Opinion / Politics

Bukele’s Ideology Is Opportunism

Brendan Smialowski
Brendan Smialowski

Wednesday, July 3, 2024
El Faro Editorial Board

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Nayib Bukele has announced on social media the firing of 300 employees of the Salvadoran Ministry of Culture for “promoting agendas that are not compatible with the vision of this administration.” Among those sacked —the most recent victims of Bukele’s opportunist turn— were all of the members of the National Choir.

In February he denounced these “incompatible agendas” at the ultraconservative Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland. He said that his administration would remove “[gender] ideology from the schools and universities.” He added that parents are made to “pay for [their children] to have an education in things that go against nature, against God.” 

As unlikely as it might sound to those who have not closely followed the political process in El Salvador, the man who uttered those words is the same who a decade earlier, as candidate for mayor of San Salvador, met with LGBTQ+ advocacy groups to tell them that defending their rights was the modern civil rights battle, and that to do so was to be on the right side of history. 

As a video we recently published demonstrates, Bukele has transformed from an ally of the LGBTQ+ population to a touter of ultraconservative policies. What yesterday was a fundamental principle is today worth nothing. How many times have we seen this kind of contradiction since he rose to the presidency? Power has transformed him into the antithesis of the politician he claimed to be prior to 2019.

Before the presidency unleashed his megalomania, Nayib Bukele carefully crafted his image as a progressive, a democrat, a modernist. He identified as a “man of the Left” committed to the ideals and struggle of his party at the time, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). He was such a faithful adherent to the party agenda that he was a significant beneficiary of AlbaPetróleos and his family received more than $100,000 dollars from the secret presidential budget of the Salvador Sánchez Cerén administration. He claimed to be respectful of the Constitution and warned against anyone who seeks reelection because, as he himself argued at the time, it is antidemocratic and unconstitutional. He claimed to believe in an inclusive society. He defended the separation of powers and declared himself an enemy of corruption.

Today none of that remains. By 2019, Bukele was already out of the FMLN (they had a falling-out after the party denied him the presidential ticket). But he had already spent enough time in politics to attract to his new project some of the most corrupt operatives of the FMLN and Arena parties. He introduced and empowered a group of Venezuelan advisors who came from the opposition movement against the Nicolás Maduro regime. It was a fortuitous encounter; Bukele was not as Chavista as he had claimed, and the Venezuelans proved to be more antidemocratic than Chavismo. Hand-in-hand with them, Bukele shuttered all access to public information, protected his most corrupt officials, pursued his critics, dealt a coup to the judiciary, concentrated control of the entire state apparatus, and repeatedly violated the Constitution in order to be reelected.

He was “converted” into a religious man, calling himself during his first presidential term “an instrument in the hands of God.” He invited televangelists to Casa Presidencial and flew in private jets —the owners and costs of which he never revealed— while taking pictures to be distributed on his social media accounts. He pacted with criminal organizations and made state secrets, threats, and propaganda the pillars of his political project. In March 2022 he decreed a state of exception that became permanent. He demanded mass detention quotas from the Police and Army and constructed the largest prison on the continent. Torture and death have returned to Salvadoran prisons.

Now a de-facto president, Bukele has forgotten the principles he once professed, adopting a repressive and conservative discourse that has made him an inspiration for the most decrepit of the Latin American right wing.

But Bukele is not a man of the Right. Nor was he ever of the Left. He is a politician without ideology, with a compass moved only by the political headwinds. When it was convenient to raise the banner of the Left, he did so. When it was profitable to break into the system as an outsider, he became an outsider. When discourse moved to the far-right, so did he. A man like this holds no ideas, principles, or utopias. He is nothing more than an opportunist.

Ecuadorian President Daniel Noboa recently described him as such: “The guy is arrogant and all about controlling power for himself and making his family rich.” (Later, the Ecuadorian Office of the Presidency said that Noboa’s words had been taken out of context, but it is hard to imagine a context that could soften them.) While Noboa himself may not be a standard-bearer of anything, his description of Bukele is correct.

But as an opportunist he has not sworn an oath of solitude. He is the visible head of a project composed of people who share his nature, of opportunists who have belonged to various parties of the left and right, of those who have done whatever it takes to be praised, of former activists in favor of culture and inclusion who now have conveniently gone quiet. Even of certain LGBTQ+ people, who applaud the ultraconservative discourse on which their jobs now hang. Of his vice president, Félix Ulloa, who used to tear his garments in the name of democracy and the Constitution, only to become an apologist for doing away with the separation of powers and for Bukele’s unconstitutional reelection. Of the corrupt who survive changes in government by putting their knowledge at the service of its current tenants; of unprincipled opportunists.

In the flock of officials who responded with their own tweets to celebrate the recent firings, one ruling-party legislator claimed that “the promoters of the 2030 Agenda have no place in the Salvadoran state.” The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is a set of ambitious commitments adopted by the U.N. General Assembly to be achieved by the year 2030, such as the eradication of poverty, zero hunger, quality education, health, gender equality, and clean water. But does the definition even matter, when Bukele’s strategy truly hinges on propaganda and fueling prejudice? If such an agenda includes gender equality, it must be shut out from the halls of power in El Salvador. But tomorrow, if Bukele deems it beneficial, it could yet take a privileged place in his discourse.

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