SAN SALVADOR —
A few days subsequently he led a coup, the president of El Salvador uploaded a video onto TikTok of him gliding in a war machine vehicle while hundreds of soldiers salute.
And then comes the soundtrack: A booming reggaeton song called “Bichota"— slang for “big shot.”
The video — irreverent, rooted in popular culture and projecting brazen strength — has been viewed 2.vi meg times and is textbook Nayib Bukele, a sometime marketing executive who has deftly used social media and unbridled confidence to go, at 39, one of the well-nigh pop leaders in the world.
Since he took office two years ago on a pledge to fight gangs, squash abuse and break with the country’south entrenched political parties, Bukele’s approval ratings have hovered around 90%, practically unheard of in politics. That has held steady even as he has veered toward autocracy, attacking the printing and civil society and occupying the nation’southward Legislative Assembly with troops final twelvemonth after lawmakers refused to approve an anti-criminal offence spending pecker.
In Feb, Bukele’s party swept midterm elections. On May 1, the twenty-four hour period the country‘s new legislature was sworn in, his supporters moved to oust his critics on the Supreme Court and in the attorney general’due south function — an illegal power grab that political scientists have called a “self-insurrection.”
International rebuke was swift. American lawmakers threatened to withhold aid. Critics called him a “millennial dictator.” Yet Bukele has grown only more than defiant.
“To the voices that however enquire the states to go back to the by ... The changes we are making are IRREVERSIBLE,” he tweeted the twenty-four hours afterwards he met with the U.S. special envoy to Primal America, Ricardo Zúñiga.
Bukele has invoked El Salvador’s sovereignty, telling the globe that his nation, the site of a encarmine proxy war between the U.Southward. and supporters of communism in the 1980s, is “non a protectorate or a colony” and that strange powers need to barrel out. To the people of his country he adopted a typically messianic tone, describing himself as “an instrument of God” and saying El salvador is outset a “new history.”
“This is a breaking point between the onetime and the new,” a voice-over says in a video Bukele posted to Instagram the day his party removed the judges. It had the hopeful feel of a Nike advert, with a ballerina twirling and a boy surfing in slow motion through a perfect barrel wave. “Today we breathe different air.”
But what Bukele’s “new history” will bring is uncertain, and to some, unnerving. Latin America is inured to strongmen and demagogues, simply Bukele appears to be something new, a caudillo for the digital age intent on spreading his brand of populist politics beyond the region. Bearded, with a uniform of jeans and a backward baseball cap, he is at once an unrepentant rebel and a ubiquitous meme.
He claims to have no ideology, only New Ideas, the name of his party. Shunning both the left- and right-fly dogma that bitterly divided El Salvador for decades has immune him broad popular back up. His carefully curated image every bit a virtuous family man, with long Instagram posts devoted to his married woman and young daughter, accept made him but more appealing.
“He’s an enigma,” said Fabio Castillo, a longtime supporter of Bukele who publicly broke with the government after the recent power grab, resigning from an advisory lath tasked with weighing changes to the constitution. “I don’t know what kind of country he wants to create.”
But what is clear is that Bukele is hungry for more power. He purged his critics from the Supreme Courtroom, Castillo said, and so that he can pass constitutional changes that will allow him to stay in office beyond the immune five sequent years.
“He has a plan to go along ruling the country for 40 years,” Castillo said.
Non far from the Pacific coastline, a convoy of trucks chugs upwards a crude mountain road, guarded by young soldiers. At every home they pass, they finish to hand out sacks of cooking oil, beans and rice.
Bukele’due south regime has been delivering food to thousands of Salvadorans every mean solar day since he kickoff imposed a strict coronavirus lockdown last year. He also gave families $300 checks. Many here are proud of the government’southward pandemic response, including its rapid distribution of vaccines, which 1 in 5 people accept received, compared with simply 1 in 50 in neighboring Honduras.
“We don’t take h2o. We don’t have roads,“ said Magdalena Pérez, 45, every bit she was handed two sacks outside her adobe habitation near the town of El Cimarron. “No other government has done this much for us.”
It is anger at the political system that preceded Bukele that has fueled his ascension.
When the civil war concluded in 1992, the groups that had been fighting morphed into opposing political camps. Past the time Bukele was elected in 2019, they had each faced major abuse scandals and were equally reviled.
Bukele angered some belatedly last year when on a visit to El Mozote, a hamlet where more 900 villagers were massacred in 1981, he declared that the peace accords had been “a farce, a negotiation betwixt two groups” that had failed to bring real benefits for the Salvadoran people. Simply many here agreed.
His skill at evoking what’due south in the hearts of his followers has propelled Bukele’south performative anti-corruption campaigns, which play like prime-time reality shows as he commands officials via Twitter to fire employees accused of favoritism or graft.
“The Minister of Foreign Diplomacy ... is ordered to remove Dolores Iveth Sánchez,” went a typical Bukele tweet in 2019.
“Your lodge will be carried out immediately, President,” the minister responded.
Such theatrics have drawn comparisons to former President Trump. So, too, has Bukele’s disdain for the traditional news media. He rarely answers questions from journalists, decision-making his ain narrative via social media or appearances with internet influencers.
“Information technology’s more interesting doing an interview with you,” he said earlier this year on the filmed podcast “Luisito Comunica,” run past a Mexican blogger with 32 million YouTube followers, praising a new era “where the owner of the television station isn’t the owner of the earth, where the owner of the newspaper isn’t the owner of the truth.”
