Monday 2 October 2023

Pandemic accelerates democratic decline in Central America

Leaders from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala use the excuse to prevent the advance of COVID-19 to violate essential rights of citizens and lean towards the concentration of power. The Nicaraguan government puts people at risk by implementing few measures against the virus

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(QCOSTARICA) Curfews, attacks on the press, arbitrary detentions and minimization of the pandemic are all part of the fight against the new coronavirus in Central America that is rapidly undermining the region’s shaky democratic stability.

The leaders of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala are using the excuse of urgency to prevent the advance of COVID-19 to violate essential rights of citizens and lean towards the concentration of power.

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The extreme case is Nicaragua, whose government took few measures to stop the contagion, in fact continues to promote mass gatherings and refuses to provide “real data” on the impact.

The sample of authoritarian practices in the midst of a health emergency deepens the weakening of democratic norms and institutional transparency in the Isthmus, which had been in sharp decline since the coup in Honduras in 2009.

“The pandemic does not cause democratic regression, rather what it does is give a new opportunity to the most authoritarian forces to try to impose themselves and aggravates this trend in countries where it was already evident,” explained Jorge Vargas Cullell, director of the Estado de la Nación (State of the Nation) program by La Nacion.

“It’s as if someone who came wanting to eat a cake, they put the cake in front of them,” he added.

In El Salvador, at the beginning of the health crisis, President Nayib Bukele issued a decree to detain citizens who violated the quarantine.

Hundreds of people were detained and held in centers under overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. One of the detainees died after not receiving adequate medical attention. Citizens were also arrested for not wearing a mask, an issue that was not contemplated in the presidential decree.

El Salvador President Nayib Bukele
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“The president acts as if any policy were valid to stop COVID-19, including the adoption of measures that have led to hundreds of arbitrary arrests,” said José Miguel Vivanco, director for the Americas of the Human Rights Watch organization in April.

Likewise, the governor, who has been in power for just over a year, maintains an open war with the Supreme Court of Justice, since the supervisory body has overthrown at least 10 executive decrees related to the pandemic, including the extension of quarantine.

Bukele responded to the magistrates in this way: “I would have shot them all or something like that if I was really a dictator. You save 1,000 lives in exchange for five”.

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Bukele is also leading a discrediting campaign against the role of the media and his link with Congress has deteriorated. Analysts agree that since the Covid-19 crisis began, the ruler’s tone has been characterized by following a confrontational line.

“Bukele has a very authoritarian approach to politics and institutions. He is a very dangerous person and with an enormous degree of support. In this pandemic he has had a particularly confrontational attitude from the verbal point of view,” said Eduardo Ulibarri, former Costa Rican ambassador to the United Nations.

In the case of Honduras, President Juan Orlando Hernández decreed a curfew in March “at the national and absolute level”, with the military in the streets, to contain the advance of the coronavirus.

A student from the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH) remains outside the institution after classes were suspended in Honduras due to the global coronavirus covid-19 pandemic, in Tegucigalpa

People could only circulate in order to buy food, medicine, go to health facilities and to authorized workplaces. The measure is still maintained, but with fewer restrictions.

“At the beginning, the Government did not give any space for dialogue to the main sectors of the opposition, only with businessmen, who later distanced themselves from the president. Juan Orlando Hernández received a lot of criticism for this and then the corruption scandals were added,” mentioned the Honduran sociologist and university professor, Eugenio Sosa.

The Hernández government also limited access to information by using the emergency law as an excuse to publish the pandemic data only on an official website, which prevented journalists from raising doubts or questions. The initiative was reversed due to pressure from communicators and citizens.

Hernández announced in June that he was infected with the new coronavirus. The president remained hospitalized for several days due to pneumonia caused by the disease.

Meanwhile, in Guatemala, President Alejandro Gianmmatei was denounced by social organizations after making a statement in which he transferred the responsibility of stopping the COVID-19 to the people. Likewise, in the midst of the state of emergency, attacks on the press and restrictions on access to information proliferated.

A funeral home in the Covid-19 area at the La Verbena Cemetery in Guatemala in Guatemala City

Upon leaving Congress, after presenting his economic plan, Gianmmatei sprayed disinfectant on a group of journalists, an act that frightened communicators and was classified as derogatory. In addition, days later he said: “I would like to put a curfew on the media, but it is not possible.”

