Columnas / Politics

El Salvador Needs More than Savvy Messaging

Friday, April 10, 2020
Jorge E. Cuéllar

It was a few days after Bukele announced a “state of exception” in El Salvador that the human rights ombudsman (PDDH) sounded the alarm, noting the abhorrent quarantine conditions for arrivals in the hastily-outfitted Jiquilisco detention center that all but confirmed the government’s severe incapacity to face the novel coronavirus. Reports from the makeshift quarantines told of careless intermingling from different flights and countries, evidence of hasty planning. Recent COVID-19 cases have been attributed to these facilities, likely from transmission in this initial phase. Citizen videos circulated via social media displayed their spartan and disordered state, exposing the medical understaffing, poor nutrition, and overcrowding. The conditions and confusion swelled into an uproar which later forced Bukele to backpedal, to rethink how to better accommodate incoming persons. In response, Bukele publicized transferring people from the Jiquilisco center to hotels, and also highlighted improved food offerings made possible through donations by major restaurant chains. Contrary to Bukele’s tweets, however, it appears that not everyone has been blessed with changed circumstances. The myriad missteps are not isolated events. They have been a common occurrence in Bukele’s quarantine plan, and have forced him to repeatedly shift strategies midstream in attempts to assuage discontent and downplay bad publicity.

Bukele’s media presence is, allegedly, aimed at providing transparency, a direct line to presidential operations. In practice, however, at least during the pandemic, it has proved inadequate, often reactive, and beset with bungles. No amount of public relations can compensate for crude measures that fail to address the aching needs of the poor and newly precarious, that when mishandled, effectively ridicule popular economic realities. This administration, whose tendency has been to wed punitive populism with media savviness, routinely dismisses human rights defenders and critics that spotlight the mismanagement and excesses of state power. Bukele’s messaging is a well-timed distraction, designed to solicit citizen trust in him by reminding followers of the pandemic while praising the work done on his forthcoming “largest hospital in Latin America” to treat coronavirus patients. This messaging misleads the public and sidesteps the hard truths of healthcare, of the deep vulnerabilities created by lasting inequality and the gutting of social support systems. Bukele’s mandate then, in part, is to control the virus narrative to preserve his well-intentioned, if flawed, savior narrative. And yet, this has proved impossible, especially as instances of institutional shortcomings leak into the public domain.

March 10, the day when Bukele broadcast his decree that turned El Salvador into an ambiguous national quarantine to stop the spread of COVID-19, feels so long ago now. The then-forward-thinking measure has resulted in, at the time of writing, 83 active cases, 5 recovered, and 5 deaths, according to government numbers. Bukele’s now-renewed “state of exception” has revealed endemic problems in the country stemming from improvisational execution, systemic miscalculation, but, above all, from inconsistent messaging. From Casa Presidencial, to the Salón Azul, and onto the streets of every marginalized canton, Salvadorans are confused, frustrated, and panicked by every passing measure. Bukele’s approach, while applauded uncritically the world over, is not without issues—Bukele himself has repeatedly noted that there would be errors—but these repeated procedural shortcomings have harmfully expressed themselves on the social terrain: they have exposed a long-tolerated yet unsustainable inequality, eroded the safety nets of countless in the informal sector, caused preventable deaths, fanned police violence, and have uncovered a deep antagonism for the poor—an aporophobia—that the government seeks to somehow alleviate yet fails at every turn.

Quarantine Quagmires

The all-hands-on-deck approach that Bukele calls the “third world war” has siphoned already-limited resources from hospitals and clinics away from the routine functions of health institutions. In Hospital Saldaña, for example, there were reports of two diabetic senior citizens who passed away due to negligence, the inability of a strained health system to treat illnesses beyond the coronavirus. Others have described, in detail, the squalor in hospital rooms shared with strangers, offering no privacy or safety from contagion for families and their children. In the wake of these deaths, as if to dispel any competing narratives, Bukele posted impressive images of Saldaña’s coming remodeling. Despite this emergency refurbishing, however, El Salvador’s healthcare system remains on life support.

The real conditions of Hospital Saldaña demonstrate that no amount of media messaging can remedy the long-term neglect and divestment that has impacted Salvadoran public health. In another case, at Hotel Beverly Hills, Dina de Méndez learned, belatedly, of the passing of her husband Óscar Méndez likely due to an untreated fever. Señora Méndez, however, received little to no information detailing the circumstances of his death. Subsequently, Méndez took to social media for an explanation from medical authorities, enlisting PDDH to accompany her pursuit for official answers. As her press conference circulated, Bukele tweeted that opposition forces were instrumentalizing the woman’s grief, claiming that their behavior obstructed the state’s response to the viral crisis. Bukele would follow that thinly-veiled attack with an order to newly-appointed Health Minister, Francisco Alabi, to follow-up with Señora Méndez only to receive an oversimplified account of respiratory failure. Again, what we see here is Bukele's attempt to course correct as a result of media shaming, following public demands made by citizens. Nurses, too, publicly denounced the lack of medical supplies at Amatepec Hospital, pushing Bukele to later pledge state support.

