a series of police and military actions that don't even pay lip service to due process of law, Bukele has become something of a national hero, with approval ratings now north of 90%. Under his watch, one of the most violent countries on earth has become considerably safer: a startling transformation that nearly all Salvadoreans seem profoundly grateful for. [...]

The standard account stresses how populists thrive on polarization. But whatever problems El Salvador may have, polarization isn't one of them. Rather than dividing the country, Bukele's extreme security approach has united nearly all Salvadoreans behind him. How wide is this consensus? In polls, a head-spinning 91% approve the job he is doing. 70% support his re-election, even though he is barred by term limits from seeking it. The 6.9% who oppose his autocracy are a tiny, marginal force in Salvadorean politics, about on the same level as the 7% of Americans who think the moon landings were faked.

Why? Because democracy had failed to protect Salvadoreans from the country's uniquely brutal gang culture--a bloody affair largely hatched in U.S. jails and brought over by gang members deported back to their country. Unlike in Mexico where organized crime makes the bulk of its revenue from drug trafficking, the maras in El Salvador live mostly off of extortion: terrorizing local people and violently squeezing every last dime out of them.

It made for a miserable, hopeless situation that seemed to elude orthodox solutions. Police hardly had the resources to investigate gang members and try them one at a time. That retail approach, even if it had been feasible, would have done little good: pick off 1 gang member out of 10 and the mara was still in place and, finding itself short-staffed, could well become even more violent. Salvadoreans were left to grimly conclude the only way to stop the maras would be to throw all their members in jail in one go: a crazy idea, too harebrained to be entertained seriously. Until Nayib Bukele went and did it.

The result is a civil liberties disaster. Yet Salvadoreans understandably have little tolerance for pious discourses about human rights from outsiders who've not been through what they've been through.

The minimum threshold any state must meet is providing physical security.  Establish that and you can start ratcheting back towards freedom, ideally arriving betwixt the two at liberty. 

Posted by at May 13, 2023 5:58 AM