SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) – The young president of small Central American nation El Salvador leapt to worldwide fame this week after his country became the first in the world to adopt bitcoin as legal tender, but Nayib Bukele is no stranger to controversy.
Cryptocurrency fans across the globe celebrated when his bill was swiftly approved by lawmakers on Wednesday, and when the 39-year-old leader followed up with a plan to mine energy from volcanoes to power the massive data centers needed to mint the digital currency.
The move did not escape scrutiny. The International Monetary Fund quickly flagged economic and legal risks to the unprecedented use of bitcoin in the small economy.
From firing officials via Twitter to entering Congress with heavily armed soldiers, Bukele has tended to ruffle establishment feathers since he became president in 2019.
He swept congressional and local elections in February and enjoys an approval rating of over 90% despite the economy shrinking by 8% last year. His alliance won a historic supermajority, crushing the two parties that had dominated Salvadoran politics for 30 years.
Just weeks before adopting bitcoin brought him a new international spotlight, Bukele fell out with the Biden administration after the new Congress summarily removed the attorney general and top judges from office.
He says all his actions are constitutional and backed by popular mandate.
The top prosecutor had been investigating government officials. Bukele also closed an anticorruption office he himself had opened.
Bukele, who calls himself the “coolest president in the world,” recently launched an international surf competition in the country wearing a backwards baseball cap and flanked by a military officer.
His achievements include reducing murder rates in a country that has long grappled with deadly gang violence.
Despite his youth, Bukele is no political neophyte.
When he worked in his father’s advertising agency early in his career, his client was the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), the leftist party then in power.
He joined the party and in 2012 became mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlan, a coffee-growing town near San Salvador. Far from the media spotlight and with few resources, he publicized his work on social media. His reputation for good management helped him garner the support to win office as mayor of the capital in 2015.
In San Salvador, he gained prominence for his social and cultural focus and for donating his salary to scholarships. But two years after taking office, the FMLN expelled him, saying he had sowed division, violated party statutes and attacked a trustee with an apple during a council session.
He has denied the accusations.
Bukele joined forces with the right-wing Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional (GANA) in his campaign for the presidency, which was driven by social media. He has founded a party called New Ideas.
The youngest president in the Americas took office promising to end corruption. He was himself investigated by the Attorney General’s office for money laundering, fraud and tax evasion during his terms as mayor. He has denied the allegations.
The rise of his siblings and cousins to public posts or behind-the-scenes advisory roles has also led to complaints of nepotism, which he has denied.
The international community did not pay much attention until the president arrived in Congress early last year to request approval of a $109 million loan to fight crime – accompanied by soldiers in full battle uniform.
“If I were a dictator or someone who does not respect democracy, I would have taken control of the entire government tonight,” Bukele told Spanish newspaper El Pais.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Bukele enacted a series of health and economic measures to alleviate the crisis, but ignored Supreme Court rulings against his lockdown measures and has faced rights complaints.
“He uses the press and social media to threaten, intimidate and persecute people who could be adversaries,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch.
Still, Salvadorans fed up with decades of corruption and ineffectiveness have admired Bukele’s confident, decisive style including a penchant for using Twitter to give orders to ministers.
“Nayib does an excellent job, we have never had someone who cared about people’s well-being,” said taxi driver Eduardo Samayoa, 36.
(Reporting by Nelson Renteria in San Salvador and Diego Ore in Mexico City; Writing by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Matthew Lewis)