When I arrived at Saint Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez International Airport last month, signs advertising the Miss Universe pageant in November were still up. It was just one of the spectacles recently brought to El Salvador by 42-year-old President Nayib Bukele, in between the Central American and Caribbean Games and an exhibition match featuring Inter Miami’s Lionel Messi. Bukele was a p.r. man before he was a politician, and this fact is evident in just about everything he does. Like rechristening a stretch of the Salvadoran coast “Surf City,” or becoming the first country to accept Bitcoin as official tender, attracting international competitions is an application of a tried-and-true publicity principle: create positive associations with your brand. 

Before Bukele, the nation known as the Tom Thumb (“Pulgarcito”) of Latin America had mostly attracted attention on the world stage for the direst of reasons: coups, massacres, paramilitary death squads, and de facto rule by gangs. After the 1979 Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua toppled a key US ally in Central America, El Salvador was seen as the most likely next domino to fall. For the next decade, it became a central arena of US-Soviet proxy conflict in the Western hemisphere and one of the bloodiest charnel houses of the final years of the Cold War. Despite copious American aid to the ruthless Salvadoran military, the ragtag left-wing insurgency held out until 1992, by which time its Soviet patron was disintegrating. 

Peace accords followed, turning insurgents and counterinsurgents into politicians overnight. The Nationalist Republican Alliance, or ARENA, founded by the far-right death-squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson, and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, or FMLN, initially formed as a revolutionary army by exiled Salvadorans hosted by Fidel Castro in Havana, became the two main parties alternating in power in a nominally liberal-democratic system. This was El Salvador’s End of History, in which the violent ideological antagonisms of the 20th century were supposed to give way to peace and prosperity under the benign imperium of the World Trade Organization, which the country joined in 1995. But the brutality of the earlier era reasserted itself in the post-ideological form of teenage gang members deported from the United States. These lost children of the civil war proceeded to subject their country to a bloodletting that was even more staggering and senseless than the one their parents had fled—and that successive governments were unable to stop. 

The real centerpiece of Bukele’s national rebranding has been ending this de facto rule by criminals. Just under two years ago, when a spate of killings ended a truce between the gangs, he responded by declaring a 30-day state of exception. This suspension of constitutional rights enabled the police and military to round up tens of thousands of suspected gang members. Today, the state of exception still remains in force, and something close to 2 percent of the population is behind bars. On this front, too, the president’s p.r. background has been in evidence: Ever since the initial mass arrests, he has been circulating slick videos of tattooed detainees stripped down and crowded together in orderly geometric rows in enormous newly built prison facilities. But there is more than image-making at work: The murder rate has declined below Canadian levels, making Bukele’s security policies an object of emulation for leaders across the region.

“Amid the new freedom from fear, aspirations have become possible that were not before.”

For most ordinary Salvadorans, the p.r. isn’t necessary, since the results speak for themselves. Before the state of exception, the gangs were everywhere, extorting, terrorizing, harassing, and killing; now they are not. Amid the new freedom from fear, aspirations have become possible that were not before. And here, it often seemed, lies the deeper appeal of a president whose hard-line security policies are laid over with a certain very-online frivolity: He has invited the nation to imagine a destiny not determined by its dark past, but by its hopes for the future. 

El Salvador’s airport lies considerably closer to the coast than to the capital, placed there in the hope that the country’s pristine beaches would become a tourist draw. Construction, with support from Japan, was completed in January 1980. A few weeks later, San Salvador Archbishop Óscar Romero was shot to death while celebrating Mass—an assassination ordered by ARENA party founder D’Aubuisson. This murder and the subsequent massacre of mourners at Romero’s funeral helped tip the country into full-on civil war, leaving the notion of thriving beach resorts a distant dream, at least until the last year or two. In 2014, President Mauricio Funes, the first FMLN head of state, renamed the airport after Romero. Four years later, the Salvadoran prelate’s sainthood was ratified by Rome, consolidating his current status as a unifying national symbol. In his own lifetime, he was a far more divisive figure. A theological conservative who claimed only to be faithful to Christ’s ministry to the poor, he was seen by the right as a useful idiot of the communists at best and killed for that reason. 

