Last month in El Salvador, a third-party outsider won in a landslide election, defeating his opponents, promising to crack down on corruption, to fight crime, and to improve the economy. President-elect Nayib Bukele shares with us his thoughts on immigration, gangs, and how the U.S. and El Salvador can work together. Read the transcript, pasted below, or listen to the podcast.
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This transcript has been lightly edited.
Daniel Davis: Welcome to The Daily Signal. I’m Daniel Davis. And today, I have the pleasure of being joined by the president-elect of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele. Mr. President, I’d like to thank you for joining us.
Nayib Bukele: Thank you for having me. And thank you to The Heritage Foundation and the people that are watching us.
Davis: You were elected in February in an overwhelming vote. And it was the first time, I believe, in the last 20 or 30 years that a third party candidate had been elected president in El Salvador. You’re going to start your five-year term in June, and now you’re here in Washington. What are some ways that you hope to build the U.S.-El Salvador relationship?
Bukele: The U.S. and El Salvador have had a relationship where, for over 100 years, it has been a great relationship. And El Salvador has been an ally of the United States forever. A third of our population lives here. We use the U.S. dollar as our currency. Eighty percent of our exports come to the United States, 80 percent of our imports come from the United States.
But the fact is, the last 10 years, we had a government that has been eroding the relationship with the United States, siding with Venezuela, siding with Nicaragua, the international organizations. And what happened is that we have been eroding our relationship with our greatest ally, our greatest friend. And it just doesn’t make sense.
So the election gives us an opportunity to fix that relationship, basically. It’s a change of government that is not only a change of government, but also a change of era for El Salvador.
… We had a civil war in the ’80s that ended 1992. But after those peace accords were signed, the two sides of the war still continued to govern the country. ARENA did one side and the former guerrilla, the FMLN, on the other side. They go on and continue to rule the country for the next 27 years. They’re still in government, right now. They’re leaving May 31.
So on June 1, not only is a new government coming in, but also a new era for El Salvador is coming in, because we’re turning the page on the postwar era.
El Salvador decided overwhelmingly on February 3 that they want the postwar era to end. And now, we have a clean slate. We have a clean page to write on. And we’re not abided by the speeches of the ’80s. We’re not abided by the ideologies of the ’80s, by the fight of the ’80s. But a new generation that wants to build something. We don’t need to invent the recipes. The recipes are there. The United States is an example of that.
So we just want to build a country that works with commonsense solutions and doing the commonsense things like being in Washington and reaching out to our friends. And we just want to do the commonsense things. We know that as a result, we will have prosperity for our people. And our people are happy and they’re eager to do that and willing to work on that.
It’s obviously going to work because everybody is on board and we’re trying to send the right signals. And the right signals are being received by the right people and by the right countries. And I think that, at the end of the line, we’ll have prosperity in El Salvador.
That’s not only good for El Salvador, but it’s also good for the other countries that could see El Salvador as an example of how an underdeveloped country can have progress and can have economic growth and can solve its problems by doing the right things and the commonsense things.
Davis: You mentioned that a third of Salvadorans live right here in the United States?
Davis: And we also continue to have more migrants arriving at the U.S. border. But you mentioned in your speech at Heritage that you plan to end all, I think your words were, “forceful emigration … “
Davis: ” … to the United States in the next five years.” What key steps do you plan to take to achieve that?
Bukele: Forceful emigration, which is 95 percent of our emigration. You have other types of emigration, right? Like professional emigration … but you have forceful migration. It means when you have emigration caused by other factors, like, for example, lack of opportunities or violence or both of them, both of those factors.
This is really shameful for our country. It should be really shameful. In the immigration debate, we always talk about the borders. We always talk about the countries that get the influx of immigrants. But we seldomly speak about what are we doing in our country for the people not fleeing?
People are not fleeing the states, right? Why people are fleeing our country? We should be doing things really badly for our own people to want to flee our country. So we want to end that.
