Among the colourful houses of Comunidad Iberia, an impoverished neighbourhood of San Salvador, the dark glass cube of the Urban Centre for Welfare and Opportunities (or Cubo in its Spanish acronym) is an eye-catching piece of urban architecture. Inside local children take art classes, read in the library and play online games. Outside, a mural depicting Armando Bukele, the father of El Salvador’s president, extols Salvadorans to “live with love and responsibility”.
Futuristic and faintly ominous, the Cubo is a fitting tribute to Nayib Bukele’s presidency. Since coming to power in June 2019, the 40-year-old former publicist has adopted bitcoin as legal tender, used his social-media accounts to generate an approval rating that is the envy of presidents worldwide, and introduced authoritarian measures to undermine the country’s political opposition and civil society.
On Tuesday, speaking for the first time at the UN general assembly, he took a selfie on the podium and told the audience that “a couple of images on Instagram have a greater impact than any speech in this assembly.” Then he updated his ever-changing Twitter bio to “The coolest dictator in the world”. But increasing numbers of Salvadorans suspect a darker truth behind the trolling.
Last week, an estimated 15,000 people took to the streets of the capital to protest against Bukele’s growing authoritarianism, destroying a recently installed bitcoin ATM machine in the process. It was the latest sign that Bukele’s sky-high approval ratings – which regularly exceed 80% – may be starting to slip.
Having won the February 2019 presidential election with 53% of the votes, Bukele benefited from popular anger over violent crime and the corruption and incompetence of the traditional ruling parties. The Cubos – of which an additional 21 have been commissioned across the capital – are the friendly face of his “territorial control plan”, which also involved the retooling of the armed forces – members of which turned up at the national assembly in February 2020, guns in hand, to dissuade the opposition from resisting the plan.
“I think it is very clear now who is in control of the situation,” Bukele reportedly said.
Through these measures and a secretive pact with the country’s notorious gangs, Bukele managed to bring the homicide rate to historic lows. His decision to press corruption charges against El Salvador’s spectacularly unpopular traditional political parties also won him support.
“Bukele flipped the tortilla,” says Edwin Ramos Siguenza, a 26-year-old tourism worker. “Today, it’s not the Salvadoran people who are feeling the pressure, it’s the political classes who have hidden their corruption behind their own laws – they’re the ones feeling the heat.”
Few world leaders have navigated the Covid-19 crisis for their own political benefit better than the Salvadoran president. “The pandemic was a blessing for Bukele,” says Carlos López Bernal, a professor of history at the University of El Salvador. “He presented an apocalyptic scenario to which the only solution, supposedly, was to give the president everything he asked for. More money and more power.”
Even after a slight dip in response to the hasty and error-laden bitcoin law, Bukele’s approval rating remains above 75%, boosted by promises of Chinese investments in large infrastructure projects and a region-leading vaccination campaign.
“The interesting thing about Bukele is his ability to capitalize on popular disenchantment with the political parties while proposing nothing,” says López Bernal. “He has no interest in ideology and there is no political thinking behind his plan for the country.”
A former marketing executive who regularly shows up to work in skinny jeans and a baseball cap, Bukele meticulously documents each of his political wins on his prolific Twitter account, with a familiarity for internet vernacular that escapes most older politicians. He updated his profile pic to feature the “laser eyes” of cryptocurrency enthusiasts after announcing the bitcoin law, and when the country’s newly acquired bitcoins lost 17% of their value, he announced plans to “buy the dip”.
For Bukele the ends justify the memes. He has used his popularity to consolidate and perhaps extend his stay in power. In February his party won a supermajority in legislative elections; a year later, he wasted little time replacing judges on the constitutional panel of the supreme court and approved a plan to fire all judges over the age of 60. He has also created a hostile atmosphere for local independent media and civil society.
Aside from his penchant for aviator sunglasses, Bukele has far more in common with Central America’s historical dictators than initially meets the eye, according to Greg Weeks, a professor of Latin American politics at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. “His tactics are identical to Latin American strongmen throughout history,” he said. “He is putting loyalists in key positions of power, using intimidation against the legislature and opposition and attacking the media.”
Bukele’s ultimate goal appears to be rewriting the country’s 1992 constitution, signed in the aftermath of El Salvador’s civil war, in order to radically reshape the politics of the country. In September, days before Salvadorans celebrated 200 years of independence, his newly installed judges in the constitutional chamber ruled that he could run for consecutive terms. In recent years, courts in neighbouring Honduras and Nicaragua have abolished term limits intended to prevent presidents becoming entrenched in power.
“The bicentennial is a significant date and on social media the talk is of a ‘new republic’ with a new constitution,” says López Bernal. “But behind the pretense of reform, the real motive is for Bukele to remain in power, and the Salvadoran institutions are too weak to protect the constitution or put limits on a megalomaniac president.”
His example could provide a blueprint for copycat strongmen across the region, said Weeks. “Bukele’s actions will instil more confidence in Latin American politicians that they can also manipulate and violate the constitution for their own benefit.”