Skip to main content

EP. 1 Alguien como Bukele

EP. 1 Alguien como Bukele
EP. 2 Muévete rápido, rompe cosas
EP. 3 La hora de la medicina amarga
EP. 4 El evangelio (del Bitcoin) según Bukele
EP. 5 ‘Batman’ descubre el viejo negocio de la violencia
EP. 6 La última elección
Tráiler – Bukele: el señor de Los sueños
EP. 7 Después de Bukele


Ir al episodio

EP 6 . 09/02/2024

EPISODE 6. The last election

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: We have tried a path for 200 years and the results couldn’t have been worse.

[Silvia Viñas]: It is September 15, 2022. El Salvador is celebrating its Independence.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: For many who lost their family members, it was hell at its worst.

[Eliezer Budasoff]: Nayib Bukele is giving a speech to a room full of people in the Presidential House. It is being broadcast live on the national network.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: The only way left for El Salvador is this. We have tried it, too. It is not a campaign promise. We have tried it, and it is working for us. And we are not going to abandon it.

[Silvia]: His wife Gabriela is by his side. Behind him are four flags of El Salvador and a painting of Monsignor Óscar Romero, the Salvadoran priest murdered in 1980… known for his defense of human rights. 

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: We are not going to abandon it, no matter how many protests come from abroad.

[Eliezer]: Bukele has been speaking for more than 20 minutes when he finally says…

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: That is why, after talking with my wife Gabriela and with my family, I am announcing to the Salvadoran people that I have decided to run as candidate for the Presidency of the Republic…

[Silvia]: The applause lasts more than a minute. And then you start hearing this:

[Archive soundbite, public]: Re-election! Re-election! Re-election!

[Eliezer]: People are shouting: Re-election.

[Gabriel Labrador]: He is leveraging the fact that independence is being celebrated. It is statement—what seems to me like a statement of ownership of the country and its future.

[Silvia]: Gabriel Labrador, the Salvadoran journalist from El Faro who focuses on politics and with whom we begin this series. He is going to join us in this final episode.

[Gabriel]: And I think this is worth comparing with the announcement he made—do you remember?—when he announced that he was going to run for president; we’re talking about 2017. He makes an announcement on Facebook Live. Totally alone, in a small room in his house, a politician believing in a seemingly crazy cause, right? But he has this dream of winning the election. And that contrasts greatly with the announcement that he makes in 2022, in a rather important room with a number of high-level political guests.

[Eliezer]: There are ministers, legislators. There is his family… and also the Attorney General and the President of the Supreme Court… officials imposed by the Bukelist-controlled Assembly.

[Gabriel]: When Bukele makes the announcement, the President of the Supreme Court raises his two thumbs as if saying to Bukele, Good, good, I agree with what you are doing. Next to him the Attorney General smiles. And then, while everyone around then is clapping and cheering, the two of them shake hands. And then, that evening at the Presidential House, many officials, including the Supreme Court judges, stay to chat at a cocktail party hosted by the Presidential House. And I published that picture and well, it went a little viral because of course, I mean, we are in a country with no rule of law, with no division of powers, and I think that is demonstrated in the picture—the country’s most important judges at a cocktail party celebrating a decision as unconstitutional as the president’s re-election.

[Silvia]: You see, the Salvadoran Constitution is clear: re-election is prohibited. This is stated in six Articles. And it is something that Bukele himself explained on a television program in 2013, years before he was a presidential candidate for the first time:

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: The Constitution does not allow the same person to be president twice in a row. He can be president 80 times if he wants, but not in a row. So… That is to ensure that he does not remain in power or use his power to stay in power. If he leaves power and returns, it is because the people wanted to him back…

[Silvia]: And he said it again in March 2021 as president, in the interview he gave to Luisito Comunica, one of the ten most popular YouTubers in Spanish.

[Archive soundbite, Luisito Comunica]: Is there re-election here in El Salvador?

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: No, there is no re-election. And I would be out of the presidency at age 42.

[Eliezer]: So, how is it that a few years after saying this Bukele runs for re-election… and with the support of the people responsible for ensuring that the Constitution is enforced? That’s what we wanted to understand in closing this series. Because it is the culmination of what we have been telling you in the last 5 episodes. And the answer is important for El Salvador, yes, but also for the future of democracy far beyond its borders.

