Palestinian presence in Central America dates to 1870, with an estimated half a million people of Palestinian descent around the region. Their successful assimilation into the politics of Central America was most recently noted with the election of Nayib Bukele, a Salvadoran of Palestinian origins, as president of El Salvador. Such a prominence, however, does not necessarily mean that their politics is tilting towards Palestine or is inspired by it. As Bukele’s election demonstrates, this community’s history and relationship to its ancestral land have had little to do with the nationalist discourse of Palestine, and is shaped more by their interests as Central Americans.
On February 1, 2019, El Salvador elected the second president of Palestinian descent in its history. Nayib Bukele decisively won the Central American country’s election for head of state by securing 53.78% of the vote. Bukele is the first candidate since the end of the Salvadoran Civil War (1980-1992) to win the presidency without representing either of the country’s two main political parties – the conservative National Republican Alliance (ARENA) and the left-leaning Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). Campaigning on an anti-corruption platform, the 37-year-old’s message resonated with a broad spectrum of Salvadoran society, especially those frustrated with the lack of political will to address the country’s pervasive political and economic problems.
Antonio Saca, El Salvador’s first president of Palestinian heritage, won the 2004 election on the ARENA ticket against another Salvadoran of Palestinian descent, FMLN candidate Schafik Jorge Handal. The latter was a committed communist who fought as a guerilla leader during the civil war and guided the movement’s post war transition into electoral politics. While Bukele initiated his career with the FMLN, he was expelled from membership in 2017 due to disagreements with party leadership and won the 2019 presidential election as head of the center-right Great Alliance for National Unity (GANA). The Great Alliance was established in 2009 as a movement representing ‘the new right’ and was formally recognized as a political party by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal in 2010.
Bukele began his political career as Mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán in 2012and then of San Salvador in 2015. Known in the capital as the ‘millennial mayor’ he gradually adopted an anti-establishment position and disseminated his platform through social media after alienating two of the country’s top newspapers, La Prensa Grafica and El Diario de Hoy. During his tenure as mayor of San Salvador, he implemented urban planning strategies to combat the pervasive gang violence at the heart of the city. Known as the reordenamiento (reordering), Bukele’s plan sought to dismantle gang extortion over the city’s central market by moving vendors outside areas under their control.
The young politician’s religious affiliation was a source of controversy during the presidential campaign. Just a few months before the 2019 election, El Heraldo de Mexico published a series of photos showing Bukele praying at a mosque in Mexico. El Heraldo author Paula Selene de Anda insinuated that despite the candidate’s public statements of not belonging to any faith community, “real evidence exists in which [Bukele’s] father has made it clear that his sons practice it [Islam].” El Salvador’s rightwing ARENA party mounted a defamation campaign based on the photos and supported the distribution of pamphlets questioning Bukele’s religious background and commitment to the majority-Christian country.
Bukele rebuked ARENA’s efforts to forge a “slander campaign” around his commitment to religious pluralism and unapologetically cited his multifaith background to support his position. While the Bukeles descend from Palestinian Christian migrants from Jerusalem and Bethlehem who migrated to El Salvador at the turn of the 20th century, Armando Bukele Kattan, Bukele’s father, converted to Islam and led the Muslim community in El Salvador where he served as an Imam and previous president of the Salvadorian Islamic Association before his death in 2015.
El Salvador is home to one of the largest Palestinian diasporas outside the Arab world. With close to 100,000 residents, the small nation boasts the second largest population of Palestinian descent in Central America, behind Honduras. Even when Palestinian migrants settled across Central America, many entered through the Salvadoran Cutuco Port.
Yet, Bukele’s Palestinian heritage has not necessarily translated to a fair and reasonable position on the conflict in his ancestral land. The Salvadoran president has been friendly with Israel since his post as Mayor of San Salvador. In 2018, Bukele was invited to participate in Israel’s 32nd annual International Mayors Conference on security and an effort to delegitimize BDS – the movement for boycotts, divestments and sanctions targeting Israel until it ceases violating Palestinian human rights. According to the online Salvadoran news blog Ultima Hora, Bukele considered the experience “a positive trip to Israel because of the learning that took place over agriculture, security, and entrepreneurship.” During the conference, he was seen praying at the Western Wall—a sacred site for both Muslims and Jews – and received fanfare from both Israeli and American officials.
Many across the Middle East voiced their disappointment with Bukele’s participation in the conference and dim prospects for supporting Palestinian human rights. Writer and analyst Yasser Al-Zaatreh was not optimistic about the possibility of Bukele supporting Palestinian self-determination, observing that given his track-record, someone“of Palestinian origin does not necessarily [mean they] belong to the cause.” The London-based Al-Araby TV echoed this sentiment by emphasizing how Bukele’s policy positions have served to support instead of challenge Israel: “His history shows his support for the occupation, as he visited the al-Buraq wall and met with officials from the occupation municipalities in occupied Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in 2018.”
After taking office on June 1, 2019, Bukele announced several initiatives between El Salvador and Israel including economic and technological partnerships as well as a multi-million dollar medical donation from Jerusalem Foundation for the Salvadoran police and military. Some Salvadorans expressed reluctance to this news as Israeli security state aid played a destructive role in the country’s civil war during the 1980s. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Israel provided El Salvador with 83% of its military imports from 1975 to 1979. Further, Israel also provided counterinsurgency training to the military death squads that wrought terror across the country during the violent civil war.
The current warming relations between the two countries also raises the specter of whether El Salvador will follow its regional neighbors and move their Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In 2018, Salvadoran Foreign Minister Hugo Martinez said El Salvador had no plans to move the embassy “out of respect for the peace process in the Middle East and particularly Israel and Palestine.” While Bukele hasn’t demonstrated any intention of changing this position, the evangelical community in the country and abroad, including the international Christian Zionist organization Christians United for Israel, continues to mount pressure in favor of moving the embassy.
Bukele’s unconventional and meteoric rise to political power in El Salvador comes at a critical time for the country’s foreign relations. As tensions around the migrant crisis at the U.S. southern border increases, Bukele’s leadership of a country with both a large diaspora in the U.S. and recent Central American caravanners will provide him the opportunity to shift the dialogue and shape the future of Salvadoran northward migration. The changing regional dynamics in Latin America toward rightwing populism and its relations with the Middle East is another arena in which Bukele will find opportunities to either challenge or legitimize political polarization.