There is no doubt that Nayib Bukele is an authoritarian leader, or perhaps it should be said, the most successful dictator in Latin America in the 21st century. He achieved what many other tyrants dreamed of: he destroyed the democratic institutions of his country, controlled all the powers of the state, silenced the opposition and the critical press, and projected himself as a model authoritarian ruler for the entire region.
How did you do it? With a strategy that combines populism, charisma, cynicism and manipulation.
Bukele presents himself as a young, modern leader close to the people, who uses social networks to communicate directly with his followers and attack his enemies. It exploits the dissatisfaction and frustration of a society characterized by poverty, violence and corruption.
He declared war on the gangs that are ravaging El Salvador with extortion, murder and terror. He recruited thousands of police and soldiers to “fight” them in the country’s poorest and most violent neighborhoods. He tightened prison conditions. He showed data on the drastic reduction of murders and tried to improve the safety of citizens.
But this war has and hides a very high price: the violation of human rights and the destruction of democratic institutions. Bukele gave carte blanche to security forces to act brutally and with impunity against any suspected gang member. She ignored reports of extrajudicial killings, torture and enforced disappearances. He silenced the media and civil society organizations that question his strategy.
I was in San Salvador a few weeks ago and I could see that behind that facade of innovation and success hides an autocrat who does not respect the Constitution, laws and rights.
Bukele used his popularity for a “war on gangs” to consolidate his absolute power. It removed the system of checks and balances that guarantee a balance between public powers. He dismissed the judges of the Supreme Court and the Attorney General. He intervened at the Electoral Court and at the Audit Court. It co-opted Congress and the military. He threatened the political opposition, independent media and human rights organizations.
A key element in his authoritarian rise was his ability to use an effective and manipulative propaganda apparatus. Bukele turned to social media, and YouTube in particular, to build an image of a charismatic and modern leader, using the influence of popular YouTubers and influencers to spread his message and silence any form of criticism.
By capitalizing on the popularity of these internet figures, Bukele has been able to build a loyal and enthusiastic fan base, who defend his actions without questioning his undemocratic behavior. To do this, he has the support of a vast propaganda network that uses many influencers on YouTube and other digital platforms to spread his message and discredit his critics. These influential people are paid by the government or businessmen connected to Bukele and act as unofficial spokesmen for his regime. His goal is to create a parallel reality in which Bukele is the savior of El Salvador and his opponents are traitors to the country.
This personality cult contributed to the consolidation of his power and further weakened the democratic fabric of El Salvador.
Bukele is not satisfied with the dominance in his country. He wants to become a benchmark for other populist and authoritarian leaders who want to stay in power in Latin America. That is why it seeks to ally itself with countries such as China, Russia, Iran and Venezuela, which offer it economic resources and political support in exchange for its ideological loyalty. This is why it is a challenge to the United States and the European Union, which demand respect for democracy and the rule of law.
Bukele is the clearest example of how a dictatorship can be established in the 21st century, exploiting the weaknesses of democratic institutions and the opportunities offered by technology.
The question is, do we want something like this for our country? Is the destruction of democracy and the massive violation of human rights a model to follow, for the sake of supposed security? (or)
Mario Twitchell is an accomplished author and journalist, known for his insightful and thought-provoking writing on a wide range of topics including general and opinion. He currently works as a writer at 247 news agency, where he has established himself as a respected voice in the industry.