El Salvador’s Bukele heads for reelection amid human rights concerns

Despite term limits and a dismal human rights record, the ‘World’s Coolest Dictator’ is expected to win Sunday’s presidential race with ease

Salvadorans are set to vote on Sunday for their new president, and there are few doubts regarding the outcome. Despite accusations of human rights violations and concerns about the economy, President Nayib Bukele continues to be widely popular and is expected to win reelection in a landslide. The winner will serve a 5-year term. 

There are no secrets to Bukele’s popularity. His tough-on-crime approach has reduced the country’s once soaring homicide rate to historic lows, with voters citing it as the main reason they consider things to be improving in El Salvador. A recent poll by the Central American University showed that more than 90% of Salvadorans felt “very safe” or “safe” in their neighborhoods. 

But his success has come at the cost of eroding civil rights, as tens of thousands have been imprisoned under a “state of emergency” provision passed in March 2022 that has allowed the state to arrest and try suspected gang members without due process. There have also been accusations of massive human rights violations, from forced disappearances and torture to prison overcrowding. 

“We are seeing things we hadn’t seen since the armed conflict, like forced disappearances and systemic torture,” Abraham Abrego, Director of Strategic Litigation at Salvadoran human rights watchdog Cristosal, told the Herald. He added that the gravity of the situation is deepened by how arbitrary the persecution is. 

“Any person can be arrested because these raids are being carried out without prior investigation or court order.” 

By the end of 2023, over 74,000 people had been arrested since the beginning of the state of emergency. Less than a third were estimated to be gang members, charged merely based on neighborhood testimony, prior arrests, or for simply having tattoos. Currently, around 2% of the adult population is incarcerated. 

Amnesty International presented a report in December of last year, calling the situation in El Salvador “extremely alarming.” In addition to abuse in penitentiaries, the NGO warned about the weakening of judicial independence and a crackdown on freedom of expression, with government discourse in the media consistently targeting and harassing groups that defend human rights and journalists who publish any form of criticism. 

Bukele has used his personal social media to mock his critics and deepen polarization in the country. In 2021, he dubbed himself “World’s Coolest Dictator” in his X bio. He has also gone after human rights groups denouncing him for abuses, in one instance even calling a Human Rights Watch member “Homeboys Rights Watch.”

He has also disrupted the country’s democratic institutions by replacing judiciary members with allies. He owes his likely reelection to the courts, given that the Salvadoran constitution originally banned consecutive presidential terms. In 2021, a court that had recently been taken over by members of Bukele’s New Ideas party tossed aside the articles in question and paved the way for him to run again. 

Despite this, almost 70% of the population approves of his reelection bid. 

“He has instilled fear in people to voice their demands, and many are desperate for security, however it comes,” Salvadoran political analyst Ricardo Valencia told the Herald. “I compare the current stage in El Salvador to the illegal 2021 reelection of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. Bukele has managed to seize power but has proven to be a failure in delivering economic benefits.” 

The country’s economy is an ongoing concern for the population. In September, the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL, for its Spanish initials), said El Salvador would end 2023 with 2.3% economic growth, the lowest in Central America and one of the lowest in Latin America. 

The president has placed high hopes on Bitcoin as a tool capable of delivering economic progress. In 2021, El Salvador became the first country to turn the cryptocurrency into legal tender. Just two months later, he announced he was going to create the world’s first Bitcoin city in the coastal town of Playa Blanca. Located near a volcano, the plan was to use its geothermal energy to power Bitcoin mining. 

Results, however, have been lacking. As of February 2024, not a single brick of Bukele’s crypto city has been laid. A poll in 2023 showed that hardly anyone in the country uses Bitcoin. Extreme poverty has also increased, and immigration flow to the U.S. has remained stable. Like in Venezuela, many middle-class professionals are leaving, says Valencia. In the UCA poll, 50% of respondents said that the economy and unemployment ranked as their highest concerns. 

Analysts are not optimistic regarding what awaits El Salvador after Bukele’s likely victory. The most immediate consequence is the deepening of repressive policies, with the further degradation of democratic institutions and the escalation of human rights abuses. And although Bukele has stated that he doesn’t intend to seek indefinite reelection, Cristosal directive Abrego says that that is not what history has taught us. 

“We’ve seen it happen in other countries where there are regimes similar to Bukele’s. Many times, they intend to change the constitution and perpetuate themselves in power.”


All Right Reserved.  Buenos Aires Herald