El Salvador's millennial president is a man with one vision: Power

By Kate LinthicumStaff Writer May 16, 2021 4 AM PT Facebook Twitter Show more sharing options Share Close extra sharing options Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Email Copy Link URLCopied! Print

A few days after he led a coup, the president of El Salvador uploaded a video onto TikTok of him gliding in a military vehicle while hundreds of soldiers salute.

Then comes the soundtrack: A booming reggaeton song called “Bichota"— slang for “big shot.”

The video — irreverent, rooted in pop culture and projecting brazen strength — has been viewed 2.6 million times and is textbook Nayib Bukele, a former marketing executive who has deftly used social media and unbridled confidence to become, at 39, one of the most popular leaders in the world.

Since he took office two years ago on a pledge to fight gangs, squash corruption and break with the country’s 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 press and civil society and occupying the nation’s Legislative Assembly with troops last year after lawmakers refused to approve an anti-crime spending bill.

Soldiers occupying El Salvador's National Assembly.
In 2020, President Nayib Bukele ordered soldiers to occupy El Salvador’s National Assembly.

In February, Bukele’s party swept midterm elections. On May 1, the day the country‘s new legislature was sworn in, his supporters moved to oust his critics on the Supreme Court and in the attorney general’s office — an illegal power grab that political scientists have called a “self-coup.”

International rebuke was swift. American lawmakers threatened to withhold aid. Critics called him a “millennial dictator.” Yet Bukele has grown only more defiant.

“To the voices that still ask us to go back to the past ... The changes we are making are IRREVERSIBLE,” he tweeted the day after he met with the U.S. special envoy to Central America, Ricardo Zúñiga.

Bukele has invoked El Salvador’s sovereignty, telling the world that his nation, the site of a bloody proxy war between the U.S. and supporters of communism in the 1980s, is “not a protectorate or a colony” and that foreign powers need to butt 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 beginning a “new history.”

“This is a breaking point between the old 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 ad, with a ballerina twirling and a boy surfing in slow motion through a perfect barrel wave. “Today we breathe different air.”

President Nayib Bukele with his hands open in front of his face and his eyes cast upward
President Nayib Bukele has called himself “an instrument of God.”

But what Bukele’s “new history” will bring is uncertain, and to some, unnerving. Latin America is inured to strongmen and demagogues, but Bukele appears to be something new, a caudillo for the digital age intent on spreading his brand of populist politics across 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 political party. Shunning both the left- and right-wing dogma that bitterly divided El Salvador for decades has allowed him broad popular support. His carefully curated image as a virtuous family man, with long Instagram posts devoted to his wife and young daughter, have made him only 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 board 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 Court, Castillo said, so that he can pass constitutional changes that will allow him to stay in office beyond the allowed five consecutive years.

“He has a plan to keep ruling the country for 40 years,” Castillo said.

Not far from the Pacific coastline, a convoy of trucks chugs up a crude mountain road, guarded by young soldiers. At every home they pass, they stop to hand out sacks of cooking oil, beans and rice.

Bukele’s government has been delivering food to thousands of Salvadorans every day since he first imposed a strict coronavirus lockdown last year. He also gave families $300 checks. Many here are proud of the government’s pandemic response, including its rapid distribution of vaccines, which 1 in 5 people have received, compared with just 1 in 50 in neighboring Honduras.

A woman carries packages of food aid while looking down at a child while surrounded by trees.
Magdalena Pérez, who lives near El Cimarron, El Salvador, receives packages of food aid that have been a hallmark of President Nayib Bukele’s term.

“We don’t have water. We don’t have roads,“ said Magdalena Pérez, 45, as she was handed two sacks outside her adobe home 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 rise.

When the civil war ended in 1992, the groups that had been fighting morphed into opposing political camps. By the time Bukele was elected in 2019, they had each faced major corruption scandals and were equally reviled.

