For most of the 20th century, El Salvador, like many of its Central American neighbors, was ruled by dictators who, in addition to trampling human rights, stymied development and inspired revolutionary movements. After a decade of bloody civil war and concerted intervention by the United States, the country established an imperfect but functional democracy in the 1990s and began to make economic progress. Now, like nearby Nicaragua, El Salvador under President Nayib Bukele appears to be heading back toward caudillo rule — endangering not just the gains of recent decades but U.S. efforts to curtail emigration from the region.
Mr. Bukele has exhibited autocratic tendencies since his election as president in 2019, but was constrained by the Legislative Assembly and the courts, which balked at some of his sweeping measures to control the spread of covid-19. In a February election, however, the president’s party won 56 of the assembly’s 84 seats. In their first session beginning last Saturday, the new legislators voted to remove all five justices of the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court, as well as the attorney general, who had also opposed Mr. Bukele’s excesses. The six officials were quickly replaced with followers of Mr. Bukele, giving him de facto control over all three branches of government.
The purge prompted strong international as well as domestic backlash. Dozens of Salvadoran civil society groups condemned the dismissals, and they were joined by senior representatives of the United Nations, Organization of American States and the Biden administration. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Mr. Bukele on Sunday to remonstrate, while Vice President Harris, who has been charged with leading U.S. engagement with the region, tweeted that “we have deep concerns about El Salvador’s democracy.”