SAN SALVADOR — Until about a month ago, I went swimming three times a week at a sports complex called Polideportivo Merliot. The beautifully maintained Olympic-sized pool with a view of the San Salvador Volcano was accessible free of charge through a government program called “Swimming for All” (Natación Para Todos). While more experienced swimmers took to the lanes, adult beginners practiced holding onto the sides and blowing bubbles in the water. Near the pool entrance is a modest hotel, normally used for visiting sports teams.
Since mid-March, however, the pool has been closed and the hotel converted into a quarantine center to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Nearly 100 such centers have been set up throughout the country, including hotels, the National Sports Institute of El Salvador (INDES) facilities and national university, and currently house more than 4,000 people.
The quarantine center at Merliot is reportedly dedicated to pregnant women or those who have recently given birth. The first lady, Gabriela de Bukele (owner of a daycare center who studied child psychology), posted on her Facebook page on March 25 that seven babies had been welcomed to mothers in quarantine, including photos of infants and baby supplies.
The quarantine centers were part of the early reaction to the coronavirus pandemic for which President Nayib Bukele has been praised. But worries have arisen about the quality of quarantine facilities and treatment of people forced to stay there. Meanwhile, some are also raising doubts about the humanitarian costs of the quarantine measures. Even before the pandemic, Bukele had clashed with other branches of government and critics remarked on his authoritarian tendencies. As the virus now spreads through the country, he is turning to increasingly autocratic measures that threaten El Salvador’s fragile democracy and raise grave human rights concerns.
Before the pandemic
Salvadoran politics have been dominated by two main political parties since the end of the civil war in 1992: the ultra-rightist Arena, which was in power as the war ended, and the former left-wing guerrillas the FMLN. Their polarized politics are partly the result of the peace settlement. “As with most other UN-mediated settlements, the content of the peace accords focused on conflict resolution (moving the conflict from the battlefield to the ballot box) as opposed to conflict transformation (addressing the underlying causes of the conflict as well as changing the relationships between and attitudes of the parties),” the historian Christine Wade writes in her book Captured Peace.
Politics have also been dogged by corruption for which three of the last four presidents before Bukele have been prosecuted. Francisco Flores of Arena (1999-2004) died under house arrest after being indicted for stealing millions of dollars donated by Taiwan for earthquake relief efforts. Elias Antonio “Tony” Saca (2004-2009), formerly of Arena, is serving a minimum ten-year sentence for embezzlement and money laundering while in office. Mauricio Funes (2009-2014) of the FMLN is living in exile in Nicaragua after being convicted in absentia on embezzlement charges.
Bukele was a member of the FMLN until he was expelled from the party in 2017, after an incident in which he was accused of throwing an apple at a female employee and calling her a “witch.” After forming a new political party called “New Ideas” (Nuevas Ideas), he ran for president on behalf of Saca’s small center-right party GANA, which has only 10 of 84 seats in the legislative assembly.
Bukele won the presidency in 2019 running on an anti-corruption platform, openly criticizing both Arena and the FMLN as parts of a corrupt political establishment. He refused to participate in debates with the other candidates and fomented anti-institutional fervor among his followers. In January 2020, in what some say was a political move intended to distract attention from the country’s water crisis, prosecutors filed charges against several politicians including the Arena-affiliated mayor of San Salvador accusing them of negotiating with gang members in exchange for votes. Bukele posted a tweet in February calling Arena and the FMLN “worse than garbage.”
That month, a mounting conflict between the president and the two main parties in the national legislature came to a head when Bukele ordered the assembly to hold a special session to approve a $109 million international loan to finance his security plan, the Plan Control Territorial Phase III. He called on his supporters to rally outside the building, warning that if the assembly would not meet, “the people could apply Article 87 of the constitution,” referring to “the people’s right to insurrection.”
Representatives’ personal security details were then withdrawn in what many interpreted as a threat to their safety in a country well-known for violent crime. After Arena and the FMLN boycotted the session, thousands of Bukele supporters gathered outside parliament. More than 4,000 law enforcement officers including snipers were deployed, bringing back memories of peaceful civilian demonstrators murdered by security forces in the leadup to the war. Bukele dramatically entered the legislature surrounded by heavily armed soldiers. After sitting in silence with his head in his hands, he left the building and addressed his followers outside, saying that God had spoken to him and asked him to be patient. He gave the assembly a one-week ultimatum to approve the loan.
The president has accused any who question his actions or attempt to exercise checks and balances of ‘being on the side of the disease.’
Widespread international condemnation of his actions followed, and Bukele seemed to back down from his threats. Discussion about the financing of his security plan continued into March without a clear resolution before the conflict was eclipsed by the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
Bukele was praised for closing the country’s borders even before any cases had been detected. Foreigners have not been allowed to enter the country (including a journalist friend of mine who was visiting Nicaragua and has not been able to come back). Salvadorans are placed in quarantine for 30 days upon entering the country. School was canceled and other measures were put in place to limit public gatherings.