[Silvia]: This February 4 election in El Salvador is one of the first in a historic year. In 2024, more people than ever will go to the polls around the world. About 4 billion. But democracy is more than casting a vote… And this is something that has been written about quite a bit. We find reports on how crucial this year is for democracy in international media such as The Guardian, Forbes, The Economist, New Yorker, Vox, Al Jazeera. None of those I just mentioned talk about El Salvador in their articles. They mention Russia, the United States, Taiwan, India, South Africa…

[Eliezer]: But they ignore the impact that one of the smallest countries in Latin America can have. The Salvadoran elections start the electoral calendar in our region, where seven presidential elections will be held. After El Salvador comes Panama, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Uruguay, Venezuela and, as we already mentioned, the United States. The result in El Salvador will be a signal to citizens and politicians who see Bukele as a role model… 

[Gabriel]: The February 4 election is going to change our idea of what we understand by democracy.

[Silvia]: This is El señor de Los sueños, a podcast from Radio Ambulante Estudios. I am Silvia Viñas.

[Eliezer]: And I’m Eliezer Budasoff. Episode 6: The last election. 

[Silvia]: The idea of Bukele running for re-election is not that recent. Gabriel explained that it began to be speculated about quite early in his government, when they announced they wanted to reform the Constitution. We are talking about September 2020.

[Gabriel]: And the vice president, Félix Ulloa, was tasked with reforming and finding those reforms that could improve the Constitution that dates back to ‘83, 1983. And since then, the idea of re-election began to circulate among all legal analysts because there were already certain traits of populism that permitted us to say that President Bukele might seek to remain in power. That raised alarm bells. But with the pandemic and the emergency regime, this issue remained a bit on standby.

[Héctor Lindo]: Salvador’s Constitutional history is very consistent. 

[Eliezer]: This is Héctor Lindo, historian and professor emeritus at Fordham University, in New York. We asked him in what context the Articles of the Constitution that prohibit re-election were incorporated. And he told us that it that goes back much further than 1983, the most current Constitution.

[Héctor]: After 1886, Salvadoran Constitutions have categorically rejected re-election, in order to counteract the 19th-century tendency of Salvadoran rulers to perpetuate themselves in power. 

[Silvia]: By the way, this last statement may sound very similar to something we’ve already heard: not staying in power is something that Bukele himself mentioned in that television interview in 2013.

[Héctor]: On several occasions in the 20th century, prohibiting reelection was not so important because the presidency was not very personalistic. It was simply the instrument of economic groups that continued to hold power even when the current president changed. There is a very clear prohibition that has been enforced. But we could talk about examples of presidents who tried to be re-elected.

[Eliezer]: We can highlight dictator Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, who found a way to get around the ban.

[Héctor]: The Constitution that was written under his Administration prohibited re-election, but the Constitutional Assembly, which was totally controlled, introduced a formula that said, in essence, that on this occasion, and given the special circumstances the country is experiencing, we will allow the President to be re-elected. In other words, in principle, the Constitution prohibited re-election, but in practice, they opened a door for re-election. 

[Silvia]: And something similar happened this time. Bukele found his own formula to run for re-election. The first thing he did, Gabriel explained to us, was attack the Constitution.

[Gabriel]: That is the modus operandi of the Bukeles, of the Bukele Clan, which is to discredit something, attack it, hit it, distort its reality, the facts surrounding the matter, and then impose its own view. 

[Eliezer]: The strategy was to say that the Constitution had been designed by a right-wing politician…

[Gabriel]: That is, Roberto D’Aubuisson, founder of the ARENA party, linked to the death squads, in fact, and in fact, also linked to the murder of our saint Monsignor Óscar Romero. So Bukele uses that image of D’Aubuisson to say that that Constitution, if it had passed through the hands of D’Aubuisson the murderer, then it was bad. Which is a rather simplistic, crude, somewhat ridiculous argument, it seems to me, because D’Aubuisson did participate in the drafting of that Constitution, but it wasn’t just D’Aubuisson. Besides, this Constitution reflects the spirit of the other 13 Constitutions that El Salvador has had throughout its history, ever since its founding as a Republic. The spirit of our Constitutions prohibits re-election.

[Silvia]: So attacking the origin of the Constitution came first. But in practice, that was not enough. This is when the Constitutional Court comes in, which at this point was already made up of judges who had been appointed by the representatives of the Assembly controlled by Bukele. On September 3, 2021, the Court issued a resolution that says that it is up only to the people to decide whether the president should continue.