Romero’s name came up as I was being shown around the capital by Dave, a cheerful local and Bukele superfan (one of many I would meet). The young president served as the capital’s mayor for a term before ascending to the highest office, and as Dave eagerly showed me, Bukele left his mark everywhere, bringing the city’s historic core back from decades of crime, blight, and neglect. There is Parque Cuscatlán, first laid out a century ago in the style of a Parisian park, long a no-go zone, now a pleasant oasis where students work on their laptops after school and people walk their dogs. Not far from there is Mercado Hula Hula, an orderly structure where the street vendors who once crammed city sidewalks, constantly preyed on by extortion rackets, were relocated a few years back. 

As we descended into the crypt of the national cathedral to view Romero’s remains, Dave said: “We love Romero the way we love Bukele.” It was an unexpected analogy. Romero was best known for demanding that the military cease its rampage against poor Salvadorans suspected of being guerrillas—“terrorists,” in the jargon of the military brass of the time; Bukele, conversely, is best known for unleashing the Salvadoran military against Salvadorans, many of them poor, suspected of being gang members—“terrorists,” they are now called. But viewed from Dave’s perspective—one many Salvadorans seemed to share—the equivalence was less of a stretch. Romero sought to protect ordinary Salvadorans from out-of-control violence, and so does Bukele; the other details are less important.

In January, Bukele delivered a speech to a group of schoolchildren from beneath a portrait of Romero that hangs in the presidential palace. He summarized the last four or five decades as an unbroken string of violations of Salvadoran sovereignty, mainly by the United States. First came the civil war, an “international war” that made El Salvador “one battlefield more” between foreign powers; then, the 1992 peace accords—“another of the tricks we’ve been subjected to in our history,” which “brought no peace,” only new forms of violence; then, the deportation of gang members from the United States, prompting new generations to flee. The same story, again and again: a population subjected to unending brutality by external forces, all due to a lack of sovereignty and self-determination. “From now on, we will build our own destiny,” Bukele declared.    

“Not for nothing did Bukele make his start in the leftist FMLN.”

The Salvadoran president’s tough-on-crime record has made him a darling of the American right, scoring him a top speaking slot at this month’s Conservative Political Action Conference. But what stood out in the speech was his co-optation of themes of the Latin-American left: the critique of imperial meddling in the country’s internal affairs, the grievances against Washington, the call for sovereignty and freedom. Not for nothing did Bukele make his start in the leftist FMLN, with which his father—a wealthy businessman born to Palestinian immigrants—had long been associated. His current lines of attack against his former party and its right-wing rival are symmetrical: During the civil war, both were puppets of foreign powers; at its conclusion, both acquiesced to a “fake” peace treaty imposed from abroad and divided the spoils, abandoning the Salvadoran people to criminals forced on the country by US immigration policy. 

If the 1980s Latin-American left invoked human rights against the depredations of the American empire, Bukele inveighs against human-rights advocates by framing their demands as yet another imperialist imposition that threatens to deprive his people of peace. In this sense, much of his political momentum has derived from identifying and responding forcefully to a fatal weakness of human-rights ideology, a central plank of the post-Cold War global order. Human rights was the “last utopia,” in the historian Samuel Moyn’s phrase, replacing the others left behind at the End of History as formerly revolutionary Marxist groups like the FMLN scaled back their demands. But no guarantees of human rights backed by the United Nations, civil-society organizations, and Western governments proved to be any help at all to people terrorized by organized crime. Not only that, such guarantees served to ensure criminals enjoyed rights, while their victims didn’t. 

It isn’t an entirely new line of critique, but the sheer scale of the violence that prevailed in the country for decades has made it acutely compelling in El Salvador. That meant that when constitutional rights were suspended in 2022, there weren’t many who objected. For people whose rights had been violated daily for decades by non-state actors, it wasn’t unreasonable to ask what exactly the constitution had been protecting them from. Samuel Ramírez, an organizer with the group Movimiento de Víctimas del Régimen (Movement of Victims of the Regime), which advocates for those unjustly imprisoned under Bukele, told me that when the state of exception was first imposed, “nearly 100 percent of the population was in favor of doing this to neutralize the gangs”—including the vast majority of those now involved in the movement. 

