Religion was at the center of El Salvador’s controversial presidential election in 2019. For the first time since the negotiated settlement of the country’s traumatic civil war in 1992, Nayib Bukele, a young candidate of Palestinian descent unaffiliated with either the main conservative or leftist political party, was the favorite to win. In the weeks leading up to the election, rumors spread in the culturally Catholic country about the religious affiliation of the 37-year-old mayor of San Salvador. Was he a Christian? An atheist? A Muslim, like his father? Or did Bukele espouse a different religious ethos with his devotion to cryptocurrency?
Bukele responded that the speculation about his faith was a desperate effort by the Right to exploit latent Islamophobia and cast doubt on his candidacy. This was not a new experience for Nayib, whose father, Armando Bukele Kattan, was from a prominent Palestinian Christian family that migrated to El Salvador during the early 20th century. Nayib’s father later converted to Islam and became the Imam of El Salvador’s Muslim community—a position he held until his death in 2015. According to journalist Gabriel Labrador, Nayib would refer to himself as the “Class Terrorist” in high school in order to agitate the anti-Islamic sentiment he experienced.
As he entered public service, Nayib Bukele’s discourse shifted toward being a person of ambiguous faith rather than someone who subscribes to one particular religious identity. This was also part of his platform when he ran for public office as a candidate for mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán and later San Salvador. Bukele forged a narrative of his multireligious background that incorporated aspects from his Christian bonafides (that his family descends from Bethlehem, Jesus’s birthplace), Muslim leadership (his father’s religious role in El Salvador), and Jewish connections (his wife claims Sephardic roots). These different modes of religiosity allowed him to establish connections with evangelical leaders, the Catholic establishment, and even diplomatic relations in the Middle East.
Despite the Right’s efforts to drum up scandal during the 2019 election, Bukele went on to win the presidency—for a 5-year term—through a wave of popular support under an anti-corruption and anti-establishment platform. Yet, the politicized aspects of his faith would not only remain a source of conjecture, but Bukele himself would strategically use religious belief to redirect criticism of his policies from Salvadorans locally and abroad. This tactic has only intensified as his own popularity has waned in recent months amid the authoritarian backslide of his government and political party named Nuevas Ideas, or “New Ideas.”
Since March of this year, the Bukele regime has incarcerated over 46,000 Salvadorans with alleged connections to gangs, using a state of emergency that is renewed on a monthly basis. Citing increased gang violence, the Salvadoran government has embarked on an aggressive campaign to arrest suspected gang members despite evidence demonstrating not only that the Bukele government previously negotiated with gangs to boast a record of decreasing homicides, but also that this new wave of violence might be evidence of a disintegrating agreement.
Children as young as 12 have been detained and those arrested have been denied their constitutional rights under the current Régimen de Excepción, or state of exception. Using the hashtag #GuerraContraPandillas (WarAgainstGangs), the campaign became the sole focus of Bukele’s social media accounts for weeks as he shared an endless stream of photos of mass arrests of “terrorists” to amplify the public spectacle of his effort. Erika Guevara-Rosas, the Americas director of Amnesty International, has talked about how the repercussions of the state of emergency have disproportionately impacted poor and marginalized communities in Salvadoran society. For Rosas, people from these communities are “arbitrarily arrested without the right to legal defense,” additionally, “prisoners can be held without sufficient food or fresh air, and journalists can be jailed merely for reporting on gang-related activity.”
An integral aspect of Bukele’s rhetoric during this campaign has emphasized the spiritual danger of gangs. On May 3, Bukele posted a photo on Facebook of a satanic altar in an alleged gang member’s home, remarking: “the war against gangs is a war between good and evil.” The most popular comments under this and many other public posts come from supporters who consistently evoke God, God’s blessings upon Bukele, and religious reasons for their support of the president.
Many of the top comments to Bukele’s posts over the past months have not only extolled the president’s actions, but have also referenced Bible verses, interpreted his policies according to religious reasons, and framed his decisions as part of a divine purpose. One of the most popular comments to the satanic altar post affirmed the president’s justifications, calling the campaign “divine justice”; while another remarked that this was proof that God established Bukele as “a burning torch” in El Salvador, “like Moses who led Israel out of slavery.”
