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El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele speaks during the inauguration

REUTERS/Jose Cabezas/File Photo

El Salvador’s millennial strongman on track to be reelected

El Salvador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal has given President Nayib Bukele the green light to seek another term, even though the country’s constitution says consecutive presidential terms are a no-no. Polling suggests that Bukele, 42, is poised to win next year’s election handily, largely due to a war he’s waged against violent street gangs that’s gained widespread domestic approval.
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El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele registers his candidacy to seek reelection in 2024.

Latin America News Agency/REUTERS

El Salvador's Bukele benefits from bond boom

Nayib Bukele, the strongman president of El Salvador, certainly has his critics. He’s angered human rights activists with his sledgehammer crackdown on gang violence. He has antagonized the opposition by using the military to intimidate Congress and appointing judges who helped him wriggle out of term limits. Even the US has warned the youthful and irreverent Bukele about undermining his country’s fragile democracy.

And yet … Bukele enjoys a staggering 91% approval rating among ordinary Salvadorans, who see his strongman tactics as the price to pay for safer streets in one of the world’s most violent countries. The official homicide rate has fallen by half over the past year.

Now add one more group to the Bukele fan club: bond investors. The country’s sovereign debt is delivering 60% returns in 2023, the best performer in the world.

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Honduran military police guard gang members after taking over control of prisons.

Honduras Armed Forces/Handout via REUTERS

Honduras goes full Bukele on gangs

On Monday, authorities in Honduras responded to a gang-related fire that killed 46 inmates at a women's prison by putting the military police in charge of all jails, emptying cell blocks, and forcing cons to sit in rows nestled against each other, with their hands tied, heads bowed, and male inmates shirtless. Sound familiar?

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Gang members wait to be taken to their cell after 2000 gang members were transferred to the Terrorism Confinement Center, in Tecoluca, El Salvador. Handout distributed March 15, 2023.

Secretaria de Prensa de la Presidencia/Handout via REUTERS

What We’re Watching: El Salvador’s lingering state of emergency, Northern Ireland on alert, Alibaba’s breakup, Greek election matters

El Salvador’s state of emergency one year later

This week marks one year since El Salvador’s bullish millennial president, Nayib Bukele, introduced a state of emergency, enabling his government to deal with the scourge of gang violence that has long made his country one of the world’s most dangerous.

Quick recap: To crack down on the country’s 70,000 gang members, Bukele’s government denied alleged criminals the right to know why they were detained and access to legal counsel. The arrest blitz has seen nearly 2% of the adult population locked up.

Despite these draconian measures and Bukele’s efforts to circumvent a one-term limit, he enjoys a staggering 91% approval rating.

Bukele has also sought to distinguish himself as an anti-corruption warrior, which resonates with an electorate disillusioned by years of corrupt politicians (Bukele’s three predecessors have all been charged with corruption. One is in prison; two are on the run.)

Externally, relations with the Biden administration have been icy under Bukele, with San Salvador refusing to back a US-sponsored UN resolution condemning Russia’s war in Ukraine.

What matters most to Salvadorans is the dropping crime rate, which is why Bukele will likely cruise to reelection next year.

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Annie Gugliotta

And the (geopolitical) Oscar goes to …

It's the 95th Academy Awards on Sunday, and we all know that the Oscars often get political. You can expect speeches to reference Russia's war in Ukraine and, of course, US culture-war issues like identity politics. But in this era of political hyper-polarization in America and beyond, we’ve got our own awards to give out.

Here are our picks for a few of the best performances of the past 12 months.

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Luisa Vieira

The Graphic Truth: How does El Salvador's prison rate stack up?

El Salvador made headlines in recent days after President Nayib Bukele released photos of gang members being corralled into the country’s new mega-prison – a sprawling complex that will eventually hold 40,000 inmates. It’s the latest development in Bukele’s massive – and very popular – crackdown on gangs, in which Salvadoran authorities have locked up almost 2% of the adult population. (Never mind that US officials have recently accused Bukele of colluding with the very gangs he says he’s trying to stamp out!) El Salvador now has the highest prison rate per 100,000 people in the world – but how does that compare globally? Here we take a look at the countries with the highest official prison rates.

Annie Gugliotta

Then and Now: Iran’s public trials, Somalia’s new cabinet, El Salvador’s state of emergency

Three Months ago: Islamic Republic announces (sham) public trials

Media attention may have subsided, but protesters in Iran remain unbowed four months after the in-custody death of Mahsa Amini – she was arrested by the Islamic Republic’s “morality police” three days before her death – set off something resembling a revolution. Three months ago, we wrote that the mullahs who rule the country with an iron fist had announced the public trial of around 1,000 Iranians for participating in anti-regime demonstrations. Since then, at least four men have been publicly hanged: Sayed Mohammad Hosseini, 39, Mohammad Mehdi Karami, 22, a karate champ, Majid Reza Rahnavard, 23, a store worker, and Mohsen Shekari, 23, a barista. They were each accused of killing a member of the Basij paramilitary, a ruthless volunteer force that operates under the draconian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp – though rights groups say their confessions were coerced under torture.

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Aadhaar logo seen displayed on a smartphone.

Avishek Das/SOPA Images/Sipa U via Reuters Connect

What We're Watching: Digital money experiences in India, Togo & El Salvador

The advent of digital IDs

In poor countries, many are born without birth certificates or identification, a problem that leaves them unable to participate in modern society because they can’t prove who they are. Those without papers can’t open bank accounts, and governments can’t track transactions conducted entirely in cash, meaning they can’t tax people they can’t find. In turn, this lost revenue makes it harder for countries to provide much-needed public services. Before Aadhaar, a biometric ID system issued in India, more than one billion people in that country, and the government in Delhi, faced this very challenge. The Aadhaar system uses thumbprints and iris scans to establish identities and bring people onto the grid. It provides a unique 12-digit number to every user and allows authorities to transfer funds for state pensions, fuel subsidies, and other government help directly into bank accounts created for people who’ve never had access to such things. In important ways, this system is a triumph in human development, but there is a potential downside: In a country where rule of law isn’t firmly entrenched, if a government can put money directly into your bank account, it can also withdraw it. That power could one day become a tool of coercion that political leaders in countries that use similar ID systems can use to enforce obedience from millions of people. There is also the risk of hacking and identity theft, a problem that can only be managed gradually as problems emerge. These are risks we’ll see in many developing countries in the coming years.

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