Beyond what remains of the opposition parties, whose support has collapsed, Bukele’s detractors are heavily concentrated in journalism and the NGO sector. The president’s speeches and X feed are peppered with attacks on these groups, which he often frames as de facto allies of the gangs. The main association of Salvadoran journalists has credibly accused his government and its allies of a systematic campaign of harassment against the press in the run-up to the elections. Still, even most journalists and NGO types seem to concede that Bukele’s popularity is genuine and unsurprising, and few have anything good to say about the opposition or the governments that preceded his.

In his 2005 book On Populist Reason, the Argentine political theorist Ernesto Laclau wrote that populism “advances in such a way that the previous state of affairs dissolves around it but proceeds by articulating fragmented and dislocated demands around a new core.” In other words, a populist movement may manage to supplant the pre-existing political panorama without yet coalescing into anything particularly cohesive. Consider the name of Bukele’s party, which he founded after he was expelled from the FMLN: “Nuevas Ideas” (New Ideas), a sort of post-ideological placeholder, hinting at a Third Way beyond the Third Way of the 1990s End of History, to which the moderate peacetime FMLN and ARENA both owed something. 

Writing well before the fallout of 2008 triggered a global populist wave in the mid-2010s, Laclau foresaw the frequent political ambiguity of the leaders who would ride that wave. But he argued that this “vagueness and indeterminacy” aren’t necessarily defects in a populist project, because they are, in fact, “inscribed in social reality as such.” In other words, the emergent social panorama populism responds to has not yet found a way to represent itself. What we call populism is, in this account, a provisional and experimental attempt to fill that symbolic lacuna. Laclau placed his hopes in left-wing populists like Néstor and Cristina Kirchner, who at the time of his writing were reviving Peronism in his native Argentina, and later in the party Podemos in Spain, born in the years after the financial crisis. But a decade and a half later, at least in the Spanish-speaking world, it is Bukele who has achieved the greatest electoral success along the lines Laclau laid out. By quilting together a haphazard constellation of political signifiers, he has constituted a new vision of “the people,” with which most of the public seems to identify. 

On Feb. 4, Bukele sailed to re-election with more than 80 percent of the vote. As opponents and critics had objected throughout the campaign, he had run in violation of a clear constitutional prohibition against a second term, aided by the acquiescence of the courts, long since packed with his supporters. He proclaimed victory from the balcony of the Palacio Nacional at 10:30 p.m., well before the electoral tribunal had released the official vote count, and claimed to have broken all records in the history of democracy with his crushing margin of victory.   

Much of the speech seemed to be directed less at his assembled supporters or defeated opponents than at the Western media outlets, governments, and NGOs that have accused him of democratic “backsliding” and human-rights violations. (The opposition has been so thoroughly crushed that it was barely an afterthought.) “Salvadorans will decide how to govern ourselves and choose our own path,” he declared, reiterating the anti-imperialist talking points from his campaign. Citing reproaches from a journalist from Spain, El Salvador’s old imperial overlord, Bukele said what his foreign critics are demanding isn’t really democracy, but “colonialism, imperialism, elitism, plutocracy.” The countries he lambasted seemed to get the message, or at least decided there was no upside in saying they didn’t; most of them quickly recognized his victory. Opponents have alleged fraud and pointed to the breakdown of the electronic vote transmission system, but they aren’t finding much international support for these claims.

As people gathered outside the Palacio Nacional in advance of the victory speech, I struck up a conversation with a group of self-described “militantes” in Nuevas Ideas, all men in their 20s and 30s clad in the party’s trademark cyan. Most told me they had previously supported the left-wing FMLN. Geovany, the most talkative of them, told me after Bukele appeared on the scene, he realized how useless the other parties were, since “the gangs were the only real power.” He pointed out a few families with boys around 10. “They would never have been able to come here before,” he said: By that age, the gangs would be recruiting them, giving them and the family a choice between joining, flight, or death. He told me had attempted to migrate to Europe and the United States a few times, but now was planning to stay. Nearby, I spoke to an older couple who had lived abroad, in Belize, for 30 years but said they were now back for good. They were gearing up to livestream Bukele’s speech to all their friends overseas. Among Salvadorans abroad, Bukele achieved Ba’ath-level support, garnering 98 percent of ballots.  

