Today, we discuss President Bukele's gains in El Salvador, Iran rejecting nuclear talks — for now, and Myanmar's rising death toll.

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- Gabrielle Debinski


Today, we discuss President Bukele's gains in El Salvador, Iran rejecting nuclear talks — for now, and Myanmar's rising death toll.

Thank you for reading Signal — and please, tell your friends to sign up too.

- Gabrielle Debinski


El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele is an unusual politician. The 39-year old political outsider boasts of his political triumphs on TikTok, dons a suave casual uniform (backwards-facing cap; leather jacket; tieless ), and refuses to abide by Supreme Court rulings.

Bukele also enjoys one of the world's highest approval ratings, and that's what helped his New Ideas party clinch a decisive victory in legislative elections on February 28, securing a close to two-third's supermajority (75 percent of the vote had been counted at the time of this writing).

His triumph will resonate far beyond the borders of El Salvador, Central America's smallest country, home to 6.5 million people. Now that Bukele has consolidated power in a big way, here are a few key developments to keep an eye on.

Anti-establishment fervor isn't disappearing. The recent election demonstrates that Salvadorians are buying what Bukele is selling even if he doesn't always deliver on his promises.

In 2019, Bukele came to power pledging to root out corruption, break the monopoly of the two parties that have run the country since the end of the civil war in 1992, and rid the country of violent gangs (El Salvador has one of the world's highest crime rates). Despite a dip early in the pandemic, crime has risen at various stages since — though Bukele has harshly cracked down on gang violence. Meanwhile, investigations reveal that Bukele's administration has been mired in its own corruption scandals. Still, a majority of Salvadorians (roughly 90 percent) see Bukele as preferable to a corrupt political establishment that has long lined its own pockets while poverty plagues around 30 percent of the population. People simply want change.

And this trend isn't unique to El Salvador either. In nearby Mexico, populist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, also has failed to make good on some reform pledges that brought him to power in 2018. Still, polls show that Mexicans are overwhelmingly rooting for AMLO — a rugged self-described "man of the people" — in upcoming midterm elections, over a self-enriching political class that they feel has left them behind.

Like in Mexico, there are concerns about El Salvador's authoritarian drift. Last year, Bukele sent troops into the parliament to demand the legislative body approve his security package. "Bukele's style of governing is bullying," said Carlos Dada, founder of the newsite El Faro.

And now that Bukele has a supermajority, analysts warn that he can go even further, claiming a mandate to pack the Supreme Court, reconfigure the attorney general's office, and could even push for a new constitution, scrapping provisions that would cap his current presidency at one-term (consecutive terms are banned). Critics are worried that in placing his allies in control of all levers of government, Bukele can now effectively undermine all judicial and legislative independence.

Why does this matter beyond El Salvador? Political instability in El Salvador breeds regional insecurity and more migration.

People from the so-called "Northern Triangle'' of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have for years constituted the largest share of migrants stopped at the southwestern US border. If an increasingly-authoritarian Bukele is unable to make good on his promises and improve Salvadorians' lives (New Ideas' success is so far rooted in Bukele's own self-styled image rather than a fixed political ideology) this could result in thousands fleeing in search of a better life in the United States, just as President Biden is trying to diplomatically tweak US foreign policy towards Latin America. The Biden administration recently axed the Trump administration's third country resettlement program (also known as the Remain in Mexico program), while still towing a tough line on what it calls "irregular migration." This complicates things for Biden who needs to work with the Salvadorians to manage the immigration issue, but who also can't be seen to be playing nice with norm-breaking Bukele after putting human rights and democracy at the heart of US foreign policy.

For Mexico, meanwhile, the stakes are also extremely high. The spillover effects of drug trafficking and gang violence in El Salvador create insecurity and havoc in Mexico (and vice versa). This dynamic intensified under the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy, when Mexico City experienced a surge in asylum applications from El Salvador. (Consider that in 2019, Mexico received around 80,000 asylum applications because many Central Americans did not want to risk being rejected at the US border and being sent back to their home countries.)

