Saturday, 24 February 2024 10:09

How US conservatives fell for two of Latin America’s most controversial leaders

Nayib Bukele speaks at CPAC on February 22, 2024.

Meet two of the hot speakers at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC): Presidents Nayib Bukele of El Salvador and Javier Milei of Argentina, two of Latin America’s most flamboyant right-wing populists.

CPAC started in 1974 as an annual gathering of conservatives; over the years it has turned into a days-long, livestreamed far-right spectacle. Policy is discussed and refined while movement luminaries like former President Donald Trump and House GOP Chair Elise Stefanik are given the opportunity to share their ideas with a receptive audience.

It might be a little sleepier than usual this year, but the conference still reveals where American conservatism is headed. And the two Latin American leaders’ presence underscores the right’s continued affinity for populist and even illiberal leadership — particularly when combined with modern personal brands built online.

They aren’t the first extremist leaders to speak at CPAC: Viktor Orbán of Hungary and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil have featured in past years. Like Orbán and Bolsonaro, Bukele and Milei are staunch populists who have proposed radical solutions to serious problems in their countries.

The American right finds those radical proposals attractive, even if the policies likely couldn’t — or shouldn’t — be instituted in the US. Bukele has, seemingly, mitigated El Salvador’s serious gang violence problem through mass arrests and incarceration, while Milei’s economic policies are supposed to right Argentina’s inflation-plagued economy.

Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, has praised both men; though he has yet to meet Milei, the former president enjoyed a friendly relationship with Bukele. Other conservative figures, including Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) of the Freedom Caucus, have praised Milei’s push for “limited” government.

The two leaders are important voices at CPAC as conservatives work to draw in Latin American voters before the election in November; Bukele in particular is popular among Salvadorans living in the US. But their presence at the conference is about more than trying to win votes, Erica Frantz, a professor of political science at Michigan State University, told Vox — it’s about creating a particular type of international far-right ideology.

“Linking Milei and Bukele with the Trump movement is advantageous for all parties involved,” she said. “For Milei and Bukele, it gives them the opportunity to strengthen an alliance with the potential presidential candidate most likely to be sympathetic to their authoritarian ambitions.” For Trump and his supporters, “it is a chance to send a message to supporters that its style of politics is gaining steam outside US borders.”

Bukele and Milei were elected to tackle big issues

Bukele has had a long relationship with the pro-Trump right since his first presidential election in 2019. That relationship started online, among cryptocurrency enthusiasts. The ideology underlying cryptocurrency is decidedly libertarian, with many adherents calling for the abolition of treasuries and central banks.

Bukele’s profile rose when El Salvador began accepting bitcoin as legal tender, and he’s remained popular despite the damage it’s done to the country’s economy following the cryptocurrency crash of 2022. But the leader’s crypto fixation — which is affecting the country’s ability to secure international financing — is almost quaint in the face of his authoritarian turn, ostensibly to address the country’s serious crime problem.

Gangs controlled most aspects of life in the country, which was once known for having the highest murder rate in the world. With a campaign of mass arrests, Bukele has indeed tackled El Salvador’s crime problem. But that has come at a steep cost, as I explained last year:

Successive presidential administrations have taken different approaches — many have adopted the mano dura, or “iron hand” tack, instituting harsh crackdowns to mitigate the violence. But Bukele is on an entirely different level; his administration has imprisoned tens of thousands, many arbitrarily, repeatedly extended a state of emergency severely curtailing the rights of ordinary citizens, and attacked and even detained his critics in the press.

The country now instead boasts the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Despite the human rights violations, Bukele’s policies have been popular in El Salvador. Given the astounding level of violence that ordinary people have suffered under the gangs’ power — and the rapidity with which the violence decreased — it’s not ultimately that surprising that Bukele won a second term in office, despite the fact that he has dismantled parts of El Salvador’s democracy, manipulating institutions from the country’s Constitutional Court to its legislature, to do so.

Though the policy appears to be working in the immediate term, critics argue it isn’t sustainable for two major reasons. The first is that Bukele has made no effort to build a long-term social or economic infrastructure as an alternative to gang violence. The second is that the sense of security people currently feel requires sacrificing other forms of security, such as the rule of law. “[Bukele’s] popularity is built on illegality and undemocratic actions,” Noah Bullock, the executive director of the human rights organization Cristosal, told Vox. “There is no historic precedent where the use of state violence has produced lasting peace.”

