President Nayib Bukele meets with his Security Cabinet to assess results of the Plan to Reclaim Territorial Control against organized crime. Foto cortesia: Presidencia de la Republica de El Salvador
“Some people say that we dream too much, that we won’t be able to turn things around; that it is impossible because El Salvador is so poor and so small and in the middle of central America, which is a poor region. But we are going to do it. How are we going to do it? Well, we are already doing it. We are changing the way things have been done for decades,” President of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele.
In a recent interview with Sky news, president Nayib Bukele of El Salvador, the country’s youngest president in its history, discusses how he plans to confront decades of poverty, violence and corruption affecting his country today. Bukele acknowledges that he confronts various and big challenges, but wants Donald Trump and his administration to know, he does not blame the United States for its immigration policies; he welcomes investment opportunities to provide jobs and long term sustainability for his people, and he is prioritizing gang control and prevention to pave the way for safer, prosperous El Salvador.
Bukele outlines the common problems affecting El Salvador and the United States and proposes collaboration, dialogue and investment as a path to stabilizing and reenergizing El Salvador in the interest of both countries.
The New Cabinet’s Work Ethic
“We have a cabinet that’s working 24/7. I don’t let them sleep,” Bukele jokes, “I text them at 3:00 a.m., 4:00 a.m., sometimes they don’t answer, but they answer early in the morning. They have to work on Saturdays and Sundays. We can’t ease into work and think that we in our first month. I told them yesterday when we had a meeting with the cabinet:
“We only have 59 months left. So we have to think this way. In 30 days, we will only have 58 months left. It’s not a lot of time. But it is enough time to change what has been done in the past and put the country on the right path in every area: Economics, corruption, security, even politics. We are changing the way politics have been done.
I am quite sure that El Salvador will experience a bright future, compared to what we have right now. The country will be a lot different five years from now.
Migrant Deaths, the Immigration policies of the United States and Who is to Blame
The deaths of Oscar Martinez and his daughter, Valeria, who drowned trying to reach the United States caused shock around the world. Sky News asked Bukele if he blamed Donald Trump.
“Which country did Oscar and Valeria flee? Did they flee the U.S., Mexico or Guatemala or Honduras? No. They fled our country. It is our fault. We didn’t provide the security, the jobs, the economic prosperity. Probably their homes lacked running water, electricity, and quite possibly, Oscar did not have a job. If he had had a decent paying job, a house, a safe community to live with his wife and daughter, they would be alive, here, working and living in El Salvador. So, they felt that fleeing this country, crossing borders, a desert, a river, where they drowned, they felt that was safer than staying here.
The only way to end these types of tragedies is to make our country a place where everyone will chose to stay here, rather than risk their lives crossing 3 borders, a desert and a river.
We also witnessed a Salvadoran man falling off ‘the beast’ the train that crosses Mexico on the way to the United States. He fell off as he was trying to climb and the train cut off his two legs.
Why do our people risk so much to go to the United States, a country where they don’t know the language, they don’t have documents, they will be called illegals, they will be third class citizens, and still they take all these risks to live there? What type of country do we live in that people have this urgency to flee and risk their lives and their kids lives?
Oscar Martinez was a loving father. You can see in the pictures that he had lovingly wrapped his daughter. They drowned trying to get to another country. They felt all those risks were better than staying here. Whose fault is it? It’s our fault.
Of course, there are other components of the migration system that need to be fixed as well. There is the border situation, the people who kidnap migrants in Mexico, they traffic kids and sell their organs. But, why would people take those risks? We are not talking about 1, 2, a thousand, we are talking about millions almost 1/3 of our population lives abroad. Is there something wrong with us? Of course there is something wrong with us. We are the only ones who can fix it. Of course we welcome help from the international community, from NGO’s, but we have to fix our country.
Every day that we don’t fix it, invisible migrants, like Oscar and Valeria are dying, trying to cross over.
To all my english speaking friends and to the United States government:
Hope you have time and watch this interview.
— Nayib Bukele (@nayibbukele) July 3, 2019
Life and Death Decisions
In my life I have been a business man, a mayor, then a mayor of the capital. In my previous jobs, I never had to make the types of decisions that would imply people would die. Now, almost all decisions I make every day imply people dying. Even the best decisions, the correct ones imply people dying. It is very hard. For example, if you go to our hospitals, we lack medicines, we lack medical supplies, we lack doctors, we lack nurses.
If we decide to invest 1/2 a billion dollars of the budget into our hospitals so people will not die there, then we not have enough money to build roads, and bridges, or water supply or electric supplies. So, the country cannot grow.
