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‘Give me Liberty, or give me... Security’: Why Bukele’s Strategies Won’t be Exported Abroad

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Opinion Piece

Nayib Bukele, 2023 - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The world’s ‘coolest dictator’. The man with the plan. Nayib Bukele, the charming, democratically elected autocrat of El Salvador, has made headlines in recent months for his controversial clampdown on organised crime across the country. His ‘mano dura’ (iron fist) security strategy has resulted in the arbitrary arrests of almost 70,000 Salvadorans, mass-trials for hundreds of criminals at the same time and has resulted in the murder rate plummeting to lows not seen in decades. Bukele’s approval rating has soared to 93%, and he enjoys a celebrity, cult-like level of support across Latin America.


As Bukele ignores his country’s burgeoning debt-crisis and snubs the pleas of thousands of distraught mothers who claim their sons have been wrongfully incarcerated, his popularity continues to soar. Salvadorans have made the conscious decision to trade in their hard-earned democratic freedoms for a glimmer of hope; hope that they can go to work without the risk of kidnappings, and that they can run a business without threat of extortion. And who can blame them? But such a trade-off does not come without risks.


Bukele has made the conscious effort to portray himself as a ‘cool guy’. He’s young, charismatic, and enthusiastically patriotic. Except he isn’t.


Last year, Bukele announced a temporary state of emergency, allowing him to suspend constitutional rights for all citizens, under the pretext of confronting gang violence. Since then, prison cells have been stuffed to the brim, and thousands of young men have been incarcerated for indefinite amounts of time. Bukele has also gutted El Salvador’s courts, removing key opposition magistrates from the Supreme Court and replacing the Attorney General. And just to tick off every box on the autocrat’s checklist, journalists have accused the police of hacking phones and making threats over their coverage of Bukele’s power-grab.


And now Bukele wants to export this form of government abroad. Salvadoran Minister Gustavo Villatoro has boasted that his officials have met with Guatemalan and Honduran counterparts to share tactics and information, and foreign politicians are routinely invited to witness the crackdown in person. But such tactics are short sighted, and most likely won’t be replicated abroad.


The reasons are multi-faceted, but first and foremost is the fact that for many across the continent, the trauma of recent dictatorships is still fresh. Bukele’s purported political idol, Hugo Chávez, was the autocratic ruler of Venezuela, and like Bukele he stripped down the judiciary and carefully dismantled his opposition under the guise of ‘security’ and ‘stability’. Chávez oversaw a period of intense corruption, utilising oil revenues to win support of business and political elites. Take one look at Venezuela today and you can see the long-term impacts of his rule. Just like Bukele, he secured his hold on power and quickly turned on the very people who elected him. But they had no means of removing him. And Chávez was relatively subdued compared to some of the sycophantic tyrants and dictators that have plagued the continent in the past century. So, we can only hope that lived experiences of dictatorships will trump the populist wave of short-term thinking that’s taking place in El Salvador.


Aside from the raw memories of past regimes, there’s also the fact that Bukele’s plans are nonsensical. Unless he plans to keep the thousands of newly arrested individuals in prison forever, he is simply delaying the inevitable. And most neighbouring governments who have praised Bukele are aware of this. So, they are watching and waiting. It’s clear that these prisoners will have to be released at some point. The international community’s response has been half-heartedly critical so far, but if the illegal detentions spiral out of hand, and forever-extending sentences continue to be handed out, the pressure on Bukele will mount. US sanctions have already been issued on some key industries - think of them as warning shots - So Bukele knows he’s got to tread lightly.


Ultimately, his approach will backfire. The war on gangs is costly, and Bukele’s populist economic reforms, coupled with various large-scale international sports and music events he’s put on, which critics label as government attempts at ‘sportswashing’, are destroying the already debt-fuelled economy. The IMF predicted that the country’s debt will reach 97.5% of GDP by 2027 if the government doesn’t alter its policies.


El Salvador is on a dangerous path. The popular support will only last so long. As the economy slowly declines, Bukele will struggle to finance his crackdown. We will most likely see a steady release of prisoners who have suffered extreme ostracization and abuse while incarcerated, who will probably return to their criminal roots. El Salvador plays an important role in the drug-trafficking world after all, and that market won’t stay empty for long. And those who were innocently swept up in the crackdown? They’ll no doubt come out as changed men, potentially getting drawn into criminal activities themselves. A truly vicious cycle.


Bukele’s short-sighted approach has given strong men across the continent a framework for success. But for the millions of ordinary people, who have fought and died for their democracies, Bukele’s heavy-handed approach will fail to impress. While gang violence is an awful issue, with seemingly no-end in sight, El Salvador’s plaster-sticking approach is not the answer. Politicians across the region may praise Bukele’s successes, and may borrow aspects of their security strategy, but Bukele will not achieve his goal of exporting his strategy abroad. The political risks are too high. El Salvador will act as a testing ground for an autocratic approach and will inevitably fail the test. For neighbouring governments looking on with curiosity, they will soon realise that trading liberty and democracy for short-term security won’t be worth it.

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