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Coronavirus Unmasks El Salvador’s Authoritarian-in-Waiting

Mac Margolis
·6 min read

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Latin America’s calendar is packed with homages to national heroes and historic watersheds. El Salvadorans will not soon forget February 9, 2020, when President Nayib Bukele marched into the National Assembly with soldiers to demand that lawmakers pass a languishing request for security loans.

His martial theatrics drew applause. Bukele enjoys rock-star ratings, while the Salvadoran legislature is encrusted with scoundrels and dominated by a tainted old guard. Young, media savvy and brilliantined, Bukele came to office promising efficiency and rectitude. With any luck, who knew, he might even help the violence-prone and democratically challenged nation morph into another Costa Rica, Central America’s gold standard for peace, progress and institutional integrity.

Yet the pre-emptive fury of his response to Covid-19 points not just to how far El Salvador must go to match its neighbor, but also to the pandemic’s empowerment of populists.

There’s no faulting the speed with which Bukele moved to contain coronavirus. He made El Salvador the first country in the western hemisphere to seal borders and order a national lockdown.

But he also overplayed his hand. After winning extraordinary powers to manage the crisis, Bukele ordered those suspected of carrying Covid-19 into quarantine for up to 30 days. More than 2,000 possible carriers of Covid-19 are crowded into detainment centers, reportedly with no medical care or social distancing. The government abruptly closed down all public transport, leaving many doctors and other first responders on foot. Police were given broad powers to enter homes without warrants and arrest those thought to be violating quarantine; security forces mistook a young woman who’d gone shopping for a mother’s day present for a criminal gang member and shot her dead. In late April, Bukele shocked human rights advocates by huddling hundreds of inmates stripped to their underwear onto a prison patio, ostensibly to show jail-yard gangs who is boss.

More frightening still, Bukele is doing all this to broad popular support and ineffectual political opposition. He boasts 80% approval ratings.

Such maneuvers have credentialed Bukele as the junior member of a familiar Latin America breed, the authoritarian populist, who weaponizes fear and threats to public safety into sweeping central powers and government by fiat. United Nations high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet recently warned of the perils to democracy and civil liberties as more than 80 countries have declared a state of emergency in the wake of the pandemic.

Yet when Bukele won the election as a political outsider in early 2019, he looked like El Salvador’s best chance to introduce salutary reforms and institution building. He talked of fighting violence with sports and culture. He tweeted and took selfies, and pledged to probe graft and influence peddling.

Bukele might have looked next door for inspiration. A peaceable neighbor with no standing army, little crime and untroubled by insurgents or martinets, Costa Rica is the Central American outlier. Its $60 billion gross domestic product is two and half times that of El Salvador, which outstrips it in population by more than a million inhabitants. Costa Ricans are not desperate to leave: Foreign remittances account for just 1% of GDP, compared with 21% for El Salvador.

Like his millennial neighbor and peer, President Carlos Alvarado Quesada — also a relative youngster with a soft spot for pop culture—quickly responded to the coronavirus. He had little choice. With Costa Rica’s paucity of physicians and nurses and a quarter of the hospital beds per capita of the wealthier OECD nations, the Covid-19 outbreak was a national existential threat.

As early as March 9, days after the first infections were confirmed, he ordered social distancing by banning mass gatherings and, days later, declared a state of emergency. Testing, tracing and house calls for the sick became national protocol. Schools and non-essential businesses were shut and distance-working became the national norm. National borders were closed by March 19. Costa Rica now has more recovering patients than new infections, and fewer fatalities (8) than New Zealand (21), the global benchmark for good health governance.

Crucially, the Alvarado government tackled the pandemic with the sort of planning and foresight that only sturdy institutions and rules-based democracy can deliver. “It wasn’t the work of one strong public figure, but the interplay of institutions that made the difference,” Giancarlo Morelli, an analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, told me.

With the contagion curve declining, the government has reopened national parks, beaches (for fishing and surfing) and tennis courts (singles only). Restaurants may serve again, as long as they keep tables at safe distance, and football matches will restart, albeit to empty bleachers. “I went out for a haircut,” said Morelli, who recently emerged from quarantine after a mild bout of Covid-19. The loosening of quarantine will be crucial to kick-starting the battered economy.

Bukele’s “mano dura” policies might be justified had he kept the disease in check. Yet despite the government’s early success, infections in El Salvador are on the rise. Hospitalizations of patients in critical condition more than quadrupled from May 10-13, pointing to a possible “surge in Covid deaths,” El Salvador-based blogger Tim Muth wrote.

Sadly, Bukele seems to be governing in an echo chamber. This week, five civil society institutions quit the national emergency oversight committee, alleging lack of government transparency in managing the $2 billion rescue budget. “The government has not released information on who gets the $300 per family cash transfer, nor named who is eligible for handouts of emergency food baskets,” economist Carmen Aida Lazo, dean of El Salvador’s Advanced School of Economics and Business, recently told a conference at the Wilson Center in Washington. If the government fails to mitigate the crisis, she said, half of all families could fall into poverty this year, compared with one in four families today.

El Salvador and Costa Rica deserve credit for decisively responding to the public health emergency that is now raging in Latin America. But the diverging trajectories of the two nations also show how beating a deadly pathogen and its economic fallout takes solid institutions working in concert and a healthy social pact between citizens and businesses. An outsider who has come out on top, Bukele may enjoy popular support at the moment. Yet his draconian missteps point to an all-too-familiar case of good intentions gone rogue.

(Corrects name of Costa Rica’s president in 10th and 12th paragraphs.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”

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