In El Salvador, quick COVID-19 response fuels fears of an iron fist

Jose Cabezas/Reuters
Police patrol at the Gerardo Barrios square in San Salvador, El Salvador, after President Nayib Bukele ordered home quarantine for 30 days throughout the country, as the government undertakes measures to prevent a spread of the new coronavirus, March 22, 2020.
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Earlier this month, Latin American leaders seemed to be looking the other way when it came to COVID-19.

But not El Salvador. The Central American country, about the size of Massachusetts, took strong action before it had registered a single case. More recently, the nation has implemented a nationwide quarantine, and the young president threatened that citizens breaking it would be brought to “containment centers.” 

Why We Wrote This

Around the world, quick action against the coronavirus has prompted praise, but also worry that leaders could exploit power down the road. That’s especially true in places where authoritarianism is hardly a distant memory.

Many insist that today’s tough decisions to fight the new coronavirus, led by President Nayib Bukele, will put El Salvador on the right side of history. But in a region with a history of authoritarian governments, such moves have also provoked concern about how officials could stretch their power.

Mr. Bukele won office last year as an anti-corruption outsider, and has gained a reputation for intimidating critics and the media. In early February, he had a showdown with lawmakers that further fueled distrust: Frustrated with legislators’ delay to approve an international loan, he entered the chamber along with dozens of armed soldiers dressed for battle. 

Now, El Salvador is in good company, as neighboring nations catch up on anti-coronavirus measures. But in a region with recent memory of abuses, some critics eye those actions warily as well.

While much of the world has been busy closing schools, clearing grocery store shelves, and calling for social distancing, gripped by the spread of the new coronavirus, Latin America has been slow on the uptake.

For weeks, leaders of the region’s largest economies, Brazil and Mexico, carried on with crowded political rallies, shaking hands and doling out hugs, despite warnings from the public health community. A large rock concert took place unimpeded just last week in Mexico City.

But one Latin American nation took an early stand in the fight against COVID-19. El Salvador, about the size of Massachusetts, barred entry to nearly all foreigners, required a 30-day quarantine for Salvadorans arriving from other countries, suspended schools for three weeks, and halted gatherings of 500 people or more – all before it had registered a single positive case.

Why We Wrote This

Around the world, quick action against the coronavirus has prompted praise, but also worry that leaders could exploit power down the road. That’s especially true in places where authoritarianism is hardly a distant memory.

The early March moves gained international attention, with many praising El Salvador for recognizing how severely the pandemic could hit its underfunded health care system. But for others, the extreme measures – which went on to include restrictions on freedom of movement and assembly – are cause for concern.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Latin America has a long history of authoritarian governments clamping down on personal freedoms and human rights. And although Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele won office as an anti-corruption outsider, he’s sown seeds of distrust among parts of the population. That sentiment was underscored following an early February showdown with lawmakers, in which he brought the armed forces into the Legislative Assembly to pressure legislators to approve an international loan.

Mr. Bukele and his supporters insist today’s tough COVID-19 decisions will put him and El Salvador on the right side of history, but critics worry they’re witnessing a testing ground for how far the government can stretch its power now – and possibly in the future.

Setting the stage

Back in February, long before most people had an inkling the novel coronavirus ravaging parts of China would end up on their doorstep, Mr. Bukele made a risky bet. The young leader, who previously served as mayor of the capital, San Salvador, was growing frustrated with the National Assembly’s inaction on the loan. On Feb. 9, he entered the Legislative Assembly along with dozens of armed soldiers and police officers dressed for battle, demanding the loan’s approval to carry out crime-fighting initiatives.

The stunt triggered a nation that lived through a brutal 12-year civil war and years of autocratic leadership. Lawmakers on both ends of the political spectrum denounced the move as an attempted coup. It wasn’t Mr. Bukele’s first experiment with Latin America’s infamous “iron fist” approach to governance – already he’d gained a reputation for intimidating critics and the media – but it was his most extreme. And it set the stage for a more skeptical El Salvador when he announced action against the coronavirus.

