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President Nayib Bukele Promises To Transform El Salvador


El Salvador has a new leader. Thirty-seven-year-old Nayib Bukele calls himself a millennial president and uses social media to announce his presidential actions. Maria Martin reports.

MARIA MARTIN, BYLINE: Nayib Bukele hasn't even been president of El Salvador for a month. But already, as YouTuber Saul Sin Filtro says, his use of social media is breaking the Internet.


SAUL SIN FILTRO: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: Saul Sin Filtro applauds Bukele's use of Twitter to announce the recent dismissal of some 400 government employees. "He's ending nepotism and corruption like he promised," said Saul. "He's the coolest president in the world."


SAUL SIN FILTRO: (Speaking Spanish).




MARTIN: When he was inaugurated on June 1, Bukele rode a wave of hope for change in the Central American nation of 9 million, a country mired in crime and corruption that's led a full third of the country's population, 3 million, to leave, mostly to the United States.

ROBERTO MOLINA: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: "I love that he's made Salvadorans proud of their country again," says Roberto Molina, who lives in Los Angeles but came back for the inauguration. Molina likes Bukele's trendy, with-it image and that he has over 800,000 Twitter followers.

Bukele is the first to win El Salvador's presidency in 30 years who's not from one of the nation's two main parties, the right-wing ARENA and the left-wing FMLN, both of which are associated with the country's brutal civil war. His campaign, which focused on ending corruption, relied almost entirely on social media. There's enough money if no one steals, he wrote on Facebook and Twitter, leading to a resounding victory with 53% of the vote. He told the Heritage Foundation that his political movement calls for nuevas ideas - new ideas.


PRESIDENT NAYIB BUKELE: So we hope for a new era not only in El Salvador, but in our relationship with the United States.

MARTIN: Bukele says El Salvador isn't looking for handouts but to be a place for American and other companies in which to invest. He says he'll work with Mexico and other Central American countries to raise funds to turn the region around.


BUKELE: Creating jobs in the rural areas in the south of Mexico, in Guatemala, in Honduras, in El Salvador. We will invest in education, in safety, in - lower the crime rate and lower drug trafficking. We'll invest in infrastructure and productive infrastructure like railroads and ports and bridges and schools, things that will have a return, economic return or social return.

MARTIN: While his supporters have welcomed many of Bukele's first actions as president, including the dismissals and the naming of an equal number of women as men to his cabinet, others are denouncing his behavior as autocratic. The secretary general of the outgoing FMLN party, Norma Guevara, whose son and brother-in-law were among those dismissed, says, quote, "this style of ruling is like a Roman circus."

Because Bukele's party is in the minority in Congress, one of his challenges will be to learn to work with the other parties, says the director of the University of San Carlos' Human Rights Center, Father Jose Maria Tojeira, who also believes critics should give the new president a chance.

JOSE MARIA TOJEIRA: (Through interpreter) This government is still being formed. It still has to name some ministers. His party was really brand-new, and it doesn't have much representation in the legislative branch. So when a government is in the formative stage, some actions it takes may be premature, and some may not be so perfect. Let's put it that way.

MARTIN: In the meantime, President Nayib Bukele has the power not only of social media and its ability to speak directly to the public but also of a huge popular wave of esperanza, of hope, in El Salvador, a country where that's long been a scarce commodity.

For NPR News, I'm Maria Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maria Martin
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