[Gabriel]: Yes, there is a small, vague effort at argument, but it falls apart at the first opportunity. I mean. There is an Article in the Constitution that clearly says that the presidential term is five years, not one day longer.

[Silvia]: Another says that if a President stays in power one more day, that forces an insurrection.

[Gabriel]: And there are others that say, for example, there is an article that says: it is the obligation of the Legislative Assembly to disown a President who intends to remain in office. And so there are about four very specific articles and two articles that indirectly, like the last one just mentioned, support this idea that the spirit of the Constitution is that re-election is not allowed. So what the Constitutional Court does is latch on to one small word to open a door. And this little word is candidate.

[Eliezer]: Because all the articles that prohibit reelection are written in presidential code. That is, they talk about the reasons why a sitting president cannot be re-elected. But there is one article, 152, that specifically talks about the requirements to be a candidate. And it says that someone who has been president for over six months during the period immediately preceding cannot be a candidate. Nor if he held office within the last six months before the new presidential term. So, in simple terms, according to the Constitutional Court, the requirement for Bukele to be able to run for re-election is that he leave his position as President six months before the beginning of the new presidential term.

[Gabriel]: This is specifically stated in this document, this resolution from the court. And, as the main argument, the argumentative point that the Bukelism uses to say, whether all I have to do is step away, or does the man have to step aside during six months before taking possession.

[Silvia]: Now, in electoral matters, the highest judge, the highest authority, is the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. They are the ones who must ensure that all Constitutional requirements and all laws are met in an electoral process. But in this case, this Tribunal did not put any objections to the Court’s ruling. The next day they published a statement in which they indicated that they were going to comply with the ruling of the Constitutional Court. And they said that if President Bukele signed up, they would guarantee his participation.

[Gabriel]: They do not assume their role as arbitrators and as the highest authority and of complying with the Constitution. They forget all that and, on the contrary, they play into Bukele’s hands.

[Eliezer]: Here it is important to mention that the type of control Bukele has over the Supreme Electoral Tribunal is not the same as that he has over other powers, such as the Assembly, the Constitutional Court or the Prosecutor’s Office. The judges of the Tribunal were appointed for the period from 2019 to 2024 by an Assembly that was not yet controlled by Bukelism. So, in this case, four of the five judges on the Tribunal voted in favor of this resolution and three explained that they supported what the Constitutional Court said about re-election.

[Gabriel]: It is clear that the Tribunal is, in fact, divided. There are some judges who try to show some resistance to the Court’s reasoning. But the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, at least since the Bukele era, has been under a lot of pressure from President Bukele, from officials, such as the president of the Assembly, who is a close friend of Bukele. And well, even Bukele’s Legislative Assembly approved a reform so that any official who prevents the registration of a candidacy is prosecuted with prison or punished with prison if found guilty. So by what logic is an official like the Supreme Electoral Tribunal going to refuse to register the candidacy of the most popular politician if there is that article that promises you jail if you become an obstruction?

[Eliezer]: This ruling of the Constitutional Court came only months after May 1, when the Bukelism-controlled Assembly dismissed the Attorney General and the judges of this Court. It was actually the ruling of a body made up of officials close to the President. So the international community condemned the sentence as another authoritarian move by Bukele.

[Silvia]: Gabriel says the most important reaction was from the United States. At that time, it did not have an ambassador in El Salvador. Its highest representative in the country was Jean Manes, who had the title of Chargé d’Affaires of the embassy. Manes had worked as a diplomat in the country. When Bukele was mayor of San Salvador they established a close relationship.

[Gabriel]: Following the announcement from the Constitutional Court, he decided to burn the ships. And in a press conference, as rarely done by a diplomatic representative, he levels harsh criticism at the decision of the Constitutional Court.

[Archive soundbite, Jean Manes]: This ruling is the direct result of the decision on May 1 by the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly to unconstitutionally remove the sitting judges from the Constitutional Court and install replacements loyal to the executive.

[Gabriel]: And he says that basically this is the path taken before by Venezuela.

[Archive soundbite, Jean Manes]: Where Chávez was democratically elected but was trying step by step to get more and more power and limit independence. And at the time, I think many Venezuelans thought they were living in a democracy. Because there were reasons for electing him. But when he is little by little removing the independence of the country’s institutions, we know where this path leads.

[Gabriel]: And comparing him to Chávez is, let’s say, one of the most explicit things the United States has done.

[Silvia]: Two months later, in November 2021, Manes announced that he was leaving El Salvador and that the United States had decided to put its relationship with the country on hold. 

