When the millennial president of El Salvador ordered the armed forces to take over Congress, the world watched in horror. Armed soldiers who bullied MPs into approving a loan for new military equipment has been widely interpreted as one of the darkest moments in El Salvador’s history since the end of a bloody civil war in 1992 .
But a year later, things got somehow worse. Nayib Bukele, the ex-publicity executive wearing a leather jacket and referred to as “ hipster Donald Trump, ” this month sacked Supreme Court justices and the country’s attorney general, tearing up what little there is democracy which he took charge of.
International condemnation followed. Yet within the country of 6.5 million people, the popularity of Central America’s most recent “dictator” cannot stop growing. Polls suggest that despite a rapid dismantling of democratic institutions, Mr Bukele’s approval rating has climbed to 91%.
“Bukele is one of us. He’s a man of the people, ”Omar Ticas, a 32-year-old phone salesman told The Telegraph. “If what we had in front of him was democracy, well, democracy doesn’t work for us. We need something more difficult.
A recent poll in San Salvador, the capital, showed support for Mr. Bukele’s populist policies, which found that more than 30% agreed that an authoritarian government may be necessary “under certain circumstances. “.
Many voters credit the president’s security policy for helping reduce rampant gang violence. It established permanent military patrols, approved the use of lethal force by security forces and increased solitary confinement in prisons.
According to Bukele, violent deaths in El Salvador dropped from 50 homicides per 100,000 people when he was elected to nearly 19. But his political opponents say this relative peace was established by a secret pact with the most powerful. Salvadoran gangs. , the Mara Salvatrucha, an assertion that the president denies.
Mr Bukele, 39, came to power in 2019 as a political foreigner. His baseball caps, sunglasses, and savvy use of social media set him apart from the increasingly hated and corrupt political establishment. His advertising experience led to the slogan, “Let them return what they stole,” which has become his mantra.
Mr Bukele, who likes to remind his followers on social media that he ran a nightclub, describes himself as the “coolest president in the world.” But his detractors accuse him of being obsessed with his image and transfixed by his cell phone.
Son of a Muslim father in Bethlehem, who was one of the driving forces behind the construction of some of the first mosques in Latin America, Mr. Bukele managed to negotiate his public life without needing to specify whether he is Catholic , Muslim or evangelist. , simply saying, “I believe in God.”
When he withdrew the armed forces from Congress last year, Mr. Bukele said nothing to his people. Instead, he raised his finger to the sky, indicating that the order to back down had come from above.
During the pandemic, the president championed cash grants and the free distribution of food to those in need. Its draconian lockdown, which allowed residents to leave their homes only twice a week to buy food, drew criticism from human rights groups, but not voters.
“I don’t understand why there is so much drama around this,” said Teresa Carballo, an unemployed mother of four from the city of Santa Ana. “He won the election, we the people chose him, so how can that be undemocratic?”
Recent events have escalated tensions with Washington as the administration of US President Joe Biden attempts to tackle the growing number of migrants fleeing El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has expressed “grave concern” over the dismissal of judges and the attorney general. Speaking to Bukele by telephone, Mr Blinken said that an independent judiciary was essential for democratic governance.
“If anyone in the Biden administration had any hope that Bukele was somehow committed to a democratic regime,” tweeted José Miguel Cruz, a political analyst, “He isn’t. He doesn’t. never been.
Human rights groups call on the International Monetary Fund to suspend negotiations on a key loan to El Salvador or the United States to condition their development assistance on the country’s commitment to democratic health. its institutions.
But these are tricky options: suspending loans or aid could increase economic instability and generate more migration.
Mr Bukele showed his contempt for the international outcry in the aftermath of the vote to impeach the judges: “To our friends in the international community: we want to work with you, do business, travel, get to know each other and help us where we can. . Our doors are more open than ever, ”he said on Twitter.
“But with all due respect: we’re cleaning our house … and it’s none of your business.”