Until now, El Salvador has been known abroad mainly for civil war and brutal gangs. For the past few years, it has exported little more than migrants. But now a political experiment is underway that could give the country a “soft power” at the international level that it has never had before.
The experiment has been initiated by President Nayib Bukele using what is called “Bukelism”. Although it is known as an “-ism”, it is not a political ideology, but rather a political method. It has become very popular in his country and politicians from other countries are trying to copy it. In fact, this method may become more important for understanding Latin American politics than the traditional right-left axis. And perhaps, it may also be able to generate influence outside Latin America.
The method is both simple and technically advanced. It is not about visions of social development with goals, principles, and plans. The guiding principle is to retain and strengthen the power of President Nayib Bukele and his inner circle by ensuring that his popularity remains high at all times.
Bukelism incorporates strategies of Latin American authoritarian populists from Hugo Chavez to Jair Bolsonaro, and has traits of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Rodrigo Duterte. At the same time, Bukelism has developed far more sophisticated communication strategies and has taken politics into the virtual media world further than anyone else. There, the troop of “Nayibeliebers” (inspired by Justin Bieber’s “beliebers”) are fed with finely honed messages depicting a cool, youthful, modern, humorous, and relaxed Bukele, who appeals to a young population many of whom have one foot in the United States and one in El Salvador.
Since the civil war, the average annual number of murders in El Salvador has been around 4,000. But last year, 496 murders were registered and the trend continues downward. Cases of extortion have been reduced by 70-90% (depending on the area) and people are back out on the streets, children and young people are playing soccer, small businesses are resurgent and the city center has come back to life. Salvadorans thank Bukele for their new peace and freedom.
How has he achieved this? The method can be described in four points that go far beyond fighting crime.
First, power has been centralized. Bukele has taken control of both the National Assembly and the judiciary, breaking the rules and ensuring greater support in by-elections. Neither ministers nor mayors of Bukele’s New Ideas Party can have direct dialogue with businesspersons or other political actors. Everything goes through Bukele and his three brothers. Budgets are ignored and laws are increasingly passed that give the president direct control over spending; and international conventions and human rights are ignored. In this way, the president has secured almost total freedom of action.
Second, power has been monopolized. Anyone who challenges Bukele’s power risks being subjected to smear campaigns waged by an army of communications advisors and trolls. And instead of hiring employees from El Salvador, he has hired Venezuelan “political mercenaries”. In 2024, Bukele will seek re-election, even though it is prohibited by the constitution. More than 90% of Salvadorans say they will vote for him.
Third, any social organization can be attacked. NGOs are often referred to by the government as “fronts for foreign intervention”. These measures are not new, but what makes Bukelism special is the fourth element: management based on opinion monitoring.
Bukelism governs by popularity through constant monitoring of the opinions of Salvadorans, both those living in El Salvador and those living in the United States who have the right to vote. The communication strategy is continuously adjusted based on social media trends and opinion polls. Securing support and improving El Salvador’s image abroad are the central objectives.
Bukele’s introduction of Bitcoin as a mandatory means of payment in 2021 should be understood as part of that image building. Bitcoin has two central functions for Bukelism: First, it has given El Salvador a new image among cryptocurrency and technology enthusiasts, which has put the country on the map and tourism has begun to recover after years of decline; second, Bitcoin gives Bukele himself, the government and criminal actors a way to move money outside institutional control. In this way, Bitcoin has become a favorite money laundering mechanism, but it is also used for migrants to send money home from the United States, although it does not apply to local businesses. Therefore, Bitcoin, while not really functioning as a means of payment, also does not create reasons for people to oppose it.
With growing popularity and control over all institutions, Bukele was able to launch a major offensive against gangs last year. This came after 87 people were killed in one weekend in March, breaking what was probably a pact with Bukele. Thereafter, a state of emergency was imposed.
With no limits to the power of the police and military, a campaign of mass arrests began that the world has barely seen. Since March 2022, 64,700 have been arrested and the number of inmates in prisons has risen to almost 100,000. El Salvador now has the highest number of prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants in the world. And recently Bukele has inaugurated the country’s new giant prison, with a capacity of 40,000.
The dark side is that many innocent people have been arrested. It has become common practice in poor neighborhoods for men, particularly young men, to be imprisoned despite not having been affiliated with gangs. And while Bukele has so far pardoned 3,745 innocent convicts, the number of prisoners without rights or opportunities to communicate with their families is much higher.
For the moment, most Salvadorans accept the argument that the irregular imprisonments are “collateral damage”. But some wonder how long they will be able to keep 2% of the population incarcerated. The economy is doing poorly and poverty is on the rise. Even so, Bukele’s popularity seems to continue to rise. His party, New Ideas, has already established offices in Guatemala and Honduras; and politicians interested in his strategy are appearing in the region. The question is whether the strategy can be replicated.
El Salvador has some particular conditions that allowed it to be controlled so quickly by Bukelism. It is a small country that was threatened by hierarchical gangs that could be negotiated with and whose members could be identified relatively easily due to tattoos and clothing. Remittances from the U.S., which represent about 25% of the economy and give air to the poorest, reduce the impacts of events unlike in other countries.
But the most important factor in El Salvador becoming a country of “Nayibeliebers” was an insecure and exhausted people who had lost faith in politicians and institutions, and who made extensive use of social networks. Unfortunately, El Salvador has much in common with too many countries, so “Bukelismo” can quickly become an export item to watch out for.
*Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva