To receive instant notifications of breaking news directly to your email, sign up for our free breaking news emails.
Register for our complimentary email alerts for breaking news.
This week, social media was filled with videos of Miss Universe 2023 pageant contestants wearing sashes, walking on beaches in El Salvador, taking selfies in front of fireworks, and exploring the streets of downtown San Salvador. These celebrations marked the start of the pageant in this Central American nation.
According to Miss Universe 2022, R’Bonney Gabriel, El Salvador is undergoing a transformation, as stated by President Nayib Bukele. In her speech to this year’s contestants, she expressed her desire to showcase this country to the rest of the world.
The Saturday night competition is the newest event promoted by Bukele in his attempt to transform the image of his country, which has a long history of violence.
However, critics and experts argue that these presentations are also being utilized by the populist figure in order to divert attention away from human rights violations in his efforts to combat gangs and suppress dissent. Scholars and opponents of the regime caution that this may lead to the erosion of the nation’s fragile democratic system.
The upcoming Miss Universe pageant is strategically timed for Bukele, as it falls just a few months before the presidential election in February. Despite the constitutional term limits in El Salvador, Bukele is seeking re-election, which has sparked criticism from both local and international watchdogs.
Tiziano Breda, an expert on Central America at the Instituto Affari Internazionali in Italy, stated that you are using a public display as a distraction from your actions which are undermining the rule of law and democratic checks and balances in the country.
The Associated Press reached out for comment from Bukele’s administration, but there was no response to the written request.
Since assuming office in 2019, Bukele has implemented significant reforms in the nation of 6.5 million inhabitants. One of his most noteworthy efforts has been targeting El Salvador’s long-standing problem with gang violence, which has plagued the country for many years.
After a surge of gang-related violence in the previous year, Bukele imposed limitations on certain constitutional rights and has subsequently imprisoned over 72,000 individuals for suspected gang affiliations without proper legal proceedings. He has also targeted reporters, labor advocates, human rights organizations, and other dissenting opinions, and utilized an extensive network of communication to disseminate government propaganda.
After the attack on gangs, there has been a significant decrease in violence, which has gained Bukele strong backing from the majority of Salvadorans. According to polls, he is expected to easily win reelection.
Some experts caution that we should be worried about potential violations of human rights and Bukele’s efforts to strengthen his control.
A report released in 2022 by the U.S. State Department brought attention to “notable human rights concerns.” In recent weeks, a number of individuals and opposition groups have filed appeals with the Supreme Electoral Tribunal in an attempt to invalidate Bukele’s campaign for reelection.
Bukele, who once dubbed himself on social media the “world’s coolest dictator,” has taken the criticism in stride. At times he ignores detractors and in other moments he forcefully accuses foreign governments of hypocrisy, all the while making bold spectacles a sort of trademark of his presidency.
In 2021, during a bitcoin conference in Miami, he stated in a pre-recorded message that the cryptocurrency would be adopted as a national currency in El Salvador. Shortly after, El Salvador became the first country to implement this decision. There were initial concerns and the decline in cryptocurrency’s worth last year only heightened skepticism. The government’s holdings have not been disclosed, but experts believe they have suffered significant losses.
Bukele shifted his focus to new endeavors and continued to move forward with determination.
He organized global surfing contests and the 2023 Central American and Caribbean Games, which were referred to by experts as a prime example of “sportswashing” – the practice of using sports to deflect attention from controversies or improve one’s image.
According to Alan McDougall, a sports historian at the University of Guelph in Canada, successfully hosting an international event can give a regime a sense of confidence to act without consequences. He also stated that sport can be seen as a quick way to gain acceptance, rather than just popularity.
Projects that are focused on the local community, such as the construction of a large prison for gang members and the grand opening of the national library, are presented to the public in highly orchestrated displays. The library opening featured drones which formed an image of Bukele in the sky over the capital city.
The president does appear to be working to blunt criticism from the Biden administration. Last month, El Salvador slapped a hefty fee on African migrants connecting through its airport as the U.S. government pressured governments in the region to do more to control northward migration.
According to Breda, the Central American analyst, the outcome has been a more subdued criticism from the United States and other countries in the area.
Currently, with Bukele receiving backlash for his bid for reelection, the Miss Universe pageant has become the center of attention in the Central American country.
“I am pleased to announce that our country has achieved the status of being the safest in Latin America. We extend our gratitude to the Miss Universe Organization for being a part of this significant journey,” stated Bukele in a video released earlier this year. “El Salvador is undergoing transformation.”
Influencers on social media are sharing their opinions on the fashion decisions of contestants. Some are posting pictures of competitors walking the red carpet in beautiful dresses and high heels, while others are showcasing them doing yoga on the beach while wearing their pageant sashes.
Lisbeth Valverde Brenes, a contestant from Costa Rica, was heard singing praises of El Salvador’s security while walking around the city center. She also expressed her desire to return in the future.
Integrated within the pageant videos on Bukele’s preferred mode of communication, his social media platforms, are pictures of him and his followers rejoicing over his reelection bid.
His opponents are resisting.
The organization Movement for Victims of the State of Emergency has declared that it plans to stage a demonstration on the final day of Miss Universe events. The group stated, “El Salvador is no longer a land of wonders; Bukele has transformed it into a jail.”
The analyst, Breda, warns that this has a dual impact.
“He stated that for Salvadorans, this presents an opportunity to reconstruct their sense of national pride, as their country is now recognized as a popular tourist destination. Despite any potential drawbacks, he sees the positive aspects of this development.”
However, he also stated, “If achieving this goal means sacrificing democracy and weakening checks and balances, I am unsure if it would have a positive impact in the long run.”