Nayib Bukele's shadow cabinet of Venezuelan advisers
A person who only casually follows news and politics in El Salvador could wonder why some marchers in recent protests carried signs denouncing Venezuelans' role in Bukele government policies. Alongside banners decrying the authoritarian rule of Bukele or rejecting the new Bitcoin law in the country, you might also see a denunciation of “Venezuelan interference.”
In fact, a series of reports in El Faro and other media outlets have identified a group of more than two dozen Venezuelan consultants to the Salvadoran government, several of whom act as a kind of shadow cabinet in the administration of president Nayib Bukele. According to El Faro, the pyramid of power in El Salvador has Nayib Bukele at the top with his three brothers as his closest advisors, followed by the group of Venezuelans, who then direct the various actual cabinet ministers.
The current leader of the Venezuelan shadow cabinet has been identified as Sara Hanna Georges. She was trained as a dentist in Venezuela, and as a young adult she became involved in opposition politics in Venezuela, protesting the government of Hugo Chavez. She became an assistant to opposition political leader Leopoldo Lopez, who was jailed by the Chavez regime.
Sara Hanna appears in this photo in the red dress in the front row of dignitaries as Nayib Bukele gave his address on September 15 on the Bicentennial of Central American independence.
The Salvadoran public first became aware of Hanna’s name in June 2020 as COVID-19 cases were in the midst of their first deadly surge in El Salvador. Employees within the Ministry of Health lodged a complaint at orders they were receiving from Hanna and another Venezuelan, Miguel Arvelo. The memo referred to the Venezuelans as “delegates of the president’s office” and in charge of the pandemic crisis roundtable. According to the complaint memo, Hanna and Arvelo were giving orders concerning which COVID-19 tests should be processed by the national laboratory and in what order. There were allegedly instructions only to process specific tests and not those coming from hospitals and local health units. This was important, because normally tests from patients entering hospitals and health clinics act as a sentinel warning system of outbreaks of infectious diseases. (Hanna’s scholastic training was as a dentist, and Arvelo is a veterinarian).
After disclosure of the concerns over the Venezuelans’ role, various officials in the Bukele government acknowledged the existence of foreign advisors in the Ministry of Health but denied they had any decision-making authority. However, when public information requests sought their contracts, the Bukele administration asserted that contracts with Arvelo were “under seal” and it had no file for a contract with Hanna.
The reporting in El Faro now identifies Hanna as chief among the Venezuelan advisors making up a shadow cabinet:
"I summarize it like this: almost that for every minister they have a Venezuelan behind giving orders," explained a friend of the Venezuelan advisers…. [A]n ambassador approached a journalist from El Faro during an event. "Yes it's correct. There are a lot of Venezuelans who participate in official government meetings, and the leader is Sara Hanna”. The other Venezuelan advisers have specific areas in the expanded cabinet, and are accountable to Hanna as unofficial government ministers.
More recently, Hanna has been also tagged as the leader of the political and public relations aspects of the rollout of the Bitcoin Law and the Chivo wallet app.
A September 26 profile of Hanna on the Venezuelan investigative
journalism website Armando.info titled Sara Hanna comes out of the shadows answers the question:
How does Sara Habdel Kaim Hanna Georges, born in 1988, a descendant of a family with Lebanese-Brazilian roots established in Valencia reach that level of power? The attributes that are identified in her by different sources consulted for this profile are repeated and consistent: cunning, planning and bold ambition, as well as a set of contacts that allowed her to meet first-hand the new and young Central American president [Bukele].When protesters marched denouncing Venezuelan interference in El Salvador with a sign saying the people did not vote for Hanna, she tweeted ironically that they should be sure to spell "Venezolana" correctly on their placards.
Another prominent Venezuelan assisting Bukele is Lester Toledo. Toledo was also a figure in the Venezuelan opposition before going into exile in 2016.
Toledo is the head of Salto Angel Consulting, headquartered in Miami, which works on political campaigns in Latin America. According to the story in Armando.info, Toledo was contacted to work on Bukele’s presidential campaign in October 2018 by Nayib Bukele’s brother Karim after Sara Hanna recommended Toledo. Together with other Venezuelans, he was a campaign manager for Bukele’s first round victory in the 2019 presidential election.
On November 2, 2019, Bukele expelled the diplomatic corps of Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro from El Salvador. The next day Toledo tweeted a photo of himself and Bukele stating that El Salvador had put itself on the right side of history for the freedom of Venezuela.
Toledo's consulting firm Salto Angel highlights this video Behind the Triumph of Nayib Bukele which promotes the firm's expertise in data and organization for the success of Nuevas Ideas in legislative and municipal elections on February 28, 2021.