[Eliezer]: A year later, in September 2022, Bukele made the announcement we heard at the beginning of the episode. And if you remember, he mentioned that they are not going to abandon the path they have tried, which he says works, no matter how many protests come from outside.

[Silvia]: But what does he use to justify being a candidate again? Because the first time he ran, as we saw, the discourse was against the traditional parties. But he can’t repeat that again, I imagine. So what does he say to justify re-election?

[Gabriel]: At that moment he focuses on selling the idea that the fight, the war against the gangs, is getting results. By then, the state of exception has been in effect for six months. Nearly 50,000 people have been detained, many of them innocent, of course, and they were proven to be innocent. There were also 73 people who died in prison without even being convicted, you know? In other words, there was a serious human rights crisis. But at the same time the state of exception was making Bukele very popular because he was giving something tangible to the people.

[Amparo Marroquín]: He has a communication team skilled enough to find the opportunity in each narrative. I think no one imagined that this big push that begins in 2022 with the state of exception, was really going to make the population feel calm. 

[Silvia]: This is Amparo Marroquín, professor of Communications and Culture at the José Simeón Cañas Central American University of El Salvador. Amparo is part of an international group of academics studying far-right movements in countries such as Turkey, Hungary, India, the Philippines, and, of course, El Salvador.

[Amparo]: I think what happens there is that we have a communication campaign that is effective in people’s daily lives, right? I mean, when Nayib Bukele says we have the largest hospital in Latin America, people do not feel in daily life that their health improves. When Nayib Bukele says we have a bitcoin policy that will give us much more financial power, people do not feel this in everyday life. But when Nayib Bukele says we are fighting the gangs, people feel that this is documented in their daily life.

[Gabriel]: And that is why his re-election announcement focuses on freedom, because Bukele says that without the gangs, Salvadorans—mainly ordinary Salvadorans—are enjoying unprecedented freedom as never before; that they can now go out, get to know the country safely, without feeling threatened, and that is not debatable. I mean, it’s a fact. The streets look different and there is a different atmosphere.

Amparo: Daily life has changed, and that is the best bitcoin you can have for re-election.

[Eliezer]: We’ll be back after a break.

[FLIP/Article 19]: In the presidential elections in Guatemala, it became evident that the stigmatization and harassment of journalistic work are forms of censorship aimed at discrediting journalists. These practices often intensify during electoral coverage, a concerning situation for the upcoming elections in countries like Mexico and El Salvador.

For the Foundation for Press Freedom in Colombia and Article 19 in Mexico and Central America, defending journalists during the electoral process is crucial to ensuring citizens’ access to information.

[Daniel Alarcón]: The production company behind «Bukele, el señor de los sueños» is Radio Ambulante Estudios. And we have two other podcasts you should listen to. Every Tuesday, we release Radio Ambulante. Stories of families, migration, adventure, and love. And every Friday, we release El hilo, where we cover and thoroughly explain an impactful news story from Latin America. Look for Radio Ambulante and El hilo on your preferred podcast app.

[Silvia]: We are back. When we talked in this series about the first time Bukele ran as a candidate for the 2019 presidential elections, we saw that it was quite a bureaucratic and long process. And of course, the scenario was completely different. Bukele wanted to run with a new party but couldn’t because of deadlines, but now he has his party already, Nuevas Ideas. He is already in power. But this time, he still had to go through several steps in order to submit his candidacy, and we’re going to go over them quickly, because the way Bukele approached each step reflects that he wanted to take advantage of the communication potential of each situation.

[Eliezer]: First, he had to register as a candidate for the internal elections of Nuevas Ideas. A step that sounds quite basic, simple. But he did it on the last day, at the last minute. It was at the end of June 2023. The following month he won those internal elections, without opponents.

[Gabriel]: That left one of the last steps remaining, which is to present that candidacy, after a supposedly democratic party election, to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. The official election calendar gave a deadline of October 26. All the candidates who emerged from the internal party elections had until midnight to submit their paperwork, etc. He says, well, I’m going to register with the SET, I think on October 24. It seemed strange to me that he would say that date, because the deadline was the 26th, not the 24th. And what this caused was a big media operation from the 24th, even from the 23rd, in front of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, as if waiting for Bukele’s registration. Then you saw you tubers…

[Archive soundbite, youtuber]: We are still here, look at the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.

[Gabriel]: Stationed permanently, almost from dawn to dusk. 

