El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele has now suspended the rule of law in his country for 18 months, during which time more than 70,000 people have been rounded up and imprisoned without trial in the naming of stopping crime. While Bukele’s approval rating has skyrocketed, many families of the incarcerated paint a much grimmer picture of suspended civil liberties and indefinite detention. TRNN contributor Mike Fox joins Rattling the Bars for a look at El Salvador’s permanent state of exception and the growing signs of a return to fascism in the region.
Studio: Cameron Granadino, David Hebden
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Mansa Musa: Thank you for joining me on this edition of Rattling The Bars. I’m your host, Mansa Musa. In Blood In My Eye, Conrad George L. Jackson observed that the characteristics of fascism are an international quality. He stated, “We will never be able to completely define it because it is in constant motion, showing a new face to fit any set of problems that arise to threaten the capitalist ruling class. He noted, “But if one were forced for the sake of clarity to define it in a word simple enough for all to understand, that word would be ‘reform.’”
Today, fascism is re-emerging throughout the hemisphere as authoritarian regimes throughout Central America increasingly concentrate their power under the banner of reform. This includes the rise of President Bukele in El Salvador, who dubbed himself as the coolest dictator and is regularly called the “Trump of the Tropics” and ruled with a far-right populism that historian Professor Federico Finchelstein referred to as a “wannabe fascist.”
Here to talk about the current state of El Salvador and the wannabe fascist is reporter Mike Fox. Welcome Mike.
Michael Fox: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Mansa Musa: Introduce yourself to our audience. For those that don’t know you on Rattling The Bars.
Michael Fox: Sure. I’m Michael Fox, a freelance journalist based in Latin America, former editor of NACLA, and the host of Brazil on Fire, which was the podcast we put out last year with NACLA and The Real News. And we’re working on a new one now called Under the Shadow which is all about US intervention, in particular, Central America for this first season. There’s a really good connection to everything we’re going to be talking about today, I’m sure.
Mansa Musa: So let’s jump right into Central America. Now we recognize that the US has an interest in the hemisphere. We recognize that for a long time, they’ve been very active in trying to destabilize Cuba. We recognize that when it comes to Latin America and Central America, they’ve always been in that space. Ralph Agee, in his book Inside the Company, was the first one to educate people on what was going on in Central America and Latin America.
And now we are on the anniversary of the assassination of Salvador Linda from Chile. But here we are now in the 21st century talking about the rebirth or the continuation of fascism and more importantly, how fascism looks today in the hemisphere. Tell us a little bit about what’s going on in El Salvador and we are going to segue into other countries that are replicating this model that we can attribute to the US.
Michael Fox: Well, the big thing in El Salvador, and this goes back about four years, is a man named Nayib Bukele, who’s the president; He won in 2019. He is extremely authoritarian, takes power moves to take control. First, he won the presidency… If we look back, he actually was a member of the FMLN, which is the traditional leftist party. Of course, that was the gorilla movement that came out of the Civil War in ’92; It became a political party. They won office several times and he was actually a mayor for the FMLN in Nuevo Cuscatlan and then in San Salvador. The FMLN kicked him out because they said he was creating divisions between their party and then he went independent. And that’s how he went into office in 2019. But from there, he had a very clear idea about trying to… He was an outsider, very inspired by Trump, the idea of trying to break the traditional two-party system that had come out of the Civil War where you had the right-wing ARENA party and the other one was the FMLN.
His focus has been on crime, and battling crime. Now he’s a very interesting character because what he’s done is consolidated more and more power around himself. He was able to elect, in 2021, the majority of Congress that were members of his party, and then by making coalitions with others, he was able to take over two-thirds of Congress. Then, on the day that the new Congress came in, they basically eliminated the previous Supreme Court and put in Supreme Court members and justices who were on his side. So it’s been this power move all the way. And what he did starting last year was an absolute crackdown on crime. Now, if you remember going back a long, long time, El Salvador’s had a very, very difficult battle with gangs. The country’s had an extremely hard time.