Next to the plaza where we stood was the most recent addition to the cityscape: the new Biblioteca Nacional de El Salvador, a gleaming glass edifice I was told was built to resemble the form of a wave. Outside hung the flags of El Salvador and China, which had donated most of the funds for the library’s construction. It was only a year before Bukele assumed the presidency in 2019 that El Salvador had normalized relations with the People’s Republic, on the initiative of FMLN president Salvador Sánchez Cerén. (Prior to that, the country had recognized Taiwan, a residue of the Cold War.) Here again, it seems, Bukele has co-opted left-wing anti-imperialism, building up relations with Xi Jinping’s China—a country famously unconcerned about human rights—as a hedge against continued US influence. 

The new National Library is more like a multimedia microcosm of global culture. Its contents are an eclectic hybrid, where universal literature is juxtaposed with tokens of Salvadoran identity and icons of mass entertainment: Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and so on. Signage is trilingual, written in Spanish, English, and Nahuatl, the language of the indigenous Pipil people, barely spoken, much less read. There are computers with video games loaded up, too, but children only get to play after they’ve been observed completing an age-appropriate amount of reading, as one guard approvingly explained to me. One room honors Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a national hero because his wife, Consuelo, was Salvadoran. Copies of The Little Prince, the asteroidal moonscape of which was reputedly inspired by El Salvador’s volcanic landscapes, are available in both Spanish and Nahuatl. The library is open 24 hours, and late on the night Bukele was to deliver his victory speech, there was still a line around the block to get in. 

“The power exerted by gangs amounted to an acutely oppressive form of neoliberal privatization.”

When he inaugurated the building in November (the same month he welcomed the Miss Universe contestants), Bukele reiterated a mantra he’d deployed previously: “The public should be better than the private.” This sounds like a direct repudiation of the Washington Consensus-era push for privatization, which was adopted by the post-civil war ARENA governments of the 1990s and 2000s. One shouldn’t overstate this: Bukele has imposed public-sector cuts and privatizations. But the improvement of public spaces and facilities loomed large in many conversations I had, and even his security measures can also be conceived of this way, especially in a part of the world where security is often the private luxury of those who can afford to pay for it. The power exerted by gangs amounted to an acutely oppressive form of neoliberal privatization of public space, in which those who couldn’t afford walled compounds and private guards found their lives dictated by the whims of organized crime. 

In Joan Didion’s Salvador, reported during the most gruesome era of civil war, the author found herself at one point in “Central America’s Largest Shopping Mall”—which, she mordantly remarked, “embodied the future for which El Salvador was presumably being saved” by American intervention. That future was realized after the peace accords. San Salvador, especially the more upscale sections far from the city center, abounds in shopping malls. For Bukele’s admirers, the library—along with the market, the park, and other renewed public spaces—embodies the future for which he has saved El Salvador, and it is a different vision than the shopping mall. It isn’t the End of History utopia of multinational corporations and global brands, which ultimately underwrote the 1992 peace accords, promising that the free flow of goods and services would ensure peace. But despite its Chinese backing, the utopia projected by the library also isn’t the socialist or social-democratic one the president may have paid lip service to during his earlier career in the FMLN. Instead, like the post-ideological placeholder of “Nuevas Ideas,” it is more like a screen onto which people’s desires and hopes can be projected.     

‘Si pequeña es la patria, uno grande la sueña”: If the fatherland is small, one dreams it large. So reads a line from the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío emblazoned on the Hula Hula market, another of Bukele’s urban landmarks, a few blocks from the library. Dreams are a leitmotif of his career; he even named the compound where he and his family live “Los Sueños.” When I asked Salvadorans about the adoption of Bitcoin as legal tender, widely viewed as a fiasco that incurred huge financial and reputational costs, most admitted they didn’t use or understand the cryptocurrency, but they didn’t seem to hold its failure against the government. At least, the president was dreaming big on the economy as on other issues, even if some of the dreams didn’t pan out. 

