They act discreetly and try not to draw attention to themselves. A group of Venezuelans with roots in anti-Chavismo have stealthily surrounded President of El Salvador Nayib Bukele, who swept to victory in the elections last Sunday that will keep him in power for another five years.
Salvadoran ministers and senior officials feel that their functions are bing usurped and are irritated by the Venezuelans. The latter have been in charge of organizing successful electoral campaigns, restructuring the government, and serving as liaisons with advisors, friends, contractors, and snake oil salesmen. Paradoxically, this type of shadow cabinet has replicated some of the tactics that Chavismo used to take an authoritarian turn and manage keep itself in perpetual power.
Bukele, the 42-year-old president who is very popular for having reduced crime to a minimum in a country with a very violent past, is surrounded by American, Spanish, and Argentine advisors who take credit for for propaganda successes and strategic decision-making, without it necessarily being true.
The president is enormously popular on social media, where he has posted very shocking videos of gang members held in a maximum security prison and has a group of YouTubers with millions of followers who have traveled to El Salvador to extoll his policies. This network of foreign hustlers has very little weight and limited access to the leadership. It is really the Venezuelan advisors who are making important decisions and who have direct access to Bukele and his brothers.
“Everything goes through them,” says a high-level source who worked with Bukele during the first two years of his government. “When the pandemic began, they formed the emergency team. Everything had to be run by them first. The ministers had no real decision-making power. It is true that some rebelled and did not let the Venezuelans act as if they were in a position above the appointed ministers, but others simply had no other option.” The team of foreign advisors installed themselves in a wing of the hospital that Bukele built near the National Palace, where they stayed at least until the end of 2023.
This same source explains that they are part of “a shadow cabinet.” There is the main Presidential Cabinet. Then there is another strategic cabinet, made up of private secretaries, Bukele’s brothers, the Press Secretary, and there is also a cabinet of Venezuelans. They recall the mysterious Cubans — who were experts in security and intelligence — who surrounded Hugo Chávez.
The Salvadoran media outlet El Faro has identified a dozen of these so-called advisors from Venezuela, and it is believed that there have been at least 20. It is not easy to spot them because they do not have public contracts that would appear in the state accounts. The one who stands out most among them is the leader of the group Sarah Abdel Karim Hanna Georges, better known as Sarah Hanna. Bukele and his brothers have blind faith in her, according to different sources. Years ago she worked with Leopoldo López, who represents the most radical wing of the Venezuelan opposition, and later with his wife, Lilian Tintori, who launched a global campaign to secure the release of her husband from a Chavista prison.
Sarah Hanna is a dentist and is not yet forty years old. Armando Info, a Venezuelan investigative newspaper, says that she demonstrated as a student against the constitutional reform proposal presented by Hugo Chávez in August 2007. She arrived in El Salvador in 2018, it is believed that through a connection with one of the brothers of the now president, and spent her time writing his speeches, shaping his image, and carrying out the social media and communication strategy.
In view of the results, Sarah Hanna’s work has been impeccable. She has managed to create a cult around Bukele in the same way that was forged with Chávez, but from a more modern perspective. Several sources consulted by this newspaper do not detract from the Venezuelan woman, but maintain that there is a Salvadoran woman who has even more power. Secretary of Communications Sofía Medina has a more modest presence on social media than Ernesto Sanabria, the Secretary of the Presidency, who uploads portraits of his expensive shoes on Instagram. However, she is believed to be even closer to Bukele.
The Salvadoran president has been re-elected despite the fact that the Constitution expressly prohibited it in up to six articles. The control that he exercises over the Constitutional Chamber made it possible for the magistrates to reinterpret the regulations at their convenience. Bukele has used the cover of the emergency regime, imposed two years ago through extensions in the Assembly. He has used his party’s dominance in the legislature to deprive Salvadorans of their civil liberties. Yes, he has filled prisons with gang members, but the president has also filled them with innocent people who have been denied the right to a fair trial.
This has been widely documented by humanitarian organizations and journalistic investigations. Some analysts believe that Bukele’s authoritarian drift has its roots in Venezuela. “These Venezuelan advisors are supporting an authoritarian leader [Bukele] who is using Chávez’s playbook. He exploited his popularity to dismantle democracy, change the rules of the game to never let go of power, and use dirty strategies to silence the press and dismantle all opposition or dissent,” explains Jimmy Alvarado, a Salvadoran journalist who has unearthed all these connections.
You don’t have to dig very hard to find them. The government of El Salvador has replicated the tactic of the Clap, the food distribution that Chavez followers devised to create a support network in the neighborhoods and isolate critics, who would not receive a food box. These, as this journalist was able to verify, were also distributed in the surroundings of San Salvador just one or two days before the elections.
Bukele and his team took advantage of their immense popularity, which is unquestionable today, to ensure that Nuevas Ideas, the president’s own party, has become embedded with the population in the way that the PRI did in Mexico and Chavismo did in Venezuela. Likewise the Chivo Wallet project, the wallet created by Bukele to make payments in dollars or bitcoin, is a carbon copy of the Pretro, the Venezuelan cryptocurrency that has was originally a Chavista idea.
Lester Toledo deserves a special mention here too. The Venezuelan electoral strategist works directly for the party and has a direct relationship with his compatriots in the government. He was once a vocal opponent of Chavismo for denouncing Chavista corruption, directly calling out such powerful men as Nicolás Maduro and Diosdado Cabello. “The truth is that the corduroy played it. Chavismo targeted him,” says an anti-Chavista advisor.
Toledo does not hide on social media and recently uploaded a photo of himself hugging Bukele on his Instagram. He is the chief campaign advisor and this time one of his duties was to deploy 100,000 party supporters to the polling stations. It was a huge logistics job. Whether in the government or in the party, the Venezuelan stamp is more than evident. The experience of facing a social phenomenon that suffered an authoritarian drift has given them the tools to elevate Bukele to absolute power.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition