El Salvador is concluding its presidential election this weekend. The outcome is almost certain: Nayib Bukele, the current president, who has in the past five years successfully utilized Chinese investments and donations to build his own image of competency, is expected to win. He has gathered massive local popularity, evidenced by a close to 81 percent approval rate in January 2024 according to a survey by José Simeón Cañas University.
In his first term as president, Bukele has used his party’s majority in the National Assembly to lead a removal of Supreme Court judges, and that paved the way to for the courts in 2021 to allow him to run in this election despite a constitutional restriction on consecutive presidential terms. At the same time, he has been exceptionally skilled at delivering new political narratives particularly through social media, which has earned him a massive following among young people. Moreover, he managed to implement an effective security policy against the local “Maras” gang, who had controlled much of the country before. Bukele is now gradually moving to solidify a quasi-authoritarian regime.
Beyond El Salvador, the impression of Bukele’s competency has gained wide popularity across Latin America. As a skilled statesman, he has watched Chinese engagement elsewhere in the region, and has used it to his advantage to stay in power.
The Recognition, the New Government, and the New Partner
Following the footsteps of Costa Rica in 2007 and Panama in 2017, El Salvador in 2018 established formal diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, ending its recognition of Taiwan. The switch was made under a left-leaning government headed by Sánchez Cerén. In the next few years, other countries in the region, such as Nicaragua in 2021 and Honduras in 2023, also switched recognition.
Bukele came into power in June 2019. Six months later, on a trip to China, he received $500 million in investments to develop some infrastructure projects, which were to be completed built by Chinese companies. These kinds of investments, or rather, donations, have been a common practice in Latin America understood as a financial gift for the change of recognition from Taiwan to China. For example, when Costa Rica switched recognition in 2006, Beijing provided $110 million for the construction of a new National Football Stadium in San José, its capital city.
For El Salvador, Bukele received a brand-new National Library, a $40 million water plant at Ilopango Lake, and two projects still under construction, the National Football Stadium and the La Libertad small port. Among these projects, the National Library is one of the most emblematic, due to its modern design and the way it has been framed as a sign of the efficiency of Bukele’s partnership with China. In a country with a population of 6.3 million, the November 2023 Instagram post announcing opening of the National Library has gained 350,000 likes.
Under Bukele, bilateral relations have also thrived beyond investments. During the last five years, different officials from the Salvadorian government have visited China to find and explore new opportunities of cooperation, and vice versa for Chinese officials. For example, the most recent meeting of the Latin American Chinese diaspora conference was held San Salvador in October 2023. Moreover, Bukele’s government signed on to be part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and obtained 300 scholarships in China for Salvadorian students.
The Chinese Strategy in El Salvador: Growing Economic Influence at a Lower Price
Since the early 2000s, the Chinese strategy to expand its influence in Latin America has focused on promoting economic engagement. Different methods have been used to achieve this goal. For instance, Chinese banks have lent more than $140 billion to the region, and Chinese companies have invested about $145 billion in different greenfield or merger and acquisitions projects. On infrastructure projects alone, data from the Mexico City-based Academic Network on China and Latin America claims that Beijing spent about $100 billion in the region between 2005 and 2022.
In El Salvador, while massive infrastructure projects have not yet arrived, those which have been built are promoted by Bukele as great governmental successes, despite being entirely Chinese designed and built. To many Salvadorians, these infrastructure projects are representative of modernization and a real hope of a better future. Bukele has exploited this to his political advantage.
Despite having spent only a tiny fraction of what China has spent in other Latin American countries, the results of its projects in El Salvador have been significantly effective to Beijing. Given the concrete results of its low-cost projects, similar kinds of deals may be exported to other countries in Latin America, as Beijing finds way to reverse its troubled image related to its previous investments.
According to the most recent opinion poll from Latinobarómetro in 2023, almost 53.8 percent of Salvadorian have a good view of China, despite only 40 percent being in support of Beijing’s political model. But when the survey assessed the Salvadorian public opinion about the Chinese economic model, the positive perception rose to 56.5 percent. These figures reflect how people in El Salvador think that China could help them to improve their economy. If Beijing continues to build new high-impact infrastructure projects, this number may increase in the future.
The Challenges and Opportunities in a New Bukele Term
In 2021, after Bukele signed several agreements with Beijing, then-U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of Western Hemisphere Affairs Julie Chung, replied on Twitter: “Mister President, nothing from China comes without conditions.” Chung’s words hinted at established beliefs about Chinese practices in which the political and the economic cannot be so easily separated.
It can be expected that the China will continue to support Bukele’s government beyond 2024. However, while this support will be focused on the economic front, it will likely lead to political consequences, encouraging Bukele to turn the democratic Latin American country into a quasi-authoritarian regime.
Throughout the region, the idea of liberal democracy has been losing support in recent years. Bukele’s vast popularity inside and outside the country represents a new generation of Latin American leaders and a rising population who are opting to prioritize economic growth and security management before democracy and respect for the rule of law. Continued Chinese support for Bukele is likely to not just prolong his leadership in El Salvador but inspire other leaders in the region to consider mirroring his approach, further fueling the global competition between democracy and authoritarianism.
On the other hand, Salvadorians may benefit from Chinese investments and donations in the next few years if a more comprehensive bilateral trade plan comes into place, one that brings more long-term investments and local employment to the country. Considering this, it is very likely that in Bukele’s next term, bilateral relations will be raised to a “strategic partnership,” opening the door for more Chinese footprints in the country.
What will Beijing ask for in return? In the past few years, Chinese officials have explored the idea of building or modernizing some ports in El Salvador, which is likely to (if it has not already) spark American protest due to the highly strategic location of the country’s coastline. China may also be interested in modernizing and extending its footprint with other kinds of critical infrastructure.
So far, Bukele has managed to use Chinese engagement to his own advantage, but the “win-win” that Beijing is looking for does not stop at switching recognition, and he will no doubt find out what exactly he has to trade off in his next five-year term. Moving forward, Bukele has to manage reactions from the United States, the historical regional power in the Western Hemisphere, especially given its current tension with China.
In the middle of Bukele’s own political dilemma, there is another debate, one related to a perception problem. In many cases, the liberal democratic model has been perceived by people in Latin America as ineffective at fixing their problems, contrasting sharply with the perceived economic effectiveness of authoritarian models, such as China’s. China has shown it can work with both democratic and authoritarian regimes, and there is no doubt that Beijing is pleased to partner with the most popular president in the region.
You can read this article in Spanish, here.