Looking ahead. The very online Bukele represents a new brand of politician sweeping parts of Latin America — and the globe. But in the year 2021, what happens in El Salvador very much does not stay in El Salvador. Mexico, the United States, and many others, are watching.



Iran rules out nuclear talks… for now: Iran has reportedly rejected an offer to join direct talks with the US and EU over its nuclear program, saying it won't start the conversation until sanctions on Iran's economy are eased. To be clear, this does NOT mean that prospects for reviving the Iran nuclear deal are dead. Europeans and the Biden administration want a return to the 2015 nuclear agreement, and Iran certainly needs the economic boost that would come from a removal of sanctions. But Tehran is going to try to maximize its leverage before any talks begin, especially since this is a sensitive election year in in the country. Iran's leaders are going to play hard to get for a while longer before edging their way back to the bargaining table. Still, it's high stakes diplomacy here between parties that have almost no mutual trust — and one misstep could throw things off track quickly.

Is China inside India's electrical grid? A newly published study from intelligence analytics firm Recorded Future suggests that China may have retaliated against India following border skirmishes in the Himalayas last year by using malware to attack India's power grid, triggering a blackout last October that left 20 million residents of Mumbai in the dark. The study's authors acknowledge that these conclusions are still speculative, but recent comments by Indian officials add to their credibility. The findings are all the more striking because conventional wisdom holds that while governments regularly use cyber-attacks to steal the secrets of other countries, they generally don't tend to sabotage other governments for fear of dangerous retaliation. If there is truth in this story, it's possible that China believes its cyber advantage over India is strong enough to deter retaliation. That's a powerful warning for every government.

Dominican Republic to "build the wall:" Ok, they are calling it a fence, but whatever you call it, recently-elected Dominican president Luis Abinader says that a new 230 mile hi-tech barrier is meant to stop drug trafficking, illegal immigration, and cross-border crime between his country and Haiti. The two countries, which share the Caribbean Island of Hispañola, have long had testy relations, in particular over the presence in the DR of hundreds of thousands of Haitian migrants who have fled their own country — the poorest in the Western Hemisphere — in search of opportunity next door. About five percent of the DR's population is of Haitian origin, according to government estimates, and many lack formal papers. At the same time, the porousness of the border has facilitated trafficking of human beings and contraband, according to a US State Department report. The Dominican government has deported Haitians en masse on several occasions over the past several decades, and there is a history of anti-Haitian violence in the country that runs back more than a century. Construction of the new fence is set to begin later this year.



We haven't heard much from former President Trump until his recent speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, which revealed why the Republican party is still very much "Trump's party," Ian Bremmer says on this week's Quick Take. Bremmer unpacks the orientation towards authoritarianism and incompetence in various places around the globe. Watch for more insights here.


18: A week after threatening protesters with a severe crackdown, Myanmar's ruling junta killed at least 18 people across the country in the bloodiest day of clashes since the generals staged a coup last month.

16: Smuggling cheap cigarettes out of Ukraine has long been a favored racket for local criminals, but now diplomats are getting in on the action too: Ukrainian border guards on Sunday pinched some of their own envoys trying to bring thousands of packs of smokes into neighboring Poland, along with tens of thousands of dollars, and 16 kilos of gold.

3: Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was sentenced to three years in prison for corruption and influence-peddling. Although he'll serve just one year — and under house arrest — he'll still be the first former French president to do time: in 2011 Jacques Chirac was convicted of misusing public funds during his days as Paris mayor, but he got a suspended sentence.

2.6 million: A new hip-hop anthem starkly denouncing Cuba's dictatorship has gotten 2.6 million YouTube views since its release in mid-February. "It's done," says one line of the song by several Cuban recording artists, "we have no fear, the deception is over, it's been 62 years of damage." Cuba's president denounced the song -- whose title "Homeland and Life" deliberately reworks Castro's slogan of "Homeland or Death!" — as an attempt to erase the legacy of the revolution.



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This edition of Signal was written by Willis Sparks, Gabrielle Debinski, and Alex Kliment. Spiritual Counsel from New York — one year on.


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