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El Salvador’s Miss Universe pageant draws attention for president

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Video montages of sash-clad pageant contestants strolling beaches in El Salvador, snapping selfies in front of fireworks and wandering the streets of downtown San Salvador speckled social media this week as celebrations for the Miss Universe 2023 pageant kicked off in the Central American country.

“As President (Nayib) Bukele said, El Salvador is changing,” R’Bonney Gabriel, Miss Universe 2022, said in a speech before this year’s contestants. “While we’re here, we hope to shine a light on this country for the rest of the world to see.”

The competition on Saturday night is the latest spectacle touted by Bukele in his effort to change the reputation of his historically violence-torn nation.

But opponents and analysts say such displays are also being used by the populist leader to distract from human rights abuses in his crackdown on gangs and steps he has taken to curb criticism. Constitutional scholars and critics warn that he is slowly withering the country’s delicate democracy.

The Miss Universe pageant comes at a key time for Bukele, just months before a presidential election in February. Bukele is running for reelection despite clear term limits laid out in El Salvador’s constitution, a move that has upset watchdogs both in and out of the country.

“You give the public something to showcase to divert attention from the fact that you’re doing it while eroding the rule of law and democratic checks and balances in the country,” said Tiziano Breda, a Central America expert at Italy’s Instituto Affari Internazionali.

Bukele’s government did not respond to a written request for comment by the Associated Press.

Since Bukele came to power in 2019, he has made drastic changes to the country of 6.5 million people. Most notable has been his war on El Salvador’s gangs that have terrorized much of the country for decades.

Following a burst of gang violence last year, Bukele suspended some constitutional rights and has since locked up more than 72,000 people for alleged gang ties without due process. He also has gone after journalists, labor organizers, human rights groups and other critical voices, and mobilized an elaborate communications machine to