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  Number 465 | Abril 2020
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El Salvador

Authoritarian rule in times of coronavirus

With coercion and extreme preventive measures aimed at controlling the spread of the coronavirus, El Salvador is counting not on “flattening the curve” so much as preventing it from even developing. If the fearsome curve were left to take its course, millions in this crowded country could be infected and tens of thousands could die.

Luis Antonio Monterrosa

On February 9, Salvadorans watched in shock at what appeared to be a coup by the executive branch against the legislative branch, a sequence of events that included El Salvador’s armed forces occupying the plenary chamber. The incident, which rattled the nation, concluded with an invitation by President Nayib Bukele to the nation to be patient, a message he said was communicated to him by God.

On March 9, less than a month later, the country witnessed another worrying event: the imposition of drastic measures culminating in the declaration of an emergency and a state of exception that limits certain fundamental rights. While we were instantly reminded of the past, of armed forces interfering in the political arena, we were assured that the measures were just to impede the anticipated spread of COVID-19 in our country. The looming virus made us put aside these ghosts and see the need for such authoritarian measures to defend us from it. In only one month the unremitting epidemic had smoothed the way for the executive branch to achieve its goal of having greater political control.

An authoritarian scenario

Looking back, the first epidemic control measures the President took in late January and early February, appeared exaggerated at the time, but now seem vigorous and appropriate for impeding the spread of the pandemic. By March 24, only five cases had been detected. The first was a man who had tried to sneak across the border, but was immediately detained and quarantined. Another two cases involved Salvadorans returning from Spain, who were put into preventative quarantine. The remaining two cases were individuals arriving from Milan who met the same fate: quarantine. If the four individuals who entered legally had not encountered the new restrictions, it’s likely that we would have experienced the same geometric progression that has characterized the spread of the virus elsewhere.

Measures to control the epidemic continued to be implemented and created a perfect scenario for the authoritarian control the President was already known to desire.

Longstanding confrontation

What triggered the events on February
9? With the apparent success of the “Territorial Control” Security Plan, the President anticipated legislative approval of a US$109 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) that month. But his haste to obtain the funding coupled with typical bureaucratic miserliness when dealing with executive branch issues, now abetted by the control the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) have in the Legislative Assembly, motivated Bukele’s call for “insurrection,” based on Article 87 of the Constitution. With his sights set on the March 2021 municipal and legislative elections, in which he hopes to win a majority in the latter, Bukele decided to confront the established political power base head on.

Ever since June 1, 2019, when Bukele assumed the presidency, confrontations between the executive and legislative branches have been the norm. This is understandable considering that the FMLN and ARENA hold the majority of seats in the Legislative Assembly despite being the two great losers in the 2019 presidential elections. The Bukele administration has meagre and indirect representation through the Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA) and the Democratic Change party (CD), with a total of 11 congressional seats out of 84.

The call for an “insurrection” was meant to be the response to the legislators’ apparent inability to approve the funds needed to address one of the nation’s most pressing problems, a delay that could be interpreted as intentional. The Legislative Assembly representatives, however, said they were acting responsibly, carefully analyzing the loan proposal just as they should, line by line, item by item. It was during that analysis that they questioned funds requested for the purchase of a ship for the nation’s underdeveloped Navy to fight international drug trafficking, when lighter vessels are more useful for that purpose.

A well-orchestrated event with a strange outcomeIt was during this waiting period that the executive branch “convened” an extraordinary Legislative Assembly session on February 9, a presidential prerogative under special circumstances. At that moment, however, no special circumstances had been declared, although two days later the judicial branch’s Constitutional Court did just that.

President Bukele arrived at the National Palace where the Legislative Assembly meets accompanied by a large military deployment that blocked access to the Palace and entered the grounds. Outside, a number of supporters of Bukele’s political party, New Ideas, surrounded the building in a well-orchestrated performance that even included a stage set up at the legislative entrance to the Palace. The setting was perfect for what looked like an imminent announcement of the legislative body’s dissolution.

The President mounted the stage and told his followers, “I’m going in; let’s see what happens… and then we’ll decide what to do.” He then entered the legislagive chamber with ceremonial fanfare and occupied the Assembly president’s seat, calling the session to order with the use of a gong brought in for the occasion (the seat and gong were later discarded by the Assembly president as though they were vectors of the coronavirus).

