Nayib Bukele faces the first massive protest for his authoritarian drift in El Salvador

The idyll is over. Two years after he came to power, this Wednesday thousands of people took to the streets of San Salvador to shout enough against a president, Nayib Bukele, whom the polls continue to place at the top – with a popularity that would kill him. any Latin American president – but who today faced his most powerful act of repudiation.

Between 5,000 and 8,000 people staged the most massive demonstration since he came to power in 2019. Beyond the number of people, Bukele was defeated in two scenarios in which until now he had no rival: the street and the networks. The call became a trend since the previous day and ended with silence after several months of controversial reforms that have aroused rejection inside and outside the country; from the United States, which compared him to Hugo Chávez, to the United Nations, which called for respect for judicial independence.

The Savior

El Salvador should have celebrated this September 15 the 200 years of its independence. Everything was prepared for a party of white and blue flags, anthems and fireworks, but the most urgent reality prevailed over the canned speeches and broke the presidential narrative. The popular satiety ended up setting fire to the bitcoin ATM in the center of the capital, a few meters from the National Palace, a symbol of the imposition of cryptocurrency as official currency.

Thousands of protesters took to the streets of San Salvador.Fred Ramos

Beyond the number of protesters, this is the first major protest against Bukele, 40, who continues to maintain popularity levels above 80%. The decision to impose bitcoin, however, has much less support, close to 53% according to the Central American University (UCA).

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“Bitcoin was the last straw, but we have been destroying democracy for months,” said 49-year-old Betsi Gaviria. She and her friend Leticia Guala, 58, wear a shirt with a huge B crossed out with a red stripe as a sign of rejection of cryptocurrency. “We reject reelection and we oppose the dictatorship, but when they put their hand in your pocket, people jump. People are waking up, ”they said while walking in the vicinity of Cuscatlán park. “I am surprised with the number of people, but there are many of us who are fed up with corruption and that everything is becoming more expensive every day,” said a 50-year-old woman and public official who carried a card with the phrase “No to the dictatorship”. “It took many lives to bring the democracy that is now happily trampling, but the people have removed the blindfold,” she said, surprised by the flood of protesters.

In recent times, the president replaced the Constitutional court with related magistrates, dismissed judges with more than 60 years, dismissed the Attorney General, promotes a constitutional reform that allows his re-election, his pact with the violent gangs to pacify the country was discovered , imposed a new currency and announced his intention to double the size of the Army. And all in four months. “Bukele follows the same script as Chávez, but in record time,” denounced José Manuel Vivanco, director of the organization. Human Rights Watch. Less sophisticated, but more graphic, an old man summed up discontent with a handwritten phrase: “El Salvador is not your farm.”

The demonstration moved along Juan Pablo Segundo Avenue in San Salvador.
The demonstration moved along Juan Pablo Segundo Avenue in San Salvador.Fred Ramos

In a country of less than 7 million inhabitants not used to protesting in the street, among the most veterans there was the feeling of living a protest from another time, when the country ended the civil war in the 1990s that left 75,000 dead and an enormous polarization that prevented both sides from walking together. On this occasion, the march brought together sectors as diverse as students, feminists, pro-life groups, trade unionists and supporters of the FLMN and Arena, the two traditional parties swept off the map by Bukele in the February elections.

A psychology student who preferred not to give his name said that “the combination of such diverse people is what has made this protest a success.” “People have gotten tired of a populist and fear losing their savings or their pensions because they are going to be paid in bitcoin,” he explained. The young man, 22, carries in his hands a banner that reads “Bukele, here we are all those you block on Twitter.” “Why don’t I want to give my name? Because I don’t know what retaliation he’s going to take. We are experiencing the militarization of the country and the implementation of systems of fear and control. We have already seen how they arrested Mario Gómez and there is fear that the hunt will continue, ”he said in reference to a young computer systems expert arrested two weeks ago after criticizing the arrival of bitcoin on television.

This Wednesday’s demonstration incorporated fear as a new ingredient. A couple of apparently minor details reveal the atmosphere: most of the interviewees preferred not to give their names and many others marched with their faces covered with a mask, sunglasses and a cap for fear of photographs. Some calls asked protesters to carry umbrellas to avoid being recorded by drones.

Some protesters called for the release of former FMLN government officials who were arrested and charged for acts of corruption.
Some protesters called for the release of former FMLN government officials who were arrested and charged for acts of corruption.Fred Ramos

Except for the burning of the bitcoin ATM, the protest passed without incident despite the fact that unidentified groups dressed in black and with baseball bats prowled the place. Around 1 in the afternoon, local time, under the intense Central American heat, the demonstration ended in the Plaza Morazán in the capital. In recent years this square has been filled twice: the first was during the canonization of Monsignor Romero and the second during Bukele’s overwhelming victory in 2019. Those who now do not want to see it or in painting were surprised to see it packed for the third time.

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