Opinion / Politics

Not All U.S. Conservatives Buy the Bukele Act

El Faro
El Faro

Wednesday, March 6, 2024
Ricardo Valencia

Leer en español

In five years, President Nayib Bukele went from criticizing the Salvadoran left for not being “left enough” to becoming one of the keynote speakers at the Conservative Political Action Convention (CPAC) in Washington, D.C., where the Salvadoran head of state attacked globalism and called on Americans to vote in the upcoming November presidential elections. He accused President Joe Biden of not working with his government and said he preferred his old relationship with the former president and Republican candidate Donald Trump.

Bukele is an ideological chameleon that conveniently changes costumes and loyalties. He currently repeats conspiracy theories linked with the far-right in the United States, which coincide with those replicated by Russia’s disinformation machine. His lobbyists in the United States have attempted to consolidate that image for years. In 2019, Bukele met with Trump after giving a speech on China at the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation.

The staging has been as follows: Republican Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) classified him as an ally of the United States, and Tucker Carlson, the far-right journalist who recently interviewed Russian President Vladimir Putin, also interviewed him. The latest episode in the far-right Bukele saga is to ban gender ideology —a euphemism for invisibilizing sexual and gender minorities— from official documents, almost at the same time that Javier Milei does so in Argentina.

Despite the millions Bukele has spent to build an image resembling Trump's, Bukele’s relationship with conservatives in the United States is complicated. Daniel Batlle, researcher at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, is not surprised by CPAC’s invitation because Bukele “won the applause at CPAC for his attacks on globalist elites.” However, for Batlle, “Bukele is an opportunist.” Batlle explains that, “at the international level, his government has joined the Belt and Road initiative and is facilitating greater projection of China in Central America.”

Batlle focuses on the claims that powerful conservative leaders are concerned about the Bukele government's apparent proximity to China. While Rubio defends Bukele, others prefer to stay quiet. The relationship's flaws are not based on Bukele's security policy and constant human rights violations but on his apparent collaborationist relationship with Beijing, the most important geopolitical opponent for the United States.

Bukele has already played both sides before. After initially meeting with Trump and haranguing Beijing in Washington, Bukele traveled to China in late 2019, where he extracted the money to build a public library that he later used during his campaign for unconstitutional re-election. The current library, where a Chinese flag stands, is a few meters from the National Palace, where Bukele gave a speech promising a “single party” regime in El Salvador.

Bukele’s relationship with China has cemented the distrust of a group of Congressional Republicans. In February 2022, Bukele confronted Senator Jim Risch  (R-ID), ranking member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, after a bipartisan group in the Senate approved a bill to mitigate Bitcoin adoption risks in El Salvador. Alongside Risch, Republican Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Democrat Bob Menéndez (D-NJ) affirmed that Bitcoin adoption has “the potential to debilitate the sanctions regime, empowering malicious actors like China and organized criminal networks.” Republican Representative Michael McCaul (R-TX), the Congressional Committee on Foreign Affairs chairman, stated that Central America was distancing itself from the United States and approaching China and that the only country loyal to Washington was Guatemala and President Alejandro Giammattei.

While Rubio has personally said that the Biden administration sanctions against Bukele authorities represent an attack on an ally, on February 20, 2024, Risch and six other Republican senators —including Rubio— did not mention El Salvador among the partner nations they say have been unnecessarily attacked by the Biden government. The senators criticized U.S. sanctions against Giammattei, who they described as a “security ally” of the United States, which “strengthened links with Taiwan and rejected ties with Beijing.” Not a word on El Salvador. 

Conservative sectors seem to understand China’s relationship with Bukele beyond diplomacy, as one involving family interests. Karim Bukele, the president’s brother, is tasked with El Salvador’s relationship with Beijing. Sources familiar with Sino-Salvadoran relations revealed to me that Karim negotiated Nayib Bukele’s visit to Beijing despite the supposed refusal of Salvadoran Foreign Minister Alexandra Hill, who did not make the trip. Karim is in official photos, and according to the BBC, he has had an active role in the Salvadoran executive’s dynamic with China. The Chinese playbook in El Salvador seems to follow the same script that it used with the Nicaraguan dictatorship of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo: In Managua, it is the son of the ruling couple, Laureano, who is the principal broker with China.

For Daniel Di Martino, a Venezuela economist who spoke at CPAC in 2020, Bukele has been “successful” in security issues, which is why he copies the language of the U.S. right on social media. However, Di Martino, a contributor featured often in conservative media outlets, says Bukele should not be evaluated positively by the United States “because he’s violating the constitution,” violating what he asserts is a central tenet in the conservative creed: rule of law and separation of powers.

Bukele’s extreme-right speech seeks to hand fresh meat to an ultraconservative group enmeshed in a fight against “global elites.” But Bukele does not coincide with the prescribed economics of conservatism. The Salvadoran leader is building a state apparatus that accumulates power and uses public funds as part of its family finances. Contrary to libertarians like Milei, who seek to minimize the state, Bukele co-opts it, concealing the act under the guise of a new public contracting company and through pension manipulation. This approximates Bukele’s political ways to those of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, who dealt with public finances at his whim and without transparency.

Despite his speech at CPAC, Bukele could not meet in person nor snap a photo with Trump as he would have wanted. Milei did so, warmly embracing the former president, who in turn ultimately mention the Argentinean.

Would conservative distrust of Bukele impact foreign policy under a new Trump administration? I doubt it. A new Trump administration would present the Salvadoran president with a dilemma: Beijing’s easy money, useful for electoral campaigns, or a commitment with Trump’s Washington, who is not contemplating financing Bukele’s impoverished realm, which lacks natural resources and possesses little geopolitical significance. Bukele has previously switched ideology, discourse, and image, so anything is possible. Conservatives like Batlle, Di Martino, Risch, Cassidy, and McCaul distrust the president’s new disguise. Even Rubio has requested he cut relations with China, but Bukele wants a soccer stadium paid for by Beijing, which will surely be part of his eternal campaign to serve his ego. Rubio promises possible U.S. investments; China offers fresh cash.

*Translation by Vaclav Masek

Ricardo Valencia is an assistant professor of communications at California State University, Fullerton. Find him on X/Twitter: @ricardovalp

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