A tale of two El Salvadors
Nayib Bukele, the 42-year-old president of El Salvador, is arguably the most popular head of state on earth, having just won re-election with almost 85 percent of the vote.
While the results of the general election, held on February 4th, are still being assessed, it is possible that Bukele wins all 60 congressional seats — a situation almost unparalleled in the democratic world in modern history.
What makes Bukele so popular among Salvadorans?
His youthful, jeans-and-sunglasses persona is no doubt part of his recipe for success, along with his future-looking embrace of cryptocurrency: in 2021, El Salvador adopted Bitcoin as legal tender, becoming the first nation in the world to do so.
His haters-gonna-hate attitude to critics has likewise won him praise and popularity, exemplified by his longstanding bio on X (formerly Twitter) that read “The World’s Coolest Dictator”.
But the story of substance behind Bukele’s meteoric rise has been his crackdown on gang crime.
Before Bukele took office, El Salvador had one of the highest murder rates of any nation on earth. Huge swathes of the country were under the control of ruthless rival gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18, which collectively behaved like a form of de facto government — paying off politicians and law enforcement, extorting businesses, and gunning down anyone who stepped on their turf uninvited.
Once a little-known mayor of the nation’s capital San Salvador, Bukele campaigned on a platform of law and order, winning 53 percent of the vote in the 2019 presidential election.
After negotiations with the gangs failed, Bukele declared a state of emergency and ordered a nationwide round-up of anyone suspected of affiliation with a gang.
Months later, the military had arrested 65,000 people — almost one percent of the country’s population. Soon after, Bukele had built the world’s largest prison to house all the inmates, and iconic footage of their incarceration, posted by Bukele on X, went global.
El Salvador’s script has officially flipped: the country that had one of the world’s highest murder rates globally now has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
Violence in El Salvador has slowed to a trickle. In 2018, there were more than 3,300 homicides nationwide. By 2023, that number had dropped to 154.
Bukele’s success against the gangs quickly lifted his approval ratings into the low 90s, where they have hovered ever since — and guaranteed his re-election earlier this month.
While his popularity at home is remarkable, not so his reputation abroad. Bukele has earned the criticism of leaders in Europe, the United Nations and the United States, who have labelled him an authoritarian and accused him of human rights abuses.
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Typical of his Trumpian treatment by the tabloids is a Vox article that explains:
During his nearly five years in office, Bukele has declared an ongoing state of emergency, using the threat of gang violence to curtail civil liberties. He very publicly stormed the legislature with the aid of the military to demand funding for his policy priorities. And the fact that Bukele ran for reelection at all was unprecedented and probably illegal: El Salvador’s constitution explicitly bars re-election to consecutive presidential terms. Still, he has claimed victory in the vote, and few are disputing that he won the presidency, though 60 seats in Congress are being disputed by El Salvador’s electoral body.
Human rights violations
Democrat Representative Ilhan Omar is one of Bukele’s more outspoken critics stateside. She recently called him a “threat to democracy” and urged the Biden Administration to re-assess its relationship with El Salvador.
In a letter to the White House signed by a collection of her Congressional allies, Omar warned:
According to the State Department’s 2022 Country Reports on Human Rights, since the State of Exception was put in place, El Salvador has seen “[s]ignificant human rights issues including credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings, forced disappearances; torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including censorship and threats to enforce criminal laws to limit expression; serious government corruption; lack of investigation and accountability for gender-based violence; significant barriers to accessing sexual and reproductive health services; and crimes involving violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex individuals.”
No doubt, some of the condemnation is justified. It would be a miracle for such a sweeping crime crackdown to take place anywhere without at least some of the abuses described above.
Certainly, El Salvador’s future will depend in large measure on what Nayib Bukele does with the authority he now enjoys.
While outside observers will continue to draw their own conclusions, one thing is clear: Salvadorans can’t get enough of Bukele.
He will be sworn in at an official inauguration in June.
Kurt Mahlburg is a writer and author and an emerging Australian voice on culture and the Christian faith. He has a passion for both the philosophical and the personal, drawing on his background as a graduate architect, a primary school teacher, a missionary, and a young adult pastor.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
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