Now here’s the fascinating thing about Bukele. Right now he has a 91% approval rate in the country. 91%. And that’s because of the massive crackdown. He said, we’re eliminating habeas corpus, we’re limiting the rule of law, and we are going to take people and lock them up. And basically, he’s locked up more than 70,000 supposed “gang members,” many of them innocent, and they’re sitting on trial. They’ve been extending the state of exception that they instituted roughly a year and a half ago; The 18th time they extended it recently. It now is the country with the highest prison population in the world and the problem is that no one is actually going to trial. There’s no justice that’s happening, people are literally waiting for something to happen, and many, many, many innocent people, hundreds, have died since he started his massive crackdown.
We know it’s at least 200 but the movement of victims of the regime say it’s over 300 now. And everyone’s held incommunicado: Families cannot speak with their family members in jail. They can’t even speak with lawyers. So it is a state of absolute exception. It is extremely concerning. But of course, the country people are seeing their lives have changed for the first time. They can walk the streets freely at night, they don’t have to worry about crime, which is amazing in a country that has been battling gang situations for so, so long. It’s a very, very complicated situation in the country right now.
Mansa Musa: And that’s the contradiction that I want to talk about in terms of this current state of El Salvador as it relates to what people perceive to be safe. As opposed to what it was before. I’m of the opinion that what you’ve accomplished, in terms of making this country safe, could have been accomplished without these repressive acts. El Salvador has one of the biggest prisons in the world and you did it in the same fashion that the US did with Guantanamo. This is Guantanamo on steroids in El Salvador. But my question to you is, what’s the population’s attitude overall? I’ve seen in one report that you gave where you have people saying they’re safe. Then you have also the family members of these 70,000 people and growing, some of them, they say less than 30% can be identified as gang members. What are the people saying, overall? Is there anybody in agreement with them or do we have opposition?
Michael Fox: Well, that’s it. Obviously, there’s opposition. In fact, I was there on May 1 and there was a big march, thousands of people in the march, marching downtown calling for their family members to be released, calling for the innocent to be let go. There was one woman I met, and she had a really fascinating take, she said you don’t really know what the reality is until they come and take your loved one away. And now I know. Now I know. Because her husband’s been in jail for months, she has not talked to him, he has diabetes and she can’t get him medicine. And that’s the thing is you can’t send a care package to people in jail. They have a certain amount of money that you can be paying per month to increase the amount of food that they might receive but you can’t say, oh, it’s somebody who’s sick and so we’re going to send them something. That doesn’t work.
And you don’t even know if your loved one is actually receiving the benefits of that money that you’re putting in there. There are a couple of cases in which a family member continued to pay that money for several months and only then found out that her husband had died months before. She had been paying money for him to get extra amounts of food and different types of food throughout that time, and she was never told. So there is obviously opposition. The opposition is growing because the more people are locked up, the more family members and people realize that, hey, there is something happening that is very sinister. But like I said, it hasn’t touched your family and you’re seeing Bukele doing things that they never thought would happen, then they’re willing to go along with it.
This is why it’s such… Like you said, the contradictions… It’s such a complicated moment in the country now. And here’s what’s really scary: The elections are next year. In El Salvador, legally, and constitutionally Bukele should not be able to run again, you’re not allowed to run for reelection. But since he has a majority in the Supreme Court – Since he’s basically locked up the legislative assembly, he’s locked up the Supreme Court – Three months after the new Supreme Court came in, they basically said, no, no, he’s good to go for reelection. He’s already said he’s going to run for reelection. Not only that but he announced earlier this year that he’s going to be transforming the municipalities and the look of the municipalities, basically gerrymandering across the country, in order to shore up support there.
So there’s going to be big elections next year where they’re going to vote for new mayors, new legislative assembly members, and they’ve decreased the number of municipalities and the number of local officials by 90%. And why? It’s because he knows if new people are going to be elected, the majority of the population is going to vote for people from his party. So it’s basically this massive consolidation of power and there is no end in sight of the state of exception. There was no one expecting that he was going to lift the state of exception, going to have trials, and let those people who were innocent go home. That’s not happening. And it’s really concerning.