Although Toledo describes himself as only engaged in delivering successful political campaigns and not implementing policies of the Bukele administration, he has been involved with the program of emergency food relief packages (Programa de Emergencia Sanitaria “PES”) which the Bukele government delivered to families around the country throughout much of the pandemic. In a May 2020 Facebook post on his personal Facebook page, Toledo stated he was with Bukele at the operations center for PES, “executing a program that we designed in weeks.”
Toledo shared this photo on Facebook of himself with other workers in a warehouse full of the emergency food supplies in the program
In June 2020, after Bukele’s February incursion into the Legislative Assembly with armed troops and as Bukele battled the Legislative Assembly and Constitutional Chamber over various decrees related to the pandemic, Toledo had a public exchange with the political analyst Paolo Luers where Toledo proclaimed his admiration for Bukele and his assurance that the only pact of Bukele is with democracy. In an August 2020 interview Toledo stated he was being paid by the Nuevas Ideas political party, not the Salvadoran government.
|Lester Toledo |
It is not true that there are members of the [self-proclaimed] President [Juan Guaido’s] team there. I know several honest Venezuelans who work in technical teams with people of different nationalities, and personally, I am proud to see that compatriots are being highlighted for their work….When Bukele launched the Chivo wallet app for the use of Bitcoin in El Salvador, Venezuelan advisors were also front and center according to a recent story in El Faro. The article identifies Sara Hanna as “political chief” behind implementation of Bitcoin and Chivo Wallet. When a group of Bitcoin investors came to El Salvador for a meeting with the Bukele team, Hanna was one of two leaders of that meeting.
That I worked on the electoral campaign with President Bukele is something that I do not hide. We have made it public and I have received awards and recognition for that electoral work. Some seem to want to unlock a new level of criticism: "I don't like who you have worked with"
Cryptocurrency analyst and critic of the Chivo wallet and El Salvador Bticoin project David Gerard, wrote:
Rey’s customer service experience is running Dash Help in Venezuela. Dash is a cryptocurrency, a fork of Bitcoin. Dash Help’s efforts in Venezuela failed because crypto isn’t good money — shops didn’t accept it, if they did then there might be only one person in the shop who knew how to accept it, and it wasn’t used for remittances because Dash’s price in actual money was too volatile.
So Rey and Ulter’s experience in cryptocurrency is experience in failing.
Coordinating Bukele and Nuevas Ideas election campaigns, designing an emergency food relief program, implementing the Bitcoin rollout, and directing COVID-19 test processing are only some of the key roles which Salvadoran journalists have identified Venezuelans playing in El Salvador's government. The list of top Venezuelan advisors in the Salvadoran government which have been identified by El Faro includes:
- Sara Hanna Georges;
- Lester Toledo;
- Miguel Sabal, in charge of logistics and recruiting Venezuelans to work with the government of El Salvador;
- Miguel Arvelo, in Ministry of Health;
- Tomás Hernández, in the economic cabinet;
- Roddy Rodríguez , Education and the Foreign Ministry;
- Juan Carlos Gutiérrez, transparency and corruption matters;
- Santiago Rosas developing the public security “Territorial Control Plan;”
- Ernesto Herrera advisor in the Ministry of Justice and Security;
- María Alejandra García, and her spouse Tomás Hernández, coordinating Program of the Health Emergency (PES);
- Social network propaganda and marketing led by Hanna and Toledo along with Lender Toledo (brother of Lester) and Esteban Vicuña, another consultant at Salto Angel.
As noted above, almost all of the Venezuelans now working in El Salvador came from the opposition in Venezuela to the Chavez/Maduro regime. Their political involvement advocated against the authoritarian policies and tactics of that regime. Yet now, observers have noted, they are facilitating the actions of the Bukele government in El Salvador which is increasingly populist and authoritarian itself.
The point was made in Caracas Chronicles:
As the majority of the members on Bukele’s Venezuelan team are or were close to Voluntad Popular, it’s surprising that these individuals were willing to work with a regime that employs similar tactics to those of chavismo; with the main difference being that Bukele is right-wing. In other words, it’s disquieting to think that there are members of the Venezuelan opposition who work for democracy in their home country, but support authoritarian leaders undermining democracy in other Latin American nations.The Americas director for Human Rights Watch, José Miguel Vivanco, said in an interview:
Given the presence of these Venezuelan advisers in the Bukele government and the passionate and unconditional defense made by Lester Toledo, it is reasonable that there are questions regarding the degree of affinity of Guaidó or López with the Salvadoran government. In this regard, I believe that it is in the best interest of these political leaders to clarify their position and unambiguously condemn the abuses of Bukele. Otherwise, many could reasonably wonder about the democratic values that they aspire to for Venezuela, when a political transition takes place in that country.