A Middle Eastern name from abroad is roiling Colombian politics. President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador is Colombia’s new source of political polarization. Since no one in Colombia’s opposition is poised to take the baton from former president Alvaro Uribe, the autocratic Bukele is filling the void. The strange yet amicable relationship between the former and current president has left the ruling party in Colombia without an antagonist. Politicians need an adversary. For Petro, it was Uribe and his movement. In Bukele, the president of Colombia has someone to fight with, and the far-right has found a champion. Relishing this unexpected development, Bukele threw gasoline on the fire with a tweet: “I think I’ll take a vacation in Colombia.”
Petro was the first person to call out the Salvadoran president, although his words could have gone unnoticed if not for Bukele’s vigilant media machine. At an event in Bogotá, Petro commented on Bukele’s drastic security measures: “The president of El Salvador feels pride because he has reduced the homicide rate… through the subjugation of gangs who ended up in prisons that are, in my opinion, Dantesque.” Bukele tweeted, “Mr @petrogustavo, the results outweigh the rhetoric.”
An ongoing feud was unleashed on social media, marked by increasingly sharp barbs. Bukele to Petro: “What’s your obsession with El Salvador? Isn’t your son the one who makes pacts ‘under the table’ and also for money? Is everything good at home?” It was a low blow against Petro, who requested a criminal investigation of his son for corruption a few days earlier. Nicolás Petro is in the crosshairs for allegedly trading on his name to keep money earmarked for his father’s presidential campaign.
Petro, known for prolific tweeting and his love of a good scrap, responded defiantly. “Dear President Nayib, everything is fine at home. Here in Colombia, the presumption of innocence – a universal principle – exists. Here, the president does not dismiss judges or magistrates; he fights for a more autonomous and stronger justice system. Here, in Colombia, we deepen democracy, not destroy it.” The back and forth went on for days, and at one point, Petro referred to Salvadoran prisons as “concentration camps.”
The spat was timely for Colombian conservatives so bereft of strong leaders that its candidates didn’t make it to the last presidential election’s second round. The first to enter the fray in Bukele’s defense was María Fernanda Cabal, a senator from one of the most radical factions of “Uribismo,” the conservative movement led by Alvaro Uribe. “President Nayib Bukele, Gustavo Petro never built a school, let alone a university. But he did promote drug consumption centers instead of rehabilitating addicts.” Cabal was referring to a Petro initiative when he was mayor of Bogotá.
Shortly after that, conservative Semana magazine put the president of El Salvador on its cover with the headline, “The Bukele Miracle.” It was a curious religious reference to a man who once told his people he was an “instrument of God.” The Semana article told the story of the 41-year-old president but with some significant omissions. For example, it says Bukele is planning to run for reelection but never mentions that the country’s constitution has a one-term limit. The article glosses over Bukele’s authoritarian drift, manipulation of the justice system and human rights abuses during his relentless quest to eliminate the gangs. Semana published more than 15 articles about the Salvadoran president in two weeks.
The Bukele wave hitting Colombian politics is rippling throughout Latin America and all the way to Spain. His 90% approval ratings for achieving a spectacular drop in violence and slickly produced videos are constant fodder for ultra-right-wing Whatsapp chats. Bukele’s iron-fisted policies attract as much praise as criticism. Many times, Colombia has prioritized quashing violence over a healthy democracy. Countries like Costa Rica have already signaled intentions to emulate the Bukele model.
When international organizations denounce government abuses in El Salvador, the Bukele response is to turn up the volume on his propaganda apparatus. He posts cinematic videos with background music showing thousands of shackled gang members in white underwear huddled together as they wait to be transferred to the new maximum-security prison Bukele opened a month ago. It’s a prison for 40,000, the largest in the world.
Senator Cabal has bet all her political chips on a new security policy for Colombia. “I promise we will replicate Bukele’s model in Colombia so children can grow up with their parents. We will not forgive criminals nor allow impunity,” Cabal tweeted.
Colombia’s conservatives have a new hero, and the president has found an adversary.
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