Mansa Musa: And this is in fact, terrorism. Then we look at the impact that El Salvador is having in that hemisphere. I recall that in history, it was Eisenhower who came up with this concept of what he called the “domino effect.” And historically they were saying the domino effect was that any country or anybody that was communist-leaning would fall to the influence of Russia, which was the dominant communist country during that period. But this is the domino effect when it comes to fascism. Talk about how this is impacting other countries in that hemisphere.
Michael Fox: Right. There’s something else interesting about the domino effect. If you remember back in the 1980s when Reagan came in, he was afraid of the domino effect happening throughout Central America. Because obviously Nicaragua was able to overthrow the dictatorship and then El Salvador was fighting and trying to overthrow a dictatorship there. And then you had Guatemala: same situation. That’s when Reagan was willing to throw in a ton of resources and funding and of course, funded the Contra War in Nicaragua to try and stop all that. So Central America has seen the US fight against so-called communism in the region and its domino effect. It is what we’re seeing… So Bukele has been so successful and everyone has seen how his approval rating has completely spiked over the last year and a half since he’s been able to crack down on gangs and put people in prison.
And so we are seeing this domino effect in neighboring Honduras where gangs have also been out of control — And don’t forget that Honduras is so close to El Salvador. These are small countries — And so what we understand is that many gang members who weren’t locked up fled the country and went into Honduras and other neighboring countries. So that’s something that President Xiomara Castro has also said: I’m going to institute a state of exception. We are going to crack down because we cannot have the levels of violence and gangs that we’ve had in the past.
Now Xiomara Castro is interesting because she is of course, the wife of Mel Zelaya. Zelaya was the president in 2009, a leftist president who was overthrown in a US back coup. And here’s the interesting thing: He was overthrown in a US back coup in Honduras because people said he was going to try and call for reelection. He wasn’t going to; He was trying to consult the population about a new constitution. And then the people that came in from the US-backed regime eliminated reelection and they did it themselves. But she was voted into power last year. She’s the country’s first woman president and she’s been battling so many things because of course, she’s on the left. The first person since Mel Zelaya. Many people have been calling that a dictatorship for years.
So she finally comes into power but she’s also been battling rabid sexism and people trying to block the success of her government in any way possible. And so she’s picked up the call for a state of exception in order to crack down on these gangs. So that’s shifted into Honduras. And then the other places that we’re seeing… We don’t know what this is going to look like. But of course Costa Rica – Which is down the way, that’s where I am right now – Costa Rica voted in, basically, a man fashioned in the likes of Trump. His name is Rodrigo Chavez, he was also voted in last year. He’s a former officer at the World Bank, worked there for 30 years, an outsider who studied in the US, and he has also had big authoritarian tendencies.
Now, crime traditionally in Costa Rica has not been a big deal but we’ve seen it spike by 40% in violent crime and homicides over the last year. And many people are concerned that he might be preparing to do a similar thing to what we’ve seen in El Salvador and Honduras. Of course, this is a different situation here because there is no military in Costa Rica but that does not mean that the police aren’t strong and important. And so there is no doubt that Bukele is having a major impact on the region particularly because he’s the sign of a supposed outsider, who has come in with a libertarian Trump agenda, who’s shaken up the country. And he has a massive approval rating. So many leaders are saying, well, if he can do it there, then I want to be able to do it in my own country.
Mansa Musa: You know what? The crazy part about this is when you talk about fascism… I was reading George Jackson and he was talking about fascism. He said one of the things that when you look at the characteristics of fascism, the one thing that you can identify when you see a fascist phenomenon is reform. And all of them are coming in with a set of social conditions that they created by virtue of not creating a quality of life: jobs, medical, education, and all those things that create a quality of life that will make people be more apt to have a sense of community about where they live at and be more prone to be more protective of the environment. You create massive unemployment, you create violent conditions, and then when the results say that people revert to criminal activity, now you have the perfect set of conditions to come in with this reformist mentality.
