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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Bukele’s ‘Cool Dictator’ Approach Marks New Era in El Salvador

With more power than ever, a crushed opposition, and at the height of popularity, Nayib Bukele will begin his second term as president of El Salvador on Saturday, after waging a relentless “war” against gangs.

This 42-year-old millennial publicist, re-elected in the February 4 elections with a crushing 85% of the vote, will govern for another five years with almost total control of Congress and the rest of the state institutions.

Bukele will take the oath of office in a ceremony scheduled for 08:00 local time (14:00 GMT) at the National Palace, in the historic center of San Salvador, to which he has summoned the Salvadorans en masse.

Among the dignitaries, Argentine President Javier Milei, with whom he shares conservative policies and sympathies for former U.S. President Donald Trump, stands out. Paraguayan President Santiago Peña and King Felipe of Spain will also attend.

Very self-assured, Bukele defines himself as a “cool dictator” to mock those who accuse him of authoritarianism and of maintaining power thanks to allied judges who interpreted the law to allow his re-election, despite it being prohibited by the Constitution.

“What he has demonstrated is that the law is irrelevant, and that he can do whatever he wants, however he wants,” said social researcher Carlos Carcach to AFP, describing a “almighty” president.

The safest country in the world

Considered the most popular president in Latin America according to the NGO Latinobarómetro, Bukele came to power in 2019 promising to subdue the gangs, which he attributes with 120,000 deaths in three decades, more than the 75,000 from the civil war (1980-1992).

Under his government, he claims, El Salvador went from being the “most dangerous country in the world” without armed conflict to the “safest in the Western Hemisphere.”

But for this, El Salvador lives under a state of exception established in March 2022, accumulating 80,300 suspected gang members detained without a court order.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International denounce deaths and torture, and thousands of innocents among the 8,000 people who had to be released.

After wresting neighborhoods and streets across almost the entire country from the gangs, analysts point out that his challenge will be the economy, as poverty affects almost a third of the population.

However, Judge Juan Antonio Durán, a government critic, says the country is in “uncertainty” because Bukele did not present a program during the electoral campaign. “We are at the mercy of power,” he said.

Clear path

With a Congress where his party Nuevas Ideas holds 54 of the 60 seats, Bukele has a clear path to reform the Constitution, after lawmakers approved a mechanism in April to accelerate possible changes.

“They have left the door open to carry out any constitutional reform,” analyst and former guerrilla commander Eugenio Chicas told AFP. The opposition parties “breathe,” but they are “in a coma,” he added.

When he won in February, Bukele said it would be “the first time there is a one-party system in a democracy.” Chicas believes he will move towards a “dictatorial scheme” and indefinite re-election.

With slicked-back hair and a trimmed beard, Bukele built his image through social media, where he often writes in English. On X, where he calls himself “Philosopher king,” he makes important announcements and mocks his critics.

“A cult phenomenon has been established in the country,” thanks to his media machinery, says Óscar Picardo, director of Research at the Francisco Gavidia University.

From left to right

Born on July 24, 1981, in San Salvador, son of the late industrial chemist and representative of the Palestinian community Armando Bukele, the president studied at the Central American University but did not graduate.

He worked from the age of 18 in his father’s advertising agency, which ran campaigns for the ex-guerrilla Farabundo Martí Front (FMLN).

He began his political career in 2012, and with the FMLN, he was mayor of the town of Nuevo Cuscatlán and San Salvador from 2015 to 2018. Due to an internal incident, he was expelled from the leftist party in 2017. With his victory in 2019, he ended the right-left bipartisanship that alternated power after the civil war.

“I don’t consider myself neither right nor left,” he has said. But he participated in an ultraconservative conference in the United States in February, just like Milei.

And in the same vein as the Argentine, he eliminated the “gender perspective” from school books and guides. Bukele is married to Gabriela Rodríguez, a psychologist and ballet dancer, with whom he has two daughters.

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