El Salvador’s ecumenical populism takes authoritarian turn

El Salvador is becoming increasingly authoritarian under President Nayib Bukele, as he draws on his multireligious background and connections to enforce an aggressive rightist agenda, writes Amy Fallas on the website Religion and Politics (August 2). In 2019, Bukele won the presidency on an anti-corruption and anti-establishment platform through a wave of popular support. To support his policies he has deftly incorporated aspects of his Christian bona fides (his family descends from Bethlehem, Jesus’s birthplace), Muslim leadership (his father’s religious role in El Salvador), and Jewish connections (his wife claims Sephardic roots). “These different modes of religiosity allowed him to establish connections with evangelical leaders, the Catholic establishment, and even diplomatic relations in the Middle East,” Fallas writes. “Yet, the politicized aspects of his faith would not only remain a source of conjecture, but Bukele himself would strategically use religious belief to redirect criticism of his policies from Salvadorans locally and abroad.” This tactic has only intensified as his own popularity has declined in recent months over his abusive leadership. Since last March, the Bukele regime has incarcerated over 46,000 Salvadorans with alleged connections to gangs, even as the government previously negotiated with gangs to boast a record of decreasing homicides.

Source: Americas Quarterly.

A central part of Bukele’s rhetoric during his campaign stressed the spiritual danger of gangs. He recently posted a photo on Facebook of a satanic altar in an alleged gang member’s home, remarking: “the war against gangs is a war between good and evil.” Supporters regularly extoll his policies as fulfilling a divine purpose. “Bukele has mobilized this religious language to establish key connections to influential evangelical leaders as well as a sizable and devout [evangelical and Catholic] Salvadoran diaspora in the United States,” Fallas writes. In the leadup to his presidential bid, Bukele courted the support of prominent evangelical leaders like Edgardo Cardozo, Juan Carlos Hasbún, and Dante Gebel. During a summit in 2018, evangelical leaders prayed and voiced their support of Bukele, underscoring how his commitment to anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage policies was a fulfillment of prophecy. Perhaps the most controversial of all recent policy shifts was Bukele’s proposal to make El Salvador the first country in the world to recognize Bitcoin as legal tender. “It could be argued,” concludes Fallas, “that while Bukele publicly disavows a singular religious identity, he certainly embraces a faith-based ethos around cryptocurrency that does not allow anyone to call his power into question. Bukele’s belief in Bitcoin not only challenges crypto advocates’ claims to a democratic and transparent currency but also bolsters a growing perspective that considers devotion to cryptocurrency a 21st-century religious phenomenon.”