That’s going to give you an inflated popularity because you’re popular now, as you said earlier, until they come for your family member later on that night, or you’re popular now until all three of these countries then become aligned. And now you have a fascist blockade going on where everybody is looking away and the US is sitting back saying, well, we know these are successful regimes because they’re fighting crime. But you created the crime, and by creating the crime you create the narrative for Bukele, you create the narrative for Guatemala, you create the narrative for Honduras, you create the narrative for Costa Rica. Talk about the economic conditions in all three of these countries.
Michael Fox: All of this is very similar and exactly what you said. One of the things I talked about last year on my podcast, called Brazil on Fire, was specifically looking at the rise of fascism in Brazil and the connection between the US. One of the things I really hammered home the whole time was for the rise of fascism, you needed to have a crisis scenario, you needed to have an outsider who comes in with an authoritarian demagogic approach, oftentimes nationalistic – But also us versus them who’s attacking the other people saying that I’m coming in and I’m going to make… It could be attacking the immigrants as we saw with Trump, or it could be attacking the left or the communists, whatever it is – And then the absolutely anti-democratic and the authoritarian push in order to try and retain power.
And so that’s what we’re seeing. That’s what we saw with Bolsonaro. It’s obviously what we saw with Trump. It’s what we’re seeing in the case of Bukele and then also with Rodrigo Chavez here. And like you said, the conditions are the crises that the countries have been sunken into rising poverty, rising inequality, crime, particularly in the case of El Salvador, and also in the case that’s been rising in Costa Rica. And so the leaders that come in say we’re going to break with this traditional parties, we’re going to shake things up. We’re going to change things for the better. And here’s one of the things that’s been fascinating, even in Costa Rica: There are people that I’ve met while interviewing people on the street that have actually said, yeah, Rodrigo Chavez is all right but I wish we had Bukele. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard that in Costa Rica. I’ve heard that in Honduras. So there is a certain amount of the population that wants even more. They want more crackdown which is really concerning because they’d like to take it to a whole other step.
Now, is Rodrigo Chavez in Costa Rica willing to do that? That’s another question. In Costa Rica, there was a stat… I was interviewing somebody the other day for a story that I was working on here and he said that 30 years ago, Costa Rica had one of the lowest inequality rates in the entire region and lowest poverty rates – Which, that’s the image you have of Costa Rica, right? You imagine it’s a peaceful country, everybody’s cool, it’s fine, it’s all green, it’s perfect — And he said it went from one of the lowest inequality rates in all of Latin America to one of the four highest, in 30 years. And that’s from gutting the social welfare states, from gutting the social programs. And here’s the thing, Rodrigo Chavez comes in and he comes in on a discourse, which he says, I’m going to save the country. But he’s also as a discourse of gutting the social programs even further and of gutting social security.
And so it’s a contradiction in terms but he’s able to do it because he comes in as this image. And social media. Social media, it was huge for Trump, it was huge for Bolsonaro. That’s how they won their elections. Bukele is like a social media star. And Rodrigo Chavez, himself spoke at the World Economic Forum not long ago in which he said, look, I won because of social media. If it was not for social media, I would not have won this election. And what he said was, the rules of democracy are changing and we have to understand how they’re shifting and changing and we have to not only change with them but push them in a way that helps us achieve our ends.
And that’s an extremely concerning idea. Because they’re saying we don’t need the traditional media, we don’t need to roll with what we’ve rolled with before. We now have the power of social media in order to influence people and push fake news. Bukele has created these troll farms where they’ve been basically undercutting and attacking using fake news and whatnot, people who are his opponents, we’ve seen some of that start to happen here in Costa Rica. And there was a massive campaign which they called the “fake news propaganda team” in Brasilia that was part of Bolsonaro.