For two decades, El Salvador has used the US dollar as its only currency, providing monetary stability but also ensuring its continued dependence on the hegemon to the north—a dependence also reinforced by the reliance on remittances from US-based migrants, which make up nearly a quarter of the country’s GDP. The poorly timed 2021 Bitcoin Law, which was implemented just before the cryptocurrency’s value tanked, hasn’t changed that. The Bitcoin ATMs installed around the country, some adjoining state-sponsored information booths, seem to be rarely used. But what Bitcoin represents—vague but ambitious hopes for a high-tech future, reduced dependency on the United States—is of a piece with the other dreams that feed Bukele’s appeal.

I asked the Honduran-Salvadoran novelist Horacio Castellanos Moya, known for his paranoid, darkly hilarious novels about the region, what he made of the young president’s rise. He replied with a simple point that is often overlooked: “Bukele’s popularity is not the product of having defeated the gangs.” That happened in 2022, well after he had crushed the opposition, first in the 2019 presidential elections and then in the 2021 legislative elections, and consolidated the institutions of state power in support of his agenda. In this sense, it was his popularity that enabled the defeat of the gangs, not the other way around. It is hard to imagine the apparent lockstep loyalty of state institutions would be what it is today without the public support behind the president’s projects, and without many within them being believers in the project they are undertaking. 

In Castellanos Moya’s account, Salvadorans coalesced around Bukele because they were “hypnotized by the promise of the new” the young leader embodied. In other words, it was the imaginative capture of the public by Bukele’s charismatic appeals that enabled the institutional capture. It is an argument one would expect from a novelist: Power over the imagination precedes political power and makes it possible. But I found this conclusion hard to dispute. 

The populist leaders of the 2010s, who seized on the new media technologies of the era to galvanize inchoate digital publics against discredited political establishments, resuscitated a specter from the early 20th century: the political Svengali hypnotizing the masses and activating mobs to shatter the comity of the liberal polis. In some cases, most notably that of Donald Trump, the machinery of power managed to forestall outsider firebrands from altering the structures of government. In a country with institutions as fragile as El Salvador’s, the story turned out differently. In Bukele’s first year in power, he struggled to pass legislation with the opposition parties still holding a majority in the legislature. So on Feb. 9, 2020, he did something audacious, convoking a special legislative session and then summoning his followers to a protest outside the assembly. It looked to many like an attempted coup, but it was more of a warning to fall in line or get out of the way. A little more than a year later, most of the legislators had been ousted and replaced by Nuevas Ideas delegates. 

During the pandemic, states of exception were mostly wielded by technocratic establishments and state bureaucracies, and often proved useful for beating back the populist barbarians at the gates. To name one example, the expansion of vote-by-mail under the Covid emergency was a crucial factor in Donald Trump’s defeat in 2020. In much of the developed world, emergency rule became associated with the agenda of liberal scientism and global health NGOs. In El Salvador, by contrast, it was the populist president who imposed a harsh lockdown just a year into his presidency, placing him at odds with courts that weren’t yet under his sway. The Covid emergency offered a dry run for the methods he has used to address the crime emergency. 

Bukele continues to “decide on the state of exception,” monthly, when he renews the 30-day state of emergency; the mandate he earned in his re-election was a mandate to continue doing so. During the pandemic, he locked down the entire population; when the high court challenged these emergency measures, he said if he was a dictator, he would have the judges shot, since a few deaths would be nothing compared to the Covid deaths prevented. Today, under the ongoing state of exception, he has locked up 70,000 odd people without due process on the basis of a comparable sacrificial logic. Any innocents caught up in it are seen as a small sacrifice for the sake of delivering what previous governments had failed to: peace. 

