Bukele: The Man From Los sueños | Translation

Bukele: The Man From Los sueños | Translation

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[Daniel Alarcón]: This is Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.

Today’s episode is… special. Well, they’re all special for different reasons, but the one we’re presenting today marks a new stage for Radio Ambulante Studios.

Let me tell you. Over a year ago, we started considering the idea of creating series. We felt that there were stories that couldn’t be told in just one episode of Radio Ambulante or El hilo. And well, the production teams of both podcasts are filled with talented and committed people. People with whom you dare to do big things. We knew that together we could create something truly powerful.

What we’re presenting today is only the result of those conversations from over a year ago. It’s been months of intense work, involving many people from Radio Ambulante Studios. It’s the result of over 30 interviews, the review of hundreds of hours of archival material, and an infinity of documents, working shoulder to shoulder with journalists in the field who know this story inside out. A story that we feel is of regional impact and relevance. I’m talking about the rise to power of the most popular president in Latin America, Nayib Bukele, from El Salvador.

What he has done, or rather, what he is doing, day by day, in front of our eyes, is a very important experiment. He has managed to dismantle the rule of law in his country without losing his popularity. And something is at stake: nothing less than the future of democracy in our region.

So I proudly present to you the first episode of “Bukele: The Man From Los Sueños,” the first production of our new podcast series: Central. To listen to the rest, follow Central on your favorite podcast app. There are links on our website, of course. Or you can go directly to centralpodcast.audio.

Well, here’s the episode. I hope you enjoy it.

[Eliezer Budasoff]: There’s a video from over a decade ago, May 2013, where you can see a draft of the future. 31-year-old Nayib Bukele is the young mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán, a town on the outskirts of San Salvador, capital of El Salvador. He’s been invited by the only state university in the country to speak with students about “professional advancement for young people.” But he’s not there to teach them how to write a resume, Bukele says.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: …or how to dress for a job interview, or how to shake hands or modulate your voice. We are here to talk about how we’re going to change things… for everyone.

[Eliezer]: By this point, Bukele has been a municipal mayor, his first elected position, for only a year. A couple of weeks before taking office, he was still president of El Salvador’s Yamaha motorcycle dealership. Six years later, he would become president of the country. But in this talk, Bukele already has a slideshow and an idea to sell: the cause of all the country’s problems must be attacked.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: What is causing these issues? If I ask you what the issues are, we all know them: poverty, unemployment, lack of opportunities. But what is the cause of these issues? What creates these problems?

[Eliezer]: In a few minutes, Bukele mentions the possible culprits for the country’s issues and proceeds to discard them: the oligarchy, the government, education, the media… none of them is primarily responsible. And then he says something unexpected: the real cause, he says, are paradigms.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: A paradigm is, in the definition I bring, something planted in our heads, being made to look like the truth, even when they’re not. They’re not truths. Quite the opposite.

[Eliezer]: Standing in front of the students, Bukele sports a near-perfect beard, a white shirt with rolled-up sleeves, dress pants, and gelled hair. Everything is impeccable. He hasn’t yet perfected his tech-rebel aesthetic, or his rhetoric, but the essence of his discourse is already there. His ambition is there. He looks like a young executive who is new to politics and says what no one else says: Salvadorans have been brainwashed with false ideas. Things that aren’t true. Paradigms. For example: politics is bad, so don’t get involved.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: “People are poor because they’re lazy.” I’ve heard that one. Another paradigm goes:

[Eliezer]: Corporations create jobs.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: You’ve already heard this one: overspending. They say our government wastes money.

[Eliezer]: Everything he says is a bit arbitrary, but sounds convincing. He presents things in a way that makes them seem self-evident, stripped of ideology, only common sense. It’s like a TED talk. Until you get to the last example:

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: And this is my favorite one: populism. You’ve heard that word before. It sounds ugly. Does anyone want a populist president?

[Eliezer]: The students don’t say anything.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: Nobody.

[Eliezer]: Bukele raises his hand, smiles, and asks them again: “Nobody?”

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: Nobody? Well, I do. After you leave, I’d ask you to grab a dictionary and look up the definition of the word “populism.”

[Eliezer]: He says that, when he was on his way to the talk, he looked up the word in a Larousse dictionary, and reads the definition from a PowerPoint slide:

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: “Populism: a political doctrine that seeks to defend the interests and aspirations of the people.” That’s a bad thing here. Defending the interests and aspirations of the people is considered bad in El Salvador. And I came here, to Universidad de El Salvador, asked whether anyone wanted a populist president, and no one raised their hand.

[Eliezer]: The talk is almost finished. The students have their eyes fixed on the politician who now challenges them. In six years, he will be their president. Later, he will take selfies at the UN, break into Congress with military forces, negotiate with gangs, amass all the State’s power. He’ll become the most popular president in the Americas. He’ll also persecute the press, prevent them from investigating corruption in his government, make Bitcoin the country’s legal tender, and dismantle gangs. He’ll turn El Salvador into the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world, violate the Constitution, and be cited as an example by politicians and citizens throughout the continent.

Right now, though, he is just a young publicist, a town mayor with an idea to convey: the cause of the country’s problems are the ideas that were put in our heads, the things we believe are bad but are actually good. We are all locked in a cage, Bukele tells students.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: Prison bars are paradigms. But we have the key.

[Eliezer]: And he knows which key opens the door.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: Break the paradigms. That’s all we have to do.

[Eliezer]: This is The Man from Los Sueños, a podcast by Radio Ambulante Studios. I’m Eliezer Budasoff.

[Silvia Viñas]: I am Silvia Viñas. Episode 1: “Someone like Bukele.”

[Archive soundbite, Juan Soler]: I’m a Nayib Bukele fan to the core. That guy is showing that we Latin Americans can be good people. 

[Archive soundbite, Podcaster]: The balls on that president, the one from El Salvador.

-Nayib Bukele. 

-Big balls he has.

