El Salvador's New President Shows Promise

Learn more about Matthew Rooney.
Matthew Rooney
Director, Outreach and Strategic Partnerships
George W. Bush Institute

A successful presidency in El Salvador is one that reverses the country’s slide toward chaos in the streets and opens economic opportunities to all of Salvadoran society.

El Salvador’s new President Nayib Bukele made news in the United States by explicitly taking responsibility for conditions in his country driving many Salvadorans to flee.  With that statement, he has created an important opportunity to set the direction of his Presidency.  

Most observers agree that a successful presidency in El Salvador is one that reverses the country’s slide toward chaos in the streets and opens economic opportunities to all of Salvadoran society. To seize this opportunity, President Bukele can do two things: 

Meaningfully Commit the Government and Country’s Political Leadership to Public Safety 

The government must roll back the numerous and petty ways that gangs have taken control of the streets, including protection rackets and shakedowns on the sidewalks and in public transport. It must also root out corruption at the highest levels by appointing a credible public prosecutor with enough political independence to investigate collusion with drug traffickers, graft in public procurement, and other abuses that undermine confidence in public institutions.  

There are successful models for how these things can be done, and standing offers of assistance from the United States, other friendly governments, and international organizations. The new government can and must seize these offers. A few quick high-profile wins will go a long way to restoring confidence in the future and put the Bukele government on a path to a successful term. 

Capitalizing on El Salvador’s Economic Growth while Accelerating and Ensuring Its Benefits Are Widely Spread 

Fifteen years ago, the Salvadoran government embraced a policy strategy that embedded Salvadoran industry in global supply chains and committed to domestic financial stability. This strategy, anchored by the Central America Free Trade Agreement with the United States, produced a period of sustained growth accompanied by a remarkable decline in poverty and the emergence of a middle class. 

Before asking for assistance, the Bukele government must return to the successful strategy of the past by reviewing spending, eliminating poorly targeted subsidies, and ensuring taxes are collected transparently and appropriately. President Bukele’s first budget proposal will be an opportunity to signal his government’s priorities; one that should be focused on education and training; public health, especially for mothers and children; and the infrastructure needed to connect with the global economy. This will communicate to the investors, both Salvadoran and international, whose investments will create jobs and growth, that he is serious about moving the country forward. 

Politics is complicated and no president really controls their country’s agenda. President Bukele will face numerous distractions, including relations with his neighbors, China’s determined efforts to gain a toehold in the region, the daily grind of gang violence, and the ongoing migration crisis. He can and should respond to all of these circumstances appropriately. 

But a successful five-year term in office is within his reach. He must keep focus on the country’s two overarching challenges – public security and economic opportunity – and use the power of his presidential leadership to ensure that his government’s every action forms part of a holistic strategy to overcome and move past today’s challenges to build tomorrow’s prosperity.