Bukele’s expansionist dreams for Central America

The coronavirus pandemic has given El Salvador’s president the opportunity to sell his image in the region and present himself as having the solutions to its deep-seated problems

El Salvador: Nayib Bukele participa junto al Alto mando de la Fuerza Armada
Nayib Bukele oversees a military induction ceremony in San Salvador on June 19.Miguel Lemus (EFE)
Wilfredo Miranda Aburto

On May 17, the mayor of the Guatemalan town of Mixco, Neto Bran, traveled to El Salvador for a meeting with President Nayib Bukele. Or at least that was the idea. The objective of Bran’s journey was to deliver a humanitarian petition to the Salvadoran leader asking for coronavirus vaccines for his municipality. However, the mayor was not granted his audience and had to make do with depositing his petition in the presidential palace and hope that it would be delivered to Bukele who, four days earlier, had announced on Twitter that his government had donated 34,000 doses to Honduras.

“Honduras thanks Bukele,” read several banners carried by dozens of Hondurans greeting trucks bearing the Salvadoran government logo as they delivered their cargo of Astra-Zeneca vaccines. The Salvadoran communications secretary described the gesture as “unprecedented.” For Bukele it was a big hit. The donation served to bolster the figure of a president “different from those who came before,” which is the image he has been trying to project since his arrival on the political scene: that of a caring, beneficent leader and a man of the people. It is an image that has traveled beyond El Salvador to its neighbor countries. Nicaraguans, Hondurans, Guatemalans and even Costa Ricans have posted rapt support for Bukele on social media since he came to power in 2019, with comments often saying he is the president that everybody wants.

Bukele has consolidated himself in El Salvador as a powerful figure and has used his popularity to place himself above other branches of government. In May, following legislative elections that his party won at a canter, the pro-government controlled National Assembly sacked all of the members of the Constitutional Court and the state prosecutor in a coup against the separation of powers and threatened to continue taking control of state institutions. And while on the home front he has carried out what his critics are calling a coup against the institutions, Bukele is riding a wave of popularity to create a growing personal brand, a kind of franchise with an eye on his neighbors in a region plagued by violence, poverty, forced migration and corruption.

With a slogan that could be “Made in El Salvador but necessary in Central America,” Bukele has marketed himself on Twitter and more recently TikTok as the antithesis and the solution to these endemic ills. And this strategy is also bearing fruit beyond El Salvador, in spite of the questionable tactics of its president such as bursting into parliament flanked by soldiers, his swipe at the judiciary, his crusade against the independent press and attacks on transparency to exclude his own officials from accountability. “Bukele has become a messiah in Honduras as well,” says Jennifer Ávila, editor of independent media outlet Contracorriente.

“His public position with regard to [Honduras president] Juan Orlando Hernández has generated sympathy among a population that is fed up with the crisis. Election candidates among the opposition to Hernández’s National Party use Bukele’s name to boost their following,” says Ávila. Not only did Bukele not invite Hernández to his inauguration, he has also stated: “Hernández should take a look at himself for having imposed himself as a dictator.”

Where some see crisis, Bukele sees opportunity

Nayib Bukele en una playera en El Salvador
A jersey emblazoned with an image of Nayib Bukele is displayed for sale at a market in San Salvador.Salvador Melendez (AP)

The donation of vaccines to Honduras was the conciliation of Bukele’s virtual idyll in Central America with reality. Until then, Bukele’s “cool” image was popular in the region due to his style of governance in El Salvador, but above all it was reflected on social media where there are Guatemalans and Nicaraguans who describe themselves as supporters of his party, Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas). Statements against authoritarian regimes, such as those of Hernández and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, helped to strengthen his image abroad. Bukele’s is a popularity built on tweets and platforms such as YouTube. His personal brand found in the pandemic a launchpad for more tangible action.

Ávila recalls that in addition to the vaccine donation, Bukele ordered that an ill Honduran child be brought back by ambulance for treatment in an El Salvador hospital. “After the petition for vaccines, there have been others asking him for help to repair revetments damaged by tropical storms that the Honduras government still hasn’t fixed more than six months after the catastrophe. This has worked well for him on the back of his discourse that ‘if nobody steals, there is enough money,’ because in Honduras the main slogan on social media is: ‘Where has all the money gone?” Ávila tells EL PAÍS.