So who was it
who called Bukele?

Upon corroborating that there weren’t enough legislators present to reach
a quorum, there being only ten from GANA, one from the CD, one from the National Concertation Party (PNC), three or four ARENA dissidents and none from the FMLN, Bukele announced that he was going to ask God what he should do. After two minutes of suspense during which everyone thought he would announce the shutting down of the parliament, he ended his prayers and said only that “God tells me we should be patient.” At that point, the national television channel filming the event focused its camera not only on the President’s departure but also on the chamber filled with soldiers dressed in bulletproof vests and armed with M-16 rifles.

Once outside, Bukele returned to the stage once more and recommended patience to all who had heeded his call for “insurrection.” (Was that crowd ready to take control of the Assembly chamber?) Inside the cameras had also recorded a selfie of the President and a phone call he answered. Some believe the call was from the US ambassador in support of the “cause.” Nothing happens in this country without the Embassy’s knowledge and approval. Others also believe it was the ambassador calling, and for the same reason, but they think it was to tell Bukele not to go any further.

If it wasn’t a call from the ambassador, it would surely have been a prominent businessperson calling to tell him to do it….or not. Someday maybe we’ll find out.

What actually happened
on February 9?

As was to be expected, the prosecutor general received accusations and complaints in the wake of this event that foretold the beginning of investigations to determine responsibility. A decrease in the President’s popularity was predicted, but it didn’t happen, and two weeks later the same parliamentarians who had at first turned to the prosecutor general now said they had seen nothing out of the ordinary on February 9, and the prosecutor was left without arguments for investigating anyone.

So what was February 9 all about? A clear sign of arrogance from a political novice forecasting authoritarian rule in a democratic country? A crass misstep by a President who enjoys committing politically incorrect acts in defiance of the traditional political class represented by the FMLN and ARENA? A tasteless show by a politician who knows how to set up favorable scenarios for an anticipated electoral campaign in 2021? A futile attempt, used by all political sectors to their advantage, to divert attention from grave problems such as access to clean drinking water or the debate about the new reconciliation law aimed at encompassing everything while reconciling nothing, or ongoing investigations and preliminary hearings into politicians accused of negotiating with gangs prior to the 2014 elections?

All these possibilities were considered in various analyses… until the arrival of the COVID-19 threat. In less than one month, the coronavirus led the presidency to apply measures that at first appeared excessive and have been interpreted as favoring Bukele’s authoritarian aspirations. These same measures applied in the end of February, however, have allowed for relative control of the number of coronavirus cases: only nine have been identified as of March 25 and all were placed in quarantine upon their arrival in El Salvador. Thus, what to some might look like budding authoritarian rule to others look like responsible actions to confront a health emergency.

Thirty years of authoritarian rule

In many countries, authoritarian rule is a permanent and imminent danger, but in El Salvador it could be considered a national sport.

ARENA’s 29-year rule, from 1989 to 2009, was not exactly a paragon of democracy. ARENA imposed its neoliberal vision and through scheming and treachery imposed privatizations, market deregulations and the passing of the law that dollarized the economy, while redirecting the Armed Forces toward auxiliary roles in public safety. Its rule became an example of arrogance, a government of pistol-packing politicians in all three branches of government.

Then came 10 years under the FMLN, which governed between 2009 and 2019. In this period, bureaucrats rose to power by making decisions based on the power granted to them through their party affiliation, and not by listening to their increasingly distant constituents. If there’s one thing the population deplores in all politicians, it’s their arrogant distancing from the people.

National authoritarian rule

Authoritarian rule isn’t the sole domain of politicians. One finds the blueprints for it within schools, the workplace and families; with varying intensity and scale, yes, but they’re there. The teacher rules the classroom. The mother or father, with few exceptions, and even while one or the other is absent, decides everything based on a basic macho principle, even to the point of deciding if their children will study and what they will study. Businesses certainly aren’t democratic. They have owners and stockholders, while NGOs and even civil society organizations usually have directors and leaders who anxiously perpetuate their power and the benefits it presupposes.