It’s not a favor to the United States. It’s just a matter of common sense that our country has to provide the opportunities and the security for people to want to stay in their country. For us, it’s not cheap, either, to be exporting our young population, our population that is willing to work, that is willing to work really hard for their families.
We have a demographic bonus. We have a huge demographic bonus because we have a huge, young population. And by any observation, that should be the best thing a country can have. And we’re expelling them, like we want to export people. And that shouldn’t be an industry. Exporting people to get remittances, that’s the worst thing a country can do, exporting its own population. So we want to change that.
And the way to change that is … a gigantic job. But it’s actually really simple in the way that it’s a commonsense thing that you have to provide opportunities, you have to provide jobs, and you have to provide security.
Now, someone might say, “Hey, really, that sounds good. But how do you provide security?” Right? Well, you have to fight the gangs. In El Salvador, a gang member makes, on average, $300 a month. So they’re not making a huge income.
Of course the state may come and provide better opportunities for them. Education, scholarship, sports, culture, art. And we can allure the young people to go into the right path and not into the wrong path. And we can fight. The gangs are not sophisticated. They’re not the big drug cartels. They’re not sophisticated. So we can fight them.
It’s straightforward with technology, with things that we don’t have, because crooks have been stealing the money for the last 40 years. So let’s invest the money that the people are paying in taxes in services to the people.
One of the best services we can provide to the people, to companies, to international investors, to tourists, for tourism to grow, is investing in making our country safe. And then, when you Google El Salvador, you will not find gangs, corruption, emigration, caravans. But you will find economic growth, tourism, surfing beaches–they are battling corruption. So you will find the right ways.
That will allure people to come in to invest, to Salvadorans to go back to their country, retirees to want to retire in El Salvador because we have nice weather, because we have beautiful beaches, because we have beautiful places to go, because we have summer all year long.
But we have to do the right things to change the culture. They seem gigantic. But at the same time, it’s really simple. If you could define it in a minute, it should be simple to do it. And we haven’t done it because the previous administration and the current administration have been focusing on stealing money and haven’t been focusing on giving ambition to our country and putting the money where it should be and putting the country on the right path.
Davis: Yeah. I want to ask you about that. One of the major issues in your election was corruption.
Davis: What are some specific ways that’s been happening? And what are key steps you plan to bring reform and accountability to government?
Bukele: Yes, well, you said it. We have to bring reform and accountability. In the first part, we have to reform some laws and we have to set the example. Like the president of Mexico just said, “You cannot clean the stairs from the bottom-up. You have to clean the stairs from up-down.”
So we have to start leading with the example. If the president’s stealing money, all of his Cabinet will do the same. But if the president is not stealing money, and he tries to choose … and I say “try” because out of 3,000 people there might be a crook, right?
Bukele: But if you choose the right people, and then you put in place the checks and balances that will control when one of those 3,000 confident posts do you have, if they go, if they stray, somebody will catch them and somebody will turn to the justice system and to the authorities and be punished for his crimes. Corruption will stop.
And one of the things that will do it fast is we have called for an international commission led by the OAS or by the U.N., both organizations are interested in it.
Dr. Almagro, secretary-general of the OAS, just said, “We’re all in in that commission.” And an international commission has the benefit, I don’t want to sound redundant, but it has the benefit that it’s international. So they don’t have the influence of the internal powers or the internal mafias.
You will have an international commission that is totally independent, that is going after the crooks. Not only the ones in the past, but also the ones in the present and the ones in the future.
Somebody asked me in the audience, “What would I do with the crooks in the opposition?” And I said, “Not only the crooks in the opposition, in our own party, if there’s somebody stealing money, he will have to pay for what he has done.” And that will also dissuade some people of doing bad things, because they will fear the consequences.
Davis: Earlier you mentioned the problem of gangs. And it’s a problem we have here in the United States. MS-13 is a challenge. That gang has roots in El Salvador. But I want to ask you how that gang has affected the people in El Salvador? And what are some of the key steps that you plan to take to really push back on the gangs?