Bukele has mobilized this religious language to establish key connections to influential evangelical leaders as well as a sizable and devout Salvadoran diaspora in the United States. While theological differences divide Catholic and evangelical Salvadorans in El Salvador as well as abroad, they both share common positions on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage advanced by these key evangelical leaders. The U.S.-based Salvadoran diaspora is also a key group with whom to maintain positive relations, considering that it contributes over $3.9 billion in remittances to the Salvadoran economy (amounting to 16 percent of the country’s GDP).
In the leadup to his presidential bid, Bukele courted the support of prominent evangelical leaders such as Edgardo Cardozo, Juan Carlos Hasbún, Dante Gebel, and hundreds of others. During a summit in 2018, evangelical leaders prayed and voiced their support of Bukele, underscoring how his commitment to anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage policies was a fulfillment of prophecy.
Reporters from El Faro write that the president has cultivated a “relationship of convenience” with evangelical leaders in order to generate support from an important and growing constituency in El Salvador. This relationship also diverts attention away from his unpopular and unconstitutional policies. Bukele’s tactics attempt to counter the critique of many Salvadoran activists, journalists, and human rights observers; they emphasize that the current constitutional crisis and state of exception are only the most recent manifestation of the president’s track record on the suppression of rights since the start of his presidency in 2019.
Bukele’s critics point to a series of actions that curtailed civil liberties and democratic practices in the interest of consolidating political power. Early in February 2020, Bukele sent soldiers into the legislative assembly during a vote as an intimidation tactic to ensure they passed a comprehensive crime bill as part of his ‘Territorial Control Plan.” In 2021, after winning a supermajority in the country’s legislative elections, Bukele sidestepped constitutional protections by dismissing the pre-existing Attorney General along with five members of the Constitutional Chamber to install his own appointees—a measure that many see as a precursor to passing the current state of exception.
Perhaps the most controversial of all recent policy shifts was Bukele’s proposal, approved by Congress in June 2021, to make El Salvador the first country in the world to recognize Bitcoin as legal tender. According to Bukele, the shift to accepting cryptocurrency would stimulate real estate and foreign investment. Despite the fact that this new fiscal policy would not address the specter of El Salvador’s sovereign debt, crippling inflation, or underdevelopment, Bukele hailed the promise of Bitcoin (nicknamed BTC) as the key to the future of El Salvador’s prosperity.
In addition to these fiscal policies, Bukele has invested $106 million of the government’s dollars in Bitcoin—an amount that fell by 57 percent in June during the largest downturn of cryptocurrency worldwide. The longtime appeal of investing in crypto has been its alleged insulation from other sectors of the economy, but the dramatic dip of its value has only served to prove how digital currency is linked to global markets. Instead of acknowledging the volatility of these investments, Bukele doubled down on his faith in the coin when confronted with the fact that the government lost over $40 million. The president tweeted in June: “You’re telling me we should buy more #BTC?” During the last major drop for Bitcoin in September 2021, Bukele did just that by buying “the dip.”
Bukele’s unhinged commitment to crypto provoked thousands of Salvadorans to take to the streets to protest the so-called Bitcoin law in late 2021. This piece of legislation required businesses to accept bitcoin as payment and private citizens to accept it if their company compensated their employees in Bitcoin. In a country where just over 50 percent of the population has access to reliable internet, and many in remote areas don’t even have access to electricity and running water, Bukele was asking citizens to bear the burden of the Bitcoin rollout with little more than speculation. At the same time that everyday Salvadorans struggled to make ends meet, they witnessed so-called Bitcoin havens in the country become increasingly populated by foreign crypto tourists interested in the incentives offered by the Bukele regime.
Over the past three years of the Bukele presidency, the millennial autocrat has instrumentalized religion and devotional behavior to appeal to both local and diasporic Salvadorans to generate approval and bolster his legitimacy. He has cultivated a faith in Bitcoin to attempt to uplift the small Central American country into prosperity—a gamble that thus far has not paid off, given cryptocurrency’s recent downward spiral. It could be argued that while Bukele publicly disavows a singular religious identity, he certainly embraces a faith-based ethos around cryptocurrency that does not allow anyone to call his power into question. Bukele’s belief in Bitcoin not only challenges crypto advocates’ claims to a democratic and transparent currency but also bolsters a growing perspective that considers devotion to cryptocurrency a 21st-century religious phenomenon.
Amy Fallas is a Salvadoran-Costa Rican writer, editor, and historian based in Cairo. She received her MA in History from Yale University and is currently a PhD Candidate in Middle East History at UC Santa Barbara. She is an assistant editor of the Arab Studies Journal and her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Jadaliyya, Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, Contingent Magazine, The Revealer, and more.