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Nayib Bukele and COVID-19: The velvet glove hiding the iron fist

Nayib Bukele and COVID-19: The velvet glove hiding the iron fist

Nestor Castillo

I have avoided writing anything in regard to Nayib Bukele, the selfie taking 37-year-old president of El Salvador. 

I have to admit, early on I was seduced by Bukele. Especially when he was still part of the leftist party, as were many others who were supporters of the FMLN. My parents, who were never ardent supporters of the Frente, even went to a fundraiser in San Francisco held by the Comite de Base where they had dinner and took pictures alongside the former party rising star. 

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When he split with the party (and it should be noted that there is a long history of those who take a hard turn to the right from the left, although Nayib claims to be neither left nor right, but to have transcended politics as usual), my parents followed, alongside many others who were unsatisfied with the short-lived leftist government rule. 

Nayib has the highest popularity of any president in Latin America, and yet, he has been criticized for his autocratic tendencies by major media outlets and smaller leftist publications alike. The critique has been well-deserved.  

Nayib is not a fascist, as I’ve heard some of my Salvi-American colleagues state. He is a ruthless pragmatist, which is  just as dangerous. The expression, “dime con quién andas y te diré quién eres,” is fitting to use in the case of Bukele. He has undoubtedly turned towards the two great powers, one in decline and the other on the rise. 

Last December, Bukele traveled to China to meet with Xi Jinping and signed a massive investment agreement. According to reports, the Chinese will assist in building a large sports stadium, a multistory library, a water treatment plant, as well as assisting in the development of coastal cities in order to promote tourism. This development may be on temporary hold for now, but if that scares some of you, I would check your internalized sinophobia. As the Greek economist, Yanis Varoufakis, has stated: “The [Chinese] have been far more humanistic than the United States ever was… of course they are peddling for influence but they are non-interventionists in a way that the West has never managed to fathom.”

Before meeting with the Chinese, Bukele made it loud and clear who his friend is first and foremost. He traveled to Washington D.C. and spoke at the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank whose most ultraconservative ideas shaped Reagan policy in the 80’s and have now returned to the White House via Trump. 


By cozying up to Trump, Bukele has made one hell of a pact. He has given up the rights of migrants and in exchange, he remains in the good graces of the White House. Just recently, Trump applauded Bukele on twitter for cooperating on enforcement of the southern border and as a reward, Trump has promised him ventilators. All while, planes of deportees continue to arrive nearly daily. 

The health minister of Guatemala while speaking to the press stated that he estimated nearly 50-75 percent are infected with COVID-19. You can only imagine the numbers arriving in El Salvador are much the same. All the deportees are immediately sent to quarantine centers for a total of 30 days, some of which are unaccompanied children, according to the International Rescue Committee. 

This is all in the context in which resources are strained due to the national quarantine being enforced by the Salvadoran police and military with a long troublesome record

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How do we make sense of this? How does Bukele maintain such a high popularity even while being critiqued by various sectors and the press? As I am writing this, Bukele’s press secretary tweeted out, “we have mixed all the terrorist groups in the same cell,” referring to the gangs who in the past were segregated based on affiliation. Most troubling is the various photos of hundreds of men sitting in rows front to back in nothing but their underwear and a simple surgical mask. A truly terrifying image. 

What is even more terrifying are those who will come to the defense of the president willing to sacrifice human rights of prisoners for a false sense of security. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek once wrote that we would have two options: the neoliberalism promoted by the west, or the authoritarian but more efficient capitalism promoted by the Chinese and Singapore. 

The answer for Bukele has been why not both? 

In this particular moment, this choice justifies the use of force and suppression to promote the well-being of all Salvadoran society. An iron fist in a velvet glove if we consider the $300 stipend distributed to Salvadoran families and the postponement of payments. In the long term, what this means is that the best outcome is also the worst: a moderately efficient capitalist state in which the democratic process is merely a veneer.   

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