Bukele: Gangs are really bad. They are responsible of 80 percent of our homicides. They extort money out of poor people. They have control of whole communities controlled by gangs, where if you want to sell something, you have to pay the gang. They are a quasi-state because they function like a … they collect taxes. They provide security, which means, “I’m not going to kill you.” Right?
Davis: Right, right.
Bukele: But the fact is that these organizations, they have to end. We have to end these organizations. And the right way to do it is with three steps.
First, we have to compete to get the young people. They are recruiting 12-year-olds, 13-year-olds. Those kids, you can compete them. If you get them, those kids will go in the right way, with scholarship, with education, with the sports, with programs. You can get those kids.
You have the other, which are graduated criminals. You cannot fix them. You have to combat them. But you can do it with technology. You can do it by putting the money to people and combating them.
In El Salvador, we don’t even have a forensic lab. We’re just going to build the first one. But if you go to a crime scene, you can have their fingerprints, you can have DNA, you can have the bullet, the gun, and the letter from the killer saying, “I killed this guy,” and they wouldn’t even know who wrote the letter because they don’t have calligraphers to match the letters.
The fact is that we don’t even have the common things police departments in the United States have. So how can we fight the gangs if you’re not acquiring the technology and equipment and the tools that our men and women in the police need to fight the gangs?
The opportunity is that the gangs are not sophisticated. They’re really low sophistication. They’re not like the drug cartels that they have the submarines. We’re low sophisticated. And they are very low in income. So if we cut their income, it’s very easy.
When I was mayor of San Salvador, we just did a plan in the historic downtown district. And we turned the most dangerous area in the country into the most touristic area in the country. So you can do it in small. You can scale it in big. That’s the second one, combat them.
And the third one is reinsertion in the jail system. Right now, in our jail system, they are practically universities of crime. They go inside because they have stolen the chicken, and then … they order homicides and extort people from the jails because the whole ambit of the jail does that.
But if you turn jails into correctional facilities, that actually you are trying to correct people, then a big chunk of those criminals that are getting out, because their sentences are ending, you will get a huge chunk of them in the right path. And if they go astray, well, you get them back. And you send them back to jail. But you need the system to work.
I mean, we’re not inventing hot water. It’s just doing the right things that commonsense law enforcement has to do. We have to fix our social fabric so kids don’t feel the necessity to go into the gang. And we have to fix our jail system.
Davis: Lastly, I want to ask you about your election. Last month, as we mentioned, you were elected by wide margins. A third-party candidate. And you’ve got a huge social media, as well. I understand you’re 37 years old. Is that correct?
Davis: So what do you think most resonated with your campaign? With the people?
Bukele: I think it was a couple of different factors. One of them, I was mayor of the capital, San Salvador. And when we ended our term, we ended with an 84 percent approval rating. So people like our promises, but also people know that we will keep our words and our promises, because we have done that already. That’s for one.
The second is I think we connect better with most of people that are … most people are watching their phones more time than are watching their TVs. So, it’s good to have ads on TV, but it’s better to connect people via social network in our times.
And the other thing is that I think people were also fed up of the status quo, of the two-party system that has been the crooks on one side and the crooks in the other side that has been ripping off and stealing the people’s money.
You will see former presidents with $300 million, $400 million from the public money. And the country with no medicine, with schools with no roofs. We have 80 percent of our schools that don’t have internet access. People were fed up of that, so people wanted a change.
And right now, we had a huge electorate. We won in the 14 departments. We won in 59 of the 60 most important cities. We won in 262 cities in the country. We won in every sector and every niche. But right now, that transforms into a responsibility, because the expectations are so high that if we don’t fulfill those expectations, it could be really bad. So we have to fulfill or exceed the expectations that people have in us.
Davis: President-elect Nayib Bukele, we really appreciate you taking the time to join us.
Bukele: Thank you.