“You’re the coolest president of all,” the influencer said. His toughest question for Bukele was whether there is a WhatsApp group of all the world leaders.
“No,” the president responded with a smile.
Bukele is an adman by nature.
He worked at a public relations house owned past his begetter, Armando Bukele, a successful man of affairs born to Palestinian Christian immigrants to Republic of el salvador.
Armando Bukele’s politics were clear: A convert to Islam who founded El Salvador’due south offset mosque, he was a supporter of the Palestinian independence movement and sympathetic to the leftist guerrillas fighting U.S.-backed armed services during El Salvador’s war. His public relations house later ran campaigns for the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the political party that sprang from remnants of the guerrilla move.
Nayib Bukele had been a mediocre student at an aristocracy private loftier school — although swain students remember him as eager to debate electric current events — and he dropped out of college. But at the publicity firm he found his calling.
His youth marketing strategies for the FMLN impressed party leaders, who backed him in an election in a mayoral race in a suburb of the capital called Nuevo Cuscatlan. Bukele, who says he’s a believer in God but not religion, won and fabricated a lasting impact on the city, edifice a modernistic library and community center.
“You saw a lot of real changes,” said Jaime Miranda, a 33-yr-former commitment driver who on a recent afternoon was lounging in a plaza constructed during Bukele’south term.
“He opened a medical dispensary,” one of his friends added.
“He gave out scholarships,” said some other.
They were untroubled past Bukele’s contempo power grab.
“Possibly he violated some code or some law,” Miranda said. “But to continue with the development and progress, he had to.”
“If it’s for the good, go alee,” Miranda continued. “He’s the best president we’ve had in my lifetime.”
Supporters of Bukele say he has delivered on another key hope: He has made people feel safer.
Five years agone, Republic of el salvador had i of the worst homicide rates in the world, with 103 deaths per 100,000 people.
In Ciudad Delgado, a working-grade neighborhood in the capital, people were sometimes then afraid to walk the streets that they skipped church, said Pedro González, an ex-gang member who started a Christian ministry building here 12 years agone. “It was hell,” he said. “Gangs would demand your ID, and if you weren’t from their neighborhood they would kill yous.”
Merely homicides have since fallen. Bukele claims to accept cut them from about l per 100,000 people in 2018 to just 20 per 100,000 people last year. In that location have even been days with nix homicides, each of which Bukele celebrates on Instagram.
He credits the drop in homicides with his “territorial control plan,” a vague strategy that includes crackdowns by police and the military that he has never fully explained.
Critics say the decline in violence has less to do with tough police force and order than it does with a government-negotiated gang truce.
“Denying that there is an agreement with the gangs is absurd,” said Celia Medrano, a man rights activist focused on security. “Anyone who enters a community to vaccinate, to fumigate or even read a water meter has to make an agreement with the gangs.”
In September, online news site El Faro published a report based on prison visitation records that found the authorities had given gang leaders benefits in exchange for a reduction in killings. Bukele denied those claims — and immediately launched an investigation into El Faro for money laundering.
Nelson Rauda, a 29-year-old announcer at El Faro, said he has received death threats from Bukele supporters, particularly after a prune of him and the president verbally sparring at a news briefing went viral. But he is more than afraid of the government arresting him on an invented charge. His wife carries effectually a list of what to do in example he is detained.
Rauda says he understands Bukele’s supporters, many of whom are by necessity more invested in the government’s delivery of food, vaccines and at to the lowest degree the illusion of security than some abstract promise of democracy. “What is democracy if in that location’s no food?” Rauda said. “What is the rule of law if yous live in a neighborhood filled with gangs?”
Simply Bukele has his weaknesses. His liberal spending, for case, has left the country nearly broke and at adventure of default on its debt, which is 92% of the gross domestic product.
Then in that location are the allegations of corruption within his administration. Bukele’s health and finance ministers have both been accused of graft.
If the U.S. decides it wants to punish Bukele for his power catch, it could direct hundreds of millions of dollars of expected aid to curb migration away from his regime and toward civil society — or target his appointees with visa sanctions.
The U.S. is watching Bukele closely in function because he has ambitions beyond El salvador. New Ideas parties have sprung upward in Guatemala and Republic of honduras in recent months, and Bukele has recently inserted himself into Honduran politics past donating COVID-19 vaccines direct to mayors who oppose that state’s president.
He is also becoming a close friend to China, which wooed him on a state visit in 2019 and promised El salvador half a billion dollars in help for infrastructure projects. China’s ambassador was the merely major diplomat in Republic of el salvador not to rebuke Bukele for his judicial purge.
Bukele’s office denied a Times request for an interview, but his vice president, Felix Ulloa, agreed to a meeting. Ulloa does not concord much power in the government; that belongs to Bukele’s 3 brothers, his unofficial but highly influential advisors.
Ulloa said he didn’t necessarily agree with Bukele’s tactics, which he called “shocking,” but said that taking control of the courts had been necessary to avert obstacles to the president’southward agenda.
“You lot have to have enough muscle to move forward because otherwise they are going to stop you,” said Ulloa. “The challenge now is what are you going to do with all that power. Are you going to employ it for the benefit of the people who gave information technology to you and who trusted you, or are you lot going to employ it in the fashion others have, and autumn into abuse, create a new elite and make a new group of ability?”
The coin, some other one of Bukele’southward supporters noted, is withal in the air.