[Archive soundbite, Carlos Pineda]: I mean, you could say he’s a cool dictator.

-Exactly.

-But he’s a good dictator!

[Archive soundbite, Angélica Vale]: Do you know who’s amazing? The president of El Salvador. Wow!

-Oh yeah, Bukele! What a genius.

-Yeah!

[Silvia]: Nayib Bukele’s construction of power, the story that we’ll tell you about in the next six episodes, is an emblematic tale of our era, embodying the cracks through which the entire meaning of democracy leaks out.

​​In the last five years, El Salvador has become a kind of authoritarian experiment, a political model transforming at an unprecedented speed before our eyes. Bukele came to power in 2019 as the millennial president, the youngest in Latin America, who defeated traditional politics thanks to his charisma and communication skills. He’s now running for the 2024 elections, violating his country’s Constitution which prohibits re-election in six different articles while maintaining total control of the three public powers, and governing in a police state imposed by legislative decree. Literally nothing can stop him, because, also, his popularity is huge.

[Eliezer]: Today, politicians throughout the continent talk about the Bukele model, about applying “the Bukele Plan,” as they call it in Peru. In Chile, Argentina, Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica and Colombia, mayors, candidates, legislators, party leaders and presidents talk about copying him and following his example. Nayib Bukele is the perfect model of a political current undermining from the inside the government system as we know it.

[Silvia]: But it’s not just them. Among the thousands of comments people leave for Bukele on social media, it is very common to find things like: “In our country we need someone like Bukele.” But what does “someone like Bukele” mean? That’s what we’ll talk about in this series, as we attempt to understand, along the way, how someone convinces society that the only way to repair things is to give him unlimited power, and when the promises of democracy no longer matter at all.

The first time much of the world heard about Nayib Bukele was in February 2019, after his victory in the first round of El Salvador’s presidential elections. When it happened, we all received about the same information:

[Archive soundbite, media]

[Medium 1]: A 37-year-old PR specialist who doesn’t wear ties became the youngest president in El Salvador’s recent history.

[Medium 2]: Businessman Nayib Bukele targeted his campaign at the media and social networks.

[Medium 3]: He has empathy with young people and millennials.

[Medium 4]: He’s broken with the traditional left-right two-party system in the country.

[Medium 5]: El Salvador has swerved to the right with Nayib Bukele.

[Medium 6]: He identifies with young people and wants to end violence. 

[Medium 6]: Also, he likes to wear jeans.

[Silvia]: Much of the media used the term outsider to refer to him. But Nayib Bukele wasn’t an outsider in any way when he showed up on international news wearing a leather jacket. He had been in politics for about a decade, had a career as a publicist, and a strategy to build power conceived in a very small town. And before all that, he was a child in a bubble:

Gabriel Labrador: He was a very privileged child. He lived in a very wealthy area of ​​San Salvador. On top of that, Nayib and some of his brothers studied in bilingual schools, which here in El Salvador are, let’s say, schools for the elite.

[Eliezer]: This is Gabriel Labrador, a journalist for the Salvadoran media outlet El Faro, where he has covered politics for years.

[Gabriel]: He remembers his childhood as a time in which he got a lot of intellectual influence from his father. He would see him reading, always surrounded by books, piles of books in his house, etc. But very little is known about his childhood.

[Eliezer]: In 2021, Gabriel published one of the most thorough profiles ever written about Nayib Bukele. When we started producing this series, we asked him to help us explore the president’s history and environment, to be our guide through the world that he knows intimately.

[Silvia]: We knew Bukele’s circle had become increasingly tighter as his power grew. Gabriel says he contacted 41 people in writing this profile. Only nine agreed to be identified. Some spoke anonymously. The rest rejected any possibility of it. People who have known him closely or have been part of his circle of trust are in one of these situations:

[Gabriel]: Now, they either continue with Bukele, they’ve had a falling out, or are on the outside and don’t want anything to do with politics or to talk about him again.

[Eliezer]: This is why, Gabriel says, little is known about his childhood. Bukele prefers to associate his childhood to the influence of his father, a main figure in the mythology that he’s built about himself and, possibly, the central piece of the puzzle of his beginnings.

[Silvia]: Nayib is the fifth child of Armando Bukele Kattán, a businessman from a family of Palestinian immigrants who arrived in El Salvador at the beginning of the 20th century.

[Gabriel]: They started selling things in San Salvador’s city center. Then they set up factories.

[Silvia]: They set up businesses that sold textiles, furniture, machinery. They were talented merchants.

[Gabriel]: Which is a bit of the stereotype of Arab immigrants who came to this area of ​​the world back then.

[Eliezer]: Between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, hundreds of Middle Eastern immigrants landed in El Salvador. Nayib Bukele’s grandfather was one of them. Their ability to undertake businesses allowed many families to amass fortunes, but they never enjoyed a privileged social status. The traditional elites despised them for their origin, and their quick ascent didn’t sit well with local merchants.

[Silvia]: This discrimination not only limited Arab families socially, but also financially. In the mid-1930s, for example, the Legislative Assembly passed a decree forbidding owners of Arab, Palestinian, Turkish, and other backgrounds from establishing businesses, even if they had become Salvadoran citizens. Bureaucratic obstacles and contempt did not prevent them from becoming a thriving bourgeoisie. But it was clear that earning money was not enough for them to be treated equally, and Nayib Bukele’s father was aware of that.

[Gabriel]: Armando Bukele Kattán, apart from being an intellectual guy, is quite versatile. He’s someone who likes money and knows how to make it, getting good profit from everything he does. That becomes, I think, a breaking point for the Bukele family, as they also begin to get into politics.

[Silvia]: It’s natural, Gabriel says, for Armando Bukele, Nayib’s father, to have established relations with the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (known by its acronym in Spanish, FMLN), the country’s traditional left-wing party.

[Gabriel]: The political left was trying to dismantle the status quo set up by the European-Creole elite. So it was normal for the Bukele family or Nayib’s father to lean towards the side challenging the power of this European elite.

