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What Bukele's pride in El Salvador's pet hospital says about the controversial leader

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Right smack in the middle of a big slum in El Salvador stands a modern and new multi-story building. It is a state-of-the-art pet hospital in which El Salvador's president takes great pride. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports on what that says about the controversial leader.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: We're not able to get into the hospital, but the government has put out a ton of publicity videos.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PERALTA: They show meticulous exam rooms kitted with diagnostic machines, rehab units with bouncy balls, a courtyard with playground equipment and, of course, furry customers and their grateful owners.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIRIAM MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "A ten for Bukele," Miriam Martinez says. "He's done what no other president has."

President Nayib Bukele has made a name internationally because he launched a draconian crackdown against gangs in El Salvador. But he's also invested millions in public dollars in flashy projects. He bought hundreds of millions in bitcoin and then sold a few of those bitcoins to build Chivo Pets. And then he documented every step on social media.

(CROSSTALK)

PERALTA: The government declined a request for an interview, and they didn't let us into the hospital, so I decided to walk around the neighborhood. And the contrast is hard to ignore. There are no courtyards here. The houses are hastily built. Delia, who asks that we only use her first name so she can speak freely, says when it rains, water gushes out of the drains and into her house. They've asked the government to fix it, and they won't.

DELIA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: About the pet hospital, she says, she has no opinion. But the truth is, she says, here, the humans have a ton of needs. She says sometimes you go to a hospital, and there's no medicine. Other times, you wait for hours only for doctors to tell you you have to seek private care.

DELIA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "Maybe," she says, "President Bukele should have used that money to care for us."

HECTOR SILVA: I think it tells you that Bukele spends the government's money based on what he thinks or what polls tell him will make him look cooler.

PERALTA: That is Hector Silva, a politician in the opposition.

SILVA: So in that sense, you have an influencer as a president.

PERALTA: Silva says Bukele has jumped on bandwagons. He's invested hundreds of millions of public dollars on bitcoin. When he was mayor of San Salvador, he got informal traders off the street by building what he said was the best market in Central America. But...

SILVA: He built it in a place where there's no bus stops.

PERALTA: Today, that market is nearly empty. And Silva, who serves on the city council, says Salvadorans are on the hook for $5 million in debt.

SILVA: He didn't look at the simplest technical things that he had to look for to make sure that a project like that would work.

PERALTA: To Bukele, he says, the details don't matter. Instead, it's about the optics. Every project, from a superjail to a library to this massive pet hospital, gets a slick video on social media that makes Bukele look like a visionary.

SILVA: The money he spent building Chivo wouldn't be enough money to rebuild the national hospital. But you could definitely set up, like, a very nice clinic for children.

PERALTA: This is a country, he says, where public hospitals struggle to get insulin. A project like that, says Silva, would be life-changing.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)

PERALTA: Back at the pet hospital neighborhood, I find Elena de Rivas feeding stray cats.

ELENA DE RIVAS: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "Humans already have hospitals," she says. "So the pet hospital is welcomed." She's an animal lover. She has dogs and birds. I ask her if she takes her pets to the government pet hospital, and she says no.

DE RIVAS: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "Chivo Pets only takes bitcoin," she says. And she doesn't know how to use it.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, San Salvador. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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