Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele stood before tens of thousands of thundering sports fans with a message: I am not a dictator.
“They say we live in a dictatorship,” Bukele declared, but “ask the bus passengers; go to a restaurant and ask the diners, the waiters. Ask whoever you want. Here in El Salvador they can go anywhere. It is totally safe… Ask them what they think of El Salvador, what they think of this government, of the supposed dictatorship”.
At the opening ceremony of the 2023 Central American and Caribbean Games, the comment was met with a roar of plause, with parts of the remodeled stadium chanting “Re-election!”
The Games have offered Bukele — the 41-year-old president who drives the bitcoin cryptocurrency and has unleashed a kind of populist fervor in his Central American nation and beyond — a chance to show a safer El Salvador in the biggest international event here since his government engaged in all-out war with the gangs.
But the competitions are also taking place at a time when Bukele faces accusations of systematic human rights violations for that same repression and while his government takes steps to undermine the country’s democracy.
Observers worry that certain events, including the Games — which draw athletes from 35 countries in the region — will allow Bukele save face internationally and show voters that he has global support in his bid for re-election despite the fact that the Constitution prohibits presidential terms of more than five years.
Often called “sports laundering”—the use of sport to divert attention from controversies and enhance reputations amid wrongdoing—, the tactic has been employed by autocratic governments around the world for decades. This accusation was recently made against Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman for his investments in golf, the World Cup and other international sporting events.
“They are events that give oxygen to the government to distract domestic attention from the big problems we have, and also show the world a face of modernity,” said Eduardo Escobar, executive director of Accion Ciudadana, an independent political watchdog group in El Salvador.
A little over a year ago, Bukele announced that the nation would enter a state of emergency, a measure that suspends constitutional rights in an attempt to confront increasing gang violence.
Since then, the government has detained 70,000 people —proximately one in every hundred Salvadorans—, imprisoning them with little access to due process. Authorities have labeled them as gang members, though only 30% have clear gang ties, according to estimates by human rights activist group Cristosal.
The measures have been received with an avalanche of international criticismincluding the government of US President Joe Biden.
At the same time, crime in El Salvador has fallen to historic lows and Bukele’s proval has skyrocketed, remaining at 90% in June, according to a CID Gallup poll. “Bukeleismo” has gained ground from Colombia to Guatemala to the Dominican Republic, with politicians seeking to imitate it and citalize on its popularity.
The reduction in violence opened the door for his government to host events, including the Games and the upcoming Miss Universe pageant. The opening ceremony of the Games flaunted the new status of the country, with choreogrhy led by the voice of an artificial intelligence robot and a performance by American DJ Marshmello.
For Sel Ramirez, a Salvadoran who has spent decades dividing his time between his country and the United States after fleeing the civil war of the 1990s, it was like seeing a whole new country. He is one of many here who shares the fervor for Bukele, occasionally even dressing up as the president and walking downtown.
After Bukele’s keynote speech, Ramirez stood outside the stadium with a crowd waiting for the president to leave. A few steps away, however, were heavily armed soldiers and black armored vehicles with machine guns on the roof.
“I wonder if he will give me his autogrh,” Ramirez mused, his eyes glued to the door through which the president would later leave.
As the crowd waited, Defense Minister Rene Merino walked out to cheers. “El Salvador is a country at peace”, he told The Associated Press. “We are open to the world.” When asked by the AP about the incarcerated, he replied “no” and walked away.
Before the Games, the Bukele government cut 70% of the positions of popular election, reducing the number of seats in Congress and in local governments. The president said the cuts would improve efficiency and help fight corruption, the same reasons given for dismantling El Salvador’s courts in 2021.
Legal experts and other Salvadoran politicians say these are just the latest steps in a fight to consolidate power before the February elections.
“It is typical of autocratic governments,” said Rene Hernandez Valiente, former chief magistrate of the Constitutional Chamber of the country’s Supreme Court of Justice. “They are erasing the philosophy of our Constitution.”
Measure will increase the control that Bukele has of Congress by 22%, according to estimates by the watchdog group Accion Ciudadana. Other candidates told the AP that he got them into trouble by changing the rules months before the vote.
Bukele’s party, Nuevas Ideas, made the announcement on Twitter that it would seek re-election days after the Games began. It was an anticipated but controversial move. In the tweet posted at 1 in the morning the party declared itself “invincible”.
In the days that followed, Bukele’s Twitter account—his preferred outlet, and a site where he once described himself as “the coolest dictator in the world”—spread videos of soccer games, photos of tanned surfers and short videos of his inaugural address. He published little about his re-election campaign.
The rise of social media has made it harder for rulers to present big sporting events as olitical, but sports washing usually works because these events are highly visible and seen as a distraction from daily issues and politics, said Alan McDougall, a sports historian at the University of Guelph in Canada.
“Successfully organizing an international event can give a regime the confidence to act with impunity. Sport is a bit of a shortcut to gain yourself, not so much popularity, but just acceptance”, added McDougall, who points out that the use of sport as a political tool dates back to the 1930swhen Mussolini’s Italy hosted the soccer World Cup and the Olympic Games were held in Nazi Germany.
And while many in El Salvador celebrate a new reality marked by thunderous stadiums and fireworks, those who suffer amid Bukele’s repression they feel forgotten by the rest of their country.
Among them is the activist and union leader Ingrid Escobar, 40. When she left her house one day in late June with her two children to go shopping, she saw men waiting outside in a gray van that forensic scientists later identified as one used by state security forces. government. Seeing them has become a regular thing in the last three months. Fear has also become an everyday thing.
Unions, human rights groups, opposition politicians, researchers and journalists have said that as the electoral cycle heats up, the Bukele government has intensified intimidation tactics. A union of government workers says that at least 15 organizers have been detained, charged with public disorder and gang ties. About half remain in jail, according to the union.
“The fear we have is that at any moment it will be us, even the ones ctured, without having anything to owe to justice,” Escobar said. “But just for the fact of denouncingto be the voice of people who are afraid to speak”.
Bukele has said he will open a new prison “for the corrupt,” a label he often uses for his opponents. Escobar worries that this could mean her. She said that she has received death threats on social media. She now uses different vehicles, takes different routes to go to work. She fears for her children and tries to protect them.
That morning he took a photo of the truck’s license plate and sent it to a colleague. Her children asked why, and she answered with a lie: “Oh, because I like the car.”
Miles away, gymnasts somersaulted before the judges, swimmers launched from starting platforms and runners vaulted obstacles in the very stadium where Bukele delivered his speech.
Few knew about the radical changes that the president is making around him, or about the fears of ordinary people like Escobar.
“I have heard a little”said Francisco Acuna, a 23-year-old gymnast from Costa Rica. “But I don’t get into politics much.”