Vehicular checkpoints, that double as sanitation stations, have become a mainstay in quarantine El Salvador, leading to over 700 people detained for violating orders to stay indoors. PDDH, among others, soon uncovered that officer discretion made these captures exceptionally frivolous, prompting calls of constitutional violations, bias, and illegal jailing. Human rights groups have called for an end to this practice and suggested officers arrange, instead, people be returned home. These lapses in judgment, execution, and tone are, from the government’s perspective, unfortunate missteps, yet they have been harmful and disparaging to ordinary Salvadorans. Bukele, meanwhile, has accused human rights monitors of “being on the side of the virus.” In a time where security forces might prove effective to conscientize people about ever-evolving measures, there is instead an alarming tendency towards intimidation, discipline and punishment—in fact, during his April 6 national broadcast, Bukele suggested police and military bend wrists and impound the vehicles of anyone found breaking quarantine.

The Contempt for the Poor

On March 29, hundreds of people sought a promised $300 subsidy that quickly overwhelmed Citizen Services Centers (CENADE) across the country. CENADE was unable to disburse this money which would alleviate, if momentarily, collective hunger. As crowds grew beyond allowable limits outside CENADE, Bukele announced immediate office closures and turned that Sunday, as one reporter put it, into a day the government failed its most vulnerable. Disillusionment turned into anguish and then morphed into anger, fueling calls for Bukele to deliver the promised assistance. Videos of distraught people rapidly circulated online, with many—primarily women—yelling, crying, and frustratingly speaking on their lived poverty, describing injustices and the neglecting of the Salvadoran poor. In San Salvador, the breadlines that turned into a protest were met with police calls to disband, while in Soyapango, officers were caught pepper-spraying people. These images offered more evidence of the mismatch between popular needs and the incapacity of government, lacking technical and logistical know-how, to distribute relief. The entire debacle saw Bukele’s subsidy website crash and exposed the randomness of eligibility criteria. Later, after two were charged with looting and disorderly conduct, Bukele would issue a passive-evasive ‘nonpology’ via Facebook, and in an expected about-face, devise a clearer schedule for people to withdraw the subsidy.

Bukele, it appears, is unable to reliably communicate beyond fear mongering or congratulatory tweets that reference the achievements of his administration. His messaging largely targets media-engaged Salvadorans connected to his social media feeds, in a country that has well-below average Internet penetration compared to the rest of Latin America. Many are overlooked by his incoherent messaging; even those tuned in are often left confused by unclear directions. The CENADE episode showed Bukele—even in rare apologetic form—exhibiting a concerning pattern of displacing responsibility for his failures to prior administrations, to blaming the money-grubbing ‘bad culture’ of Salvadorans, chastising people for not following instructions. Bukele repeated classist stereotypes to justify the logistical failures that have plagued his emergency response. These are recurrent truisms of the traditional Salvadoran elite, of conservative ideologues, of elected leaders who seldom admit personal wrongdoing. The enduring tensions inside containment centers, the detaining of people for violating quarantine or not social distancing, to the dysfunctions of subsidy distribution, are the centerpieces of a plan that has, recurrently, misfired. It is, as Bukele says, early in the virus’ course in El Salvador. Yet, if these early mishaps are to be learned from, the government must be able to prepare for all scenarios while protecting fundamental rights, respecting civil society and human rights organizations, dropping wartime discourse, and allow for others, like public and mental health experts, to help define national COVID-19 strategy.

There is a growing chasm between Bukele’s sense of the people and the actual people he purports to safeguard. The state of human rights in El Salvador now and in the future depends on fostering a collective voice that isn’t distracted by Bukele’s charm, that questions his policy choices and mathematical projections, demystifies his populist guise, adjusts his scornful panic-inducing discourse, and forces him to accept failure without excuses. Enabling civil society to accompany his governing efforts might be the cure—moving past this venal pursuit of authority, applause, and saviorism—to empower Salvadorans themselves to partake in supporting one another and, in turn, ensure the survival of the perennially unprotected.


Jorge E. Cuéllar is Mellon Faculty Fellow (2019-2021) and Assistant Professor (2021-) of Latin American, Latino & Caribbean Studies at Dartmouth College.

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