Ramírez, the organizer representing those unjustly imprisoned, told me the government now “admits there is a margin of error” in the mass arrests of so-called terrorists. To date, around 7,000 people have been released, a de facto admission of this reality. But other than those personally affected, most seem to prefer not to know this or other murky details around the pacification of the gangs. The week before the election, a bombshell report in the digital newspaper El Faro revealed a top official in Bukele’s administration had attempted to arrange the kidnapping in Mexico of a gang leader it had previously released, in the fear he would be extradited to the United States. If this happened, he might expose what journalists have long alleged: that before the massive roundup, Bukele was negotiating with the gangs, essentially trading favorable treatment for a reduction in violence. In some accounts, he is still cutting deals with some top leaders alongside his marquee hard-line policies. 

“‘God put him there to drive out the devil,’ as one of them put it.”

When I raised these issues with Nuevas Ideas supporters, they readily admitted that the police and military make mistakes and arrest the wrong people sometimes, and that there are unsavory elements in Bukele’s party and administration. But some said the defects of his underlings are all the more reason to grant even more power to the president. “God put him there to drive out the devil,” as one of them put it. The gangs themselves contributed to this sort of Manichean narrative: MS-13 got started as a satanist heavy-metal fandom and, once it had become a hardened criminal enterprise, continued to use satanic symbolism and rituals. It is hardly surprising that those who view the situation as a holy war are mostly indifferent to appeals to the rule of law, due process, and checks and balances.     

‘Terror is the given of the place,” Didion wrote of El Salvador in 1982. Castellanos Moya told me something similar: “The form of social domination in El Salvador throughout time has been terror: The army, the security forces, the guerrillas and the gangs have been the instruments of that form of domination.” Today, terror no longer haunts the streets of central San Salvador, but it hasn’t been eliminated altogether, merely relocated and concentrated, as the glossy videos of the Terrorism Confinement Center (capacity: 40,000) make clear. This new economy of terror is an altogether more tolerable one for most people, which is the simple reason behind Bukele’s reelection. But it is a more tenuous arrangement than it may seem. 

“Bukele has vowed to make his country the Singapore of the region.”

Bukele has vowed to make his country the Singapore of the region, but even superfans I spoke to told me the economy had been only average in recent years, with high unemployment still driving a lot of people to migrate. Although many told me that the elimination of the gangs created better conditions for starting small businesses, growth and investment haven’t been particularly impressive. Unlike Singapore, El Salvador remains highly reliant on securing IMF loans to keep the government running, which includes the considerable expense of funding the police, military, and prisons. The issuance of a loan may require austerity measures that work against populist appeals. 

History tells us that some of the most explosive political situations involve people whose rising expectations are disappointed. Pedro Cabezas, an environmental activist, told me: “Bukele is a bubble. No leader is popular for his whole life.” What’s more, the president’s flair for p.r. sometimes seems to work against his promises to put the country on a more stable long-term footing. A clear example is the Bitcoin experiment, which on the plus side attracted a great deal of attention to El Salvador for reasons other than violence and instability, but seems to have done little to improve economic prospects for most people—who don’t make much use of the cryptocurrency anyway—while raising concerns about the country’s solvency among international lenders and investors. 

Something similar applies to Bukele’s signature anti-crime policies. The continuation of the state of exception was so overwhelmingly popular that it was a sufficient re-election plank in and of itself. But reliance on states of exception proceeds from the admission that the normal functioning of the state is inadequate for addressing a crisis. If Bukele wishes to be a nation builder of the Lee Kuan Yew type—as he sometimes indicates he does—the building of mega-prisons will need to be matched by a broader buildup of the functions of the state, including a functional judicial system.  

The tragic fate of post-civil war El Salvador was to reveal some of the blind spots of the End of History, an era in which the peace and prosperity brought about by universal commerce turned out to be very unevenly distributed. Like many countries over the past half-decade, the tiny nation has broken, albeit unevenly, with that paradigm. But fully reversing the empowerment of private actors—criminals included—at the expense of state capacity will require a single-mindedness and fortitude not often rewarded by social-media feedback loops. The consequences of failure could be deadly serious. As Castellanos Moya warns: “Violence in El Salvador is a merry-go-round that never stops turning.” What the next turn brings will depend on whether it proves possible to make good on the dreams now harbored by so many Salvadorans.

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