On Saturday, March 14, the president and the legislative assembly briefly put their power struggle aside to enact a state of emergency and then a state of exception—which suspended constitutional rights such as the right to free movement and public gatherings, seen by many as an extreme and possibly unnecessary step. A more intensive lockdown was ordered a week later. Since March 21, no one can leave home who is not deemed an essential worker or been designated by family to run essential errands up to twice per week.
The measures appeared to be working for several weeks by confining coronavirus cases to the quarantine centers, stopping spread of the disease throughout the country. Apart from the first documented case, which Bukele alleged had entered the country through a “blind point” in defiance of his order, the earliest cases were all detected inside the quarantine centers. Still, during the week of April 13, the number of “local” (as opposed to “imported”) cases began to rise and medical professionals at several major hospitals have reportedly been exposed.
As early as March 13, the human rights ombudsman documented overcrowded conditions and lack of food and hand sanitizer at a quarantine center in Jiquilisco, in eastern El Salvador. There were complaints that new arrivals from various countries were mixing with the general population without appropriate testing or health measures. On March 14, the quarantine center’s population protested by barricading the main door with chairs and bags and forming a human chain to prevent new arrivals from entering. The facility was soon closed but concerns remain about the adequacy of the protocols for protecting those in quarantine from contagion.
At first, the quarantine centers housed only those who had entered the country after traveling abroad. However, after March 21, the quarantined population grew to include those accused of disobeying the government’s orders. Some were arrested, first taken to police stations and held there in unsanitary, overcrowded conditions while more quarantine centers were prepared.
The Constitutional Court—El Salvador’s highest court—declared the arrests unlawful. On April 8, it issued a decision holding the government had no authority to detain people unless congress passed a law setting forth the criteria for such arrests. But on the night of April 15, Bukele tweeted his intention to ignore the court’s order, accusing it of “ordering the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans.”
The president has accused any who question his actions or attempt to exercise checks and balances of “being on the side of the disease.” He has charged human rights organizations with working for the deaths of the Salvadoran people and blocked José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director of Human Rights Watch, on his Twitter feed.
As the pandemic quarantine went into effect and huge numbers of people were forced to stay home from work, Bukele announced that no one should lose a job or go without pay for complying. But concerns mounted about how Salvadorans would support themselves. On March 26, the Legislative Assembly passed a “clarification” to March 14’s state of emergency stating that all those either in home isolation or a quarantine center should be treated as if on paid sick leave, and that salaries be paid by the Salvadoran Institute of Social Security (ISSS).
That was seen to have been the result of successful lobbying by pro-business organizations but was also framed as protection for the many small businesses across the country that would not be able to afford to pay their employees. Bukele immediately said he would veto the measure because the ISSS did not have the resources to make those payments. It would be “the robbery of the century” and would “break” the agency, he said. As officials argue over who should pay for workers forced to stay home, many workers are left without income and without protection.
The president had also announced that those employed in informal work—approximately 1.5 million people, over 20 percent of the population—would be given $300 subsidies, roughly equivalent to the minimum wage. But it was clear distributing the funds would be a challenge.
The initial website designed to help applicants process claims crashed almost immediately. In late March, following government instructions, hundreds of people showed up at Citizen Services Centers (CENADE) across the country to request their subsidies. But after the offices were abruptly closed in response to the high demand, long lines of people still form outside banks as people attempt to obtain desperately needed money.
On April 12, two weeks after the crowds formed outside CENADE offices, the number of “local” cases of coronavirus infection began to rise dramatically. A voice memo purportedly from a doctor inside the Hospital Zacamil, just north of San Salvador, began to circulate via WhatsApp and Twitter claiming many of the new patients were among those who had waited outside CENADE.
On April 17, President Bukele tweeted an order for the complete closure of the port town of La Libertad. The military complied and for 48 hours, no one was allowed to leave homes, even for food or water. Those developments, along with the growing economic insecurity across Salvadoran society, have caused alarm and led to increased questioning of Bukele’s actions.
As of April 22, the number of confirmed “local” cases (120) has surpassed the number of “imported” ones (117). Cases have been detected in all 14 provinces according to the official list. The initial lockdown measures seem to have slowed the spread of the virus, but the current levels of repression are both economically and politically unsustainable.
Bukele’s invasion of parliament in February had already raised comparisons with Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori’s 1992 presidential coup or “auto-coup,” in which he dissolved the other branches of government and assumed full legislative and judicial powers. Instead of working with the other branches of government and civil society during this crisis, Bukele’s defiance of the Constitutional Court has again raised the possibility of a coup d’état.
There does not seem to be any end in sight. It is unclear whether the government has any long-term plan beyond ongoing 15-day extensions of the state of emergency, crackdowns on those who are forced to venture out to earn money to support their families and prayers. “My God, we need that blessed vaccine!” Yamil Bukele, the director of INDES and Nayib’s brother, tweeted this week.
For several weeks, trending Twitter messages concerned Bukele’s personal sacrifices: how the president was not sleeping because he was working so hard on the crisis. In the last week, however, a new hashtag began trending: #NayibAsesoráte (Nayib, seek guidance). On the morning of April 16, there was a new one: Dictator.