An avatar of President Bukele at a 2021 cryptocurrency event in El Salvador. (AP)


LatAmFocus: Online Reach and Expat Votes in El Salvador's Election

By Carin Zissis and Chase Harrison

Digital Democracy Institute of the Americas’ Roberta Braga and political scientist Michael Paarlberg delve into factors behind Nayib Bukele’s global reach.

Anyone paying attention to global affairs knows that 2024 is going to be a blockbuster election year around the world—Latin America included. Whether it’s presidential votes in Mexico and Uruguay or municipal votes in Brazil and Chile, citizens across the Americas will cast ballots in droves this year.  With that in mind, Latin America in Focus will release a series of episodes covering the 2024 races. From economic issues to security concerns, from youth votes to populist movements, we’ll zero in on the forces shaping this year’s votes and the region as a whole.

And our first stop, El Salvador, is a perfect example of how one country’s politics extend beyond its borders. The outcome of the country’s February 4 presidential election may seem all but a foregone conclusion, given that incumbent Nayib Bukele is poised to ride a wave of popularity straight to a reelection victory. The president has spent the past four years locking in control over Salvadoran institutions and winning support for a security measure that’s suspended civil rights in service of a major crackdown on gangs. Theat policy has proven popular, not just in his own country, but across and even beyond Latin America. 

Roberta Braga
Roberta Braga

A big reason is Bukele’s massive online following. On TikTok alone, the millennial leader has over 7 million followers—a tally higher than all of El Salvador’s inhabitants. Roberta Braga, founder and executive director of Digital Democracy Institute of the Americas (DDIA), explains that Bukele’s focus on social media videos has proven politically successful. “That investment in video content combined with his use of fun, sort of user-friendly and engaging, personable content does make him an ‘infotainer’ at times,” Braga told AS/COA Online’s Carin Zissis, adding that the tactic is being picked up by other regional leaders, such as Argentine President Javier Milei.

The result is that Bukele’s messaging around hard-line security approaches gets shared in groups with similar values and shaping political narratives, explains Braga. Using a Brazilian socal listening tool called Palver, DDIA has analyzed nearly 700 public WhatsApp and Telegram groups encompassing 200,000 phone numbers that use Spanish or Portuguese as primary languages. “We often see people using examples of things that happen in one country to justify actions happening in another country,” says Braga, as in the case of El Salvador’s security policies influencing steps taken in Ecuador or Trump supporters’ cries of electoral fraud in the United States influencing Brazil. “So when we think about countering disinformation, there’s no use in focusing on one silo or one context only.”

Michael Paarlberg
Michael Paarlberg

But Bukele is seeking to get his message abroad in more ways than one. In our first segment, Michael Paarlberg, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University whose research focuses on Latin American diasporas, tells AS/COA Online’s Chase Harrison why Bukele markets his message to Salvadorans living in the United States and other countries.

With steps taken to make voting abroad easier, and in the first three days of the one-month period voters could cast ballots, 10 times as many citizens abroad have voted than did in the last presidential contest in 2019. “This is something the Bukele government has put in place because they have support from the diaspora,” says Paarlberg, explaining why Bukele’s portrayal of the security situation specifically resonates with those who fled the country.

Latin America in Focus Podcast

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This episode will be the first in a series exploring the year’s elections and the forces shaping them. Catch the series and learn about 2024 elections via our guide at: www.as-coa.org/2024

This podcast was produced by Executive Producer Luisa Leme with support from Jon Orbach. Carin Zissis is the host. 

The music in this podcast is “Receitas de Samba” by C4 Trío and was recorded for Americas Society.

Send us feedback at: latamfocus@as-coa.org 

Opinions expressed in this podcast do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Society/Council of the Americas or its members.