[Eliezer]: Beyond his skills as a businessman, Nayib Bukele’s father was a notable character in Salvadoran society. He was a chemical engineer recognized in academia. He converted to Islam and founded the first mosque in San Salvador. He had six partners in his life. He was polygamous because his religion allowed him to be so. That’s why Nayib has nine siblings. For years, he maintained a televised segment called “Clarifying concepts,” where he talked about the national and regional state of affairs, history, a little bit of everything.

[Archive soundbite, Armando Bukele]: Integrity and honesty come first. If they aren’t present, it’s better to have a stupid and reckless person who steals less than a diligent and capable one… The biblical image of Eve as a temptress has had a negative impact on women in the Judeo-Christian tradition…

[Eliezer]: He made over 700 shows. Just him, a table, sometimes a plant, and his opinions on the world.

[Archive soundbite, Armando Bukele]: The problem in El Salvador is that there’s no money and an honest government is required. Zero greed, zero evasion, zero corruption.

[Silvia]: Nayib Bukele has set out to amplify his father’s intellectual relevance. He once described him this way in an interview:

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: I think he’s the smartest man our country has ever given birth to… And I’m not the one saying it; his IQ test does: 157. I don’t know whether anyone has a higher one…

[Eliezer]: To give you perspective: Einstein is often attributed an IQ of 160, although he never took a test for it. But he was not Salvadoran.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: He developed patents, wrote a physics book, was nominated for a Nobel Prize…

[Silvia]: The Nobel Prize nomination is, basically, a fabrication. But, according to Gabriel, Bukele has reasons to so magnify his father’s image:

[Gabriel]: Nayib has used him at every opportunity because at the time he needed to present himself as the heir of a high-caliber intellectual.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: Actually, for me, the greatest school has always been my father.

[Eliezer]: Nayib Bukele inherited much more than businesses and money from his father, but not necessarily intellectual ambition. In high school, he wasn’t someone who stood out in the classroom. At least not for being a dedicated student. 

[Óscar Picardo]: He was a regular student, let’s say… But he did have some… um, particular features.

[Silvia]: The person speaking is Óscar Picardo, director of the Institute of Science, Technology and Innovation at Francisco Gavidia University. Óscar is an academic and researcher, and has known Bukele for a long time:

[Óscar]: I was his teacher in primary school, in seventh, eighth and ninth grades at the Pan-American School. I’ve known him since he was a kid, basically.

[Silvia]: This is how Óscar describes Bukele when he was a boy:

[Óscar]: Discreet, a little quiet. Yes, he exercised leadership in a group of students who are precisely those accompanying him in the government today. His family had resources. I mean, that sometimes leads to natural leadership, right?

[Silvia]: The Salvadoran president’s close circle hasn’t changed drastically since he was a teenager. On the one hand, a group of friends he forged at Panamericana, a small, bilingual private school for children of wealthy families although, according to Óscar, not the most exclusive nor aristocratic one. On the other hand, as Gabriel explains, he has his links to the Arab community and his extended family. 

[Gabriel]: At that moment, I think Nayib was forced to forge alliances, to weave networks with other Palestinian children, because the European caste here always looked down on Arabs. So Nayib, his father and his grandfather suffered rejection from our traditional economic elites. And that translates into the parents’ business world as well as the children’s world.

[Eliezer]: Picardo remembers a particular trait of Bukele’s as a student, besides his leadership skills:

[Óscar]: When it came time to define himself in the school’s yearbook, he curiously defined himself and this is how it’s written in the yearbook as the “class terrorist,” jokingly, because of the Arab connotation.

[Silvia]: The class terrorist graduated in 1999. Classic Bukele: his ability to appropriate what others consider bad and turn it around. Playing with these double-edged swords would become a hallmark in his profile and political discourse.

[Natalia del Cid]: Someone uploaded that yearbook photo online, and it said “class terrorist.” And I honestly didn’t remember. I was even surprised because in my mind we had called him “class clown.”

[Eliezer]: This is Natalia del Cid, a specialist in immigration issues, and Bukele’s former classmate. They were together in a small class of only 13 students, and that is one of the things she remembers most about him, that he made jokes.

[Natalia]: He made a lot of jokes… When he was little, he would impersonate Mister Magoo perfectly. And he had quite big cheeks, so he could perfectly impersonate Quico, the character from El Chavo del Ocho, and did so very well. He made us laugh.

[Eliezer]: Were you surprised by Nayib Bukele’s emergence into politics?

[Natalia]: Not at all. I must confess, we all voted for him in our class. A teacher showed up and said we had to elect a class president. She asked who wanted the position and we all said no. So boring, right? That’s what you say when you’re at that age: “How boring, I better go party.” Maybe no one had that aspiration. Then Nayib said he wanted to be president. So we all said, “OK, he wants it”. So he unanimously received 12 votes, which was 100% of the classroom.

[Silvia]: In fact, none of them were surprised to see him enter politics, Natalia says.

Natalia]: No one was surprised because it was very clear to him. He would never say it out loud, but he already had the markings of a politician from a very young age. And he liked it. You not only need the aptitude; he actually liked it. And he always had very, very big ambitions…

[Silvia]: Bukele’s first contact with politics was behind the scenes. In 1999, after graduating high school, Bukele assumed the presidency of Obermet, the family’s advertising agency. He was 18 years old. At that time, the agency began to manage FMLN campaigns. Nayib’s father, Gabriel says, had built relationships with the leftist party’s leaders since the 1980s, when the country was in the midst of a civil war. One of these leaders was Shafik Hándal, one of five FMLN general commanders, also of Palestinian descent. With the peace signing, in the early 1990s, these ties translated into an alliance that yielded political and financial zbenefits for the Bukele family.

[Eliezer]: From then until his first candidacy for mayor, just over a decade later, Bukele didn’t have a large public presence. He tried studying law for a couple of years, while working in advertisement at the family agency. He left the career, however, to dedicate himself full time to his father’s businesses. In the early 2000s, he ventured for a time as a businessman of the night, managing a nightclub called “Mario’s,” a name he changed to “Code.”