[Archive soundbite, youtuber]: There are certain rumors among the people who are waiting here that the president might not come today, because if he comes tomorrow, this will be too crowded with people and they will not be able to control it.

[Gabriel]: During the 24th, 25th, waiting for Bukele’s arrival. Of course, we journalists knew, from various sources, that Bukele was not going to arrive on those days, that he was going to wait until the last minute. But it caused this whole wave of expectation. As a good publicity guy, he knows that hype campaigns work very well.

[Silvia]: And the day of the registration deadline, October 26, was… dramatic.

[Eliezer]: It was night, and Bukele had not arrived yet. And messages began to circulate from the people closest to him, such as Ernesto Castro, the president of the Assembly and a long-time friend of Bukele… who tweeted, quote, «Our prayers with you, Mr. President.» This sparked rumors about Bukele’s health and that of his wife Gabriela, who was pregnant. It created a lot of expectation, even more than before because of all that time some followers had been waiting outside the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.

[Gabriel]: And well, everyone starts to doubt if he is going to arrive on time, etc.

[Silvia]: Gabriel says that it was never confirmed what happened, and no official explained the reason for those messages of support.

[Gabriel]: But by around 20 minutes before midnight, a big commotion breaks out, the presidential motorcade leaves for the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and he arrives with his brothers…

[Silvia]: What you hear is the people outside, welcoming him.

[Gabriel]: He looks a little tired, his face a little pale, nothing that is too compromising, but he manages to register that night.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: We have gone from being the most unsafe country in the world to being the safest country on the continent, but there is still a long way to go…

[Silvia]: That night he spoke through a megaphone to his followers outside the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: And we are going to do all that in the next five years.

[Amparo]: Nayib Bukele has turned politics into a show that, many, is worth seeing, a show that is enjoyable. What Bukele achieves is a show that is much more melodramatic, much more serialized—this is no longer a soap opera, it’s an American series. So this first season is where we have seen him. It has all the elements, in other words, the next day you can discuss with people where we left off in yesterday’s episode. We are in a country that doesn’t have Televisa, that doesn’t have Rede Globo, that doesn’t have Caracol, that doesn’t have… So the production of melodrama in this country has always been from politics, and now we have a president who is a showman, who has a PhD in melodrama production.

[Eliezer]: Lawyers and other political parties had submitted requests for Bukele’s candidacy to be canceled, both before and after October 26th. Before he was registered, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal argued that they could not decide on something that had not yet happened. And once registered, they also gave him the green light. On November 3, 2023, they made Bukele’s registration official as a candidate for the 2024 elections.

[Silvia]: That was not the only support Bukele received for his re-election. The United States changed its discourse. Under Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Brian Nichols visited Bukele at the Presidential House in those days. It was an official visit. And then he said this about his re-election on a television show:

[Archive soundbite, Brian Nichols]: I believe the decision to allow re-election and who will be the candidate preferred by Salvadorans, is an issue for Salvadorans. There must be a broad debate about the legality and legitimacy of the election, but it is a debate for Salvadorans.

[Eliezer]: According to a survey by the Central American University, seven out of ten Salvadorans agree that Bukele should be a candidate for re-election.

[Silvia]: Now, with Bukele officially registered, the question still remained of what he was going to do. Would leave office before the end of his presidential term or not. Remember the Constitutional Court had said that to be a candidate, he had to leave the presidency six months before the beginning of the next period. That was before December 1, 2023.

[Gabriel]: So by November 30 he sends a request to the Legislative Assembly. He’s supposed to hand in a resignation. But in the wording of the text —and we saw it that same evening— he talks about distancing himself, but that he will maintain his position as President and will have all the prerogatives he has maintained until now. What happens, according to what he writes, is that he will not perform his functions […] He asks the Assembly to maintain his security detail, the use of the presidential battalion, his transportation personnel, the use of presidential residences, and “any prerogative aimed at his legal security.” And this speaks specifically to Bukele’s need to continue being protected by law and continue enjoying all the benefits of being President. So it is not a resignation as called for in the Constitution; it’s like a pantomime in which he stops governing.

[Eliezer]: That request that he sends to the Assembly puts the name of his private secretary, Claudia Rodríguez, as the Acting President. Rodríguez in her position managed the budget of the Presidential House and has accompanied Bukele and her brothers for over ten years. She worked in his companies. She is trustworthy. But in the documents she signs, she does not show up as interim president or presidential appointee. Her title is: “chargé d’affairs.”

