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The Ideological Mystery of El Salvador’s Bukele: Conservative, Socialist, or Political Chameleon?

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[Leer en español]

Nayib Bukele is not your average guy: he’s certainly not a stiff president who respects the usual diplomacy, formal communications, or the suit and tie most world leaders have us used to.

While most presidents continue to conform to the traditional political image of the 20th century, the President of El Salvador has broken the mold to communicate his decisions directly via Twitter. He buys bitcoins with his country’s public money and attends official galas and events wearing a cap and sunglasses.

You can hate or love Bukele—but he’s not someone who will go unnoticed.

Personally, I must admit that a couple of years ago, when the media irruption of the current president of El Salvador took place, I simply didn’t like him. Just by taking a look at his biography, you could sense that he was someone dangerous. He had been elected Mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán, and also of San Salvador, by the extreme left party Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN). He later continued his political escalation to occupy the presidency with more moderate parties. However, El Salvador’s president seems to shy away from debates and ideological labels, making him a difficult politician to both decipher and defeat. He’s the perfect example of the “catch-all” candidate. His approval ratings among citizens remain above 80%.

Despite refusing to categorize himself with any ideological doctrine, it seems that, in the last year, the president of El Salvador has been evolving in his conception of the duties of the state. This, I believe, is fueled by his understanding of bitcoin and all that decentralized economies and libertarianism entail, making the usual ideological leap executed by many people in the world: from the extreme left to the right, and even to classical liberalism. Is this really the Bukele case?

Bukele’s beginnings

El Salvador’s president reportedly comes from a wealthy family in the Central American country. Yet, this did not prevent him from approaching the Marxist-Leninist FMLN party that would lead him to win his first municipal elections. There are no records, nevertheless, of Bukele making calls to defend socialism or to implement a communist revolution, just a call for a “fair distribution of wealth” in 2014.

And also criticisms towards “neoliberalism” in 2013, adopting leftist positions:

After five years in the extreme left-wing party FMLN, Bukele decided to join the center-left party Cambio Democrático, to quickly leave them and form his own center-right grouping called Nuevas Ideas. However, due to the impossibility of registering his candidacy through this party, Bukele ended up joining the conservative party GANA (Grand Alliance for National Unity), with which he would end up becoming president of the Republic after defeating none other than the FMLN, his former party, in the first round.

Beyond the evident political movement to consolidate himself, Bukele has never been seen defending socialism at all costs. He doesn’t stand up for capitalism either, and even in his most recent times as president, it is common to find statements where he criticizes both the left and the right.

Bukele likes to present himself as a pragmatist, but he seems to clearly reject collectivist measures through which the state seeks to control the economy to embrace more liberal economic postulates, something that has even earned him conflicts with the White House for his continuous criticism of the Biden administration.

“Can you guys just stop printing more money? You’re just going to make things worse. Really. It’s a no brainer,” Bukele wrote on Twitter following the FED president’s comments warning that the word “transitory” should be removed from inflation.

Also in October, he explained that Keynesianism doesn’t work, that resources are finite, and that the time had come to think of a new economic system without resorting to uncontrolled money printing, which clearly evidences a change of position, at least, in his views on the economy.

Is Bukele an “authoritarian” president?

Bukele’s decisions, and above all, his governing style, has earned him the criticism of much of the international press, which has even labeled him as “authoritarian”, an accusation to which the president responded with sarcasm by writing in his Twitter biography the caption “Dictator of El Salvador“, a fact that was naturally reflected by the entire Western press.

The biggest scandal of Bukele’s presidential adventure occurred when he asked the Parliament to approve a budget to finance his security plan against gangs in El Salvador. Deputies boycotted his plans by not attending the session, and Bukele, as a response, showed up in the precinct surrounded by military and police to demand the budget’s approval. This event triggered the alarms of the international community, which condemned the way in which the Salvadoran handled the situation and branded him as “authoritarian.”

In an interview with Spanish newspaper El País Bukele tried to justify his decision.

“Someone who doesn’t know El Salvador sees the photo of the military in Congress and says: What a barbarity! But, what is more serious, a photo of a military where nobody was assaulted, there were no injuries, no shots… [They don’t know that] there were deputies [of previous governments] who negotiated with gang members. The military was only an act of presence. To focus on that is to focus on the superficial.”

“If I were a dictator or someone who doesn’t respect democracy, I would have taken control of everything now. According to the polls, 90% of the people support us. So do the Armed Forces and the Police. The people were angry when I asked for calm, but if I had wanted to, I would have taken control of the whole government tonight,” he continued.

Bukele’s balance sheet

Under the Bukele administration, crime rates have dropped drastically. By 2015—when the leftist FLMN governed—106 murders were committed per day. That figure was reduced to 21 homicides in 2020—already with Bukele in power. 2021 aims to be another record year in the decline of crime rates, which explains the massive support of its citizens.

The economic numbers are also encouraging. In the second quarter of 2021, while many countries were just beginning the post-pandemic recovery phase, El Salvador’s economy had grown by an astonishing 24.5%.

On the other hand, a report made by La Prensa Gráfica, a Salvadoran newspaper that the president calls an opponent of his government, indicates that 93.5% of Salvadorans approve of his management of the COVID pandemic, which stresses the enormous support Bukele has in his country.

When it comes to health policies, Bukele has shown an important change of position. While in 2020 he used the power of the government to subject citizens to radical lockdowns (a move that was even criticized by the leftist NGO, Amnesty International, and which provoked clashes between citizens and police officers). However, in 2021, he has published messages stating that individual freedoms and the right to choose should be above any vaccine mandate. He even claimed that “there are no vaccine mandates or passports in El Salvador, no mask mandates, no testing requirements to enter the country.”

Did Bitcoin transform the president of El Salvador?

Certainly, it seems that since Nayib Bukele became involved with the bitcoin community worldwide, his statements, tweets, and even his political decisions, have been affected to the delight of some —and the disdain of others. In June, after announcing that his country would adopt bitcoin as legal tender, he even published a new message announcing El Salvador’s tax benefits and bureaucratic facilities to attract investors:

El Salvador’s president remains a difficult politician to predict. He himself offers no clues as to what next steps he intends to take, but Salvadoreans seem to get his back.

It is quite hard to pigeonhole Nayib Bukele in any ideological camp or to decipher whether he will end up becoming the best president in the history of the Central American country, or just another caudillo who ends up abusing his popularity and power. For the sake of El Salvador and the emergence of a new decentralized economic system, I hope the latter is not the last case, but only time will tell.

Emmanuel Rincón is a lawyer, writer, novelist and essayist. He has won several international literary awards. He is Editor-at-large at El American // Emmanuel Rincón es abogado, escritor, novelista y ensayista. Ganador de diversos premios literarios internacionales. Es editor-at-large en El American

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