Bukele angered some late last year when on a visit to El Mozote, a village where more than 900 villagers were massacred in 1981, he declared that the peace accords had been “a farce, a negotiation between two groups” that had failed to bring real benefits for the Salvadoran people. But many here agreed.

His skill at evoking what’s in the hearts of his followers has propelled Bukele’s 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 Affairs ... is ordered to remove Dolores Iveth Sánchez,” went a typical Bukele tweet in 2019.

“Your order 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, controlling his own narrative via social media or appearances with internet influencers.

“It’s more interesting doing an interview with you,” he said earlier this year on the filmed podcast “Luisito Comunica,” run by 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 world, 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 firm owned by his father, Armando Bukele, a successful businessman born to Palestinian Christian immigrants to El Salvador.

Armando Bukele’s politics were clear: A convert to Islam who founded El Salvador’s first mosque, he was a supporter of the Palestinian independence movement and sympathetic to the leftist guerrillas fighting U.S.-backed armed forces during El Salvador’s war. His public relations firm later ran campaigns for the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the political party that sprang from remnants of the guerrilla movement.

Nayib Bukele had been a mediocre student at an elite private high school — although fellow students remember him as eager to debate 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 made a lasting impact on the city, building a modern library and community center.

“You saw a lot of real changes,” said Jaime Miranda, a 33-year-old delivery driver who on a recent afternoon was lounging in a plaza constructed during Bukele’s term.

“He opened a medical clinic,” one of his friends added.

“He gave out scholarships,” said another.

They were untroubled by Bukele’s recent power grab.

“Maybe 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 ahead,” Miranda continued. “He’s the best president we’ve had in my lifetime.”

Supporters of Bukele say he has delivered on another key promise: He has made people feel safer.

Five years ago, El Salvador had one of the worst homicide rates in the world, with 103 deaths per 100,000 people.

Pastor Pedro González talks with a woman.
Pastor Pedro González, who runs a church in Ciudad Delgado, El Salvador.

In Ciudad Delgado, a working-class neighborhood in the capital, people were sometimes so afraid to walk the streets that they skipped church, said Pedro González, an ex-gang member who started a Christian ministry here 12 years ago. “It was hell,” he said. “Gangs would demand your ID, and if you weren’t from their neighborhood they would kill you.”

But homicides have since fallen. Bukele claims to have cut them from about 50 per 100,000 people in 2018 to just 20 per 100,000 people last year. There have even been days with zero 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 law and order than it does with a government-negotiated gang truce.

“Denying that there is an understanding with the gangs is absurd,” said Celia Medrano, a human 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 government 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 journalist at El Faro, said he has received death threats from Bukele supporters, particularly after a clip of him and the president verbally sparring at a news conference went viral. But he is more afraid of the government arresting him on an invented charge. His wife carries around a list of what to do in case 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 least the illusion of security than some abstract promise of democracy. “What is democracy if there’s no food?” Rauda said. “What is the rule of law if you live in a neighborhood filled with gangs?”

But Bukele has his weaknesses. His liberal spending, for example, has left the country nearly broke and at risk of default on its debt, which is 92% of the gross domestic product.

Then there 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 grab, it could direct hundreds of millions of dollars of expected aid to curb migration away from his government and toward civil society — or target his appointees with visa sanctions.

The U.S. is watching Bukele closely in part because he has ambitions beyond El Salvador. New Ideas parties have sprung up in Guatemala and Honduras in recent months, and Bukele has recently inserted himself into Honduran politics by donating COVID-19 vaccines directly to mayors who oppose that country’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 aid for infrastructure projects. China’s ambassador was the only major diplomat in 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 hold much power in the government; that belongs to Bukele’s three 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 avoid obstacles to the president’s agenda.

“You 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 use it for the benefit of the people who gave it to you and who trusted you, or are you going to use it in the way others have, and fall into corruption, create a new elite and make a new group of power?”

The coin, another one of Bukele’s supporters noted, is still in the air.