[Silvia]: And in this very particular scenario, how has the campaign been heading into these presidential elections?

[Gabriel]: Well, the presidential campaign in El Salvador has been unprecedented, it seems to me. One, because as political scientist Álvaro Artiga says, there is a notion, for the first time, that there is already a winner. Previously there was at least nominal competition. That is to say, there were probabilities—not possibilities—probabilities that any party would win, mainly the two big ones, ARENA or FMLN. The presidential elections were always very close. In the Legislative Assembly there was always a correlation in which the winning party always needed satellite parties to carry its agenda. But we do not foresee this happening in 2024. Plus the fact that there have been a whole series of legal reforms to the electoral map: the number of representatives was reduced, the number of mayoral municipalities was reduced drastically. And this not only shatters the opposition’s chances at winning, it also helps Bukele continue on this path of concentration of power.

[Eliezer]: Gabriel finds it striking that this electoral campaign is not evident in the streets… There is a collective notion that Nuevas Ideas is going to win.

[Gabriel]: Even in the opposition there is a current of thought that says that the opposition should not have competed in the presidential election because it is known beforehand that Bukele was going to win. So efforts had to be focused on the Legislative Assembly, where the Executive Branch could be counterbalanced. So on the street you don’t see this electoral hype, the banners or the ads on TV. What you see is a path towards a hegemonic party where the ads you see the most are those of the Presidency of the Republic and those of the official party.

[Silvia]: Let’s talk for a moment about voting abroad. What has Bukele done to increase voting abroad?

[Gabriel]: Look, historically, voting abroad in El Salvador has not been so relevant in numerical terms. Although the possibility of voting was enabled for the diaspora, electoral among the many people who are outside—and there are millions—, participation has been very low.

[Eliezer]: In the last election, in 2019, less than 4,000 people voted. Since it was enabled in 2013, it has been difficult to vote from abroad. You had to register and send the ballot by mail.

[Gabriel]: And this year the feature has been that Bukele has supported a number of decisions that are kind of stoking the possibility that the vote abroad may increase significantly for the first time. And I think it is a way that Bukelism found to compensate for the votes lost here in the local territory, in Salvadoran territory. Maybe it is a little complicated to understand, but we have to understand something here: El Salvador has 3 million people abroad, we have 6 million inhabitants but 3 million are abroad, the vast majority of them in the United States. Bukele—and I think the audience knows it—is a phenomenon not only continentally, but even globally. And I do not think this is the work of the Holy Spirit. Rather, it is like a very effective media operation that President Bukele has implemented. And one way to do it is precisely that—it’s broadcasting a lot of messages outwards and especially to the community of Salvadorans abroad. 

[Silvia]: Like this one posted recently on TikTok by the official media outlet, La Nota… The music is theirs, by the way.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: The new Legislative Assembly approved voting abroad, which had been promised to our entire diaspora, so that after so many years they can participate in our country’s decisions. This is a historical moment, when Salvadorans have begun to be truly free and sovereign.

[Eliezer]: In fact, as we already saw, voting abroad was approved years ago. What the Assembly did is enable electronic voting for the diaspora. This has raised doubts in the opposition about how secure it will be if there is no voter registry abroad, if no one is observing the vote, like when it is in person, for example. The concern is that there could be fraud… But this vote has already started. It has been available since January 6 for Salvadorans abroad. Two election officials confirmed to The Associated Press that more than 50,000 people voted in the first three days. Twelve times more than in 2019.

[Gabriel]: The propaganda messages sent out to the United States are many and constant, and not only from the presidency. A lot of YouTubers are actually living in the United States. And they are propagators of the President’s narrative. 

[Archive soundbite, youtuber]: The story is not that Nayib Bukele seeks re-election. The story is going to be that Nayib Bukele is re-elected by all of you. That’s what we’re waiting for, right?

[Archive soundbite, youtuber]: These people from the opposition who say that security doesn’t feed anyone, of course it does, because if there weren’t so much security right now in El Salvador, all those people wouldn’t be visiting from abroad.

[Gabriel]: In fact, the official news program of El Salvador, the State Canal Diez newscast, changed its programming so it could broadcast here in Salvadoran time at 04:00. Which coincides with the early hours, let’s say 06:00 on the east coast of the United States—New York, where there are many Salvadorans. So there is a very obvious effort, a great effort by the government to communicate with those people who are abroad.

[Silvia]: Because the diaspora has a lot of influence in the country. It is fundamental for the economy. Remember that remittances represent at least a quarter of El Salvador’s Gross Domestic Product.

