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El Salvador’s President Sworn In for Second Term Widely Seen as Illegal

Biden officials and Trump allies attended Nayib Bukele’s inauguration despite concerns from human rights groups.

Self-described as the “world’s coolest dictator,” Nayib Bukele was sworn in Saturday for a second term as president of El Salvador in a move widely denounced as illegitimate. El Salvador’s constitution limits presidents to one term and prohibits consecutive reelections. However, a 2021 Constitutional Court ruling approved Bukele’s reelection bid after his allies in the Salvadoran National Assembly illegally removed all five magistrates from the court and replaced them with Bukele supporters. Democracy Now! speaks with Roman Gressier, a reporter in San Salvador covering Central American politics for El Faro English, about Bukele’s popularity during his dramatic crackdown on gangs, the surveillance of journalists and human rights organizations, and the “parallel U.S. delegations” to Bukele’s inauguration from both the Biden administration and a cast of right-wing, Trump-aligned characters despite growing condemnation of Bukele’s authoritarian rule.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

We turn now to El Salvador, where President Nayib Bukele has been sworn in for a second term. The move has been widely denounced as illegitimate and a violation of El Salvador’s Constitution, which limits presidents to just one five-year term and prohibits consecutive elections. In 2021, El Salvador’s Constitutional Court ruled in favor of Bukele’s reelection bid after his allies in the Salvadoran National Assembly illegally removed all five magistrates from the court, replacing them with Bukele supporters. The self-proclaimed “world’s coolest dictator” spoke Saturday from the capital San Salvador.

PRESIDENT NAYIB BUKELE: [translated] Five years ago in this same plaza, I asked you to trust in us and the decisions we are going to take, even if some of them seemed like bitter medicine. The people of El Salvador took the decision to follow the prescription. And together, we have rid ourselves of the gang cancer.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bukele’s inauguration comes as his government continues to enforce a state of exception in El Salvador, a so-called war on gangs that’s led to the detention of nearly 80,000 people since 2022, many without charge or access to due process. Human rights groups have warned of gross violations and torturous conditions inside overcrowded Salvadoran prisons and estimate at least 240 people have died in police custody.

Despite growing concerns for Bukele’s authoritarianism, the Biden administration sent a high-level delegation, led by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, to the inauguration. Just three years ago, Biden officials had refused to meet with Bukele in D.C. amidst concerns of his anti-democratic rule. Also in attendance at Saturday’s inauguration in San Salvador was Argentina’s right-wing President Javier Milei, Donald Trump Jr. and several Trump allies, including Florida Congressmember Matt Gaetz, former Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Protesters gathered outside the Salvadoran Embassy in Washington, D.C., to call out the Biden administration’s recognition of what they called an illegal and unconstitutional second term for Bukele.

CONSUELO GÓMEZ: [translated] We know that your government knows of the kidnapping and deaths of our children and families in Bukele’s jails. President Biden, it shames us that your government decided to participate in the inauguration of a new dictator in El Salvador.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to San Salvador, where we’re joined by Roman Gressier, a French American journalist, reporter with El Faro English_, covering Central American politics. His latest piecesalvador/27448/biden-and-trump-camps-jockey-for-favor-in-bukele-rsquo-s-new-el-salvador for El Faro English is headlined “Biden and Trump Camps Jockey for Favor in Bukele’s New El Salvador.” El Faro’s editorial board also recently published an op-ed titled “A Dictatorship Is Born.”

So, Roman Gressier, welcome back to Democracy Now! Explain the significance of this inauguration, the second term of Bukele, who describes himself as the “coolest dictator.”

ROMAN GRESSIER: Hi, Amy. Hi, Juan. It’s great to be back with you.

Well, as you noted in the introduction to this segment, this is essentially the evolution or the fulfillment of a process that’s been developing at least since 2021, when the Constitutional Chamber and the attorney general were removed in the first day of the last legislature, when Bukele’s party had achieved a supermajority in the elections. So, they removed the Constitutional Court, or Chamber, which then dramatically reversed course, just three, four months later — I believe in September of that year — ruling, despite six articles of the Constitution, that Bukele could seek reelection. So, that was essentially the first stepping stone. And the following year, he declared that he would indeed run for reelection. And late last October, just minutes before the enrollment deadline as a candidate, he did indeed register as a candidate for reelection, without resistance from the Supreme Electoral Tribunal or other institutions. And on February 3rd, he was reelected with over 80% of the public’s support. And he was just sworn in on Saturday.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Roman, if you could explain to our viewers and listeners why Bukele has such deep support among so many Salvadorans?

ROMAN GRESSIER: Well, I think it has to do with a number of factors, first and foremost being the state of exception, which, while it has been very repressive, as you had also identified in the introduction, does hold the strongest support among the — in the electorate and in polling. We saw throughout the election that the government, in fact, did not hold very much — did not do very much campaigning at all. The president did not do very much campaigning at all. It was more of a — and there weren’t future-looking proposals, such as, “We want to do this or that.” It was more a victory lap, stressing the reduction of gang presence, the dramatic reduction of gang presence in communities across the country. And there were even ads being run prior to the election suggesting that if the opposition, quote, “were to return to power,” then there would be a dramatic unleashing of gangs from the prisons, and this could only be avoided if the president’s majority in the Legislature were to continue.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about the Bukele government’s crackdown on journalists and human rights defenders? You yourself were among a group of journalists who were surveilled by the Bukele government with the Pegasus spyware.

ROMAN GRESSIER: That’s right. At the time, in late 2022, when we announced the Pegasus surveillance, extensive Pegasus surveillance, of El Faro, there were also multiple other newsrooms who were touched by that, as well as human rights organizations, columnists. It was very extensive. And I would suspect that if more people were to subject their phones to the same tests that we ran, we would have an even broader picture of what that surveillance truly looked like. But the digital surveillance certainly has been strong. The context of digital — of in-person and digital intimidation has also been very — has been ever present.

Just a few days before — two days before inauguration, if I’m not mistaken, the government announced arrests against nine historic FMLN leaders, accusing them of plotting to plant bombs throughout the capital. And the audio that the police posted online didn’t speak of that in those terms. It spoke of a product that could not fail, etc. And one legal aid organization that knows the defendants asserted that they were speaking of firecrackers that are often used at protests.

So, the broader context or the undertones of inauguration have been very tense, hostile at times. And at inauguration itself, there were snipers on the rooftop, on rooftops close to the event, the military checking people who were coming in and out. So, the whole context definitely had militaristic undertones to it.

AMY GOODMAN: Roman, as we begin to wrap up, you’ve got Bukele detaining over 80,000 people since 2022, many without charge, in his so-called war on gangs. You have the Biden administration, just three years ago, officials refusing to meet with President Bukele in D.C., given the human rights abuses or his tendency toward authoritarianism. Now you have a high-level delegation, led by Mayorkas, being present at the inauguration. And you have the right wing there. You have Florida Congressmember Matt Gaetz. You have Tucker Carlson, the former Fox News host. And you have Donald Trump Jr., clearly representing Donald Trump. Why? What are their interests?

ROMAN GRESSIER: Yeah, it was interesting — it was interesting to see these what appeared to be parallel U.S. delegations at inauguration on Saturday. On one hand, you have the Biden administration, who, after the initial ruling by the Constitutional Court — actually, even before that, after the removal of the last Constitutional Court in May 2021, they were extremely critical, as were most of the countries in the hemisphere, or many of the countries in the hemisphere. And that posture gradually changed. So, by the next year — actually, even adding one more step to the picture, when interim U.S. Ambassador Jean Manes left the country in around November 2021, the U.S., by that time, had compared Bukele’s ambition to seek reelection to Hugo Chávez. And she left the country saying that she didn’t — she believed she didn’t have a partner in the country at that time. So, the criticism was very broad. But by the following year, what Juan Gonzalez — the other Juan Gonzalez, the former national security adviser to President Biden, told El Faro English was that — in a public setting, was that — sorry, my computer just turned off on me.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re fine.

ROMAN GRESSIER: OK, well, then I’ll just keep talking. So, what Juan Gonzalez essentially said in a public forum the following year was that, you know, “There are different interpretations of the Constitution, and we’ll let the people decide.” And at that point, things were more ambiguous. And by this year, the administration has settled into a posture of steering clear of the question of unconstitutional reelection and focusing on efforts to draw closer to the Bukele administration. I think part of that has to do with the fact that when the current U.S. ambassador faced his Senate hearing, Florida Senator Marco Rubio stressed that we don’t — and I believe this is a direct quote. He said, “We don’t have to applaud everything that they’re doing, but there is a national security interest that should also be balanced.” So, I believe that’s what is afoot on the side of the Biden administration.

And as for the Trump orbit, there has — Bukele was very close to the Trump administration and to U.S. Ambassador Ronald Johnson, who was there. There was an extensive cooperation on migration, efforts to stop migration to the U.S. at Mexico border. And in recent months, you could say in the past year, as things have been particularly delicate with the Biden administration and there was a lot of uncertainty as to the tenor of the relationship, Bukele was very openly courting the U.S. far right. He was meeting with Tucker Carlson on his show, taking other steps. And it was very evident that there was a mutual affinity. And basically, the visit by Donald Trump Jr. confirmed. It was the most public sign of what had been understood for some time, which is that Bukele does, in fact, bet on and support the return candidacy of Donald Trump in November.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Matt Gaetz has described Bukele as an “inspiration to the Western world,” the man who describes himself as “the world’s coolest dictator.” Roman Gressier, we want to thank you for being with us, reporter with El Faro English, covering Central American politics, joining us from San Salvador.

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