At the Edge of Authoritarianism: Democratic Disenchantment and Radical Optimism in Postwar El Salvador

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Abstract

On May 1st, 2021, the Legislative Assembly dominated by the official party in El Salvador organized a coup against the judiciary. Nearly thirty years after the start of democratic transition, experts claimed that President Nayib Bukele consolidated his authoritarian project. Despite the democratic anxieties behind local and international condemnations, the coup was celebrated by supporters of president Bukele as an act of direct democracy. My research explores these tensions through the following question: Why is Nayib Bukele’s project considered both a democratic dismantling and a democratic endeavor? Through an ethnographic research with supporters of President Bukele, popularly known as Nayilibers, and government critics, I propose to analyze this new form of populism which, unlike the “radical pessimism” (Copeland 2019) of neighboring countries, is both the product of a democratic disenchantment and a radical optimism. In the framework of my ongoing doctoral dissertation, I also consider the field of security as a space to analyze the contradictory relationship to authoritarianism at intimate levels. Supporters of Bukele celebrate punitive authoritarian politics against gangs, while many of them hold clandestine relations of intimacy with gangs. With this research, I hope to contribute to larger conversations about democratic transitions and turns to authoritarianism in the region of the Americas.

Research Team

Principal Investigator

Grazzia Grimaldi

PhD Candidate, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

  • Bio ▾

    Grazzia Grimaldi is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociocultural Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research examines the relationship between security, intimacy, and affective labor in contexts of interrelated state and criminal violence. Her ongoing dissertation considers the burdens of democratization in El Salvador—a project of distance from gangs marking separation from postwar era, despite proximity at state and intimate levels. In such work, she investigates how families negotiate their paradoxical position between state criminalization and clandestine ties to gangs, often through a disparate labor of distance.

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