MEXICO CITY (AP) — Videos of contestants wearing scarves strolling on beaches in El Salvador, taking selfies in front of fireworks and wandering the streets of downtown San Salvador went viral on social media this week as celebrations for the Miss Universe 2023 pageant kicked off in MEXICO CITY (AP) – Central American country.
“As President (Nayeb) Bukele said, El Salvador is changing,” said Ruponi Gabriel, Miss Universe 2022, in a speech to this year’s contestants. “While we are here, we hope to shine a light on this country for the rest of the world to see.”
The competition, which was held on Saturday evening, is the latest spectacle promoted by Bukele in his efforts to change the reputation of his nation, which has been historically torn by violence.
But opponents and analysts say such displays are also used by the populist leader to distract from human rights abuses in his crackdown on gangs and steps he has taken to limit criticism. Constitutional scholars and critics warn that it is slowly weakening the country’s fragile democracy.
The Miss Universe pageant comes at a crucial time for Bukele, just months before the presidential elections in February. Bukele is running for re-election despite clear limits set out in El Salvador’s constitution, a move that has angered watchdogs inside and outside the country.
“You’re giving the public something to show off to distract from the fact that you’re doing this while eroding the rule of law and democratic checks and balances in the country,” said Tiziano Preda, an expert on Central America at the Institute of International Affairs in Italy.
Bukele’s government did not respond to a written request from The Associated Press for comment.
Since coming to power in 2019, Bukele has brought about sweeping changes in the country of 6.5 million people. Most notable was his war on El Salvador’s gangs, which terrorized most parts of the country for decades.
Following a wave of gang violence last year, Bukele suspended some constitutional rights and has since imprisoned more than 72,000 people for alleged gang ties without due process. He also pursued journalists, labor organizers, human rights groups, and other critical voices, and mobilized a sophisticated communications machine to spread government propaganda.
The sharp decline in violence following the gang attack has earned Bukele strong support from most Salvadorans and opinion polls suggest he will run for re-election.
But observers warn there is a need to worry about human rights violations and Bukele’s consolidation of power.
US Department of State Report for 2022 Highlight “Important human rights issues”, and earlier this month many ordinary citizens and opposition parties Petitions were submitted to the Supreme Electoral Court Seeking to nullify Bukele’s re-election bid.
Bukele, who once called himself “the most wonderful dictator in the world,” quickly faced criticism. Sometimes he ignores critics, other times he forcefully accuses foreign governments of hypocrisy, while making bold displays a trademark of his presidency.
In 2021, he announced in a recorded message played at a Bitcoin conference in Miami that the cryptocurrency would become a national currency in El Salvador. Shortly thereafter, El Salvador became the first country to take this step. Questions were raised at the time, and the decline in the value of the cryptocurrency last year only fueled doubts. The government has not been transparent about its holdings, but analysts believe it is still suffering a severe loss.
Bukele focused on new projects and kept moving forward.
It hosted international surfing competitions and the 2023 Central American and Caribbean Games, which experts quickly dubbed “ A textbook case of “sports washing.” “- Using sports to distract from controversy or burnish one’s reputation.
“Successfully hosting an international event can give a regime the confidence to carry out some kind of action with impunity. Sports are to some extent… “A shortcut to earning yourself, not even popularity, just acceptance.”
Locally-oriented projects such as the massive new prison for gang suspects and the sparkling National Library unveiled this week are also presented to the public in carefully designed displays. The library event included drones that flew into the skies above the capital and arranged themselves in Bukele’s image.
The president appears to be working to tone down criticism of the Biden administration. El Salvador last month They imposed exorbitant fees on African migrants calling through its airport as the US government pressured governments in the region to do more to control northward migration.
The result was what Breda, the Central American analyst, described as “softer public condemnation” by the United States and other players in the region.
Now, as Bukele faces criticism for his re-election bid, the Miss Universe pageant has literally taken the spotlight off the Central American country.
“We are now the safest country in Latin America. El Salvador is changing,” Bukele said in a video announcing the event earlier this year.
Social media influencers comment on the contestants’ fashion choices, while others show contestants hitting the red carpet in elegant dresses and heels, or practicing yoga on the beach wearing pageant scarves.
Contestants such as Lizbeth Valverde Brenes, Costa Rican actress, Sing Bukele’s tune to local content creators as she walked around downtown, praising El Salvador’s security while adding: “I have to go back.”
Mixed in with videos of the contest on Bukele’s social media channels – his preferred means of communication – are photos of him and his supporters celebrating his re-election campaign.
His critics push back.
The rights group Movement for Victims of Emergency has announced that it will hold a protest on the same day that Miss Universe concludes. “El Salvador is not a country of marvels,” the group said. “Bukele has turned it into a prison.”
Analyst Brida warns that there are two ways to all this.
“For Salvadorans, this is a way to rebuild their national identity, and see their country as a country that is referred to as a tourist attraction. I see the good in that,” he said.
But he added: “If this comes at the expense of democracy, and the dismantling of checks and balances, then I don’t know if this is a positive thing overall.”