Emily Meggs | Latin American Fellow
Have you heard of the world’s self-proclaimed ‘coolest’ dictator? His name is Nayab Bukele. A prolific Twitter user, his current bio describes himself as ‘CEO of El Salvador.’ In the 2021 Salvadorian election, his Nuevas Ideas party swept to power with a supermajority and Bukele quickly moved to solidify his power. The most notable policy from this ‘cool’ dictator has been the introduction of Bitcoin as legal tender in El Salvador, a world first.
Bukele, a former marketing executive and political outsider, swept into politics and power in 2019. He won 53 per cent of the vote and in 2021, his party won 56 out of 84 available seats. In fact, Bukele is the most popular leader in Latin America with an approval rating of 85 per cent, only dipping to 75 per cent with the introduction of Bitcoin. Bukele’s popularity rests atop two pillars: his promise to eradicate corruption and his harnessing of social media.
Bukele has positioned himself as the only man capable of cleaning up corruption in El Salvador. He has somewhat succeeded as the once global “murder capital” has witnessed a drastic reduction since Bukele assumed office. He also promised to eradicate corruption; which juxtaposes him to the previous president, who is currently under arrest on corruption and money laundering charges. Bukele has arrested corrupt individuals and politicians; some coincidentally belong to his political opposition. His second pillar, social media, is integral to Bukele’s stranglehold on El Salvador as he oozes a sense of authoritarian coolness across his Instagram and Twitter profiles. He has created a strongman persona founded on heavy disinformation, akin to the content that led to Trumps’ removal from Twitter, and “relies on a network of amplifiers or influencers that push his ideas and transform them into the format that will help them stick.”
Following the success in the small beach town of El Zonte, Bukele announced the introduction of Bitcoin as legal tender, alongside the U.S. dollar. This has been implemented via the app Chivo, funded by taxpayers yet managed by an anonymous source. The shift to cryptocurrency was engineered to help bring the 70 per cent of El Salvadorians who do not have bank accounts into the formal economy. Moreover, Bitcoin would allow for easier and quicker remittances to flow in the small Central American nation, jump-starting the El Salvadorian economy where 30 per cent of people are underemployed, and help alleviate their national debt.
However, this has drawn the ire of the international community, specifically international lending organisations. The cryptocurrency policy has been opposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and consequently, El Salvador has had its debt status downgraded by Moody’s. There are valid concerns that Bitcoin could be used by organised crime syndicates to launder money. Moreover, if the cryptocurrency is deemed legal tender, it would have to be accepted by El Salvador’s creditors as payment – equal to the currency produced by El Salvador’s central bank.
There has been widespread backlash to Bukele’s cryptocurrency policy. As many as 66 per cent and up to 93 per cent El Salvadorians oppose the introduction of Bitcoin, leading to large-scale protests in the capital, San Salvador. Practically, only one-third of Salvadorans use the internet and a quarter live below the poverty line, questioning the efficacy of using cryptocurrency. Furthermore, Chivo asks for access to the users microphone and contact list, which are unnecessary functions for the app and raises privacy and security questions for El Salvadorians.
There is further conjecture that Bukele has used Bitcoin as a smokescreen to consolidate his power and cement himself as the ‘Emperador de El Salvador’ (his previous Twitter bio). During the Bitcoin rollout, Bukele overturned a Salvadorian rule preventing re-election as president for ten years, and is now free to contest the 2024 election. Additionally, Bukele replaced five members of the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court and the independent attorney general, whilst introducing a policy to terminate all judges aged over 60. It has become clear that he is actively undermining the Salvadorian constitution by increasing his control over all three branches of government. These actions have naturally been met with strong criticism from regional entities such as the U.S. and the Organisation of American States (OAS).
Bukele’s actions are indistinguishable from those of other Latin American strongmen. He surrounds himself with loyalists and uses intimidation against the legislature and political opposition. Bitcoin has proved to both shape his narrative as the saviour of El Salvador whilst allowing him to consolidate power elsewhere. This is despite the lack of public funds to invest in public infrastructure, education, or health. It raises questions about the future of democracy in El Salvador and the potential to destabilise the region.
Time will tell if the ‘cool’ dictator will be able to fully consolidate his power and remain in office indefinitely. But with an organic approval rating hovering between the 70s and 80s, it seems like the world’s ‘coolest’ dictator will shape El Salvador and Central America in the coming years.
Emily Meggs is the Latin American Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.