The first contagion in Guatemala was registered on March 13 and since then the Executive ordered the closure of shopping centers, prohibited public transportation, restricted vehicle mobility, called for teleworking, and decreed a partial curfew.

Then there is Nicaragua, where the Ortega government’s strategy focused on minimizing the pandemic and rejecting taking measures to curb infections like the rest of the countries in the world.

A woman holds a sign that reads “Love in Times of Covid-19” during a government-sponsored march in Managua, Nicaragua

Contrary to what the health authorities recommend regarding social distancing, President Daniel Ortega focused on urging people to participate in massive acts, thus endangering the lives of citizens.

Likewise, doctors critical of the government were fired from public hospitals after questioning government actions against the spread of the virus. Additionally, health officials say they held overnight burials in cemeteries of victims of the pandemic, whose deaths were due to respiratory problems (pneumonia) since it is forbidden to mention that the real cause is due to COVID-19.

“Here the government made a campaign saying that the virus was not going to enter, that we were protected and that nothing was going to happen, that is, it gave arguments without scientific basis. With the pandemic, the country has presented a very serious problem of self-medication,” assured Nicaraguan epidemiologist Leonel Argüello.

“There are testimonies that say that the doctors were forced to change the diagnosis and not put the word ‘COVID’ at all. The doctors who were fired were because they refused to do this malpractice because they felt was immoral,” said Rafael Amador, also an epidemiologist from Nicaragua.

Beyond the economic and social

“The challenge now (in Central America) is not only to reactivate the economy and transform the social, but it is to maintain and deepen democracy … imagine,” said Alexánder Segovia, President of the Central American Research Institute for Development and Social Change (Incide).

According to Vargas Cullell, Panama and Costa Rica are the only countries in the region in which the context of the pandemic has not been used to take authoritarian measures. For this reason, he believes that this difference further undermines the divide between the Central American nations.

However, the limitations established by Panamanian President Laurentino Cortizo in the management of the emergency have faced reproaches and have been described as severe.

“There are several lawsuits of unconstitutionality due to the way in which some measures were taken that imply restriction of freedoms in the metropolitan area,” said Leonor Calderón, a former Panamanian minister.

Panama is the country with the highest contagion rate on the Isthmus. According to Calderón, the interconnectivity that has always been taken as a strong point of the country, in this case, played a trick because the virus entered the territory “from eight different places.”

Blow to regional integration

The new coronavirus pandemic also dealt a strong blow to the integration process of the Central American countries and to the regional institutions that had already been in intensive care since before the health crisis.

“The room for coordination has been minimal, as well as room for the formulation of joint actions and the cooperation to solve problems,” argued Vargas Cullell.

On March 12, the leaders of Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and the Dominican Republic met virtually and agreed to develop a Regional Contingency Plan aimed at joining forces in the fight against COVID-19.

President Nayib Bukele did not participate in the meeting.

So far no new meeting of the leaders of the Isthmus has taken place.

The lack of regional articulation is also evident in the absence of a leader who shows interest in fostering a political rapprochement between the heads of state.

“At present, there is no president who is there or who wants to make the issue of integration as a cause and who has the political muscle at least to pretend that he can have a chance of success,” Ulibarri stressed.

Analysts insist that the union of the countries could favor the coordination of relevant issues such as intraregional migration, which could skyrocket when land borders are reopened.

The commercial issue is the one that shows the greatest progress due to the interests it entails.

“Together, Central America can achieve many things, but individually it is not going to go very far. What this crisis has shown is that it is the most fragile, dependent, and vulnerable region in Latin America due to its dependence on the United States, inequality, and informal employment,” concluded Segovia.

COVID-19 in Central America (August 16, 2020)

  • Panama (pop. 4,323,139): 81,940 confirmed cases; 1,767 deaths
  • Guatemala (pop. 17,955,967): 62,562 confirmed cases; 2,379 deaths
  • Honduras (pop. 9,924,011): 49,979 confirmed cases; 1,567 deaths
  • El Salvador (pop. 6,490,406): 22,912 confirmed cases; 612 deaths
  • Nicaragua (pop. 6,634,416): 4,115 confirmed cases; 128 deaths
  • Belize (pop. 398,509): 452 confirmed cases; 3 deaths
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