Salvadoran of Palestinian descent elected president

When Nayib Bukele is inaugurated June 1, he will join a sizeable list of Arab Americans who have led Latin American countries.
Thursday 07/02/2019
Smart popularity. Bukele, of the Grand Alliance for National Unity (C) his wife Gabriela, (R) and the Vice-president candidate Felix Ulloa wave supporters in San Salvador, El Salvador, February 3. (AP)
Smart popularity. Bukele, of the Grand Alliance for National Unity (C) his wife Gabriela, (R) and the Vice-president candidate Felix Ulloa wave supporters in San Salvador, El Salvador, February 3. (AP)

NEW YORK - In a shock to the two-party system that has ruled El Salvador since the end of the civil war in 1992, Salvadorans elected Nayib Bukele president on February 3.

Bukele, son of a Palestinian father, was once part of the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party but was expelled for criticising it. He ran for president through the centre-right party Grand Alliance for National Unity after his New Ideas Movement was ruled ineligible for the election.

Bukele won 53% of the vote in an election free of violence or significant disruption. He joins a long lineage of Arab Americans who have served in high-ranking government positions in Latin America.

In a region where people of Arab descent quietly dominate public life, Bukele’s victory over the FMLN and the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) is far more remarkable than his ancestry.

At 37, Bukele is the youngest person elected to the Salvadoran presidency in the modern era and the youngest elected leader in Latin America today. Juan Guaido, who has declared himself president of Venezuela with the recognition of the United States and many EU countries, is 35.

On the campaign trail, Bukele, former mayor of San Salvador, wore his signature leather jacket, blue jeans and occasionally a white baseball cap but he didn’t campaign that much.

Bukele choose not to participate in a televised debate after polls showed him in the lead, leaving an empty seat on the debate stage.

In a Facebook post, Bukele wrote: “We want to debate but with a guarantee of impartiality,” explaining that he had initially accepted the invitation to debate before withdrawing to protest rules that he believed were negotiated with the ARENA candidate and without his campaign’s input.

Bukele often engaged with voters through social media. At his first appearance after winning the election, Bukele strolled to the podium and, before saying a word, took a selfie of himself and the crowd to raucous applause.

Bukele’s victory is a significant fissure for a political culture in El Salvador steeped in the legacy of civil war. Both major Salvadoran parties map onto the two sides that fought in the war between the US-backed right-wing government and leftist guerrillas.

As president, Bukele will face issues of security in the face of rampant gang violence, corruption, which he has promised to tackle, and the economy in a country where nearly one-third of the population lives in poverty.

Bukele’s victory shows a tendency towards populism in the region and away from existing parties. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, known as AMLO, a left-wing leader with a populist style, won the presidency in Mexico last year through his newly formed National Regeneration Movement. In Brazil, right-wing populist outsider Jair Bolsonaro won the presidency last year.

When Bukele is inaugurated June 1, he will join a sizeable list of Arab Americans who have led Latin American countries.

Former Brazilian President Michel Temer, who finished his term last December, is the son of Lebanese immigrants. Former Argentine President Carlos Menem, who served through nearly the entirety of the 1990s, is the son of Syrian immigrants. Former Columbian President Julio Cesar Turbay Ayala was the son of a Lebanese immigrant father and consecutive presidents of Ecuador -- Abdala Bucaram (1996-97) and Jamil Mahuad (1998-2000) -- were of Arab descent.

Bukele is not the first president of El Salvador of Arab descent. Former Salvadoran President Elias Antonio Saca, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison on corruption charges in September 2018, is also a descendant of Palestinian immigrants. When he ran for president in 2004, his opponent, Schafik Handal, was also a Palestinian Salvadoran.

The Palestinian community in El Salvador totals 60,000-100,000, a small minority community in a country of more than 6 million. Most are from families that emigrated from Jerusalem and Bethlehem during Ottoman times at the beginning of the 20th century, as did Bukele’s grandparents.

Bukele has not spoken frequently of his Palestinian ancestors nor has he commented on the plight of the Palestinian people.

El Salvador has a strong relationship with Israel, which supported the government during the civil war. Until 2006, El Salvador maintained its embassy in Jerusalem. However, after the United States moved its embassy to Jerusalem in 2018, El Salvador opted to keep its embassy in Tel Aviv.

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