Under State of Exception and Constitutional Crisis, El Salvador Hosts Miss Universe Pageant

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El Salvador will host the Miss Universe pageant on November 18 after the Government of President Nayib Bukele purchased the rights to host the event for $12 million using public funds. The event is set to take place amidst a backdrop of 80,000 arbitrary detentions, an economic crisis with rising levels of extreme poverty, and Bukele’s unconstitutional reelection campaign.

While the Bukele government has spent historic levels of public funds to promote the country as a bitcoin hub and international surf destination, the reality for most Salvadorans is marked by an indefinite State of Exception, which has given El Salvador the highest incarceration rate in the world. Basic civil liberties and due process have been suspended and tens of thousands of people have disappeared into the country’s prison system. Hundreds have died in state custody under the nearly two-year measure, and human rights groups have decried inhumane conditions faced by prisoners who have yet to be tried in court.

Today, with the Miss Universe festivities underway and contestants posing for photo ops across the country, the Movement of Victims of the Regime (MOVIR), marched on the office of the Human Rights Ombudsman to deliver a letter to the Ombudsman, Raquel de Guevara, demanding she “uphold her constitutional mandate to defend victims, not victimizers, and stop covering up human rights violations committed against the victims.” De Guevara has previously stated that she did not believe there were any innocent people in El Salvador’s jails, despite the vast majority never having been tried in court. In the days leading up to the action, MOVIR, which is made up of people whose innocent relatives have been incarcerated under the State of Exception, tweeted, “We are not the Country of Smiles. Many families mourn the unjust captures and deaths of loved ones in the regime's prisons.”

The "country of smiles" in MOVIR's tweet is a reference to the slogan used the first time El Salvador hosted the Miss Universe pageant in 1975, under the military government of Coronel Arturo Armando Molina. The parallels between the two time periods are striking. In the earlier pageant, Coronel Arturo Armando Molina used the Miss Universe contest to sell El Salvador as “El País de la Sonrisa” (“The Country of Smiles”) to the international community in an attempt to whitewash the anti-democratic military leadership, the extremely violent tactics it employed, and the widespread repression against government critics.

In the years leading up to the Salvadoran civil war, Colonel Molina’s government carried out the July 30, 1975 student massacre in response to students protesting public financing of the Miss Universe pageant and the military occupation of the Santa Ana university campus. Though the exact numbers were hidden by the government, over 100 students were either killed or disappeared when armed forces brutally attacked University of El Salvador students marching on the streets of the country’s capital. Today, Bukele’s government, like that of Colonel Molina in the 1970s, has also established a military occupation on the University of El Salvador campus.

Next week’s publicly-funded Miss Universe pageant will also take place amidst an economic crisis, which has caused record levels of migration and forced nearly a million people in the country to go hungry. Facing a budgetary crisis, Bukele is closing government institutions and firing tens of thousands of public workers. Many of his Nuevas Ideas party-controlled municipalities are going bankrupt. In this context, the Popular Resistance Bloc (BRP) released a statement proclaiming, “the event...is unnecessary, inconvenient, and immoral, given the serious human rights violations committed by the Salvadoran government, the state of distress that thousands of families in our country are living in, and the blows to democracy, the rule of law and transparency on the part of the authoritarian regime of President Nayib Bukele.”

Earlier this month, Bukele made his intention to run for reelection official, an act that is explicitly prohibited by six articles of the Salvadoran Constitution. The move was years in the making, following the illegal replacement of the entire Supreme Court and the Attorney General. With a supermajority in the Legislative Assembly and recent illegal reforms to the country’s electoral structure, El Salvador is experiencing its most significant democratic crisis since the military governments of the 1970s.

The BRP, in closing its statement decried the immorality of hosting the event in El Salvador “because it is an affront to the country, to the working class, to the innocent people who have been unfairly incarcerated, who suffer most from the corrupt regime's misguided policies.”

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