So all these different countries have so many things that are very, very similar, and all of them burgeoning fascist states, of course, in the case of Bolsonaro, he was voted out, but he still has a lot of people who are very close to him that are in key positions in Congress and the legislature. His people, still 25% of the population of Brazil are still all on board with Bolsonaro. They say they’re Bolsonaristas because that’s what you build with this fascist mindset this “us versus them” and you create a different reality with fake news so that people believe that if the other guy gets in, then they’re going to destroy the country. Because they’re communist and they’re going to ruin everything and stuff. So it’s really concerning.
Mansa Musa: And Bukele, he said – This is showing you how extreme this insanity is – He said that he’s the coolest dictator there is. You actually branded yourself as a dictator. One social scientist called him a wannabe fascist but the reality is this here: The social conditions are so deplorable in this country that it makes it right for a Bukele. When we see Trump, he sets the template for how to be an idiotic politician: Don’t break the norm when it comes to anything that’s supposed to be standardized, act ignorant, be outlandish, and say outrageous things. You’ve got people that are dissatisfied with the current state and once you see that you can get people to say, yeah, crime is bad. Crime was bad in El Salvador but the reality is that the crime was bad, not because of the people who wanted to commit the crime, the crime was bad because you create a climate where you don’t give people an alternative.
Then as they run amuck, now you create the climate and you got the conditions to become a Bukele, or you got the conditions for Costa Rica or you got the conditions for El Salvador. Talk about going forward. One thing I know for sure and do think for certain is that there’s always going to be opposition to fascism, no matter what the case might be. There is always going to be opposition. But how do you see that playing out? Because he didn’t manage to get controlled institutions. So basically it’s a sterilized coup that he’s doing. These are the new coups that have come in place now. The coups where you systematically set up the climate, where you take over the institutions, then you get elected in and you say, well, I’m duly elected. Y’all want me here. That’s why I didn’t come in with a gun. I didn’t come in and shoot nobody. I didn’t overthrow y’all like they did in El Salvador. And I came in with y’all blessings.
But going forward, how do you see this playing out in terms of the opposition? Because he got this all the way across the board. You got this model where you could easily say, oh, you’re a communist or you a gang. Really? They took the communists out of the equation there. The communists don’t even really matter much. Oh, you are a gang member. So how do you think it’s going to play out in this hemisphere?
Michael Fox: There are two things that are happening in El Salvador and you touched on one of them, and that’s Bukele’s image of the cool dictator. He even tweeted out a few months ago, that strong men create good times. And what’s fascinating and what’s really interesting, and we can’t forget this, is that he has this image. Because remember, he was the one that brought in Bitcoin. He created the first country to welcome Bitcoin as legal tender in a country. And so there’s been a large amount of libertarians that have come into El Salvador. They’ve been spreading the word that he’s not that bad, that this is a great spot, this is a great place to go, now it’s safe. And so on the one hand, he’s trying to build this image of this, hey, this really cool guy, this whole authoritarian thing isn’t that big of a deal and I’m into Bitcoin, I’m into changing the world, and we can do that together. So that’s one image.
The other reality is that what we’ve been talking about before is this power grab authoritarian on the ground. There will always be opposition. The more that people are jailed, the longer that they are in jail, the opposition will obviously grow. But it is concerning because like I said, next year he’s going to be reelected. There’s almost no doubt he’ll be, there were polls that came out a little bit ago in which they said if the election was right now, he would win with 65% of the votes. And his closest challenger had 4%, 5%, or 6%. So there’s no way he will lose, he’s going to win. And then also he’s going to have the power grab on the local, municipal, legislative, the courts, he’s going to sew it all up. Bukele – I believe, and this is my own personal opinion – Part of the reason why he didn’t go in looking for gang members but anyone could looked like a gang member… The reason why he was going to pick up anybody is because he wanted to show that he was powerful and he could do it. It didn’t matter if you were actually guilty or not.
