SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador - Donald Trump may be out of office and kicked off social media, but other world leaders are still finding ways to set the internet on fire.
On January 26, El Salvador's 39-year-old President Nayib Bukele sent local Twitter into a tailspin when he briefly changed his profile picture to an image of Sacha Baron Cohen from the movie The Dictator, where the English actor plays, unsurprisingly, an authoritarian dictator.
While the joke may seem harmless to outsiders, within the country it came on the heels of a fierce debate about the abuse of power by a Bukele ally against a female political rival of the president’s, and controversial comments about the extension of the presidential term.
It's not the first time that Bukele joked on social media about being an onscreen tyrant — after firing dozens of public officials when he entered office in 2019 he tweeted the word "DRACARYS" that is used by a Game of Thrones ruler to order her dragons to burn everything in their path. But the recent tweet was especially worrying to onlookers.
On January 18, when local media reported that the government hoped to extend presidential terms from five to six years, Bukele took to Twitter to ask "Only six years? That's so little..." followed by a cry-laughing emoji. El Salvador doesn't allow presidents to run for re-election until after a period of 10 years or two terms have passed, although the country's vice president is currently leading an initiative to reform the constitution to allow the extension, and after Bukele's tweet, many wondered for how long.
El Salvador will hold legislative and municipal elections on February 28 that will decide parliament and local officials across the country, and public opinion polls suggest that Bukele’s party, Nuevas Ideas or New Ideas, should win the majority. But former El Salvadoran Supreme Court Judge, Rodolfo González was doubtful that the government would actually be able to extend Bukele’s term before he leaves office.
“They’re not going to achieve in three years a change to the judicial body, I say that having experienced working inside of it,” said González. “Although I have no doubt that he would want to."
And although Bukele publicly compared himself to a dictator on Tuesday, González wouldn’t go that far.
“Although we cannot call him a dictator, very clearly, and without having fear of being wrong about anything, I can tell you that in President Bukele, I see authoritarian attitudes.”
Bukele's rise came amid a period of outsider populists across the region like President Jair Bolsanero in Brazil and former U.S President Trump, and likewise, he’s also had an aggressive and strained relationship with local media. However, Bukele’s rise was notable for his youth and use of social media, from Twitter to Tik Tok. He's often been photographed wearing backwards hats or casual clothes and in 2019 became the first president since El Salvador's civil war in the 1980s to win an election outside of its two main establishment political parties.
However, the change to the image of Baron Cohen's character Admiral-General Haffaz Aladeen, a childish dictator who repeatedly spews sexist and anti-Semitic rhetoric while repeatedly ordering the assassination of his aides and rivals, seemed in especially poor taste. Bukele’s office did not respond to requests for comment from VICE World News.
At the root of the latest Twitter outburst was the suspension on January 26 of the candidacy of a popular longtime government official who recently joined Bukele’s party, Walter Araujo. He wanted to run in the local elections scheduled for February 28. Araujo’s been accused of harassing a politician from an opposition party, Bertha María Deleón, who’s been a vocal critic of Bukele’s presidency.
“Since July 2019, I began to criticize the rashness of President Bukele in some of his decisions and appointments of officials. Then, I began to be the focus of relentless mockery from Walter Araujo,” Deleón told VICE World News. “He defamed me, made memes, denigrated me, made up false information about alleged sex scandals involving me. In other words, pure gender violence.”
The recent court decision to suspend Aruajo’s campaign didn’t sit well with Bukele, who reportedly asked the country’s attorney general not to prosecute Araujo, who then defied the president’s wishes and ordered his suspension from the upcoming ballot.
“This resolution is a hope for women in El Salvador because we are usually afraid, and I include myself,” said Deleón. “[Bukele] is protecting him and is committing corruption because that is undue influence to want to stop prosecuting someone who has committed a crime. This inhibits women who are the targets of violence every day.”
Upset by the court’s ruling, Bukele took to Twitter. First, he posted an emoji of a chess pawn, followed quickly by a photo without a caption of masked soldiers holding large weapons. Then, he changed his profile photo to Baron Cohen’s image of a dictator.
Deleón called Bukele’s Twitter outburst with a photo of armed men as “a reaction from an immature and incapable person.”
“Which is unfortunate because it can also be interpreted as a threat, especially because of the culture of the country in which we live,” said Deleón. “And if he is promoting this message of the use of arms, of the use of force, it is quite worrying in democratic terms and if we do not remember what just happened in the United States due to this type of abusive behavior in the president's speech.”
With the legislative and municipal elections upcoming, tensions are high in El Salvador.
“My impression is that these ambiguous messages that we saw in the president's account are trying to divert and control the course of the conversation to a more comfortable place for them, and they managed that,” said Amparo Marroquín, an academic at the José Simeón Cañas Central America University (UCA) in El Salvador. She saw the episode on Tuesday night as nothing more than a communication strategy that serves as a distraction.
Bukele, in her opinion, is trying to reinforce a discourse that is already in place, which is that "if he is going to be a dictator, it does not matter because he is working for the people."