Tearing one’s hair out over authoritarian actions is nothing more than a good example of the pot calling the kettle black. This doesn’t suggest we should minimize the events of February 9; rather we should put them and all their complexity in perspective. Dismantling authoritarian structures should entail much more than criticizing presidential actions. Of course one must criticize, but what happens when the critic has the same authoritarian traits?

Exposing the military

The danger of fixating so excessively on the President is that we then ignore the two most dangerous elements of the events he orchestrated on February 9: the presence of the military and invoking God.

El Salvador’s Armed Forces are accustomed to getting involved in governmental affairs during moments of crisis. Habituated to power, they end up assuming it through their military training. The military is sought as a referee in class conflicts due to their high organizational capacity when dealing with external or internal enemies. The disadvantage and danger of what transpired on February 9 was placing the Armed Forces in the political scene with maximum exposure.

It’s not as though they’ve been absent from politics during the last 30 years, but we’re now seeing them too close to power. After a long period in control, from 1932 to 1979, and after playing a leading role during the civil war that ended in 1992, one must acknowledge the discipline with which the Armed Forces participated in the peace accords that removed them from their role in politics and public security. The transition that required the commanders- in -chief of the Armed Forces to hand over the reins first to Mauricio Funes and then to Salvador Sánchez Cerén, both of whom belonged to the party the military had fought during the armed conflict, created a positive impression.

Invoking God

Invoking God, which was a clear manipulation of the populace’s religiosity, was another serious element in the situation created on February 9. After decades in which progressive Christianity and Latin American liberation theology had reclaimed the role of faith’s social and political dimensions, religious conservativism returned to El Salvador and the continent as a whole, creating conditions for kidnapping the concept of God and putting it at the service of those in power.

The problem is not the invoking of God, but doing so from a position of power to strengthen that power. One can only hope that politicians will listen to Jesus and bring about what he taught us was God’s plan – to relieve the suffering of the poor. The risk is that politicians on both the left and the right will make God an accomplice in their plans, projects and even their misdeeds.

The virus emergency
changed everything

For better or worse, the coronavirus threat put many things on hold, including the ghost of authoritarian rule. The events of February 9 have almost been forgotten. Discussions regarding impunity for human rights violations and the new reconciliation law, which some hoped would be vetoed, have been set aside.
The preliminary hearing against Norman Quijano for his involvement in negotiations with gangs is also on hold as are investigations of the defense minister and the director of the National Civil Police to determine their degree of responsibility for the events of February 9.

Measures to control the epidemic began at the end of February when Chinese and Iranian citizens were restricted from entering the country. Next, restrictions were placed on Italians and Spaniards. The second phase of restrictions began in early March when preventive quarantine was ordered for anyone entering the country. It was during this phase of quarantined visitors that eight of the first nine coronavirus cases were detected. On March 4, the Catholic Church suggested protective measures while taking communion during Mass and the tradition of wishing peace to others with a handshake or hug. Two days later, the Civil Protection Office elevated the alert status to yellow. It seemed an exaggeration because at the time there hadn’t been a single case of coronavirus in El Salvador itself and it had only just appeared in Costa Rica.

On Friday, March 13, a red alert was declared, and the President asked the Legislative Assembly to declare
an emergency and a state of exception limiting certain fundamental rights. During a declared emergency, a President can guarantee the mobilization of funding and personnel to confront it. The legislators passed the decree without difficulty but got hung up on the debate about the state of exception, which, due to the recent events, put the danger of authoritarian temptations on the table.

A state of exception was
approved… and disputed

Invoking a state of exception as referred to in Article 29 of the Constitution is a big deal. The Constitution allows for the suspension of certain constitutional guarantees, i.e. freedom of expression, of association, of movement and of communication. The last times a state of exception was declared in El Salvador were during the coup in 1979 and during the guerrilla offensive in 1989.

The President tried to be specific: he wasn’t interested in limiting freedom of expression, communication or association. What he wanted was to restrict free movement within the country, to close the borders and, should it be necessary, to force everyone arriving in the country into quarantine.