He’s a power-hungry man. He’s going to continue with that. And what he’s creating though, is now over 100,000 people are in jail, 70,000 locked up over the last year and a half. He’s also creating a power keg because if he continues with the state of exception, continuing to keep innocent people in jail month after month, year after year, what does that mean? At some point, people are going to have to go to trial. You can’t hold people indefinitely. Unless that’s his plan to have a lockdown, authoritarian, never-ending dictatorship government. And his plan is to keep people in jail forever. What happens when there’s a reckoning within the legal system, within crime, within criminality, whether or not Bukele leaves or if he’s still in power, what happens then? So there are major concerns.
Now in other countries Congress still has, for instance, in Costa Rica, the president, doesn’t have a majority in Congress. His party has maybe up to 10 people. So he doesn’t have a majority in Congress. So he is not able to push things like he would like to. The courts have been pushing back against Rodrigo Chavez here in Costa Rica in a lot of ways recently. And so it’s going to obviously be hard for Rodrigo Chavez to do the things that he wants to do. In Brazil, we saw that Bolsonaro’s power moves were substantial and if it wasn’t for the Supreme Court, governors, and whatnot consistently pushing back against them, Bolsonaro may have been able to accomplish way more. But the Supreme Court held the line and they were able to stop Bolsonaro from acquiring enough power to keep himself in power for much longer, to hold elections that would show that he should have won or whatever else, even though his people believe that that was the case.
Mansa Musa: Go ahead, Mike.
Michael Fox: So to close, I’d say we’re seeing a situation in the region where some people are holding onto power, but other people, like in the case of Trump and the case of Bolsonaro and Brazil, are going to say, fine. After they tried to commit fraud and do everything else, okay, I left. But they’re going to try and come back into power four or five years later and in some cases, they may be winning. And that’s another concern is what this fascism looks like in cases where someone authoritarian has taken power. In the case of El Salvador, Bukele came in to win it and to hold on and not let go but other people might be playing the long game, like in the case of Trump. And so it is very concerning. But I will say this: Central America, Latin America is a region of resistance. These countries have lived through decades and decades and decades of dictatorship; They know what it feels like, it doesn’t feel good, but they also know how to hold out and they know how to play the long game for a long time. So in the end, people will achieve democracy, will reign and there’ll be a turnaround. But the problem is how long will that actually take? In the case of El Salvador, it’s really concerning.
Mansa Musa: Mike, as we close out, talk about what is your next project, and what you’ll be doing next.
Michael Fox: Yeah. I’m working on a podcast called Under the Shadow which looks at Latin America under the shadow of the US whether that was coup attempts or intervention invasions that they’ve seen for the last 200 years. This year is the 200-year anniversary of the Monroe Doctrine. This is a doctrine set by Monroe 200 years ago that said Latin America is ours and we can’t have intervention from other countries but we are the ones that are going to control this region. So for the last six months, I’ve been traveling around Central America to all the countries in Central America, going into key places where things happened in the past, to understand what happened there, to make those connections, and to tell the stories of US intervention abroad in Latin America. So the podcast should be out beginning in January. I’ve launched a Kickstarter that I’m trying to raise funds for, and people will be able to find that on The Real News’ site pretty soon. That’s what my big focus is right now.
Mansa Musa: There you have it. Mike, you rattled the bars today. You really educated our audience on all the things that are going on in the hemisphere. But more importantly, you educated our audience on understanding that when you don’t speak out against fascism when you don’t speak out against totalitarianism, then what you’re going to get in the end, you’re going to get 70,000 people locked up, you’re going to get a domino effect, and other countries following suit.
We ask that our audience continue to support The Real News Network and Rattling The Bars. It’s only here that you’re going to get this information such as Mike and his upcoming documentary and his upcoming podcast, where you are going to get insight into what this country, the USA, is financing, and what your tax dollars are promoting in countries where they don’t have a rule of law. And because of this, you have innocent people who are being locked up under the pretense that they are making this country safe. Thank you, Mike. Thank you very much for joining us today and continued success in what you’re doing.
Michael Fox: Thank you so much. It’s been such a pleasure.