Bukele's latest image-making project: Miss Universe Pageant 2023

While I am not a fan of beauty pageants, clearly others are.   This week the 2023 Miss Universe pageant is taking place in El Salvador.  It is another of the sweeping image-making projects of which president Nayib Bukele is so fond.

The Miss Universe pageant came to El Salvador once before in 1975. At that time, the country was run by an unholy alliance of an oligarchy and the military.  The country brought in a contest of beauties with sights of sun and beautiful beaches in an attempt to improve its image during a year which saw massacres, repressions and unrest in the lead-up to the approaching civil war.

As the New York Post wrote today:

The last time that organizers held a Miss Universe pageant in El Salvador, in 1975, rioting students staged demonstrations that ultimately ended in a massacre and plunged the country into a brutal civil war....

Meanwhile, San Salvador locals are protesting the national government having spent a reported $12 million in public funds to host the event in a country with rising levels of extreme poverty.

The protests recall the July 1975 demonstration by a group of impoverished students who blasted the then military government of strongman Arturo Armando Molina for spending $1 million on the pageant. Less than two weeks after Miss Finland, Anne Marie Pohtamo, was crowned Miss Universe, the country’s armed forces occupied a local university and massacred more than 100 students. 
The New York Times coverage from 1975 described what was happening inside and outside the pageant hall:

When El Salvador bid successfully to host this year's “Miss Universe” contest, the Government saw the press and television coverage as an opportunity to promote this tiny Central American republic as a Pacific Coast tourist attraction.

But while a worldwide television audience saw El Salvador's, sunny beaches before the “Miss Universe” finals July 19, off camera heavily armed troops were called out to halt demonstrations by students protesting the Government's expenditure of $1‐million on the contest.

A week later in the western city of Santa Ana, students took to the streets to protest the banning of the “Miss Universe” demonstration, and sevferal youths were injured and arrested during clashes with the National Guard.

Then on July 30 about 3,000 students demonstrating in San Salvador against repression of the two earlier marches were stopped by machine‐gun and automatic‐rifle fire from soldiers.
For many in El Salvador, this week is a story of history repeating itself.  Once again a government is bringing the Miss Universe pageant to town to improve its image at a time when many are criticizing it for human rights abuses and mass incarcerations under the State of Exception.

Hosting the pageant is all about the branding, marketing and selling of El Salvador to a global audience. The government of Nayib Bukele is masterful at image-making, and this event gives the country the opportunity to show off its natural beauty and potentially attract tourists.  The images viewers will see of El Salvador are as much choreographed and with as much makeup applied as the contestants in the pageant.

The pageant is also for domestic consumption with national elections less than three months away.  The promotion of the Miss Universe Pageant is everywhere in El Salvador. The airport is filled with wall to wall posters announcing the pageant and welcoming “the Misses.” It feels like every utility pole in San Salvador has a Miss Universe 2023 banner hanging from it.  The airwaves are filled with stories of the event.

But how much is El Salvador spending on the pageant?  The rights to host the pageant were reportedly purchased for $12 million. El Salvador’s ambassador to the United States told an interviewer that the country was spending an extra $60 million on top of buying the rights.

The costs include completely remodeling the National Gymnasium to host the spectacle, changing out the remodel of that building, just completed for the Central American and Caribbean Games in June to make it a sporting venue, into a venue where the pageant could host thousands and broadcast to a worldwide audience in air conditioned comfort.

Truly symbolic were the photos circulating on social media of Miss Universe contestants sporting "Bukele 2024" caps:

Streets in the vicinity of the National Gymnasium where the event is being held have been closed on various days.   More than 1000 police, soldiers and traffic cops are being deployed to provide security and traffic management.

Apparently the $12 million which El Salvador paid for the rights to host was not enough to keep the company which owns the pageant solvent. In the week the contestants arrived in El Salvador, the Thai company which owns the Miss Universe brand declared bankruptcy:
JKN Global Group made the announcement in a statement to the Thai Stock Exchange two months after it missed a deadline to repay bonds worth around $12 million.

The company, owned by media mogul and transgender rights campaigner Anne Jakkaphong Jakrajutatip, bought the pageant - previously owned by former US president Donald Trump - in 2022 for $20 million.
Human rights activists urged performing artist John Legend, who is scheduled to sing during the broadcast of the event Saturday night, to back out.  An  online petition at Moveon.org signed by more than 1400 people asked the performer and activist against mass incarceration to reconsider performing in a country which has the highest level of mass incarceration in the world and  where thousands remain locked up without any due process.

Leonor Carolina Suarez, a former Miss Venezuela, summed up in a column in El Faro how a politician like Bukele uses beauty pageants:

The female body seduces, the sequin makes what it touches shine and the feathers decorate what they wear. Beauty queens, publicists and marketers know this well. Maybe that's why Nayib Bukele paid millions of dollars to fill the country with "Misses" in the middle of a pre-election year. In the face of terror and barbarism, it is normal for us to cling to beauty as an act of salvation, but when beauty is served in a show and sponsored by a politician, we must also question his intentions and pull back the curtain to see the trick.... 

Beauty – traditionally associated with the feminine – is power. Divine grace to guide the way out of barbarism and perverse mirage to move perceptions. Buying the attention caused by more than 80 made-up and decked-out women parading and competing in feathers and sequins (or in swimsuits) is a well-known advertising strategy: using the female image as bait. Brands of all kinds do it to sell their products or decorate their businesses: air conditioners, alcoholic beverages and Donald Trump himself.
El Salvador's current ambassador to the United States, Milena Mayorga, was a former Miss El Salvador in the 1996 pageant, where she met Donald Trump, owner of the pageant at that time.  Trump would go on to be the US president when she arrived in Washington as ambassador.    

Today Mayorga is tweeting about Miss El Salvador in this year's pageant:

Despite the critiques, the show goes on.  The final competition and crowning of Miss Universe will happen Saturday night starting at 7 p.m. El Salvador time.