It was already being proven in the rest of the world that restricting mobility could stop or at least mitigate the exponential spiral of coronavirus contagion. After debates and clarifications, and in a climate of major mistrust, the state of exception was approved for 15 days beginning March 15, two days after its passage, with the possibility of extension. The rights limited were freedom of movement, and freedom from being obliged to change domicile for the quarantine. A curfew was not declared.

Some citizens held in quarantine filed a petition of habeas corpus with the Constitutional Court, and others submitted a petition to declare the state of exception decree unconstitutional on the grounds that the Legislative Assembly hadn’t followed due process. Other criticisms emerged regarding possible excesses by public safety officials in restricting mobility and in border closures.

Increasingly stringent measures

Closing the borders with Honduras to the east and north and with Guatemala to the west, as well as closing the airport, generated disapproval among Salvadorans wishing to return. Some opted for entering illegally through clandestine border crossings. Some were detained by the Army at different sites along the border.

The first case of coronavirus was that of a Salvadoran citizen who sought treatment at a hospital in Metapán in the northwest sector of the country. Upon checking the individual’s immigration status, it was apparent that there was a record of him having left the country, but not of having re-entered. That case led to strengthening border patrols while subjecting Metapán to 48 hours of scrutiny and the closure of all routes into and out of the city: no one could enter or leave.

Daily circulation was restricted countrywide. One of the first measures, taken on March 10, even before the approval of the state of exception, was the suspension of classes in public and private schools at all levels: primary, high school and university. Surprise and objections were evident within the universities, such as the Central American University (UCA), where undergraduates had just begun the new academic year. Thousands of parents who were suddenly faced with having their child at home all day were also surprised and upset. The goal of continuing to provide education through virtual means has created a race to adjust content and methodologies.

Following the suspension of classes, those over 60 years of age were required to stay at home. Later, non-essential activities were cancelled, (with doubts about which activities would be affected), and public transportation was limited to seated, half-capacity occupancy in order to comply with physical distancing norms. Access to shopping was also limited and entertainment venues were closed.

To counteract the burden that all these measures have placed on the country’s economy, and to help support the population, the President asked the legislators to approve US$5 billion in credit. The figure remains at 2 billion for the moment, while control and distribution mechanisms are refined.

Crush the curve at all cost

Given the accelerated rate at which the virus spreads, and keeping in mind the experiences of China, Italy, Germany and Spain, and more recently the United States, one can easily surmise that 60% of the Salvadoran population could become infected if greater controls are not put in place.

We are talking about more than 3 million people. A conservative estimate of 5% of the population or 1% of those infected, more than 300,000 individuals, could die. For any economy or national health care system, these are numbers that are impossible to deal with in such an incredibly short period of time, and worse for El Salvador, which is in a deplorable state.

This has made such stringent preventive measures understandable, assuming that we might be able to profoundly contain the number of cases by their early application. El Salvador is counting not just on “flattening” the infections curve, but preventing it from developing and hence avoiding the resulting illnesses and deaths. Just in case this aspiration is too optimistic, the President also ordered the transformation of the International Fair and Convention Center into a field hospital to increase the number of intensive care units available.

To address home confinement and the resulting semi-paralyses of the economy, the Bukele administration ordered the postponement of water, electricity, telephone and bank and commercial credit payments for three months, while inviting those who still have salaries to continue paying for those services.
The administration is also preparing a subsistence payment of up to U$300 per family for those with limited resources in the informal sector or whose members lose their jobs in these circumstances. Specific details are forthcoming.

Exaggerated authoritarian rule?

Are we seeing exaggerated authoritarian rule? Mexico and Nicaragua don’t seem tin any hurry to apply special measures. And for two or three weeks the US and Brazil didn’t seem interested in applying regulatory measures either, much less drastic ones…until the virus spread rapidly in both countries.

El Salvador has instituted extreme measures very early on and will continue to do so. If there is hope to be found somewhere at the bottom of this Pandora’s box of budding authoritarian rule opened on February 9, it is that these measures have been adopted to confront the current calamity and nothing more.

Without these measures, we won’t escape contagion or the grave consequences for the economy and public health stemming from the virus. With them in place, the economy will still suffer greatly, but in exchange for a possibility, however slight, of containing the spread of the pandemic and massive loss of lives.

Luis Antonio Monterrosa is a professor in the Department

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