Photo: EFE

Bukele and Venezuela’s Obsession With Strongmen

As the Salvadoran leader raised concern amid the international community and part of the Venezuelan opposition because of his move to control the Supreme Court, many Venezuelans in social media see him as a champion

After more than a year of throwing their support behind Donald Trump, Venezuelans found themselves, once more, politically orphaned. The unsuccessful attempt to prevent Biden from being inaugurated left many of Trump’s Venezuelan followers, in the United States and in Venezuela, without a knight in shining armor. 

But then came a young, popular, social media-savvy president in El Salvador who declares himself an envoy of God and says he’s draining the swamp. Venezuelans celebrating Nayib Bukele’s continued power grab came as no surprise within the Twitter bubblea show of admiration for his fierce pressure on those institutions challenging his decisions was completely on-brand

Save Us, Big Guy

The infatuation Venezuelans have with powerful men is ancestral. We’d have to go back to the 19th century Latin America to find its roots in caudillismo, and across the 20th century, from dictatorships to weak democracies. The search for a strongman as a savior has been a significant part of our political tragedies and a sign of our collective need for salvation. If there’s something close to a foundation in Latin American politics, it should be the eagerness to worship a strongman in exchange for protection. 

This type of leader represents a rupture with traditional forms of exercising power. These are men with a mission: to break it all.

In Radiografía psicológica de la sumisión política (2007), Angel Oropeza characterizes this behavior as the surrender to powerful individuals, influenced by psychological and cultural factors. Oropeza defines political submission as a behavior based on the notion of obedience as a mechanism to avoid the consequences of exercising individual freedoms. This lack of agency and the need for protection lead to a cultish connection to the leader, with bigotry as a defining characteristic. It is the behavior that Chávez’s supporters developed during his rule. 

When Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele celebrated the dismissal of five members of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court after winning the majority in the Salvadoran parliament, the reminiscence of Hugo Chávez firing PDVSA oil executives back in 2002 was inevitable. Bukele got rid of a court he viewed as an obstacle; Chávez sacked an uncomfortable workforce he considered enemies. The question isn’t if they deserved to be discharged, but if this contempt for norms and procedures helps rebuild weak democratic institutions.

The Enduring Myth of the Outsider

The rise of strongmen is usually a consequence of the failure of political systems to respond to social demands. Fujimori in Peru, Chávez in Venezuela, Trump in the United States, and now, Bukele in El Salvador are just some of the strongmen who have risen to power with popular support. They use electoral democracy to develop an anti-democratic agenda, with severe consequences for the democratic institutions they seize. 

In Peru, Fujimori continues to be recognized by his supporters for his fight against terrorism and his economic recovery efforts. The fact that he came into office as an outsider, later dissolving congress, and gaining a second term, says a lot about the motivations of those that stood behind him. The arguments for dissolving congress were the institutional limitations he had to fight terrorism. In Venezuela, Chávez won an election six years after leading a failed military coup against a democratically elected president. In 1992 and then in 1998, he promised to erase the past, and democratic institutions sunk with it. No one would disagree that these institutions needed to improve their performance, but this shouldn’t have been at the expense of sacrificing norms and procedures. Trump was elected in defiance of the political elite; his pledge to drain the swamp drew enough support to carry him to the finish line. To fulfill that promise, he attempted to get rid of institutional guardrails, in some cases successfully, at a high cost for American democracy.

In the most recent episode of Latin American strongmen, Bukele keeps building his epic tale of the outspoken 2.0 leader. Last year, he showed up in congress with a group of military and law enforcement officials, to intimidate lawmakers resisting his pressure to approve resources in his fight against gangsyet far from defeating criminal groups like the MS-13, he has been negotiating with them. This is all with a social media presence and engagement that contributes to his image of a polarizing figure.

If democracy fails, there’s a shared responsibility. Most people are not willing to assume their part and act accordingly. It’s easier to bring along a tough guy who can deal with the mess we contributed to ourselves. 

This type of leader represents a rupture with traditional forms of exercising power. These are men with a mission: to break it all. Chávez tried to bring down the whole system with his failed coup, and had to wait to do it electorally. Fujimori got rid of congress to fight terrorism. Trump isolated the United States to punish political elites. Bukele is taking over congress in a power grab that will likely remove any trace of checks and balances. These men became the saviors for people without the patience for gradual changes and a limited understanding of separation of powers.

These leaders also provide their followers with the reassurance they seek. For those with little understanding of the role of institutions, all politicians are corruptbut those who rise to power do so with our help. If democracy fails, there’s a shared responsibility. Most people are not willing to assume their part and act accordingly. It’s easier to bring along a tough guy who can deal with the mess we contributed to ourselves. 

The excitement some Venezuelans are experiencing with Bukele, as they did with Trump and Chávez, has a common denominator: an apparent disdain for democracy and its institutions. We can play the blame game and make politicians responsible for the demise of our democracy. However, the admiration for men displaying an anti-democratic agenda with significant popular support showcases a void of democratic values and principles overall.