[Silvia]: Nothing known about his life before politics seems to lead conclusively to what Bukele would become later. The question is, then, how someone like Bukele, at age 30, came to run as mayoral candidate for his country’s traditional left-wing party.

[Gabriel]: Why does a businessman, a millionaire’s son, decide to jump into politics? It remains totally inexplicable, incomprehensible. According to him, of course, it’s because he wanted to change the country and stop sitting comfortably.

[Eliezer]: Bukele has used different variations of that explanation. In this interview, for example, the interviewer tells him that citizens only know one side of him:

[Archive soundbite, interviewer]: You know Nayib Bukele as the entrepreneurial guy, a successful businessman, but the question is: Who really is Nayib Bukele?

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: Well, I’m just another Salvadoran who loves his country and would like to see it change. I believe all Salvadorans dream of seeing our country take a different path, to see it flourish.

[Silvia]: To reinforce the idea that he sacrificed himself for his vocation to serve, Bukele has repeated that his father, his most important mentor, didn’t want him involved in party politics.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: One thing I thank my father for is that he didn’t want me to get into politics. But once I got involved, he supported me like no one else.

[Eliezer]: This is what he told influencer Luisito Comunica, one of the ten most popular Spanish-speaking YouTubers in the world, in a kind of interview they did years later. His father, Nayib explained, told him that getting into politics meant, automatically, making enemies, which wasn’t in his best interest.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele and Luisito Comunica]

[Nayib Bukele]: When I told him I was going to run for mayor, he got angry with me. Literally, he got very, very angry. But when I said, “No, I’m really doing it,” he said, “Well, then I’ll support you.”

[Luisito Comunica]: Did you ever tell him you wanted to be president of the country?

[Nayib Bukele]: No. I didn’t. He told me.

[Luisito Comunica]: He told you? “You’re… ?”

[Nayib Bukele]: Yes, he said, “You’re going to be president.” ”OK, dad, but I’m not even going to be mayor of the capital city.” And he said, “You are going to be president…”

[Eliezer]: There are those who see an important relationship between the contempt the country’s creole elite treated Palestinian families with and the Bukele family’s quest for power. Shortly after his son got into politics, Armando Bukele said in one of his television programs:

[Archive soundbite, Armando Bukele]: The Arab community in El Salvador is now strong enough to be dominant. But since we don’t have a hegemonic consciousness, let us at least act to stop being controlled. El Salvador is also ours.

[Gabriel]: I think when Nayib begins to understand how political marketing works, he and his dad figured out that they have a winning formula.

[Silvia]: That winning formula would arrive in 2011. After leading companies, managing a nightclub and running FMLN campaigns for a decade, Nayib Bukele saw an opportunity in Nuevo Cuscatlán, a town of less than 8,000 people on the outskirts of San Salvador. In a video, he explains how he became a candidate. He met with a party leader to plan the following year’s electoral campaign and presented the idea to him, as if he had just come up with it:

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: We were organizing the 2012 campaign and I asked him whether he had a candidate for mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán. He said they didn’t and asked why. I said, ”Because here I am, if you want it that way.” They agreed, but said we had to meet with the people of Nuevo Cuscatlán to see whether they wanted it. This is how we met with our constituents, and they agreed.

[Eliezer]: The process was actually not as simple and much more revealing, and we are going to tell you about it shortly. But it’s understandable that his candidacy for mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán can be seen today as the first step in a strategy that had much larger positions on the horizon. For Picardo, academic and Bukele’s former school teacher, things are clear.

[Óscar]: He wisely decided to run for a small mayor’s office, a very small, strategic town, which made him shine with few resources. From there, he made the leap to the San Salvador mayor’s office, and from there to the presidency.

[Silvia]: After the break, we’ll go to Nuevo Cuscatlán. We’ll be back.

[Archive soundbite, ambi]

[Silvia]: There’s the N. 

[María Paz Rivas]: Look, there’s the N.

[Silvia]: It’s everywhere. 

[María Paz]: The new city, yes, the new city, with all the concrete shoved into it.

[Silvia]: It’s July 2023 and I’m in a car with Gabriel on the road to Nuevo Cuscatlán, a town just outside San Salvador. It takes about 15 to 30 minutes to get there from the capital, depending on traffic. María Paz Rivas is going with us. She’s a veteran community leader who’s lived in this town since she was born. There’s a giant light blue “N” at one of the town entrances. There are similar ones distributed in public places. Those Ns mean we are in Nayib land.

[Archive soundbite, ambi]

[María Paz]: …As I was saying, when I saw the N seal, oh, man… That N makes me feel like saying a lot of things.

[Silvia]: Why?

[María Paz]: Because how is it possible they just put that seal in the new city. Just threw some concrete on it, ruining the streets, destroying the land that feeds us. Everywhere, covered in concrete. This is progress

[Silvia]: The N symbolizes the transformation this town has experienced since Bukele became mayor in 2012, a little over a decade ago. Now it’s the town’s logo, which has the slogan “The New City” and is almost identical to the logo of the president’s party, Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas). And, of course, the N also stands for Nayib. Here you can find Los Sueños, a residential area where Bukele has lived with his wife for about ten years. It is a gated community with huge houses, large gardens and swimming pools, similar to other luxury residential complexes that have sprung like mushrooms in the area in recent years. 

[Eliezer]: It’s the place where he began his political career, as he explained in an interview:

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: To me, Nuevo Cuscatlán is my baby. It’s my project. They’re my people, as are all Salvadorans. My country is 8,000 square miles and my people are the 7 million Salvadorans. But my baby, my project, my ideal was to build Nuevo Cuscatlán, where a lot has been done.