If we focus on infrastructure what happens to medicine?
It takes so long to fix all these problems which means that in the meantime people suffer because we cannot have immediate fixes. With every difficult decision, we are picking winners and losers. While we are trying to fix things, migrants suffer and continue to risk their lives wanting to get to the United States. Some of them will get kidnapped, some of them will get raped, some of them will die.
So what do we do? How do we fix it as fast as we can?
Some have said that I am working around the clock. What choice do we have? For the people who are dying and those who have died, can we give them back their lives? No, we can’t.
No matter how fast we work and how hard we work, in the meantime, people suffer.
We are suffering because of violence, health care, education, exclusion, immigration, lack of jobs.
What else can we do, but run, work, fix problems as fast as we can?
We want our people to stay home, not because we tell them of the risks they face if they migrate. They know those risks. Still, for them, it’s even riskier to stay here.
We have to deliver results fast. That is why the last 32 days for us, have felt like a year. We hope that we can accomplish in a month’s work, a year’s worth of work. We have 59 months left, but when it’s all said and done, we hope it will look like 59 years have passed.
This opportunity to fix our country will not happen again. So I think we can turn things around and we will do it as fast as we can.
The United States has a right to build a wall if they want. In Europe, the people have a Mediterranean sea that acts as a wall, yet people still flee Africa and try to get to Europe to find the same things as people fleeing El Salvador do to come to the United States. So, even if you have a barrier, like the Mediterranean sea, people will still swim and try to get to the other side to find prosperity and a decent living for their families. So yes, the US can build a wall and even if they built a Mediterranean sea, they would still have migrants trying to get to the United States.
People will flee poverty, insecurity and wars. That’s just a fact. Look at Syria. Even doctors and lawyers are fleeing with their families. They flee because they are suffering because of war.
If the US builds a wall, migrants will build a tunnel or they will go through the sea, or they will go through the sides of the wall. A wall will not stop anything.
Probably a wall will cause more deaths because it will be harder for migrants. They will try to build tunnels that could collapse.
Physical barriers, like rivers, only cause more suffering and deaths.
The only way to stop migration, humanely, is to develop the places they are migrating from.
Is this Donald Trump’s responsibility? No, he is the president of the United States and has to look out for the interests of the United States.
It’s not Donald Trump’s responsibility to fix El Salvador, or Honduras, or Guatemala or South East Mexico. It is our responsibility. If they want to help, fine, but if they don’t, it is still our responsibility.
La embajadora Jean Manes (@USAmbSV) no fue únicamente la embajadora de los Estados Unidos en El Salvador, sino nuestra embajadora ante el mundo.
Podrán venir miles de embajadores más, y trabajaremos con ellos al 100%, pero no vendrá otra Jean Manes. pic.twitter.com/52H2O5XgxY
— Nayib Bukele (@nayibbukele) June 28, 2019
Nayib Bukele on US Ambassador, Jean Manes “Thousands of US Ambassadors may come to El Salvador and we will work with them 100%, but there will never be another Jean Manes.”
On Donald Trump’s calling El Salvador a “Shit hole.”
What are we worried about? Somebody saying that we are “shit hole”? I’m not apologizing for Donald Trump’s remarks, but wouldn’t it be better if we built a country that it’s not a shit hole. Right now, I would never refer to my home like that, but our hospitals are crumbling, our infrastructures are crumbling, our young people are joining gangs because they don’t have jobs or opportunities, because their families have been torn apart by immigration. Our country side was very prosperous 50-60 years ago and right now there are no jobs.
I prefer to focus on building our country. We will have to demonstrate who we are with facts, not only with discourse.
El Salvadoran Migrants held in US Detention Centers
I spoke with the Secretary of Homeland Security yesterday. I am very concerned about the welfare of our migrants in detention centers. This is becoming a humanitarian crisis. In fact, it is already a humanitarian crisis, but it can become something even worse. These are our people so we have to take care of them.
Let’s figure something out fast. We can take them all back. We can and we have to, if the United States decides to send them back.
But we have to come up with a humanitarian solution. These are not delinquents. These are people looking for a better life, even kids, women, old people, people with disabilities. We are ready to be part of the solution before this escalates to a humanitarian catastrophe.
On the Impact of US Cutting Aid to El Salvador
If the United States wants to make cuts to aid, that is their right. It is the United States’ money.
Would I prefer that they do not cut aid to El Salvador? Of course. I would prefer that they raise their aid. But it’s the United States taxpayers’ money. They are not obligated to send money to us.
