Despite the low back pain that had affected him for some time, Felipe Maqueda gave up his day of rest. He got out of bed on Wednesday, dressed, held a cardboard and, with his two children, took one of the few buses that left for Cuscatlán Park in San Salvador. Upon arriving there, at 9 am, the 67-year-old bricklayer, who was a military youth on the left, was surprised by the number of people gathered. He entered the crowd and, when he found an empty piece of asphalt, took the cardboard under his arm and knelt down to write just one sentence on it: “El Salvador is not your property.” As he stood up, another twinge in his back reminded him why he had hesitated to go on the march.
The first protest against El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, had been months earlier and had brought together only a handful of people. The second, a few days later, did not reach a thousand protesters. Last Wednesday, however, between 10,000 and 15,000 people walked to downtown San Salvador to the rhythm of songs, songs and the old slogans: “Fascist bukele”, “Down with the dictatorship” and “What’s the solution? Get the son of a bitch out.”
The shouts, the posters and the slogans criticized the accumulation of power, the control of judges, the presidential re-election and the imposition of bitcoin as currency. The only act of vandalism was directed against cryptocurrency, when someone burned a bitcoin ATM in the center of the capital. Symbol of bukelism that was consumed by the flames.
The massive march was the end of the honeymoon experienced so far by the small Central American country, with just over six million inhabitants, with its president. Convened on social networks by groups as diverse as students, LGBTI groups, union members, anti-abortion organizations and members of the old Arena and FMLN parties, the demonstration showed that, two years and three months after his electoral triumph, the president was losing in places where until then it had been unbeatable: on the street and on the internet. For the first time, thousands of people did not gather to applaud him.
Hours later, Bukele responded on national television with a harsh attack on protesters. In his speech to the whole country, he described the march as a violent event, with people armed and financed from abroad. The president affirmed that all of them “went out to protest against a dictatorship that doesn’t exist” and celebrated that “yet” had not used tear gas to repress, but recalled that he should use it if the situation continues.
The ex-advertiser and former Yamaha representative didn’t skimp on the scenography. He surrounded himself with the military and had several ambassadors in front of him. “We will be allies, but I do not accept any interference (…). And those who don’t like it will have to put up with it”, he said, as if he were a teacher scolding the students. Although he did not expressly mention the United States, Bukele replied to the US chargé d’affaires, Geal Manes, who days earlier had compared him to Hugo Chávez when he learned that a third of the country’s judges would be expelled for being “corrupt”. “They condemn us for debugging the judicial system. Did corrupt judges do the country any good?” said Bukele, with the presidential sash adorning his chest.
Over the course of the night, this was his only reference to the judicial coup he initiated in May, when he ordered the Constitutional Chamber to be dissolved and the magistrates replaced by others close to his government. At the time, he sent the police to the home of those who did not agree with these actions. At the same time, he expelled the attorney general and recently sacked all judges over 60 years of age. It also imposed bitcoin as its currency, alongside the dollar, and announced the hiring of 20,000 new soldiers – twice the size of the current Salvadoran army. All this in four months. According to José Manuel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch, “Bukele follows the same manual as former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, but in record time.”
Right in the front rows of the Presidential Palace, listening to the president’s words last Wednesday, there was someone who knows Hugo Chávez very well. There, alongside the military, ministers and diplomats, was Hanna Georges, the brains of the group of Venezuelan consultants who advise him and who have made El Salvador their new home. The mysterious Venezuelan advisor previously worked as an assistant to opposition leader Leopoldo López and his wife, Lilian Tintori. Today, he leads a broader group of advisers linked to the Popular Will party in the Government’s communication strategy.
However, in the circle of power that speaks in the ear of Nayib Bukele, his brothers Karim, Ibrajim and Yusef Bukele Ortez stand out, three of the ten children of the couple formed by the Palestinian immigrant Armando Bukele Kattán and Olga Ortez. The three actively participated in the arrival of bitcoin in El Salvador and are the people who most influence the young leader.
The third arm of Bukele’s power is the military, which he has carefully pampered since the beginning of his term in office and whose number he wants to double in the coming months, despite the meager state of public coffers. Among the businessmen, Bukele is trying to form a conglomerate to replace traditional surnames like Simán with other figures, including Roberto Kriete, shareholder of airlines Avianca and Volaris. With these elements, Bukele insisted, during the celebrations of 200 years of Independence, that something new arrived with him to put an end to the rottenness of the past. And reason is not lacking.
Support news production like this. Subscribe to EL PAÍS for 30 days for 1 US$
Born 40 years ago in San Salvador, the president millennial it is the consequence of a corrupt system that found its redeemer in the advertiser. The last two presidents, Mauricio Funes and Salvador Sánchez Cerén, of the left-wing FMLN party, are in exile. The previous one, Antonio Saca, from Arena right, is under arrest. And the one before this one, Francisco Flores, died behind bars accused of corruption. Latinobarómetro polls have indicated for years that El Salvador is the Latin American country where democracy, parties and the judicial system are less important. Only 28% of the population prefers “democracy to any other form of government”. And, for 54%, “in some circumstances” a dictatorship is a better option than democracy, according to a 2018 survey.
On top of this morass, Bukele built in record time a conservative and authoritarian model in the political field and effective in the public sphere, which includes great works, good management of the pandemic (more than 50% of the population received two doses of the vaccine) and enormous success in safety , with the reduction of violence to unimaginable levels, including days when there was zero homicide in one of the bloodiest countries on the continent. Bukele is now pushing a constitutional reform that leaves re-election up in the air – prohibited by the current Charter – but rules out abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage “because our faith in God is what guides our actions,” he wrote on social media. It was his personal gesture in one of the most conservative societies on the continent, in his attempt to gather support to reform the Constitution.
At the end of the week, the virulence of his words, the distortion of what was going on in the streets, the demonization of the opposition and the creation of a new enemy – the US and the perverse international community – leave the feeling that a new stage begins in El Savior. Another even more tense and polarized one, which begins 30 years after the end of the civil war. Another stage that, for the bricklayer Felipe Maqueda, hurts more than the low back pain.
sign up on here to receive the daily newsletter of EL PAÍS Brasil: reports, analyses, exclusive interviews and the main information of the day in your e-mail, from Monday to Friday. sign up also to receive our weekly newsletter on Saturdays, with highlights of coverage for the week.