Bukele Responds to Avalanche of International Criticism: “The People Voted for This”

On their first day in office, allies of President Nayib Bukele flexed their supermajority in the Legislative Assembly to replace officials in key state institutions, tightening the ruling party’s grip.

May 7, 2021

Dozens gathered at the foot of the Monument to the Constitution of El Salvador to protest following the illegal removals of the Constitutional Chamber magistrates and the attorney general. (Carlos Barrera/El Faro)

Copublished with El Faro English. Originally published in Spanish by El Faro. 

The day after the Legislative Assembly, dominated by President Nayib Bukele’s party, ousted the judges of the Constitutional Court and the attorney general, and named replacements in line with their interests, El Salvador woke up on Sunday, May 2 to two opposing accounts of what had happened. The president’s office justified the removals, defining them as acts of “cleaning house.” Meanwhile, a broad group of Salvadoran social organizations and powerful voices of the international community described the events as a technical coup, or at the very least a violation of the rule of law. In the midst of public debate, mainly taking place on social media, four of the officials removed by Bukele’s so-called “cyan bloc”—Attorney General Raúl Melara and magistrates Aldo Cáder Camilot, Carlos Sánchez, and Marina de Torrento—publicly resigned in letters posted on social media.

As early as Saturday night, lawyers, civil organizations, diplomats, and members of the international community began condemning and rejecting the four decrees approved by the new Assembly. At the same time, Bukele and some lawmakers of his Nuevas Ideas party turned to social media to try to impose their own version of events. The official narrative included everything from mocking opponents to targeted harassment of Armando Penda Navas, who was, until Saturday, president of the Supreme Court. Some suggested conspiracy theories, like the idea that George Soros was behind the international condemnation and even the statements made by Vice President Kamala Harris.

In a gesture that speaks to the abruptness of the removals, the social media accounts of the institutions now under control of government allies—the Attorney General’s office, the Supreme Court, and the Legislative Assembly—adopted a new color scheme of dark blue, and public relations and media personnel have stopped responding to telephone inquiries.

“All, absolutely all those from other countries who criticize, would want government officials who have kept them in misery for 30 years to be sent to prison. Stop the hypocrisy. 75 percent of the Salvadoran people voted in free elections for the change we are seeing,” Bukele wrote on Twitter, responding to an outpouring of international criticism. “Do you expect the people to vote overwhelmingly for a new government, wait two years for them to be allowed to vote overwhelmingly (75 percent of the votes) for a new Legislative Assembly and then after all that the same officials continue [in power]? Have you checked your logic?” he wrote in an earlier tweet. Lawmakers such as Suecy Callejas also tried to make the case on Twitter for the alleged reasons why they decided, in contravention of the Constitution, to dismiss the officials.

In 24 hours, from 5:27 p.m. on Saturday, Bukele tweeted and retweeted 310 times—a rate of one every five minutes. Despite the Twitter offensive, condemnation of what happened Saturday took on greater proportions when high-ranking officials from the Biden administration, including Vice President Harris, repudiated the cyan bloc’s actions. Harris tweeted Sunday night: “We have deep concerns about El Salvador’s democracy, in light of the National Assembly’s vote to remove constitutional court judges. An independent judiciary is critical to a healthy democracy—and to a strong economy.” Biden has tapped Harris to lead U.S. efforts with Central America’s Northern Triangle countries.

Biden’s Secretary of State Anthony Blinken also condemned the dismissals. Blinken called Bukele on Sunday and “expressed the U.S. government’s grave concern over the Legislative Assembly’s vote to remove all five magistrates of El Salvador’s constitutional Chamber, noting that an independent judiciary is essential to democratic governance,” according to a statement from spokesperson Ned Price.

In western Europe, Germany’s Foreign Minister Niels Annen and member of European Parliament Tilly Metz were the first to condemn the move. The European Union spokesperson released a statement on Monday, and EU high representative for foreign affairs, Josep Borrell, wrote on Twitter: “Following with concern the latest events in El Salvador, which challenge the rule of law and the separation of powers. In the U.S. Congress, representatives such as Jim McGovern of Massachusetts and Joaquín Castro of Texas expressed their concern.

