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NSn Sunday On September 5, hundreds of protesters gathered under the Monument to the Constitution in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, carrying hand-made banners. Most of them were in their mid-twenties. And taking turns using a microphone, they condemned 40-year-old President Neb Bokel. Almost all of them covered their faces, less fear of being identified by the police who took pictures of the event, than of contracting the Covid-19 virus.

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They took to the streets to denounce a Supreme Court ruling two days ago that presidents could run for a second consecutive term. That allows Bukele to stand in 2024, and it appears to be against the Constitution. Daniel, a 28-year-old graphic designer, attended the protest with his mother holding a sign that read “Bukele Fascista”. He voted for Mr Bukele, but now feels “the Constitution is being trampled on”.

The ruling is the latest power grab by Mr. Bukele. In February, his party won an overwhelming majority in legislative elections. Since then he has taken over the judiciary. Five justices from the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court were dismissed in May and replaced by sympathizers. They were the ones who ruled that he could run again. On August 31st, the Legislative Assembly passed a series of bills, including one to remove all judges over 60 or 30 in service. Mr. Bukele can now replace them – up to a third of the jurisdiction.

But on the other side of town from the protest, on Morazán Square in downtown San Salvador, little was alarmed by Mr Bukele’s undemocratic tendencies or the intricacies of the justice system. When Mr Bukele was mayor of the capital, from 2015 to 2018, he cleaned up the square and downtown area, previously controlled by gangs. Dorian Martinez, a bartender in a café there, feels that the president has been “successful in most things”, different from previous politicians. He praised his ability to build a hospital during the pandemic. “I will vote for him a second time,” he says. “Imagine what it could achieve.”

Many Martinez citizens seem to agree with him more than the protesters, who turned out in slightly larger numbers on September 7. The president’s approval rating has swung around 90% since he took office in 2019, the highest of any leader in Latin America, and possibly the world.

Many Salvadorans say Mr. Bukele has made their lives better. They point to new methods, food aid and safer neighborhoods. Some credit him with lowering murder rates, which began dropping before he took over (see chart). Although many suspect that Bukele’s government is negotiating with gang members (as previous governments have also done), he denies it. On August 23 FaroeA digital newspaper revealed that officials secretly met with imprisoned gang members over the past year, claiming to keep the crime rate low in exchange for improving prison conditions.

Mr. Bukele’s popularity wasn’t the only thing that gave him cover for his astonishingly quick takeover of the country. Salvadorans lack confidence in democracy, thanks in large part to the corruption and mismanagement of the two parties that have rotated in power since the end of the civil war in 1992. Mr. Bukele promised to shake up this duopoly with New Ideas, which was registered as a party only in 2018. .

It also helps if the boss is a masterful self-propagandist. The Supreme Court ruling came just a few days before El Salvador became the first country to legally tender for Bitcoin, along with we dollar. This move is not very popular – in one survey, more than two-thirds did not want to be paid in cryptocurrency. But it has grabbed headlines around the world (although its posing was in ruins). Mr. Bukele has been frantically tweeting about the cryptocurrency, from which the country has purchased hundreds of tokens (spent about $30 million). By contrast, he kept silent about the Supreme Court’s decision.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bukele’s control of the judicial system means it will be impossible to file a lawsuit, says Ruth Lopez, an attorney at Cristosal, a human rights organization in El Salvador, even if the sentences and dismissals are illegal. The electoral authority said it would abide by the court’s decision to allow the president to run for a second consecutive term, although one of its officials expressed surprise at the decision.

Uncle Sam’s Predicament

The United States appears to be stuck in how it deals with a head of state of no more than 6.5 million people. The administration of President Joe Biden condemned Mr. Bukele. The US ambassador to El Salvador likened him to Hugo Chavez, the late Venezuelan dictator. Officials in Washington may be able to apply some economic pressure, perhaps by pressing for terms on International Monetary Fund A $1 billion loan is underway. The State Department stopped supporting the attorney general’s office after the incumbent was fired in May.

However, the United States is grappling with a Central American migrant crisis on its southern border. More than 2 million Salvadorans now live in the United States, up from 700,000 in 2000. Biden’s team would prefer not to risk destabilizing the country, causing more people to flee. On August 27, it donated equipment including eight helicopters to the armed forces of El Salvador loyal to Mr. Bukele.

Some might take comfort in a poll that showed Bukele’s 87% approval rating. Although it’s still ridiculously high, this is the lowest level since he took office. But with levers of power now under his control, and $30 of free bitcoin to any Salvadoran who signs up for the crypto service (equivalent to about three days on minimum wage) caudillo You cannot satisfy everyone.

This article appeared in the Americas section of the print edition under the heading “Crypto creep”

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