I remember speaking with Secretary Ross after they cut the aid and I said, well, it is unfortunate. maybe we can trade it for a trade mission. So, if you cut the aid, $130 million dollars per year, maybe we can get some investments coming from the United States, here. It could be private investments. We got a loan from a US private company for $250 million dollars to invest in energy and they pledged that they would have 1 billion dollar in loans for US companies that would like to invest here.
I told Secretary Ross, cutting the aid for us, is bad. Could we trade it for investments? More investment in our country will be great because investment would create jobs and would be more sustainable long term.
The programs that were functioning under the aid that was cut are still functioning. In the meantime, the cut is being withheld until we can demonstrate progress. Probably, at the end, we will get the rest of the aid. But, we cannot be asking for free money and then at the end be mad if they don’t send it.
I remember when George W. Bush said, “We are going to take the war to the Middle East so it does not come here.” I don’t approve of the war, but Bush had the right logic of taking the war away from their homeland.
So why not apply the same logic to immigration? If they send prosperity and jobs here, they won’t have migrants in their doors.
The US government and the US taxpayer are free to do with their money whatever they want. If I were advising the president of the United States and I was not the president of El Salvador (because of conflict of interest), I would say, send prosperity and jobs over there, so the migrants don’t come here.
The gangs are a very particular phenomenon. This is not only a criminal issue. Some say we have about 50,000-70,000 gang members here, which is more or less 1 percent of the population. This is a very small percentage of the population that is causing a lot of trouble. None of them comes from a rich family, not even middle class. They are all poor. The problem started because of poverty but grew into organized crime.
I wish I could set the clock back, when they kids were 12, and we could do something about it. But right now we have people that have raped women, that have killed and some are in jail, some are in the streets. I have zero doubt that they joined gangs because of the conditions of exclusion and the poverty they live in. But what can we do now except capture them and putting them in jail? Do we talk to them? Do we tell them to stop raping women? Stop killing people? This problem should have been solved in the 90’s but it wasn’t. They just let it grow.
Now gang violence is the main problem we have. It’s not only a security problem but an economic problem. It is affecting investment and tourism. We have some of the best surfing beaches in the world. But people are hesitant to come because of the gangs. So in the end, it is a vicious cycle. You have more young people without jobs because the economy does not grow and not all of them, but 1 percent of them, join gangs and cause all these problems.
So we have to fix the problem in a holistic way. We have to reach the young people before the gangs get to them. We have to get into the communities, talk to the kids, explain the don’t need to join gangs, they can have scholarships. We need to try to provide jobs for the people living in the communities, provide security for them. It’s ironic. Gangs provide security for some communities, in a way. Gangs go to the places where they have created the chaos and they tell them, “Do you want your family to be safe? Then join the gang.” So they create the insecurity and then provide the security if they join the gang.
Un mensaje a las pandillas… pic.twitter.com/STdBPhFRcX
— Nayib Bukele (@nayibbukele) July 1, 2019
Nayib Bukele: “A message to the gangs, go home, nothing good awaits you in gangs, only prison or death.”
But if our government is able to provide security, then young people won’t need to join a gang to be safe. If the government is able to provide them with a good education, with a job, if the government respects individuals as they are, does away with stigmatization, then we will become a real alternative to young people, and we will have not a criminal problem but a social one.
I really think that we can reduce gang violence here and all violence, since gang violence is 75% of all violence in our country.
In only 32 days in government, we are already making a dent. A year from now and 5 years from now, the result in the numbers will be very different.
We have to transition from a violent society into a peaceful society. That is why you see military and police presence. We don’t have enough police to ensure that people feel safe so you see military presence as well. Our people ask us to have one police officer per bus, but we don’t have enough. People feel safer here with police presence. Ideally, this would not be needed, but right now, it is.
On doing business with Donald Trump
I do not think that Donald Trump is a racist, I think he is a businessman and that some of the comments he makes play to his base. Regarding our commercial relationship, the majority of our exports go to the United States, and our imports come from the US. Our currency is the US dollar and 90 percent of our immigrants go the United States. Currently, 1/4th of our population lives in the United States and our economy is sustained by 5.4 billion dollars coming from the United States.
For us, it’s not a question of are we willing to work with the United States. We have to work with the United States. We are dependent, so we want to try to find solutions to the problems that we have that can be solved working with the United States. Some of our problems are common ones like the immigration problem.
They have a problem because it is their territory, and we have a problem because it is our people in their custody.
The drowning of Oscar and Valeria puts a face to a terrible tragedy, that is not only a Salvadoran tragedies but a migrant tragedy. This is not the type of inspiration we want to tackle this problem. But if this does not move you, what will move you?
Of course, it pressures us to do things faster and better.