[Eliezer]: Nuevo Cuscatlán is Bukele’s golden dream, built to sell his management skills to Salvadorans. Approximately 6 square miles of green, mountainous territory surrounded by coffee farms. In it, several communities were formed by those who came to work on the farms. When Nayib ran for mayor, Nuevo Cuscatlán was already becoming a hub of residential developments for wealthy people, but this sped up upon his arrival.

[Silvia]: María Paz Rivas, our guide through town, witnessed Nayib’s arrival. In 2011, she was part of the local FMLN board. They had already started working on the mayoral campaign and had, as candidate, an evangelical pastor who lived in town. But one day, they were called to an emergency meeting. There, the local party coordinator told them that the candidate was now going to be Nayib Bukele.

[María Paz]: They said, “This is going to be our candidate.” And why does he have a sure win? Because he has money. Because he’s the owner of this and that. That’s how easily they started eroding our minds. That’s how Bukele imposed himself on us. But what hurt them the most was when I told them that it was an imposition. I made eternal enemies that day.

[Silvia]: The first objection FMLN militants raised, after working on the campaign with the pastor who was the other candidate, was quite elementary, María Paz recalls.

[María Paz]: Where was he from? That was our first question: Where was he from? We had never heard of Bukele. Who brought him?

[Silvia]: No one had brought Nayib Bukele: he had proposed himself as a candidate. But the question made sense, since what little they knew about him had nothing to do with the ideology they defended. María Paz brought this up, she explains, in that first meeting:

[María Paz]: I asked them, “How am I going to find Bukele relatable if he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth? I’ve been representing a community. What do you plan to do? Do you think he is going to be in our favor? In favor of the poor? Excuse me, colleagues, but that won’t happen, ever.” That was all I told them.

[Eliezer]: The decision, of course, had already been made. As we told you before, the Bukele family were old friends of the party. Nayib had been campaigning for FMLN for years, and had also convinced a couple of important leaders to get rid of their candidate by appealing to the polls, an indispensable tool in his political belt. He presented numbers that said they would lose if they went with the pastor, and that he had a chance of winning. But, once he prevailed, he had to start fighting a natural prejudice against his image.

[Gabriel]: Class background is very important inside the FMLN. That defines your position in the world, your way of facing problems and proposing solutions. And I think Nayib was aware he didn’t really fit in on the left. But he took care of it by speaking about these alternative millionaires or these millionaires with a social conscience.

[Silvia]: That was, literally, the speech he used while campaigning for mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán. During an interview, Bukele was asked: 

[Archive soundbite, interviewer]: Is this a matter of political ambition or political vocation for you, understanding politics as a vocation of service?

[Nayib Bukele]: Yes, it is a vocation to serve, but it’s also about ambition, in a good way. Not ambition in the sense of wanting power. Because, really, my companies’ budget is much larger than Nuevo Cuscatlan’s mayoral budget. So it’s not ambition for the sake of money or power.

[Eliezer]: Bukele repeated several versions of this idea: that he had much to lose by getting into politics, but that it was his vocation. And in order to bolster this narrative, he began to carry out works around town before the elections, which, he claimed, came out of his own pocket.

[Gabriel]: We don’t know where that money came from, but before being in the mayor’s office, he began to pave roads and install LED lights in the streets. People saw that and said, “Great, a millionaire using money for good things.”

[Silvia]: Bukele would also give out money at campaign events to people who asked for a bed, a birthday cake, or a basket of food, María Paz says. He also promised to solve the town’s most enduring problems, such as water. He told the most precarious communities they would have free drinking water, every day, 24 hours a day. None of that would actually be free, María Paz says. Not the water, the things he gave out, or the promises. But the price to pay would come later.

[Eliezer]: On March 11, 2012, Nayib Bukele won the mayor’s office by a difference of less than 300 votes (in an election where a little over 5,000 people voted). This turned Nuevo Cuscatlán into a preview of the managerial model that would characterize the Salvadoran president: one who doesn’t stop, who is not accountable, who promises and executes based on the publicity potential of his actions instead of future consequences.

[Gabriel]: He knows he has everything in that town ahead of him, a completely new avenue where many things can be done. And he certainly begins to show different projects: a radio station, a school with special resources, remodeling of parks, etc.

[Silvia]: He promised he would donate his salary as mayor for scholarships. He also published ads looking for “talented people” to give jobs to, visited neighboring towns to distribute food, and opened a free health clinic.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: In this clinic, our patients will wait in an air-conditioned room, with coffee, comfortable chairs, and a plasma TV.

[Gabriel]: He starts spending a lot of money, and, of course, everyone begins to wonder: where is this money coming from?

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: How do we have enough money? Well, you can’t imagine how much money there is when no one steals.

[Gabriel]: That’s when he and his team revealed this wonderful phrase: “Money is enough when no one steals.” It’s a phrase that continues to be with him to this day. While this is happening him inaugurating works, repeating this phrase every time he can the reality is, the town’s credit card is maxing out, getting into a lot of debt, because there really isn’t that much money to do things.

[Eliezer]: Indeed, by the end of 2014, two and a half years after he took office as mayor, Nuevo Cuscatlán was running out of money. The Ministry of Finance classified the mayor’s office in the worst financial category, as its debt had grown by 320% compared to 2011. By then, though, Bukele’s mind was already on the next step. That August, he announced that he would run for mayor of San Salvador.

[Gabriel]: That’s what Nayib is about… Marketing above all. The message, above all. And if we have problems in the future, we solve them with more marketing and advertising, and with more rhetorical messages and street lights, etc.

[Silvia]: Nayib Bukele turned Nuevo Cuscatlán into his publicity material, a place to bring both desires and fears the two elements that move advertisement into reality. On one hand, he created an image of progress, which he associated with the idea that prosperity was possible when there was no corruption. On the other, he began to work with the most widespread fear of Salvadorans in order to sell something that seemed impossible: the hope of living without violence.

[Archive soundbite, newscast]: In Nuevo Cuscatlán, no violent deaths were recorded in 2013. The town has promoted a zero homicides plan… Thanks to the management of Mayor Nayib Bukele, we’ve managed to successfully close 2013 as a zero-homicide town.

