Nayib Bukele, the Mayor of San Salvador and candidate for President of El Salvador, was in town last week to organize his 'Nuevas Ideas' (New Ideas) movement of Salvadoran émigrés in the U.S. He attended a series of fundraising activities and addressed crowds in Maryland, Virginia and New York. Even though the Salvadoran election is over 15 months from now, Mr. Bukele has already made numerous campaign visits to our region.
Barely 36 years old (and with an uncanny resemblance to Juan Luis Guerra, the Dominican music star), Nayib appears to be a young man in a very big hurry. From a prominent Palestinian/Salvadoran family headed by his businessman father, Armando Bukele, he seems to have been something of a child prodigy starting his own business at the age of 19 and becoming Mayor of 'Nuevo Cuscatlan', on the outskirts of the capital, in 2012 at the tender age of 31.
In 2015 Bukele ran for Mayor of San Salvador and won as a candidate for the FMLN, the traditional leftist party in El Salvador filled with ex-Comandantes and other activists left over from the civil war cadres. The prior president of the country, Mauricio Funes, and the present occupant of that office, the 73 year old Salvador Sanchez Ceren, both came up through the ranks of the FMLN.
Bukele is a man of progressive ideas and a modern outlook. He sports a sophisticated and educated wife, Gabriela Rodriguez de Bukele, who joins her husband in public service and as an active campaign participant. Bukele appears very attached to his attractive and intelligent wife and they often appear together. Mrs. Bukele is also busy on her own with a variety of municipal projects dealing with infant health, elementary education and youth violence. She is also, on occasion, a surrogate for him at events.
I attended the 'Nuevas Ideas' sponsored rally at the Cococabana Night Club in Langley Park on Friday, November 17th. The venue was packed from beginning to end with roughly 600 blue collar, working class Salvadorans who waited 90 minutes to hear from Bukele and stayed for over 3 hours clapping, shreiking, laughing and heckling the stage. Nayib seemed very comfortable with his audience and surprisingly humble. It was an adoring crowd mostly young and heavily female. He has tapped into the Salvadoran Diaspora worldwide not only for votes, but for fundraising as well.
And therein lies Mr. Bukele's strategy to win. He's running as a populist phenomenon supported by a younger, post-civil war generation. His base is in the capital and the largely liberal and leftist communities of Salvadorans living abroad. He figures it will be a 3 way race and he'll need in excess of 1.5 million votes which is about what the current President received He believes very strongly he can increase his possibilities if he organizes a large group of voters from outside the country. This has never worked before (it is only recently that Salvadorans living outside the country have had the right to vote) and there is some skepticism as to whether he can do it now, but there is no doubt he is heavily invested in this strategy, thus the repeated visits to extra-territorial Salvadoran communities.
He's criticized the current FMLN leadership including the President in harsh terms as corrupt and out of touch. Expelled from the party on October 10th of this year, he has embarked on a long shot, insurgent campaign splitting the left and throwing the FMLN into turmoil. Though enemies have compared him to Trump, the better analogy is Bernie Sanders. He is a renegade rebel attacking the government and the FMLN from the left.
His rallies, including the one I attended, repeat revolutionary slogans such as 'El Pueblo Unido Jamas Sera Vencido' (The People United Will Never Be Defeated) and others that lend a fervor to the events that seems quaintly out of place - relics of a prior era. His rhetoric is filled with specific promises that sound eerily familiar, as if we were listening to a Democratic Ward heeler espouse his platform. Eloquent elaborations of what needs to be done in the long term. Proposals that seem impractical or utopian at best. He regularly and openly speaks of his campaign as a movement and tells his followers that if he were to be assassinated another leader would come along, and another... but what seems clear is that he feels his task is to save El Salvador from the situation it is in.
Regardless of the rhetorical flourishes or the USA like promises it is obvious that Bukele has tapped into a deep well spring of political energy. He is a charismatic leader who dazzles his audiences and has created a large and dedicated following. He has become a symbol of hope for the future and given voice to the dream of a powerful, prosperous El Salvador. And whereas his achievements as Mayor engender controversy and mixed reviews, he has a clear, solid record and has aggressively staked out his ideals and intentions for the capital city and wants to test them out on the entire country.
Young, well educated, politically ambitious, progressive and from a wealthy family, Bukele's journey reminds us more of a Kennedy-esque crusade than a typical Central American political campaign. What remains to be seen is if he can convert this into a successful government program or whether he will survive the fractured, violence prone 'pulgarcito' of Central America to fulfill those promises!