The El Salvadoran Vision: An Interview with Yusef Bukele

Nayib Bukele’s brother shares his thoughts on the future of the country

The past couple of years have provided plenty in the form of unexpected global news. A worldwide health pandemic, deteriorating supply chains and a sudden withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan are all things which would have drawn strange looks from an audience had you predicted them in 2019. While it is arguably inevitable that all three of these occurrences would have happened at some point in the near future however, there were few signs that they would have emerged all at once. In the midst of all the chaos, one more change transpired, equally as surprising to the passive bystander, but equally – if not more – important than the rest. It was a change that has the potential to transform the future of the global economy from fiat currencies to a largely digital form of tender.

On June 9th, 2021, the Republic of El Salvador, a relatively small nation in Central America, passed a law implementing the adoption of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin as legal tender – the first in the world to do so. While El Salvador has a proven track record of going against the grain, being the only country in the United Nations to request an appeal to the annexation of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China, the news regarding Bitcoin still precipitated the shock and worry of markets and financial institutions around the world.

The drive towards this implementation can be traced immediately back to February 2020, and the election of businessman and former mayor of capital city San Salvador Nayib Bukele to the country’s presidency. At only 40 years old, Bukele was initially characterised somewhat as an outsider candidate for the role, being enthusiastic about the prospects of technology and harbouring a distrust of traditional media and elites. Frequently seen sharing memes and jokes on Twitter, the self-styled “CEO of El Salvador” has maintained very high approval ratings throughout his tenure so far, polling as the most popular president in the country’s democratic history.

The young President has a very particular way of governing, preferring to maintain a direct line to the Salvadorans through his online presence rather than through television and print interviews. This unorthodox style of governing is furthered by the individuals comprising his closest presidential circle: his three younger brothers. While holding no official government positions, Karim, the eldest, and twins Ibrajim and Yusef, are involved in strategy and advising on many of his decisions.

The latter, unlike his brother the President, shies away from media appearances. Yusef Bukele, when he seldom posts on social media, shares more in the way of art, philosophical quotes and pictures of his family, than anything regarding governance or economics. In the rare occurrence that he is asked for comments by the media, he emphasises his lack of official position and how he is just helping his family wherever possible. In one instance, when questioned at an event by reporters of El Faro (an El Salvador-based digital newspaper), he responds:

“I really have no problem giving statements. The thing is, I don’t know on whose behalf I can speak. On my own behalf? The government’s behalf? I don’t have a position.”

For the past several months, I have been speaking to Yusef, not as a spokesperson for the government, nor as the brother of a President, but as an individual, and can now share for the first time some insight into the views and philosophy behind one of global politics’ most influential behind-the-scenes people.

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Shortly after our introduction, one of the first main interactions I had with Yusef Bukele was in response to an article I wrote on the importance of agency in a modern, technological world where privacy is secondary. I had asked for his thoughts on the broad topic, and on his views in relation to surveillance, freedom and the liberty of the individual. What I received, was a long and thoughtful answer, provoking an even longer and more thoughtful conversation on life as we know it and where it was headed.

For Yusef, when looked at through the lens of history, it is viewed as something to cause alarm:

“We are witnessing society’s train ride towards collapse. This has happened many times before, but this is probably the first time in recorded history when it is happening to a globalized society. This may be seen as an oversimplification (since it is like most things, a spectrum), but humanity’s development throughout history has had two different paths; one may call them control and liberty. There are many people on the control path who genuinely feel that what they are doing is the best thing for the world. They generally think that people do not know what is good for them, so they try to control what they do for the sake of society at large.”

When thought of in the current context of the world, where individual freedoms have been limited to an extent not seen for many decades, such comments seem pertinent. But as with the perceived limiting of these freedoms, some good must be achieved, or hope to be achieved, for the plan to continue.

“Going too much through this path may provide some good results in some areas in the short term, e.g., food production, economic output, even life expectancy improvements. But even with these benefits, the people in these societies are generally less happy than they were before. They are missing one key thing that all people value more than they think, freedom to be able to do what they really want to do. And as important, these societies usually become too rigid, with too many structural problems, until they finally break.”

Like a prelude into what his vision of the future of El Salvador is like, Bukele talks of the problems of the current world, of why change is good, but only in the right direction. He believes that for “anyone who hasn’t been absorbed by the machine,” as he calls it, there is a form of divergence available, an exit from the machine, if the right levels of organisation are achieved:

“Whole communities, cities, or even countries disconnected from the control path and striving as much as possible for the other path. A path where people have the criteria and the opportunity to do what they really want to do. It is certainly very difficult, a lot of factors that one doesn’t control need to be aligned for this to happen soon. And a more designed process may take years that we as a society may not have. In our case [in El Salvador], that’s what we are trying to do. We already have, what I believe, are the harder to get ingredients, but there is still a lot to be done.”

To what extent should governments permit and grant freedoms to the citizens they represent has been a topic of great debate in recent months, but why are such freedoms important for the development of society as a whole, especially if there is a central figure or organisation who is more well-informed on the nature of progress? For Yusef, it is simple: people would be happier, and this would lead to all manner of great things.

“The path for humanity is not only much better, but it is also easier … if people would do what they really want to do. They would do their best in whatever they do, be it cooking, developing an app, painting, taking care of their families, without a central figure (a leader, a government, an A.I.) micromanaging it all. No matter how advanced that central figure is, humanity as a collective is still far more advanced.”