Others issued harsher challenges. “I want it to be clear to Bukele: We will make every effort to make this assault on democracy affect his relationship with the U.S. government, World Bank, IMF, and IDB [Inter-American Development Bank]. Today in Washington the rule of law is necessary,” tweeted José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division. Bukele’s vice president, Félix Ulloa, responded 18 hours later on social media, though without reference to the alleged unconstitutionality of Saturday’s new appointments: “I thank you for doing everything you can for the benefit of our people, going to the IDB, WB, and IMF and the Biden admin to seek sanctions for El Salvador. An example of a human rights defender! All that’s missing is for you to ask for an embargo like the one punishing Cuba.” 

Professor and director of the University of Washington Center for Human Rights Angelina Godoy also commented on Vivanco’s take, writing: “I definitely agree this is a moment for action to support human rights in El Salvador—but at what point does the human rights community admit that invoking the World Bank, IMF, and US gov’t as the guardians of democracy in the Americas is not credible?”

The Salvadoran opposition in the Assembly reacted in real time on Saturday. Claudia Ortiz, the sole lawmaker elected with the Vamos party, left the plenary session when the removal process got underway late in the afternoon. “I will not participate in a simulation of democracy!” Ortiz tweeted, leaving the chamber. The rest of the opposition lawmakers remained in the chamber but voted against the decrees. ARENA, FMLN, Nuestro Tiempo—which, together with Vamos, form a bloc of 20 lawmakers, insufficient to make decisions—also released statements of protest and called on the international community, especially the Organization of American States (OAS) [to respond]. The Social Christian Party (PDC) also condemned the move, despite the fact that Reynaldo Carballo, the party’s only lawmaker, has held positions in favor of Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas, including voting in favor of the four ordinances on Saturday night. The party, however, published a statement on social media distancing itself from the move: “The PDC rejects and condemns the intentional and arbitrary removal of the court magistrates…It is an act of breaking with the republican system.”

Almagro Distances Himself from Bukele

On Sunday morning, the Organization of American States (OAS), led by Luis Almagro, released a statement condemning the Assembly’s actions, marking the first important rupture in the organization’s relationship with the Bukele administration. The OAS “rejects the dismissal of the magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice and of the Attorney General, Raúl Melara, as well as the actions of the Executive Branch that guided these decisions,” the statement reads.

Almagro has been an important voice backing Bukele in the international debate, taking an antagonistic attitude towards human rights figures like Human Rights Watch’s Vivanco who have criticized Bukele’s leadership. “Bukele is attacking the rule of law and seeks to concentrate all power in his hands,” wrote Vivanco Saturday night. Almagro had already described Vivanco as a “hysterical voice” baselessly criticizing Bukele. In July 2020, in an interview in which he was asked his opinion about Bukele’s coup attempt on February 9, 2020, Almagro said “we don’t have to invent dictatorships where there are none.”

The OAS deemed it “essential” to continue the work “begun by the Special Mission chaired by Santiago Cantón in the application of the Inter-American Democratic Charter…as requested by the Executive Power and the previous Salvadoran legislature.” The mission visited the country in the wake of February 9. Cantón published the conclusions of his report on Twitter on Sunday. In general, the mission concluded that there were signs of violations of the separation of powers in El Salvador. Now, Almagro considers it vital that there be appropriate follow-up on these findings.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), headquartered in Washington and part of the inter-American system, also rejected the Assembly’s actions and urged the Salvadoran state to respect the [Constitutional Court’s] sentence that declared the naming of the new magistrates unconstitutional. The IACHR also delegated a team to closely monitor events in El Salvador over the coming days.

