DOHA, Qatar — I first noticed Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s Twitter account when a colleague pointed me to his avatar: a handsome, lined face with slicked-back silver hair and a silver beard, looking like a stock image of a Latin American politician of a certain age.
He’d made it with FaceApp — the artificial aging software that happened to be mega-viral that week.
In person, Bukele is 38 and looks, if anything, a little younger. He is one of the youngest leaders in the world and, perhaps, the one with the highest poll numbers outside North Korea. In an era of ethnic nationalists, he’s of mixed Christian and Muslim heritage — his brother is an imam — and his wife has Jewish roots. And at a moment when the political conversation is full of warnings about the demons unleashed by social media, Bukele is a sort of Old Millennial true believer, who brags that he hasn’t used his phone to make an actual phone call in a year. He’s the most optimistic of the new generation of smash-the-system populists powered by social media, an outsider who looks to the future rather than the past, positioning himself more as Andrew Yang than Donald Trump.
“People don’t realize that social media is not like a cellphone game or something, or some fad, or something young people like,” he told BuzzFeed News in an interview at the Doha Forum in Qatar. “It wasn’t Instagram who created nationalism. That was inside people’s brains. It was at the kitchen tables. … And now everybody is more exposed,” Bukele said. “That’s an opportunity to change society in reality. Because apparently we weren’t as civilized as we thought.”
Bukele, elected in February, is living an experiment with the social, mobile presidency on the road, testing the limits of what it means to be a politician who lives unabashedly through his phone — although it must be said he’s doing this in a country where internet penetration hovers just under 60% of the population. He was, in fact, three weeks into the longest foreign trip of his young presidency, and trying to work remotely. A skeptical television reporter earlier in the day had asked him, he said, “You’ve been three weeks outside your country. Who’s governing?”
“Well, yesterday we approved next year’s budget, and we have no seats in Congress,” Bukele said. “And we just approved next year’s budget by a vast majority, and it’s because we made pressure on social media, people made pressure on the streets and social media. And it’s 4 a.m. here — but we’re all interconnected. I was practically in El Salvador. There was no difference.”
Bukele has also displayed some of the darker features of the new generation of social media leaders who aren’t sure if they really need an independent media. Although he holds press conferences, he prefers making announcements — and at times, giving orders — on Twitter, which a columnist for Factum, a digital outlet that has been critical of Bukele, described as reflecting an “authoritarian style.” Like Trump, he also likes to use Twitter to embarrass or attack his critics. When Factum published a detailed investigation into his finances, he refused to comment and then excluded the outlet’s reporters from his press conferences.
When it comes to taking criticism, Bukele said he gets his share in his replies on Twitter, which he reads religiously.
“I read replies — more than verified mentions,” he said. “I try to read replies because it gives you a taste of if what you said was right, or not so much. It helps you to correct yourself.”
Bukele’s approval ratings now stand at 88% among El Salvador’s 6.5 million people, Bloomberg reported last week, a product of an electoral mandate that stunned traditional right and left parties in February, and of a reported drop in crime — the key issue at the southern end of Central America’s troubled Northern Triangle.
Bukele has also managed to cultivate a warm relationship with US President Donald Trump, whose regional power makes him easily the country’s most important relationship.
At a press conference in September, Trump lavished praise on Bukele for doing an “incredible job with MS-13.” The US released cash and extended the temporary protected status of some 200,000 Salvadorans in the United States, a transactional display of American power that Bukele had no choice but to appreciate
“For us, the US is vital — it’s not even a relationship, a partnership, an alliance,” he said. “It’s more vital than choice.”
To the Trump administration’s satisfaction, Bukele has agreed to make El Salvador a destination for refugees awaiting processing by US authorities.
“Today we’re not ready,” he acknowledged. Indeed, the country lacks the health, education and living infrastructure for many of its own citizens, let alone for returnees or desperate people fleeing other troubled countries.
But “we will not buy 1,000 tents and put them in a piece of land. These are all human beings they have rights.” He promised to build humane facilities, with US help. “We signed an agreement with the US and we’re going to abide by it.”
Those refugees, if they come, will arrive in a country with huge challenges. Though the murder rate has declined in recent years, it remains among the highest in the region, and El Salvador is among the poorest countries in Central America, with corruption and impunity rife in law enforcement and the judicial system. And it can be a particularly hostile place for women, particularly those born into poverty. The state systematically jails women who have miscarriages or lose their newborn babies. In one of the most egregious cases, which our reporter Karla Zabludovsky has extensively covered, prosecutors are seeking to imprison Evelyn Hernández, whose newborn boy died after a complicated at-home birth, for a second time after a judge released her earlier this year.
Bukele doesn’t control the country’s prosecutors or judiciary, but he criticized the prosecution sharply. “I have a voice though, and I think it’s very unfair that we’re criminalizing only poor women. You’d never see a rich or a middle-class woman being prosecuted for a miscarriage,” said Bukele, who has suggested a very modest set of exceptions to the abortion ban — when the pregnant person's life is at risk or in cases of rape or incest. “It’s part of the classism that has been ruling El Salvador since the feudal times.”
Bukele is having the sort of moment even more prominent global leaders dream of. He delivered the closing remarks after a parade of world leaders in Doha Sunday, and a few hours later appeared on 60 Minutes talking about immigration policy.
But the real coup of the weekend came on Twitter Saturday evening, when Bukele and other dignitaries attended a grand dinner with Qatar’s emir and that night’s guest of honor, Ivanka Trump, fresh off her preposterous softball interview with her own spokeswoman.
Bukele charmed the gathering with the sort of move you see more at informal dinner parties than diplomatic receptions: He and his wife Gabriela brought their baby daughter to the formal event.
The presidency tweeted a set of photos of the elder presidential daughter beaming at the younger one.
And Bukele, of all the gathered dignitaries, walked away with the coveted prize: the Ivanka retweet.
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