MEXICO CITY – This week, El Salvador will become the first country on Earth to accept Bitcoin as legal tender, a controversial move pushed by the country’s young, headstrong and exceptionally popular president, Nayib Bukele. 

But the rollout of cryptocurrency in the Central American nation has been upstaged by a more urgent concern: a series of withering attacks by Bukele and his ruling party on El Salvador’s 3-decade-old democracy.

In recent days, Bukele loyalists on the Supreme Court systematically cleared the way for him to seek reelection in 2024, despite a constitutional ban on consecutive presidential terms.

And his supporters in the Assembly passed a law to remove one-third of the nation’s judges and prosecutors – an apparent response to Bukele’s public calls for a “purge” of the judicial branch.

Local and international critics have decried those actions as part of a broader power grab that began in May, when Bukele’s party violated the constitution by ousting the attorney general and several members of the Supreme Court.

Bukele, 40, who has been hailed as a visionary by Bitcoin backers around the world, is now simultaneously viewed as an international pariah.

As small protests were held in San Salvador on Sunday, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement that the nation’s “decline in democratic governance damages the relationship that the United States strives to maintain with the government of El Salvador and further erodes El Salvador’s international image as a democratic and trustworthy partner in the region.”

At a news conference Saturday, Jean Manes, the top American official in El Salvador, called the nation “a democracy in decline,” and compared Bukele to the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, who, as with other Latin American autocrats before and after him, used his popularity with voters to mask a systematic dismantling of democratic checks and balances.

Like Bukele, whose approval rating has hovered around 90%, Chávez had broad voter support when he began stacking the nation’s courts in his favor and pushed a constitutional change that abolished presidential term limits. He tightened his grip on power, jailing critics as the country careened toward economic disaster.

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