El Salvador’s Miss Universe pageant drawing attention at crucial moment for president

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MEXICO CITY — Video montages of sash-clad pageant contestants strolling beaches in El Salvador, snapping selfies in front of fireworks and wandering the streets of downtown San Salvador speckled social media this week as celebrations for the Miss Universe 2023 pageant kicked off in the Central American country. “As President (Nayib) Bukele said, El Salvador is changing,” R’Bonney Gabriel, Miss Universe 2022, said in a speech before this year’s contestants. “While we’re here, we hope to shine a light on this country for the rest of the world to see.” The competition on Saturday night is the latest spectacle touted by Bukele in his effort to change the reputation of his historically violence-torn nation. But opponents and analysts say such displays are also being used by the populist leader to distract from human rights abuses in his crackdown on gangs and steps he has taken to curb criticism. Constitutional scholars and critics warn that he is slowly withering the country’s delicate democracy. The Miss Universe pageant comes at a key time for Bukele, just months before a presidential election in February. Bukele is running for reelection despite clear term limits laid out in El Salvador’s constitution, a move that has upset watchdogs both in and out of the country. “You give the public something to showcase to divert attention from the fact that you’re doing it while eroding the rule of law and democratic checks and balances in the country,” said Tiziano Breda, a Central America expert at Italy’s Instituto Affari Internazionali. Bukele’s government did not respond to a written request for comment by the Associated Press. Since Bukele came to power in 2019, he has made drastic changes to the country of 6.5 million people. Most notable has been his war on El Salvador’s gangs that have terrorized much of the country for decades. Following a burst of gang violence last year, Bukele suspended some constitutional rights and has since locked up more than 72,000 people for alleged gang ties without due process. He also has gone after journalists, labor organizers, human rights groups and other critical voices, and mobilized an elaborate communications machine to spread government propaganda. The sharp decline in violence following the assault on gangs gained Bukele strong support from most Salvadorans and polls suggest he will coast to reelection. Observers, however, warn that there is a need to be concerned over human rights abuses and Bukele’s consolidation of power. A 2022 report by the U.S. State Department highlighted “significant human rights issues,” and earlier this month several private citizens and opposition parties filed petitions with the Supreme Electoral Tribunal seeking to annul Bukele’s reelection bid. 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, 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 nation to take that step. Questions were raised at the time, and the plunge in cryptocurrency’s value last year only fed the doubts. The government has not been transparent about its holdings, but analysts believe they remain at a sharp loss. Bukele pivoted to new ventures and kept charging forward. He hosted international surfing competitions and the 2023 Central American and Caribbean Games, which experts quickly dubbed a textbook case of “sportswashing ” — using sports to divert attention from controversy or burnish reputations. “Successfully hosting an international event can give a regime confidence to kind of act with impunity. Sport is a bit of a shortcut way to win yourself, not even popularity, just an acceptance,” Alan McDougall, a sports historian at the University of Guelph in Canada, told AP earlier this year. Domestically oriented projects like a new mega-prison for gang suspects and the sparkling national library unveiled this week are also presented to the public in carefully choreographed spectacles. The library event included drones that flew into the sky above the capital and arranged themselves in Bukele’s image. 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. The result has been what Breda, the Central American analyst, described as a “softer public denunciation” by the U.S. and other players in the region. Now, as Bukele faces criticism for seeking reelection, the Miss Universe competition has quite literally taken the spotlight in the Central American nation. “We now have become the safest country in Latin America. We would like to thank the Miss Universe Organization for joining us in this historic process,” Bukele said in a video announcing the event earlier this year. “El Salvador is changing.” Social media influencers are commenting on fashion choices of contestants, others show competitors stepping onto the red carpet in elegant dresses and heels or doing yoga on the beach in their pageant sashes. Contestants like Lisbeth Valverde Brenes, representing Costa Rica, sing Bukele’s tune to local content creators as she walks around the city center, praising El Salvador’s security while adding, “I’ll have to come back.” And mixed in with the videos of the pageant on Bukele’s social media feeds — his preferred form of communication — are photos of him and supporters celebrating his reelection campaign. His critics are pushing back. The rights group Movement for Victims of the State of Emergency announced it will hold a protest on the same day as Miss Universe events wrap up. “El Salvador isn’t a country of marvels, Bukele has converted it into a prison,” the group said. Breda, the analyst, cautions that this all cuts two ways. “For Salvadorans, this is a way to rebuild their national identity, seeing their country as one that’s being referred to as a tourist hotspot. … I see the good in that,” he said. But, he added, “If that comes at the expense of democracy, the dismantling of checks and balances, I don’t know if that’s a net positive overall.”

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