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El Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele has drawn admiration and condemnation since he first took office in 2019.
The former mayor of the capital of San Salvador whose maternal grandparents hailed from Jerusalem, Bukele created a bitcoin investment fund after making the cryptocurrency legal tender in the country, for example, earning plaudits from technophiles worldwide. Foreign Policy magazine noted that Bukele had pioneered “hustle-bro populism,” or a regular guy-tech geek-entrepreneur persona that appealed to rich and poor alike. He has more than seven million followers on TikTok alone, added the Americas Society/Council of the Americas.
He also launched a draconian crackdown on crime that critics say has compromised human rights in the Central American country. Declaring a state of emergency in late March 2022, Bukele and the country’s parliament suspended constitutional rights and gave the president broad powers that have been extended multiple times. Telling police to round up gang members who have long plagued the country, they put 33,000 people behind bars within two months, according to InSight Crime.
A total of 72,000 people are now in prison. Many claim that they were arrested and convicted unfairly, leading authorities to release 7,000 people either because they exonerated themselves or still face trial.
A local human rights group, Cristosal, also claimed that more than 150 prisoners who have yet to be convicted died while in the El Salvadoran justice system. “There are registries in the Forensic Medicine Institute that establish the cause of death as strangulation, hanging, blows to the stomach, to the head,” said Cristosal activist Zaira Navas in an interview with the Associated Press. “They are violent deaths.”
Despite the dark side of his administration, however, Bukele is the frontrunner in the country’s presidential and legislative elections on Feb. 4, wrote Americas Quarterly. He enjoys an amazing approval rating of 90 percent. Crime statistics explain why. In 2015, El Salvador was the most violent country in the Western Hemisphere. The murder rate was 103 per 100,000 people. In 2022, the rate had fallen to fewer than eight murder victims per 100,000 people.
Furthermore, as CoinDesk reported, the country’s Bitcoin fund is now showing a profit after sinking into the red for the past two years. If Bukele wins another election, however, he will need to balance his authoritarian tendencies with his dreams of making the country into a tech hub, contended the think tank Stratfor.
Meanwhile, he’ll face two mainstream political parties’ candidates: Manuel Flores of the leftwing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMNLF) and Joel Sánchez of the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance.
As analysts point out, with Bukele’s 90 percent approval rating, most don’t foresee either prevailing.