[Eliezer]: For a country that, even in the midst of a truce between the government and the gangs, had closed that same 2013 with almost 2,500 homicides that is, over six murders per day talking about zero homicides sounded incredible. But Nuevo Cuscatlán had never been a violent town. In all of 2012, only four homicides had been recorded, less than what the country suffered on average in a single day.

[Silvia]: Lawyer Bertha María Deleón, who would become part of Bukele’s legal team a few years later, knew that “zero homicides” was a marketing strategy rather than a managerial achievement.

[Bertha Deleón]: I knew that because I worked at the Prosecutor’s Office, in Homicides, and we never went to Nuevo Cuscatlán to inspect corpses. 

[Silvia]: Before meeting him in person, what Bertha knew about Nayib Bukele was what he himself had put forward to show outside the town:

[Bertha]: I knew he was the mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán, that he had a progressivist discourse. He spoke a lot about youth rights, for example, and would show up in a jacket and his cap on backwards. So it was like that coolness, let’s say. It gave the impression that he was capable of thinking differently from the politicians that we were already fed up with.

[Eliezer]: Indeed, Nayib Bukele seemed capable of thinking differently from his country’s politicians. His age and class background allowed him to look at the political game outside of traditional codes. He understood communication very differently from his more experienced adversaries. He was a strange figure on the left, because he came from wealth, and strange for the right, which would never take up the cause of “the people.” Over time, it became clear that he didn’t feel ideologically tied to anything that didn’t work towards his goals. That distance allowed him to turn everything into a narrative battle.

[Silvia]: Understanding that the facts didn’t matter as much as the narration of the facts made Bukele move forward quickly. When the FMLN decided that Bukele would be their candidate for mayor of San Salvador, his main opponent was Norman Quijano, a veteran of the ARENA party, who already governed the capital and was running for re-election. According to Gabriel, he was the best-positioned candidate at the national level, and the only great figure on the right.

[Eliezer]: During a television interview, before the campaign officially began, a journalist asked Quijano what he thought about the FMLN having decided to put Bukele to compete against him.

[Gabriel]: Norman Quijano, a longstanding politician in ARENA, anti-communist, etc., responds as a man with war wounds and several stripes on his chest. He says he has more experience than Bukele. That he’s a young man who is starting up…

[Archive soundbite, Norman Quijano]: So I think it’s to be expected from Nayib, who is a very young man…

[Gabriel]: That phrase could have hit Nayib Bukele hard in a traditional campaign. But what he decides to do is to use it to his advantage.

[Eliezer]: So he meets with his team to see how they would respond.

[Gabriel]: To them, Norman Quijano is a politician they can easily hit, because he represents traditional politics. So they get together and start brainstorming and decide to use this phrase, turn it into a hashtag, print it on t-shirts and give them away in different parts of San Salvador.

[Eliezer]: They took the phrase, removed Bukele’s name and turned it into an affront to all young people: “You are very young.” That was the hashtag.

[Gabriel]: In a matter of 24 hours they set it up, drive around and start giving merch away. Then it shows up on social media, Twitter, Facebook. It goes viral, becomes a cool, defiant phenomenon that ends up hitting back at Norman Quijano. Just weeks later, Norman Quijano decides to resign.

[Silvia]: A couple of months later, ARENA chose a new candidate to run for mayor: a younger politician who was also a businessman. But Nayib Bukele had spent two and a half years building a resume as mayor and used all of it in his San Salvador mayoral campaign. In one of his interviews as candidate to govern the capital, he said:

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: I can no longer run with the resume I ran with in 2012. I have to say what things I did as mayor. In 2012, I was elected as an entrepreneur. Today I’m mayor. Now I have to say what I did in my three years as mayor. So this is it: we gave scholarships to young people, quality healthcare, safety, drinking water, and family food baskets for 100% of the elderly. We put Nuevo Cuscatlán on the map, infrastructure plans…

[Silvia]: He was prepared to answer every question journalists or adversaries asked about the enormous difference between running a town of less than 8,000 and a city of more than three hundred thousand. As he did with Quijano’s phrase, he turned weaknesses into strengths. He turned the difference in size, for example, into a difference in budget, to be able to say that he, in proportion, had done more things with less money:

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: Nuevo Cuscatlán has a budget of two million dollars a year and San Salvador has a budget of 86 million. That’s 43 times the town’s budget, and its population is only 28 times larger. Therefore, it has a larger budget than Nuevo Cuscatlán per capita.

[Silvia]: In response to the difference between facing insecurity in a town where almost nothing happens and doing so in the most violent city in the country, he used a clever resource: he presented himself as someone concerned about each individual life.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: After three years of not having homicides, we had the first one. Almost three years; we were going to close our term undefeated. And then we had one. Many people told me not to worry, that it was only one. But how can I not worry if he’s someone’s son?

[Eliezer]: Watching different interviews of Bukele back then, it’s easy to understand the effect he achieved. He’s a new face, saying that the things that concern Salvadorans the most are easy to solve, that he’s already done it, and he sets up everything as if it were a problem of scale and efficiency. It’s not surprising, then, that in March 2015, Nayib Bukele won San Salvador’s mayoral elections with just over 50% of the votes.

[Carlos Araujo]: When he won the mayoralty of San Salvador, he already had quite the discourse of a status quo agitator.

[Silvia]: This is Carlos Araujo, a historic politician from ARENA, the most important right-wing party in El Salvador.

[Carlos]: He stood out because, whether you like it or not, at that moment, traditional Salvadoran politics was already on its last legs. He seemed to attract a lot of attention and, the truth is, it was exciting. Leaders are like that, after all, and something that has to be recognized is that the guy is a leader.

[Silvia]: Araujo was a key election official for his party and has been working with technology and data processing, such as public opinion polls, for years. Despite being part of the opposition and today he still is, he told us that, back then, he also got excited with Bukele.

