How much glitz and glamour does it take to divert attention from the human rights violations of an authoritarian regime and its aspiring dictator? Well, in the case of El Salvador, it seems they’re going all out to do just that. The stage is set for the Miss Universe pageant, with yards of sequins, dazzling spotlights and the media frenzy that come with hosting such an event. The 86 contestants vying this year for the crown and title of the most beautiful woman in the world came to the “new” El Salvador. However, the country’s political system represents everything we wanted to leave behind with the signing of the Chapultepec Peace Accords in 1992. Almost half a century has passed since the beauty queens were last welcomed here in 1975. Back then, the military government of Arturo Armando Molina brutally suppressed student protests against the extravagant expenditure of hosting the event.
Why bother with democracy when you have a propaganda machine consistently pushing the narrative that having the “right” leadership is all a country like El Salvador needs? This is a nation that was, until recently, plagued by horrific violence. Now it seeks to host beauty pageants instead of focusing on prevention and rehabilitation. The Bukele approach is all about punishment and repression, because as it turns out, democracy couldn’t ensure the safety of all the people living in gang-controlled communities. Bukele’s many supporters justify entrusting the entire government apparatus to a single individual by saying he has at least brought some semblance of peace to the country, albeit through a dark alliance with gangs. However, this fragile peace has come at the expense of constitutional rights and the arbitrary detention of thousands of people who don’t know if and when they will ever be released. Even innocent children born in prison have been stripped of their rights.
In El Salvador, any subject is welcomed as long as it distracts from the important issues. Take, for instance, the recent capture of “Crook,” the aging MS-13 leader who was ferreted out of his hiding place in Mexico and extradited to the U.S. Several years ago, a Bukele official actually helped Crook escape from a Salvadoran prison and flee to Guatemala. Rather than focusing on corruption and lack of transparency, the country seems to prefer ogling women and boosting the popularity of their benevolent leader who so generously invited them to El Salvador.
The Miss Universe pageant is just another publicity stunt to bathe the impending dictatorship in the glow of democracy. The contestants happily ride horses in a nature reserve that was closed to the public under the pretense of maintenance. Instead of serving as a platform for contestants to raise awareness about their countries, the pageant has devolved into a parade of eye candy at ribbon-cutting ceremonies in the capital city’s historic downtown. They wear caps advertising the president’s illegal re-election campaign as they promenade through freshened-up plazas with strings of colorful LEDs.
Miss Universe Philippines🧢😍 pic.twitter.com/H6u1IpPhb5— Stacy Herbert 🇸🇻🚀 (@stacyherbert) November 11, 2023
As he unabashedly undermines democracy in his own country, the Salvadoran president orchestrated a glitzy spectacle focused on beauty instead of the women themselves. He spent over $12 million for the pageant rights and an additional $60 million on the infrastructure. Bukele is determined to see a return on his investment, even if it’s not a financial one. It matters little to him that all the obligatory public appearances have exposed contestants to unwanted advances from fans and transphobic comments directed at the trans contestants representing Portugal and the Netherlands.
In 2021, the Miss Universe contestant from El Salvador wore an outfit protesting femicide and forced disappearances. This year, it’s a platform for a leader who denies authorizing systematic prison torture, who believes that flooding the streets with soldiers will prevent femicides, who controls a legislature that refuses to pass laws protecting transgender individuals. There was a drastic change in 2022 — the representative from El Salvador wore a shimmering gold dress touting the country’s adoption of Bitcoin as legal tender. The Bitcoin initiative was just another ploy to burnish the self-proclaimed “cool” president’s image, as the cryptocurrency is not widely used despite the huge government investment. Our representative this year wore a dress that evoked a volcano and conveyed a more poetic message. According to the designer, the outfit symbolizes the country’s evolution toward “a new day, a new hope and new beginning” — and perhaps also a new dictatorship.
When the pageant last came to El Salvador 48 years ago, our representative was among the 10 finalists. Even if we do better this time, we risk losing everything amid the streamers, bright lights and fireworks. As long as the Bukele show goes on, the resounding applause that heralds the demise of democracy will echo loudly.
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