The latter point led to the question on whether it is possible to explicitly teach people that numerous other possibilities for what they could be doing exist, without specifically telling them what they should be doing, as this would be counteractive and would inhibit their own freedom of possibility. Yusef, as always, replied with clarity:

“That’s why we need to do as a society two main things: help people have the criteria to think of what they really want to do and providing opportunities to do those things. In some developed countries, people have the opportunities, but they have lost the criteria via control – overinformation, algorithms, etc … modern algorithms are very clear representations of the control path, i.e., the machine. I call the people who can see this, each in their own way, people who understand. There are fewer than we would like, but, I believe, more than we think. By identifying them and forming networks, the search should get easier.”

From left to right: Yusef, Ibrajim, and Karim Bukele, and Nayib Bukele’s mother Olga Ortez at the president’s inauguration, June 1, 2019

Such viewpoints are certainly interesting, and the language and phrases used within are definitely a rare occurrence in the speech of modern individuals, especially those involved in politics. Yusef has, however, maintained throughout his time as a (somewhat private) public figure that he is not a representative of the government, nor of the President himself. I thought it in the best interests of clarity to ask him specifically what he viewed his role within his country to be, and how this relates to public and official state affairs.

“I guess you could call me an advisor to the President, in almost any topic he feels, or I feel, that I may have an observation. But as every human being, I have preferences, and trying to follow the philosophy of doing what you love because you’ll do it better, I am mostly focused on medium- to long-term thinking and foundational building. How are we going to be as a society in 20, 30, 40 years? What paths can we take to get there? What needs to be done? What steps should be taken, and in what order? What potential risks are there? Every developed society we have had thought history got there with a collective vision. It’s not a guarantee that a society will get there just by having a vision but having it is practically a prerequisite for it. Parallel to the vision you need to design the way to get there, in an ever-evolving way. And then, you, as a society, should design a mechanism that will maintain this constant design for as long as possible, or at least protect wherever that society will arrive.”

Hearing Yusef talk about having a vision, I thought it best to elucidate exactly what his vision for the future was, building on the philosophical ideals outlined before. The two seem to overlap well:

“Vision: every human on earth has an optimum path. Out of the almost infinite ones that they can take, one is better than all the rest. How to choose that path is an old question that we as a species have tried to answer throughout millennia. Some people say that besides our conscious and subconscious, we have a superconscious, an antenna that connects you to the infinite, to something more than our individuality. We have chosen to define it as authenticity or doing what you love or what you really want to do. The more we manage to get people to follow their path, the closer we will get to our ideal path as a society.”

The method for achieving this vision has been outlined previously, in that there is an aim to provide people with the opportunities to follow the path, as well as the criteria to choose it. And it is this latter point – the criteria to choose it – that many nations are missing out on today. There are plenty of university scholarships, plenty of internships, all aimed towards the less privileged individual, but what if the individual has never even heard of university? What if they cannot name a famous artist, or know what coding software they need to use in order to change the world? This is what stands out about this particular vision. In achieving this, El Salvador as a country intends to embark on a bold strategy:

“We have to design this process, choosing between innumerable choices and orders and then keep helping build and design the path for as long as we can and as much as we are able to. Fulfilling our role in the grand machinery. Our development will be different than any other development through the world. And it will become the best it can be, because it will be our own path. A future with our characteristics, not generic country number 78. Learning from the successes and mistakes of others, in modern times and throughout history. That is what all societies should strive to achieve, and what most successful societies have done throughout history.”

Moving back from the future and into the present day, it is interesting to look at how El Salvador is currently working towards this grand vision, and what role Yusef himself has played in this. El Salvador has attracted the attention of the global press quite frequently in recent months, usually in relation to Bitcoin. Much of the Western perception of the introduction of Bitcoin as a form of legal tender is seen to be ameliorating the problem of poor access to traditional banking institutions for the Salvadoran people, of whom approximately 70% are without bank accounts. I had heard that Yusef, as an economic advisor, was one of the principal driving forces behind the idea of Bitcoin being adopted in this way, and what precisely made it attractive to him.

“Regarding Bitcoin, I guess you could say that’s true. I was heavily involved in the decision and on the set-in-motion. We were attracted to the idea of a decentralised currency, and studying Bitcoin, we saw that the initial idea and some of the people involved have similar principles as us: a belief in the potential of the individual and the risks of centralisation and the philosophy of control. There were also other factors involved: a protection and/or escape from the devaluation of fiat money; attraction [to El Salvador] for companies and people who are closer to being authentic than the average modern human; commission-free remittances; fast bankarisation of the population.”

It is this process of ‘bankarisation’ which refers to the idea of giving more of the population access to financial services that clearly appealed to Yusef; but it is clear that the decision was brought about by much more than that, too; the claims of the bill being rushed through without much planning or forethought don’t seem to hold up.

While El Salvador are undoubtedly the outsiders on the global stage, forging their own path much to the worry and surprise of almost everyone else, things do seem to be going well so far. Not too long ago, President Bukele announced that $2 million USD worth of Bitcoin profits would be used in the creation of twenty schools in the country. In February of this year, P2P Bitcoin platform Paxful announced the launch of an educational and training centre in the country, with the aim of providing free learning to the population on how to trade the cryptocurrency. There are certainly risks and things to be wary of, but one cannot help but be hopeful about the prospects of the country. Or in the words of Yusef:

“That is the main problem with the world now… People don’t think for themselves anymore.”

Adam James Pollock is a writer living in Ireland.


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