[Eliezer]: Carlos got to know Bukele’s management style in the San Salvador mayor’s office up close. When he won the elections, he and his brother, Walter also a right-wing cadre and today a political mercenary at the service of Bukelism offered Nayib a service for his government:

[Carlos]: He had an application called Sívar, where citizens could use technology and phone apps to have a way to request solutions for services provided by the mayor’s office. Whether a light bulb burned out, or garbage needed to be picked up, streets needed repair, or trees needed to be pruned.

[Silvia]: Carlos and his brother were in charge of managing the service that powered the app. It seemed tailor-made for Bukele, because it offered the illusion that everyday problems could be reduced to a matter of technological efficiency. Nayib wanted to make his mark as mayor, and he wanted to do it fast.

[Carlos]: When he arrived at the San Salvador mayor’s office, he already had a route mapped out for where he wanted to go. And the San Salvador mayor’s office ended up being a stepping stone, because it is the government of the capital, the one with the biggest budget, the most media coverage, and he is extremely media-friendly when it comes to those things. So it was an additional step he had to take prior to what he wanted to achieve. 

[Eliezer]: Beyond an app, in order to use the San Salvador mayor’s office as a stepping stone, he needed public works, which have been a pillar of his political marketing from the beginning. His flagship project as mayor was the recovery of a small part of San Salvador’s historic center, and its star, at that time, was a market he named Cuscatlán, a word he uses a lot. 

The Cuscatlán market: a multi-story building with escalators, computers, a library, rooftop bars and other unthinkable amenities for an area that had always been dominated by informal commerce, gangs and squalor.

[Archive soundbite, ambi]

[Gabriel]: Walking looking like this, with a visible recorder and an authentic tourist look… It would have been too obvious for the thieves, but aha, now it’s like…

[Silvia]: Now… you can do it?

[Gabriel]: Yes, you can do it. 

[Silvia]: I went with Gabriel to tour the historic center on a Monday in July, 2023. I wanted to understand what the most emblematic project of Bukele’s administration had meant for the city and its people. We went in the afternoon, the sun was burning like embers, and the square where we were, called Libertad, was bustling with people. When Nayib became mayor, Gabriel told me, he knew he had to make something of a visual impact, and the downtown area was iconic.

[Gabriel]: Thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans pass through here every day. This and another square were remodeled and equipped so that people could walk around and spend time here.

[Silvia]: Although Bukele usually talks about the “recovery of downtown,” Gabriel showed me that the project, until then, was reduced to only about six of the 250 blocks that are considered part of the historic center.

[Gabriel]: That’s why I say this is a marketing product. The difference is that you didn’t have this feeling of spaciousness before. I mean, everything seemed to be piled together. Prostitutes, thieves, probably. But it began to be seen on social media. They opened bars. So there was a resurgence, let’s say, of the downtown area, that was part of Nayib’s legacy. I think that, as mayor, it’s the most notable thing and the only thing he managed to do. He saw it as him doing new things that no other mayor had been able to do. But, of course, in order to get street vendors off the streets, he had to negotiate with gangs, and he did that through intermediaries from his own mayor’s office.

[Silvia]: We’ll talk about Bukele’s negotiations with gangs later in the series. But, for now, what needs to be understood is that the difference between Bukele and other politicians seemed to be, more than anything, that he was willing to do whatever it took to achieve his goals. His downtown recovery project had also bypassed heritage and architecture laws. The market space was rented at an almost double premium. Also, a later audit found, in its first evaluation, that the mayor and a group of councilors had made arbitrary decisions, without legal support, that harmed the town by millions of dollars.

[Eliezer]: Carlos Araujo, the ARENA politician who worked for a time with Bukele when he was mayor of San Salvador, says that, actually, arbitrariness was basically his form of management, not an exception to the rule. His close team already knew, Carlos says, that those were the conditions.

[Carlos]: I mean, it was a team of “yes sir, yes sir”, even if he was wrong, and they knew he was wrong about some things. He doesn’t allow discussion.

[Eliezer]: Nayib Bukele doesn’t like to be contradicted, and, at this point, the entire country knows it. But some of the first to know, besides his team, were journalists. This is how lawyer Bertha de León met him, when he was mayor of San Salvador, over a case related to attacks on the media, which was known as “the cyber attack.”

[Silvia]: The case is complex, but it can be summarized like this: two of the most important newspapers in the country published things that Bukele didn’t like. To take revenge, people linked to Nayib designed replicas of these newspapers’ websites with news that mocked their directors, and put them online. They filed a complaint, and the investigation reached Bukele.

[Bertha]: It was stupid teenage stuff, basically taking the name of La Prensa Gráfica and Diario de Hoy, making parody covers, grabbing the directors’ photos, with a headline like “José Roberto Dutriz says that the pupusas he likes most are stirred.” And you read the news and it was pure nonsense. That was basically what happened. They set up parody pages. There was no cyber attack.

[Eliezer]: Bukele seemed to have felt so entitled to combat criticism he didn’t even bother to hide his involvement in the attacks, according to Bertha.

[Bertha]: Even Nayib himself wrote to La Prensa’s editorial director, taking credit for the parody. There were also chat conversations where he told them every action has a reaction and that, if they continued publishing things against him, he would continue with the attacks.

[Silvia]: Bertha was a high-profile lawyer who had earned a reputation as a litigator in important cases, so Bukele hired her to be part of his legal team. She was the only woman in a group of several lawyers.

[Bertha]: Several of us lawyers had to be involved constantly, not only in criminal matters. That’s because, well, he has a very impulsive personality. He would get into trouble quite easily, so I represented him in three criminal proceedings, not only about the alleged cyberattack, but also for expressions of violence and defamation.

[Eliezer]: According to how Bertha describes work meetings, Nayib Bukele didn’t seem like someone especially concerned about the consequences of his actions.

[Bertha]: We would be making decisions and he would start talking, for example, about something that appeared on CSI, and, “Do you remember this? And what about that?” He was very unfocused and spent much of his time on Twitter.