[Gabriel]: In other words, the day remittances are cut off, if that were to suddenly happen, I don’t know, but if they are ever cut off, the Salvadoran economy implodes, it would collapse immediately. We depend greatly on people who send remittances. And I think that relationship is like a son or daughter who depends on his father, who sends him money. If the father or mother who sends money tells their dependent to vote and that the best option is Bukele, they will do it. 

[Silvia]: And what can we expect on February 4?

[Gabriel]: I think at that point the door to dictatorship will officially open, with the support of the majorities. 

[Amparo]: I think what the outcome of an election like this does is confirm two things. First, Bukele’s political communication strategy is the most successful in the region. The narrative he sets up allows democracy to be dismantled and everyone agrees that democracy is not the best system, so the antidemocratic narrative wins and it is shown that it has won. And the second thing is, I think that in Central America as a region there is a lesson that is important to remember, and that is the lesson that Juan Orlando Hernández and Daniel Ortega left us, which is: Never give up power, so you can die peacefully in your bed. 

[Silvia]: Juan Orlando Hernández, of Honduras, was the first President of that country to seek re-election since the return of democracy. And he achieved it. But when he left power, he was extradited and charged in the United States for drug trafficking. On the other hand, Ortega, in Nicaragua…

[Amparo]: Everything indicates that he is going to die peacefully in his bed, without ever being judged, without ever being held accountable to Nicaraguan society or to the Central American region for what he has done. So, I think that what Bukelism also understands is that if you have opted for power without checks and balances, that power has to be maintained in a region like ours, because the moment you lose power you are in trouble. Therefore, we have to defend that power like a cat that’s belly-up, as my grandmother would say, to the extent that political communication allows you and to the extent that the coercive arm of the State allows you.

[Gabriel]: To pursue an agenda, I think, that is more intolerant and more repressive.

[Eliezer]: Because Gabriel says that, by winning re-election, Bukele will be able to say that the people voted for him and that means they are on the right path… It gives him permission to continue.

[Amparo]: I don’t know which way the script-writers are going to lean, but let’s say I have a feeling like when you say well, how do you think the second season will be? Is it going to be the same or not? I think the second season can continue the same if Bukele’s popularity continues, it will remain basically the same. I am afraid that if Bukele’s popularity declines, Bukele will get the Army out.

[Silvia]: Deploying the army, for many societies in Latin America, is a very simple way to evoke life under a dictatorship. In 2021, Bukele promised to double the number of military personnel in the country from 20,000 to 40,000 within five years. By 2022, the year for which we have the most updated data, it had already increased to 24,500, making it the largest army in Central America. But he hasn’t just sent them to the streets; he has strengthened their image and resources and prioritized their role in internal security over the civilian police.

[Eliezer]: When we were reporting for the episode on the state of exception, we asked lawyer Zaira Navas, who researches the rule of law, what it meant in practice for this measure to become a form of governance. Zaira told us that, after the civil war, El Salvador had managed to build democratic institutions, a series of organisms and controls aimed at preventing the abuse of force and the return of dictatorships. She mentioned that this government had adopted a war security approach, with an added element: a tremendous advertising campaign.

[Zaira Navas]: Now the Armed Forces take center stage in security matters, openly speaking about national security. They openly talk about internal and external enemies. The amount of weaponry purchased for the Armed Forces does not correspond to the situation in the country.

[Eliezer]: Bukele, as Gabriel says, often uses a numerical argument to laugh off those who call him a dictator: he was democratically elected by the majority. «There are the polls,» he says. The people support him.

[Silvia]: We asked historian Héctor Lindo if he thought the word «dictatorship» was too strong to describe Nayib Bukele’s government in El Salvador. Because, for many of us who have lived or know the recent history of the region, it is more associated with seizing power by force, with the military overthrowing a democratic government, not supporting a very popular president. Héctor told us that popularity did not define whether it was a dictatorship or not.

[Héctor]: I believe that dictatorship also refers to governments that function without the limits that come with the system of checks and balances by three independent powers of the State. It is a form of government that does not have those limits that the Constitution normally imposes. 

[Silvia]: And he told us that, to him, this was clear in the direction that Nayib Bukele’s Government had taken:

[Héctor]: I see an accelerated dismantling of all the limits that a healthy political system has in place to avoid the excesses of power; and this has a long-term effect, especially for the most vulnerable groups of the population that depend on the rule of law for some, some legal security.