“Today we all lost,” tweeted Salvadoran lawyer and anti-corruption researcher Wilson Sandoval on March 14, after the Legislative Assembly approved restrictions on some constitutional rights, like freedom of assembly, to fight COVID-19. It did not approve requests to limit freedom of expression, however. “The worst thing is not the virus, it’s the next few years that will come from an authoritarianism that will gradually destroy our rights and guarantees.”

Mr. Sandoval acknowledges that a government should have some wiggle room when confronting a historic emergency like COVID-19 – particularly in a nation where health resources are scant.

“It’s almost trial and error,” he says of many world leaders’ approaches right now.

When Mr. Bukele, for example, first announced the quarantine for Salvadorans returning from abroad, there was a rush to find housing for them. Initially citizens of all ages were sheltered together, which public health officials criticized as inappropriate for those deemed at higher risk, like people over age 60 or with preexisting conditions. Journalists are still struggling to get concrete information from the government about shelter locations and procedures.

“How big of a margin should they get?” Mr. Sandoval asks of leaders working in emergency situations. One step that would give him more confidence is if the president put technocrats as the face of the response instead of politicians, he says.

“The government is taking advantage of an emergency and that will affect democracy now and later,” he says. Mr. Bukele has sky-high approval ratings, hovering around 90%. A central concern is whether, if the president can curtail rights without much pushback today, he could take that as a green light for other extreme steps in the future. Neighboring Honduras and Nicaragua have moved toward removing limits on reelection in recent years.

On March 21, following the confirmation of the first positive coronavirus case, El Salvador implemented a national quarantine for 30 days. Only one person per family will be allowed to leave the home to shop. Doctors, journalists, the military, and other critical public servants and merchants will be exempt.

“We are going to make some quick decisions that are going to include mistakes, that are going to cause discomfort, that are going to have incredible costs for our economy,” Mr. Bukele said in announcing the quarantine.

Understanding – and fear

El Salvador has always been polarized, says local reporter Julia Gavarrete, who has been covering the nation’s measures around the coronavirus. However, the coronavirus has been something of a uniting moment for Salvadorans, who seem to recognize its many risks for the nation’s public health system and the economy.

“The population is being really realistic,” regardless of political leanings, says Ms. Gavarrete, who writes for the website Revista GatoEncerrado. “Many are conscious that it’s better to try and work together and stay home so that the virus doesn’t spread.”

However, “people are really afraid,” she says. And “fear is part of the president’s discourse.” An avid Twitter user, the president called out legislators earlier this week for trying to block measures he believes are necessary to fend off COVID-19. “DON’T KILL OUR PEOPLE, I BEG YOU” he wrote in all caps.

He’s also threatened citizens that if they violate the country’s quarantine, they’ll be taken to “containment centers” for 30 days.

“It’s important for the president to raise awareness, but we could get to the point where it drives panic,” Ms. Gavarrete says. When the first COVID-19 case was confirmed last week, Mr. Bukele openly criticized the patient, who he says likely reentered the country illegally after traveling from Italy. His supporters on social media began calling for this patient’s head, demanding the government release the patient’s photo. 

Not just El Salvador

Although El Salvador led the way in tough measures against the coronavirus in Latin America, many neighboring nations followed suit. Over the past week, governments have restricted international flights and canceled large gatherings. On March 16, Honduras suspended some constitutional rights, like freedom of speech and movement, for a week. Guatemala ordered a weeklong curfew between 4 p.m. and 4 a.m. A handful of Central American countries – excluding El Salvador – signed on to a regional action plan against the virus’s spread.

El Salvador’s leader isn’t the only one whose coronavirus measures have been eyed with suspicion.

“The whole Northern Triangle, as a region, came out of civil wars and recent histories of human rights abuses and autocratic governments,” says Geoff Thale, president of the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy organization. “They have all been moving slowly to rebuild democratic institutions and exercise checks and balances and political restraints.”

He says it’s “troubling” to see measures that look like the autocratic, unaccountable governance of the past, even if they may be necessary from a public health standpoint.

At this moment, the key is for governments to make their decisions “in the context of transparency, responsibility, and respect for democratic norms.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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