El Salvador's newly sworn-in President Nayib Bukele and his wife Gabriela wave during inaugural activities in Plaza Barrios in San Salvador, El Salvador. Image Credit: AP

San Salvador: El Salvador’s new president, Nayib Bukele, took office on Saturday pledging to cure the Central American country that he described as a “sick child” following years of violence and migration that has strained relations with the United States.

The 37-year-old former mayor of San Salvador, who won more votes than all other candidates in the February presidential election, brought an end to a two-party system that has held sway over the country for three decades.

Who is Bukele?

Bukele was born on July 24, 1981, in San Salvador. He is the son of Olga Ortez de Bukele and Armando Bukele Kattán, a prominent businessman and local imam of Palestinian descent. His late father, Armando Kattán, was also born in El Salvador after his parents (Bukele's grandparents) left Bethlehem, thereafter becoming a well-known Muslim cleric.

The former mayor of El Salvador’s capital Bukele managed his first business at 18 and made his political debut in 2012 as a small-town mayor with the now-ruling FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front). He won elections in the capital three years later, making him a potential presidential contender.

However, in 2017, Bukele was expelled from FMLN for "disrespecting" the rights of women and throwing an apple at a local community leader and has been described as "anti-system" and "opportunist" by analysts, having changed parties three times ahead of the election.

Election promise

“Our country is like a sick child, now it’s up to all of us to take care of it,” Bukele told the crowd. “We have to suffer a little now, we have to have a little pain, assume our responsibility and all as brothers to bring forward that child.”

Accompanied by his pregnant wife Gabriela Rodriguez, Bukele vowed to make bitter decisions for the impoverished and violence-plagued Central American country during his five year term. He did not give details.

His presidency breaks three decades of bipartisanship between the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and the outgoing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).

Bukele, who has been critical of Beijing in the past, must now balance the interests of China and the United States.

The Chinese embassy in El Salvador said in a statement on Twitter that Bukele had told a special envoy he considered China a friend and that there was “great potential” to work together.

El Salvador broke ties with Taiwan in August last year to establish relations with China, following the Dominican Republic and Panama in the region.

US President Donald Trump congratulated Bukele on Saturday on Twitter, saying the United States was ready to work with him “to advance prosperity in El Salvador and the hemisphere.” Trump has frequently threatened to cut aid to El Salvador — as well as neighbouring Guatemala and Honduras — if they do not do more to curb migration to the United States.

The US Department of Commerce said in a statement that the United States sent a delegation led by US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to attend the ceremony.

While in El Salvador, the statement said, Ross met with Bukele and his Foreign Minister, Alexandra Hill, as well as with business leaders to discuss improving the investment climate and potential for economic growth.

Tensions over migration have been running high between the United States and its southern neighbour Mexico, with Trump threatening earlier this week to impose punitive tariffs on Mexican goods exported to the United States on June 10.

Mexican Economy Minister Graciela Marquez, who also attended the event in San Salvador, tweeted a picture of herself and Ross, saying they had spoken and would continue their dialogue next week in Washington.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez were not invited to the ceremony, since Bukele considers them “undemocratic” governments.

Quick facts

Born on July 24, 1981 in the capital, San Salvador, Nayib Bukele is of Palestinian ancestry

He managed his first business at the age of 18

Bukele began his political career with the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN)

Was expelled from the party for “disrespecting” the rights of women and throwing an apple at a local community leader

Has been described as “anti-system” and “opportunist” by analysts, having changed parties three times ahead of the election

Has named eight women to top government posts, seven of them as cabinet ministers