[Eliezer]: Neither violating the Constitution, nor clinging to power, nor governing under a state of exception are new in the history of El Salvador, Héctor told us, despite Bukele’s obsession with presenting everything as a historic revolution. He explained to us that in the past, for example, the relationship between the degree of authoritarianism and advertising spending had also been very direct. What seems extraordinary to him is the degree and skill with which Bukele has done it. And there something else that does seem new to him: 

[Héctor]: He has internationalized his speech. Part of his efforts on social media is not directed only at Salvador, it is also directed at the Dominican Republic, Chile, and Argentina. This is something very bold and very innovative, that helps him gain legitimacy within the country. That is to say, this idea that the Dominicans want a Bukele, that the Argentines want a Bukele helps him to integrate internally, and that is something very new in his strategy.

[Silvia]: For months, we asked again and again about this: What had Bukele done to become the exemplary model for Latin American politicians who seek popularity by attacking democracy in Latin America. One answer: Convince a society plagued by inequality and violence that empathy is incompatible with efficiency. That to have security, rights must be waived. That there wasn’t room for everyone. 

[Amparo]: What Bukele is proving to everyone is that there should be no human rights, there should only be rights for good people. And who decides who are the good people? He does. To me, that’s the big problem. We spent the entire 20th century insisting that we all had human rights, that we all had the presumption of innocence. What Bukele is pointing out is that this has been the problem and that is why crime grows in the shadow of human rights.

[Eliezer]: Nayib Bukele built his power on the cracks in democracy. In 2018, when he ran for president, El Salvador had the lowest belief in democracy in Latin America, according to the Latinobarómetro survey: only 28% of respondents supported it. And what Bukele did during his presidency, as we have seen in this series, was not to repair those cracks but to exploit them.

[Silvia]: Now, for Salvadorans, the concentration of power is a minor issue, according to a January 2024 survey. It did not reach 2%. The same survey conducted a mock vote for February 4th. They asked respondents to mark the ballot as they would on that day. Almost 82% of those who agreed to participate in the simulation chose Bukele.

[Eliezer]: Throughout this series, we contacted former collaborators of Bukele, former campaign advisers, former justices of the Constitutional Chamber, current allies of the president in the Legislative Assembly, and other actors in Salvadoran politics who did not respond. They either could not or did not want to give their testimony. We also contacted the international press coordinator of President Nayib Bukele for an interview, but we did not receive a response.

Of course, why would he speak?

He has already won.

[Silvia]: This series was made possible thanks to the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Free Press Unlimited, Article 19 Mexico and Central America, the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP), and Dejusticia. Additionally, we thank FLIP for their advice and legal review, and Riesgo Cruzado for their valuable support in protection and security matters.

The producers and reporters of «Bukele: el señor de Los sueños» are Eliezer Budasoff and me. Gabriel Labrador is our reporter and on-site producer. Desireé Yépez is our digital producer. Daniel Alarcón and Camila Segura are our editors. Carlos Dada is our editorial consultant. The fact-checkers are Bruno Scelza and Desireé Yépez. Selene Mazón is the production assistant. The music, mixing, and sound design are by Elías González. The graphic design and art direction are by Diego Corzo. The web development is by Paola Ponce. Thanks to Jonathan Blitzer for his support.

«Bukele, el señor de Los sueños» is a podcast from Central, the series channel of Radio Ambulante Estudios.

From Radio Ambulante Studios, the production co-directors are Natalia Ramírez and Laura Rojas Aponte, with the assistance of Paola Alean. The audience and digital production team is formed by Samantha Proaño, Ana Pais, Analía Llorente and Melisa Rabanales. Press and community management is handled by Juan David Naranjo.

Camilo Jiménez Santofimio is the director of alliances and financing. Carolina Guerrero is the executive producer of Central and the CEO of Radio Ambulante Estudios.

You can follow us on social media as centralpodcast RA and subscribe to our newsletter at

I am Silvia Viñas. Thank you for listening.


Produced and reported by: Silvia Viñas and Eliezer Budasoff

Produced and reported on site by: Gabriel Labrador

Digital Production: Desireé Yepez

Edited by: Daniel Alarcón and Camila Segura

Editorial Consulting: Carlos Dada

Fact-checking: Bruno Scelza and Desirée Yépez

Production Assistant: Selene Mazón

Music and Sound Design: Elías González

Graphic Design and Art Direction: Diego Corzo