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Bukele: The Bitcoin Strongman of El Salvador

Some call him the visionary leader Central America needs. Others consider him a thug who violates human rights at every turn. Either way, he’s just getting started, and wait till you see the crypto mining operation he plans to power with a volcano

He calls himself the “coolest dictator in the world,” although he says it with a sarcastic wink. His full name is Nayib Armando Bukele Ortez — Bukele for short — and he’s the 43rd president of El Salvador, a millennial, a conservative and the first world leader to make Bitcoin a legal tender. Next, he has plans for a new development he calls Bitcoin City, which will be constructed at the base of an immense volcano that will be used to power a geothermal-run crypto mining operation. 

At the same time, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International call him a violator of press freedoms and human rights. His critics call him a next-gen autocrat and budding authoritarian. And the Biden administration has openly accused Bukele of making a secret agreement with the street gang MS-13 to keep the nation’s murder rate at historic lows, and five of Bukele’s advisors and cabinet members have been sanctioned by the White House.

However, like so many of the world’s other autocrats, Bukele’s popularity with his people is statistically confirmed: His approval rating stays around 90 percent favorable. In fact, he’s one of the most well-liked leaders in the world. 

So, which is it — is Bukele the visionary leader his Central American nation needs to lead them into this brave new world of crypto, Web 3.0 and geothermal power plants? Or is he the corrupt, autocrat-in-training who’s been doing backroom-deals with very bad characters to gain and hold power?

Bukele won the presidential election of El Salvador on June 1, 2019, and won it with enough of the vote that there was no chance for a runoff. He presented himself as a center-right candidate and a member of the Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA) party, but it wasn’t his first choice. He originally intended to run as a member of the major party of the left, Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). FMLN, though, expelled him from their midst and accused him of stoking internal divisions. He was also accused of abusive behavior, including both verbal and physical attacks.

Afterwards, he first attempted to create his own party, Nueva Ideas. But that planned path to the presidency was thwarted when FMLN and the conservative party, National Republican Alliance (ARENA), combined forces to legally block him from running as an independent, which is how he ended up with GANA.

As president, Bukele immediately sidled up to the same international powers he’d once criticized. He had previously called China an interloper in Central America, an unwelcome economic force leveraging its might against the smaller nations. But 10 months after he was elected president, Bukele announced a huge new development and infrastructure deal with China. He also made a rare international trip to pay a visit to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, an autocrat after his own heart.

Meanwhile, in February 2020, Bukele faced opposition to his plans to secure a loan from the U.S. worth $109 million. It was to be used for his Territorial Control Plan, a further militarization of El Salvador’s police. Once again, both FMLN and ARENA worked together to block his plans. But this was far more difficult now that he was president. Bukele used constitutional powers to force the Council of Ministers to convene in the Legislative Assembly. Once he had all of the ministers in one room, he marched in soldiers and used force to demand his loan be approved. 

The next year, Bukele further consolidated his power. In May 2021, Bukele and his restored Nueva Ideas party swept the national elections, giving them a two-thirds majority in the Legislative Assembly. With this new lever of power, Bukele immediately had five Supreme Court justices removed from the bench and fired Attorney General Raúl Melara, who had been actively investigating Bukele’s dealings with the MS-13.

A month later, Bukele introduced his bill to make Bitcoin a legal tender in El Salvador. Three days later, the bill passed, and on September 7, 2021, El Salvador officially became the first country to use crypto as legal currency. (Around this time, he also announced his plans to use a volcano to mine Bitcoin.) There was one problem, though — Bitcoin’s volatility. Bukele had tied his ambitions to a fickle and chaotic engine. Case in point: In January of this year, Bitcoin was hovering around half of its value as compared to when Bukele decided to go forward with his plans. 

Lately, Bukele has turned his attentions to confronting the murder rate in El Salvador, which has been climbing again. In just one day in March, 62 people were killed. The police blamed MS-13 and 18th St., the two biggest street gangs in the country, for the spike. The very next day, Bukele and the Legislative Assembly announced there would be a 30-day state of emergency. This also meant civil liberties would need to be suspended. Under the guise of anti-terrorism, Bukele authorized a series of raids that rounded up more than 14,000 alleged gang members. Bukele made sure the press was fed plenty of video of them being roughed up and brutalized by police. He also warned the gang members that he would deny them food if there was any kind of retaliation. 

Bukele comes up for re-election in 2024. He shouldn’t be eligible to run again, but the Supreme Electoral Court recently ruled that it’s perfectly legal for Bukele to do so, paving a road that leads to total dictatorship. All of this, of course, is a recycled classic abuse of power in Central America, known as La Mano Dura, or the “iron fist.” The only new part is that Bukele plans to pay for his policies with Bitcoin that he mined with power he took from a volcano.