That didn’t stop Bukele from suggesting the US ought to learn from his policies during his CPAC speech on Thursday. “We can clearly see the signs of a declining society because our own hit rock bottom decades ago,” he told the cheering audience. He urged Americans to look at “big cities in decline like Baltimore, Portland, New York, just to name a few places where crime and drugs have become the daily norm.”

Milei has only been in office for a couple of months, so he’s had less time to implement his libertarian economic policies. And he might not be able to do that much; already in his brief tenure, the congress voted down his party’s omnibus bill, which included fiscal measures aimed at managing inflation as well as an attempt to secure emergency legislative powers for, potentially, his entire four-year term. Along with deregulation and privatization efforts, the omnibus bill hinted at Milei’s social agenda: It would have reduced prenatal parental leave for women and slashed environmental protections in favor of business interests.

Milei will speak at the conference Saturday, most likely about his efforts to privatize state enterprises and cut down on regulations — both topics with great appeal to CPAC’s audience.

US conservatives benefit from Bukele and Milei’s illiberal policies

Bukele and Milei were each granted a mandate by presenting extreme solutions to serious problems in their countries that have long frustrated citizens. But they have clear ideologies and proclivities toward illiberalism that emerge within those contexts, too.

“They are able to articulate a real problem in society and propose solutions,” Daniel Rothschild, executive director of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, told Vox. When people are truly struggling, they respond to those policies, “even if they are illiberal.”

In his speech on Thursday evening, Bukele warned that the US was headed for the same kind of violent, gang-plagued system that defined El Salvador. But he, like Trump and other conservatives, exaggerates the problem the US faces. Trump and his allies have argued that cities (especially those in Democratic-controlled states) are full of violence, and they have also made a bogeyman out of the gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS13, which has terrorized El Salvador along with Barrio 18.

It is true that MS13 actually started in the US and has had a presence here. It is also true that violent crime, including homicide, increased during the social upheaval of the pandemic, and that certain kinds of property crimes have increased. But violent crime is now at pre-pandemic levels and has trended downward overall since the 1990s. In other words, there’s simply no parallel to the violence and terror wrought by gang violence in El Salvador.

It’s not hard to see why Trump and others at CPAC would want to champion someone like Bukele. He exemplifies “tough on crime” rhetoric and, to their minds, proves that the only way to avoid the “American carnage” Trump warned of in his 2017 inauguration speech is to restrict human and civil rights and undo democratic norms and institutions.

Milei, despite having struggled to pass his policies, similarly embodies conservative ideals. His efforts to curb government spending and significantly reduce the size of the government echo the Republican party’s rhetoric of limited government and tighter belts — but the US isn’t dealing with 140 percent inflation or a 57 percent poverty rate.

It’s still early in Milei’s tenure, but it is important to note that he and Bukele — like Trump — exemplifies what Frantz and others call a “personalist” leader. “The party that supports them is intricately linked to their persona rather than a clear policy platform,” Frantz explained.

Social media is an important tool in the personalist leader’s playbook that Milei, Bukele, and Trump have all used to their advantage — they don’t have to go through establishment channels that might soften their policies or their rhetoric.

That social media following has created a wave of “millennial authoritarianism,” as researcher Manuel Meléndez-Sánchez termed the phenomenon, which brands these leaders as iconoclasts who reject the “establishment.”

“With personalist parties,” Frantz said, “leaders pretty much have a free rein to behave as they please, and — particularly when their party gains majority legislative representation — the door is wide open for democracy to deteriorate.”

Even if Milei is struggling to pass his policies in Argentina, he’s still able to paint himself as a warrior in the fight against socialism, as he apparently will do in his CPAC speech. That will solidify his ideological link to US conservatives and show “a very clear picture” of how far-right politicians “learn from each other, how they are connected with each other, and they are sharing an agenda that, far from being local, is a global network,” Paula Avila-Guillen, a human rights lawyer and executive director of the Women’s Equality Center, told Vox.

Ultimately, US conservatives like Bukele and Milei because they are hardliners who are using extreme tactics to deal with society’s problems — and are willing to thumb their noses at institutions to get there. As Frantz told Vox, their presence at CPAC is “an effort to cue the conservative base to see authoritarian rhetoric as ‘normal’ and strongman rule as the only solution to society’s problems.” In other words, the message is that not only is there nothing to fear from Trump’s more anti-democratic tendencies, but there’s much to gain from them.