'We've tried democracy and it failed': Adoring El Salvadorians swoon over their millennial dictator

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Salvadorean presidential candidate Nayib Bukele, of the Great National Alliance
Salvadorean presidential candidate Nayib Bukele, of the Great National Alliance

When El Salvador's millennial president ordered the armed forces to take control of Congress the world looked on in horror. Gun-toting soldiers intimidating MPs to approve a loan for new military hardware was widely interpreted as one of the darkest moments in El Salvador’s history since a bloody civil war ended in 1992.

But a year later things have somehow taken a turn for the worse. Nayib Bukele, the leather jacket-wearing former advertising executive labelled the 'hipster Donald Trump', this month sacked Supreme court judges and the country’s attorney general, tearing up what little is left of the democracy he took charge of.

International condemnation followed. Yet, inside the country of 6.5 million people, the popularity of Central America's newest 'dictator' can't stop growing. Polls suggest that despite a rapid dismantling of democratic institutions, Mr Bukele's approval rating has soared as high as 91 per cent.

“Bukele is one of us. He’s a man of the people,” Omar Ticas, a 32-year-old telephone salesman told The Telegraph. “If what we had before him was democracy, well, democracy isn’t working for us. We need something harder.”

Members of civil society organizations demonstrate against the dismissal of magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice in San Salvador, Salvador, 02 May 2021 - Rodrigo Sura/Shutterstock
Members of civil society organizations demonstrate against the dismissal of magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice in San Salvador, Salvador, 02 May 2021 - Rodrigo Sura/Shutterstock

Support for Mr Bukele's bare-knuckle brand of populist politics was shown in a recent poll in San Salvador, the capital, which found that more than 30 per cent agreed that an authoritarian government may be necessary “in some circumstances”.

Many voters credit the President’s security policy with helping to bring down endemic gang violence. He has introduced permanent military patrols, has endorsed the use of lethal force by security forces and has increased solitary confinement in prisons.

According to Mr Bukele, violent deaths in El Salvador have fallen from 50 homicides per 100,000 people when he was elected to almost 19. But his political opponents say this relative peace has been brought about by a secret pact with the most powerful of El Salvador’s gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha, a claim the President denies.

Mr Bukele, 39, came to power in 2019 as a political outsider. His baseball caps, sunglasses, and savvy use of social media set him apart from the increasingly hated political establishment tainted by corruption. His publicity experience led to the slogan: “Let them return what they have stolen,” which has become his mantra.

Many voters credit the President’s security policy with helping to bring down endemic gang violence - Anadolu Agency /Anadolu
Many voters credit the President’s security policy with helping to bring down endemic gang violence - Anadolu Agency /Anadolu

Mr Bukele, who likes to remind his social media followers he used to run a night club, describes himself as the “coolest president in the world.” But his critics accuse him of being obsessed with his image and transfixed by his mobile phone.

The son of a Muslim father from Bethlehem, who was a driving force behind the construction of some of the first mosques in Latin America, Mr Bukele has managed to negotiate his public life without the need to clarify whether he is Catholic, Muslim or an evangelist, stating simply: “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 the order to backdown had come from above.

During the pandemic, the president has championed cash grants and free food distribution to the most needy. His draconian lockdown, which allowed residents to leave their homes only twice a week to shop for food, drew criticism from human rights groups, but not from voters.

“I don’t get why there’s 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 it be undemocratic?”

El Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele talks during a meeting with ambassadors accredited in his country at the National Palace in San Salvador - AFP
El Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele talks during a meeting with ambassadors accredited in his country at the National Palace in San Salvador - AFP

Recent events have heightened tensions with Washington just as US president Joe Biden’s administration tries to tackle the rising number of migrants fleeing El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken expressed his “grave concern” about the removal of the judges and attorney general. Speaking to Bukele, by phone, Mr Blinken said an independent judiciary was essential to democratic governance.

“If anyone in the Biden administration had any hope that Bukele was somehow committed to democratic rule,” tweeted José Miguel Cruz, a political analyst, “He is not. He never was.”

Human rights groups are calling for the International Monetary Fund to pause negotiations on a key loan to El Salvador, or for the United States to condition its development aid on the country’s commitment to its institutions’ democratic health.

But these are tricky options: Withholding loans or aid could increase economic instability, generating more migration.

Mr Bukele showed his contempt for the international outcry the day after the vote to remove the judges: “To our friends in the international community: We want to work with you, trade, travel, get to know each other, and help where we can. Our doors are more open than ever,” he posted on Twitter.

“But with all due respect: We’re cleaning our house … and it’s none of your business.”