[Silvia]: Bukele hated it when journalists tarnished the image of the perfect politician to which he dedicated so much energy and resources. And that became more evident as he acquired more power. The problem is that, by then, he already had a political resume, which meant more spotlights pointing at him. He couldn’t distract the press with marketing tricks like he did in Nuevo Cuscatlán. And he couldn’t stop the newspapers from researching his past.

[Bertha]: For example, there were publications about alleged corruption, about ​​unauthorized construction in Nuevo Cuscatlán, or excessive charges for construction permits. So he wanted to put a stop to that noise. His interpretation was that those people knew he could be president and that was why they attacked and posted pieces against him every day.

[Eliezer]: Bukele was already thinking about the next office he wanted to occupy, and it made sense he wouldn’t want anyone looking back at yesterday’s promises. Because some of his achievements, after having been announced as a panacea and exploited for publicity, ended up falling apart or becoming new problems as he moved away.

[Silvia]: This is what happened with the Sívar app, which we mentioned a few minutes ago. Carlos told us that it ceased to exist because they couldn’t respond to citizen demand and the mayor’s office didn’t comply with the payment to suppliers. This also happened with the Cuscatlán market, his flagship project in the capital, which was about 5 million dollars in debt by the beginning of 2023 due to unpaid rent. And, finally, it happened to Nuevo Cuscatlán, the golden land where it all began.

[Eliezer]: Today, ten years after Bukele became mayor of the town, its communities still don’t have water 24/7. However, the town has become a destination for housing megaprojects and commercial areas for people with money who are driving out the poorest residents.

When Silvia and Gabriel went to Nuevo Cuscatlán, they visited a community that had managed to stop an eviction, but they still didn’t know what was going to happen to them. And they weren’t the only ones in that situation.

[Antonio Ortiz]: Let’s start with Finca Santa Elena, which is where we are. Here, 20 families are on the verge of eviction. Monseñor Romero has more than 80 families. La Cuartería is here. Also, Tomás Rodríguez.

[Silvia]: This is Antonio Ortíz, a 55-year-old settler on a farm called Santa Elena, where he’s lived since he was born. Antonio says that the New City Bukele has sold is basically make-believe.

[Antonio]:  Far from what people proclaim, the great city, the new city, is a front. If you look at the façade, it looks new. But, from the inside, from the back, how are we? Bad.

[Silvia]: What lies between that façade of progress and the people behind it, Antonio says, is the same old inequality. And that hasn’t changed.

[Antonio]:  They’re safe. They always have been. The rich man has always been safe. The one who’s unsafe is the poor. We’re the ones who are unsafe. Even if there are 10,000 soldiers around, we are always unsafe.There’s always that uncertainty. Why? Because there’s no land, there’s no water… You go out to work and you don’t know whether you’re going to come back because, out there, they can accuse you of something and take you away. And your family is left in limbo.

[Silvia]: When we asked him about everything Nayib Bukele had publicized about his achievements as mayor, Antonio remembered an article that came out a while ago, in 2014. It’s called “A dream town in El Salvador” and was broadcasted by Univisión, one of the main Hispanic TV channels in the United States. The video, which can’t be described as anything other than an advertorial, can still be found on YouTube:

[Sound archive, Primer Impacto]: In this town, people no longer think about emigrating north in search of the American dream. On the contrary, those who have left now want to come back to live in this paradise called Nuevo Cuscatlán.

[Antonio]: The new city, yes, everything is beautiful here. See how beautiful. Come live here. But you have to have 250,000 dollars to come here. And those who live here, who are native settlers of the farms, you have to take them out. Where’s what he promised? How has he helped the people? Now we are being pushed aside, removed from our native land. He practically forgot all the promises he made.

[Sound archive, Primer Impacto]: Some believe that Nayib Bukele aspires to be president, that this is all part of a political campaign. The mayor categorically denied it, while young people say that they see nothing wrong with it: if this is politics, I can say that it’s beautiful, because we’re all benefiting: children, young people, adults, and the elderly.

[Eliezer]: In the next episode…

[Carlos Araujo]: The story was built by doing a lot of public opinion research to understand whether Salvadoran voters were mature enough for a third way to stand a chance, something that had never happened in this country.

[Silvia Viñas]: And what did the surveys say?

[Carlos]: They said yes.

[Gabriel Labrador]: He realizes that disappointment is final and that he has to take advantage of it.

[Archive soundbite, Nayib Bukele]: We will be in the elections seeking the Presidency of the Republic of El Salvador to truly change the country.

[Gabriel]: FMLN and ARENA believe they’re doing things well and that it’s just a matter of designing better campaigns, perhaps hiring one advisor or two, but no one saw the catastrophe that was coming. Or they didn’t want to accept it.

[Eliezer]: 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 appreciate 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 Silvia Viñas and myself. Gabriel Labrador is our reporter and on-site producer. Desireé Yepez is our digital producer. Daniel Alarcón and Camila Segura are the editors. Carlos Dada is our editorial consultant. The fact-checkers are Bruno Scelza and Desireé Yepez. Selene Mazón is our 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 co-directors of product 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, Melisa Rabanales. Press and community management is handled by Juan David Naranjo and Adriana Bernal.

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 centralpodcast.audio.

I am Eliezer Budasoff. Thank you for listening.

 

CREDITS

PRODUCED AND REPORTED BY
Silvia Viñas and Eliezer Budasoff


REPORTED AND ON SITE- PRODUCED BY
Gabriel Labrador


EDITED BY
Daniel Alarcón and Camila Segura


EDITORIAL CONSULTING
Carlos Dada


DIGITAL PRODUCTION
Desirée Yépez


FACT CHECKING
Bruno Scelza and Desirée Yépez


SOUND DESIGN / MUSIC
Elías González 


PICTURE
Diego Corzo


COUNTRY
El Salvador


PUBLISHED ON
01/23/2024

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