Bukele’s Magistrates Not Recognized

On Sunday and Monday, 71 civil society organizations dedicated to overseeing public functions condemned the removals. On Sunday morning, 26 organizations said that what had happened the day before “broke the constitutional order and threatened the rights of all Salvadorans. Acción Ciudadana, Cristosal, the Due Process of Law Foundation (DPFL), the Ibero-American Institute of Constitutional Law, the Foundation for the Study and Application of Law (FESPAD), the National Foundation for Development (FUNDE), the Central American Institute for Fiscal (ICEFI), and the José Simeón Cañas Central American University (UCA) were among the signing organizations. They described Nuevas Ideas as an “unquestionably authoritarian political project in which all powers respond to a single person.”

“In my long political career, I have never seen the country’s Constitution and law violated so many times in six, eight hours,” said Rubén Zamora, former Salvadoran ambassador to the United States and United Nations and also the first leftist presidential candidate following the peace accords. The violations, he said, occurred in the midst of an invalid session, because there was no agenda. “They totally violated the Assembly’s internal rules. Therefore, what has been done is void,” he added. Sonia Rubio of the Due Process of Law Foundation (DPFL) stated that there is only one Constitutional Court in El Salvador, the one dismissed by Bukele’s faction. “The process of naming the alleged magistrates…lacks legality. They are people who have not passed through the procedures established by the constitution,” she explained.

In their joint statement, the organizations declared that they would not recognize the elected officials [that carried out these illegitimate acts], characterizing them as “usurpers.” “The legal veneer of the destitutions is a crude simulation that does not stand up to the most minimal coherent analysis, it breaks with the constitutional order,” they wrote.  The organizations added that the new lawmakers could be legally liable.

On Monday morning, another 40 organizations expressed their public condemnation. “Many think that what is happening doesn’t directly affect them, but they are wrong. The destruction of democracy ends up affecting all of us, sooner or later,” reads a statement that was read at the UCA [in San Salvador].

By midday Sunday, the [ousted] magistrate Aldo Cáder Camilot published a letter on social media announcing his “irrevocable resignation” from the 2018-2027 Constitutional Court. Cáder, one of the judges who supported multiple rulings that blocked various violations of executive law in the context of the government’s pandemic response in 2020, said that his resignation was related to personal and family reasons and called the removal of the judges a “lamentable partisan political development.” “I have never been linked to nor responded to the interests of any political party nor any economic power or [power] of any other nature,” Cáder wrote.

Later, two other magistrates and Attorney General Raúl Melara published letters with similar reactions. Judge Marina de Torrento, elected in 2018 in a process described as a power sharing deal between ARENA, the FMLN, and GANA, published a letter on Twitter without giving details about her resignation. Judge Carlos Sánchez later released his own statement via third parties. Unlike his colleagues, Sánchez did insinuate that he resigned because he feared retaliation. “Taking into account some family reasons that some lawmakers and officials of the Executive Branch do not ignore, being the serious illness that my only daughter is suffering while admitted to the Hospital Rosales, I have taken the irrevocable decision of resigning from this position,” read the statement.

Attorney General Melara also resigned, although he made clear that he did not agree with the decision. He hinted that he was worried about his family’s well being. “However, considering the main motive of my family’s well being, and given that ensuring the necessary guarantees to carry out this role is out of my control, I have decided to present my irrevocable resignation from this position,” read his statement, released at 9:36 p.m. Sunday.

The news of the removal of the Constitutional Court judges unleashed a call to action. Some 500 people gathered at 2:00 p.m. Sunday at San Salvador’s monument to the Constitution with signs, placards, and short speeches over loudspeakers. Feminist movements and the LBGTQI+ community were among the largest groups in the demonstration. “The first session of the Assembly threatens a system of minimum freedoms and legal security won through the struggles and sacrifice of thousands of Salvadoran families," said one of the demonstrators at the beginning of the protest. “Bukele, fascist, you’re a terrorist. We demand an absolute halt of any fascist action!” some yelled. “You cannot [govern] a country in a unilateral way,” said another protester as rain showered the capital city.  

Gabriel Labrador and Julia Gavarrete are journalists with El Faro, a Salvadoran digital media outlet.

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