Bukele fits the old saying that where some see crisis, others see opportunity. In July 2020, in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, the Salvadoran embassy in Managua offered work in hospitals to Nicaraguan doctors who had been fired by the Ortega administration for criticizing government negligence in the face of Covid-19. The Nicaragua Medical Association subsequently issued a release to deflate the doctors’ enthusiasm: the offer was not exclusive to Nicaragua but open to all of Latin America, under professional services contracts.

Gabriel Labrador, a journalist at Salvadoran newspaper El Faro, tells EL PAÍS that since the dawn of his political career in 2011, Bukele has initiated a race “to accumulate more and more power.” In this objective the internet has been key, Labrador says, because it is an open forum on which people receive constant information. “There is no better conduit for exercising power and authority than information. Bukele uses the internet to promote his image, but he knows that he also has to back everything with action to make a connection. It’s a strategy of communication and political marketing. And this is why, through a pretty aggressive strategy on social media, Twitter and Facebook, he carries out regional political actions that allow him to reinforce this attempt to connect with communities,” says Labrador.

“The interlocutor of the US”

Labrador maintains that before Bukele ramped up his authoritarianism, dismantling the balance of power in El Salvador, the United States viewed him as a regional interlocutor. However, following the arrival of Joe Biden in the White House, positions have changed as manifested by the visit by Vice-President Kamala Harris to the so-called “Northern Triangle” of Central America, from where the majority of migrants to the US originate. Harris visited only Guatemala and sidestepped Honduras, whose president has been investigated by the US for alleged links to drug trafficking, and El Salvador, whose government has been criticized by Washington for its authoritarian change of direction.

“This represents a tough blow to the image Bukele wants to project within the region. And because of that, for example, he donates vaccines. He needs to maintain an image in this ethereal, global world that is the internet. That’s why he has an impressive communication structure with Youtubers, social networks, pages that are constantly generating information about his government, of him as a benefactor,” says Labrador. “The idea is of him as a good administrator of public funds, a good politician, but he is also a politician who pushes back against the traditional structures: the status quo, the establishment, big business and those who wield power.”

In March 2020, a Nicaraguan public relations company staged a campaign funded by El Salvador that sought to project the Bukele administration’s management of the coronavirus crisis. “They have asked for our help in recording people of status and influence who can tell us in 20 seconds what they think of the measures El Salvador has taken compared to what we are going through in Nicaragua. These videos can then be circulated there [in El Salvador],” a message received by a Nicaraguan journalist reads.

The United States of Central America

Among Bukele’s strategies to promote his brand, the utopian idea of a Central American union stands out. On several occasions, the Salvadoran leader has set forth the idea of “Central America as one single nation.” In his speeches, he has made a point of recalling the date of independence from Spain. When he was mayor of San Salvador, he redesigned the municipal crest and added the year 1834, when the city became the capital of the Federal Republic of Central America, consisting of present-day Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

“I imagine he has an idea of a kind similar to that of [Latin America independence leader] Simón Bolivar, of achieving the union of the people, of giving Central Americans the region they have always wanted. It’s a bit of a narrative suggesting he’s the man destined to lead the people to freedom,” says Labrador. In San Salvador there is a consensus that this “export” of Bukele’s brand is linked to his ego. Political differences aside, says Labrador, it is similar to what Hugo Chávez did in Venezuela: exporting his leadership to other countries “based on the idea of domination and setting himself up as the farther of Salvadorans and Central Americans.”

“It is akin to what other authoritarians do: this way of doing politics, exercising power and presenting themselves as the only solution to the problem. That’s why on Bukele’s Twitter account it says ‘Leyla’s father.’ He hasn’t put any politics or statistics on there, he wants to reinforce the idea that he knows how to look after someone else. His wife is also playing an important role. Every time he can he mentions her, because he wants to show that he has the ability to look after his own,” says Labrador. A vision of family that Bukele now wants to export to the rest of Central America.

English version by Rob Train.

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