On July 20, 2015, the government of El Salvador issued an official warning that right-wing forces are orchestrating “a movement for a coup d’état,” against the “government of the people, a legal government, a legitimate government that fights every day for the interests of the population.”
It’s not the first time allegations of coup-plotting have arisen lately in the small Central American republic. Two months after the March 1 mid-term elections, El Salvador found itself without a legislature. In an unprecedented move, the Supreme Court’s constitutional chamber had suspended the swearing-in of the newly elected representatives pending a recount, effectively shutting down an entire branch of government. The current president of the National Legislative Assembly called the action a “technical coup d’état.” The US Embassy called it “institutionality.”
The past several weeks in El Salvador have seen the escalation of a series of tactics that state officials and activists have deemed part of a “soft coup” strategy against the country’s democratically elected progressive government. Since the 2014 inauguration of leftist President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a spike in gang-related homicides has strained state resources, in what Police Chief Mauricio Landaverde has called a deliberate campaign ordered by gang leaders to increase murder rates with possible political motives. Earlier this month, a group of armed soldiers in uniform rallied to demand greater compensation; military leadership disavowed their actions and charged fourteen of them with sedition. Last week, gang threats against bus drivers caused the suspension of dozens of mass-transit routes throughout the San Salvador metropolitan area, which officials deemed an act of “sabotage” against the population. Right-wing groups have circulated calls on social media for the president’s resignation, and the country’s conservative mass media’s onslaught against the governing party contributes daily to a climate of insecurity.
In fact, plans to undermine leftist governance in El Salvador go back years before the election of Sánchez Cerén, the first guerrilla leader of the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party to become president of El Salvador. The strategy centers on the country’s Supreme Court—and the US government has been in on it from the beginning.
After President Obama’s January proposal to provide $1 billion in aid to Central America to purportedly help stem the tide of irregular migration to the United States, the debate in Congress has pivoted around concerns about the “rule of law,” “institutionality,” and “good governance” in what is called the Northern Triangle of the Central American isthmus: Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. US foreign policy in the region, however, suggests that those terms mean something very different to the State Department. Washington’s support for repressive, anti-democratic governments in Honduras and Guatemala provides the most explicit examples. But in El Salvador, US advocacy for “institutionality” has taken a truly Orwellian turn, where escalating Supreme Court attacks against both the executive and legislative branches are actively undermining governance, with full US support.
El Salvador’s nascent democracy has only just emerged from decades, even centuries, of repressive military and oligarchic rule. The 1992 Peace Accords, which brought an end to a brutal 12-year civil war, were followed by twenty years of US-backed administrations by the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party, governments marked by devastating economic liberalization and rampant corruption. But in 2009, a progressive journalist, Mauricio Funes, was elected president on a ticket with the leftist FMLN, marking the nation’s first-ever progressive administration. In 2014, the left again secured the presidency, this time with FMLN former guerrilla commander Sánchez Cerén as its candidate.
The ousting of the oligarchic right from power constituted an extraordinary step forward for democracy in El Salvador. In addition to groundbreaking social programs that have expanded the poor majority’s access to quality healthcare and education services, sweeping institutional reforms have also been implemented. The nation’s electoral process has become more transparent and accessible; measures include a residential voting system, which opened thousands of new community voting centers, and an absentee voting system for Salvadorans abroad. A new Access to Public Information Law has established the Access to Public Information Institute, charged with facilitating citizen requests for government information. In addition, massive multimillion-dollar corruption scandals from previous administrations were uncovered, and dozens of former officials, including an ex-president, have faced prosecution for misuse of public funds.