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Rubio harps on U.S. democracy — after hugging Salvadoran autocracy

Pleasing Appeasing: U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida (left) with Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele in San Salvador last week.
Presidencia de El Salvador
Pleasing, Appeasing: U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida (left) with Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele in San Salvador last week.

COMMENTARY Marco Rubio warns us the Trump indictment threatens U.S. democracy, but he's fine with praising Nayib Bukele — who's threatening democracy in El Salvador.

I was on the verge of taking Marco Rubio seriously this week. Watching his scolding Twitter videoabout the Trump arrest, I was even sometimes nodding in agreement.

When the Republican Florida Senator asserted that the Democratic Manhattan District Attorney’s charges against former President Donald Trump “are absurd — a misdemeanor that this prosecutor has decided to link to a federal elections law charge that the federal government decided not to pursue” — it jibed with my own feeling that this is not history’s strongest legal case. As a result, as Rubio insisted, it opens the door to accusations of a political prosecution.

Rubio was making a larger argument that indictments like this are “damaging” to our democratic institutions. I was also willing to hear him out on that.

Until, that is, I did my due diligence and scrolled further down his Twitter account, to his meeting last week in El Salvador with President Nayib Bukele — which made Rubio look astonishingly clueless when it comes to defending democratic institutions.

READ MORE: Right now it's hard to root against — but harder to root for — El Salvador's Bukele

Rubio is just one of many U.S. conservatives who’ve found in Bukele a tough-on-crime Latin American darling who helps them burnish their own hemispheric tough-guy street cred — especially with anti-socialista Florida Latinos — whenever they give him a hug. Bukele won their affection last year after he launched a crackdown on El Salvador’s powerful maras — the MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs who terrorize the small Central American nation, keep its homicide rate among the world’s highest and drive so many Salvadoran migrants to the U.S. southern border.

No one’s denying El Salvador’s gangs need to be crushed. But Rubio seems all too willingly oblivious to the democratic cost of Bukele’s offensive — and to the very strong evidence that Bukele’s government itself bears much of the blame for the maras’ strength in recent years.

In the Twitter lectureRubio recorded on Monday upon returning from El Salvador, he accused the Biden Administration of being unfriendly to Bukele — “a guy who wants to be a friendly ally to the U.S.” In a separate statement, Rubio added: “It’s important we stand in support of … democratic leaders in our hemisphere … [I]t’s essential that El Salvador’s democratic institutions remain strong.”

The head-snapping double-take those remarks triggered made me reach for a neck brace.

El Salvador’s gangs certainly need to be crushed, but Rubio looks oblivious to the democratic cost of Bukele’s offensive — and the evidence of his dealmaking with those monsters.

In reality, El Salvador’s democratic institutions have rarely looked weaker or more subverted. The popular and populist, 41-year-old Bukele tries to disguise his retro authoritarian rule under a hip, backward-baseball-cap-wearing vibe. But it doesn’t hide the fact that in 2020 he had the military storm the Legislative Assembly when it balked at his startlingly sweeping public security plans. The Assembly became his rubber stamp, and it stuffed the Supreme Court with lapdog justices — who ransacked the constitution so he can run for re-election in 2024.

Arbitrary dragnet

The Assembly then gave Bukele extraordinary and seemingly indefinite powers to throw an arbitrary dragnet across the country. It’s let his security forces arrest anyone without probable cause; it’s threatened journalists who report on the operation with prison; and it’s led to the jailing of 2% of the adult population — giving El Salvador the world’s highest incarceration rate with, arguably, the world’s lowest level of due process.

Salvadoran gang members in detention after sweeping arrests last month.
Presidential Press Office of El Salvador
Via AP
Salvadoran gang members in detention after sweeping arrests last month.

But here’s the kicker: investigative reporting by Salvadoran news outlets like El Faro and probes by the U.S. government have revealed that Bukele’s own administration had not been confronting but was instead cutting deals with the maras early in his presidency. To wit: if the monsters reduced their murders and bolstered Bukele’s political standing, he’d go soft on their more profitable pursuits, like trafficking and the extortion of Salvadoran businesses.

In December 2021, in fact, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned two top Salvadoran officials for allegedly brokering that sort of gang-government truce.

What Rubio conveniently leaves out on Twitter — when he falsely slams the Biden Administration for “sanctioning and badmouthing” Bukele “simply because he’s going after these gangs” — is that the U.S. has actually been sanctioning and badmouthing a cynically corrupt Bukele m.o. that aided those gangs.

Bukele’s little better than the left-wing autocrats in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua who Rubio claims Biden is “appeasing.” Rubio’s doing his own appeasing in El Salvador. So his Twitter sermons on democracy in the U.S. ring remarkably hollow.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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