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A longtime member of a Church of Christ is the newly named president of her native El Salvador — at least for the next six months.
Claudia Rodríguez, who grew up in the pews of a congregation in the small Central American nation, became the country’s first female president on Dec. 1, albeit in an interim capacity as El Salvador’s elected president and vice president step down to run for a second term.
Rodríguez will serve as chief executive until the president’s term expires on June 1, 2024.
She was known as “Juanita” in her youth group, said Carlos Inglés, a native of El Salvador who also grew up in Churches of Christ.
“She was a great servant, a faithful member, attending all the youth programs (and) Sunday Bible school,” said Inglés, who left El Salvador at age 18 and trained for ministry at Baxter Institute in Honduras. He served as a missionary in Colombia before moving to Houston, where he is bilingual minister for the Impact Church of Christ.
The Christian Chronicle contacted the minister for the church Rodríguez and her family attend in El Salvador. The minister contacted Rodríguez for comment but said that the new president preferred not to share details about her church family, citing privacy and security concerns.
Rodríguez’s appointment is unusual — and controversial — in Salvadoran politics. Presidents are elected to five-year terms, and the country’s constitution forbids them from serving consecutive terms.
Nayib Bukele, a politician and businessman, was elected in 2019 as El Salvador’s 43rd president. In 2021, Bukele appointed judges to the country’s constitutional court who reinterpreted the laws banning consecutive terms. The court ruled that a president can run again if he or she steps back from the presidency six months before the inauguration, The Economist reports.
Rodríguez, who trained in accounting, served as a finance manager for the municipality of Nuevo Cuscatlán while Bukele was its mayor. She continued to work for Bukele as he ascended to the presidency. In 2021, Bukele appointed Rodríguez president of the board of directors of El Salvador’s Directorate of Municipal Works. A year later, Rodríguez became Bukele’s personal secretary.
On Nov. 30, the legislative assembly selected Rodríguez as El Salvador’s acting president after it granted Bukele and vice president Félix Ulloa a leave of absence to focus on the 2024 campaign.
Critics argue that Bukele’s actions violate Salvadoran election laws despite the court’s recent interpretation of those laws.
Bukele enjoys widespread support among Salvadorans, due largely to his crackdown on gang activity, the Associated Press reports. Gang violence plagued the country in recent decades, sparking waves of Salvadorans — many of them unaccompanied minors — to flee for the United States, creating crises on the U.S./Mexico border.
Violence has claimed the lives of church members, including minister Antonio Lara. In 2010, Lara was shot multiple times as he stood in the doorway of the El Platanar Church of Christ in San Miguel, El Salvador, just before Sunday worship. Five years later, El Salvador attained the infamous distinction of the world’s murder capital, with 107 homicides per 100,000 people, The Washington Post reports.
In March 2022, Bukele declared a state of emergency in El Salvador, allowing authorities broad powers to arrest suspected gang members — sometimes based on tattoos or anonymous phone calls.
“Even Bukele’s critics seem to concede that his actions have functionally destroyed the criminal street gangs that drove the country’s astounding crime rate,” Megan McArdle wrote in an opinion piece for the Post.
But those actions also have created one of the worst human rights crises since El Salvador’s 1980-1992 civil war, according to a recent report by Amnesty International.
“Even Bukele’s critics seem to concede that his actions have functionally destroyed the criminal street gangs that drove the country’s astounding crime rate.”
The watchdog group claimed that the almost 74,000 people jailed in the crackdown — many with little evidence of wrongdoing — were subjected to “systematic use of torture and other mistreatment.”
Members of Churches of Christ in El Salvador told the Chronicle that their country is safer now than it has been in decades. Missionaries who travel to the Central American nation said the same.
In early December, as Rodríguez assumed the presidency, Orlando Reyes was in La Palma, a city in the mountains near El Salvador’s border with Honduras, working with Salvadoran minister Yimi Sayes. Reyes is minister for the Monett Church of Christ in Missouri, one of several churches that supports Sayes’ work, which includes a Christian school.
During the trip, Salvadoran church members prepared 34 bags of eggs, vegetables, fruits and children’s clothing to give to needy families in La Palma. The LaVergne Church of Christ in Tennessee provided funds to feed 100 people.
“The parents and children are blessed to receive,” Reyes said, “and the smiles on our faces are very great!”
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