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Right now it's hard to root against — but harder to root for — El Salvador's Bukele

Salvadorn President Nayib Bukele speaking at a Bitcoin conference in El Salvador last year.
HIP HOP AUTOCRAT Salvadorn President Nayib Bukele speaking at a Bitcoin conference in El Salvador last year.

COMMENTARY El Salvador's crises of bloodshed and Bitcoin may be a turning point for Nayib Bukele and his millennial brand of Latin American authoritarianism.

If you care about the beleaguered people of El Salvador — and the migrant crisis on the U.S. southern border — it’s hard to root against Nayib Bukele right now.

Then again, if you care about the beleaguered people of El Salvador — and the migrant crisis on the U.S. southern border — it’s even harder to root for Nayib Bukele right now.

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At first, you may want to cheer on El Salvador's young president as he tries to subdue las maras — the country’s viciously omnipresent and omnipotent gangs. Known as MS-13 and Barrio 18, they engineered a nationwide bloodbath last weekend that left 62 people dead on Saturday alone. Those tatted-up terrorists are the major reason so many thousands of Salvadorans, and thousands more from neighboring Guatemala and Honduras, flee to the U.S. each year.

But then you have to remember that much of the mara mess is Bukele’s own doing. Well documented reportsin the respected Salvadoran news outlet El Faro reveal Bukele began negotiating with the gangs after he took office in 2019. They indicate he won their pledge to hold down El Salvador’s Mad Max murder rate in exchange for a softer-gloved government response to their mafioso enterprises, like extortion and trafficking.

READ MORE: That COVID-19 story of hope about Latin America's gangs? No hope of happening

That sort of deal with the devil works until the devil decides it doesn’t — and last weekend the Salvadoran Satan changed his mind. Now Bukele, using sweeping emergency powers the Legislative Assembly handed him, is scrambling to lock up mara members and look tough again. But whether Salvadorans are seeing Brass-Knuckle Nayib or Numbskull Nayib seems a toss-up.

That matters inside and outside El Salvador, because this moment looks like a turning point for the 40-year-old Bukele and his millennial brand of Latin American authoritarianism. Bukele is an eager acolyte of the hemisphere’s older generation of dictator wannabes, from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and former U.S. President Donald Trump on the right, to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro on the left.

Thanks to the gang emergency and the cryptocurrency debacle, El Salvador's emperor suddenly looks like he's wearing no baseball cap.

He’s adopted the worst of their populist-caudillo impulses to create what New York-based journalist Felipe De La Hoz calls “an autocrat playbook for the Tik-Tok generation.”

In a Washington Post op-edlast year, De La Hoz — who as an immigration expert has a special interest in Bukele’s reign — rightly fretted that Bukele has used his generation’s social media prowess to fashion a hip-hop, anti-establishment autocracy that wears a backward baseball cap (a Bukele trademark) while it subverts democratic institutions.

Those include the Legislative Assembly, which Bukele had the military storm in 2020 to make the body his rubber stamp; and the Supreme Court, whose members last year were removed by his lapdog legislature and replaced with stooge justices – who promptly trashed El Salvador’s constitutional term-limit rules and declared Bukele may run for president again in 2024.


De La Hoz, co-founder of the immigration policy newsletter BORDER/LINES, says a key, slippery trait that sets Bukele apart from the older populists he admires is his ideological ambiguity.

“Bukele is like a culmination of the horseshoe theory,” De La Hoz told me, referring to the principle that right- and left-wing authoritarianism ultimately look the same. “It’s just messianic railing against enemy elites, and he's always adapting on the fly.”

Salvadoran gang members at prison outside San Salvador.
Luis Romero
Salvadoran gang members at prison outside San Salvador.

But De La Hoz notes Bukele may now be facing his first real “crisis of legitimacy” inside El Salvador, where his approval ratings had so far been through the roof.

And it’s not just the mara emergency that makes the emperor look like he has no baseball cap. Last year Bukele made El Salvador the first country to adopt the cryptocurrency Bitcoin as legal tender. He insists it's a 21st-century ticket to egalitarian prosperity; critics call it a cynical distraction from his tin-pot power grabs.

Either way, Bitcoin Bukele’s crypto-debit card keeps getting rejected. Investors are balking at his billion-dollar, Bitcoin-backed “volcano bond” — half the proceeds of which he’d use not to fund schools, roads or law enforcement, but to … buy more Bitcoin. The IMF recently advised him that blockchain looks lamebrain as a macroeconomic strategy for a struggling country like El Salvador.

That’s one more reason not to root for Bukele in the long run — even if you hope he now hammers El Salvador’s terrorists in the short run.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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