The massive crowds of people in the streets last Monday, trying to collect their $300 dollar subsidy meant to compensate for their lost income from the COVID-19 emergency, has laid bare the miserable reality of our country that is worsening the crisis and complicating the response to the pandemic. The severity of the public health threat does not matter; the decisions made in offices and proclaimed in nationally televised addresses do not matter; deals struck between business leaders or approved in the Legislative Assembly do not matter; what we journalists, analysts, and politicians say does not matter. Out there, where most of the population lives, people are hungry.
“We have made many mistakes,” admitted President Bukele, hardly a fan of self-criticism. His system for direct subsidy transfers was designed to deposit money directly into the bank accounts of those affected, and those without bank accounts were supposed to either consult a website or visit a CENADE (Citizen Services Center) office to request assistance or sign up. But the system, as expected, collapsed. As the president admitted after the chaos subsided, 90 percent of those affected do not have bank accounts, the online consultation service became overwhelmed by traffic, and the poorest Salvadorans do not have Internet access.
The result? Thousands of people gathered around government offices across the country, in the middle of a quarantine, without even the most basic measures to avoid spreading the virus. All the limitations on movement, all the states of emergency, the weeks of isolation and sacrifice for those who live one day at a time, undone in the course of a single morning.
It was embarrassing to see the president himself, alongside various members of his cabinet, insult those affected by the situation, blame the weakened political opposition and spread false information in order to avoid accepting responsibility for what had happened. Officials blamed mayors (on both the left and right) of conspiring against the president to cause the subsidy program to fail. The Housing Minister, Michelle Sol, called them “diabolical”.
Given El Salvador’s political tradition, we cannot rule out the possibility that some people had been deployed to act. However, one would need to be extremely ignorant of the situation in which most people live—and obviously hold them in much disdain—to think that the desperation of thousands and thousands of families who today literally have nothing to eat, is a farce, part of a conspiracy against the government’s sacred public image. Only those who feel far removed from or well above the country’s reality can play the victim in the face of the destitute majority.
This is, sadly, a constant theme with this government. The president, as if he did not already have enough challenges, continues to see an enemy in every critic and in each limit to his power. He insists on rallying his base against the Legislative Assembly. Last Sunday, he accused human rights organizations of claiming “more human beings die” due to their reports of police abuse during the state of emergency. On Wednesday, he even declared that we must “stop arguing” whether his measures against the pandemic are constitutional or not.
Hopefully this painful national experience leads to a president who practices political reflection and changes his confrontational style. El Salvador needs a statesman who understands the need for unity at such a critical time. There exists knowledge, intelligence, and a vocation to serve beyond the walls of the Presidential House and the president’s circle of trust. Leadership also means creating spaces for conversation and listening to others’ ideas on how to confront the pandemic.
It is not helping that Bukele is still—indeed, always—campaigning. The vulgarity of sending victims of the crisis thousands of packages of food in bags emblazoned with the name of his wife, Gabriela de Bukele, is proof enough. He also remains obsessed with maintaining the image of a strong man who decides everything, who controls everything, who knows everything. In a global challenge such as the one we face today, nobody should expect or want this from a president; rather, he should have the capacity to surround himself with experts in every subject and make it known that he makes decisions based on specialists’ recommendations (the absence and subsequent removal, without any explanation, of the Minister of Health is the exact opposite of what the population deserves). But in this moment, we do not know who those experts are, just as we do not know the details of their recommendations or the strategy from which they are working.
Many of the territorial obstacles to dealing with the crisis are not, in fact, due to the Assembly or the opposition, but rather to Bukele’s own decisions since assuming power. He dismantled the Family Health Community Teams (ECOS), the public health system’s primary presence around the country. He has refused to nominate departmental governors or work with mayors, none of whom are members of his recently formed political party. In an emergency like this one, under adequate supervision, relying on these three supports would have given a more complete idea of the needs, as well as more options for controlling the epidemic and distributing aid. In all likeliness, it also would have avoided Monday’s chaos.
It is true that nobody expected nor was prepared for this pandemic. And we all recognize Bukele’s determination in making decisions. The coronavirus pandemic presents us with a complicated equation that has challenged every country in the world: between the disease, which spreads incredibly quickly and overwhelms health systems, and the economy, which, as it currently works, cannot remain paralyzed for too long without resulting in famine, unemployment, shuttered businesses, and utter poverty. Nobody has yet to find the ideal formula to deal with both problems; by definition, tipping the scale toward one side affects the other. If the measures taken against the pandemic are strict, as in El Salvador, most of the population—the majority of whom work in the informal economy—cannot comply with those measures for long. If, on the other hand, the measures taken do not affect the economy, as was the case in Great Britain and the United States, the contagion can throw the entire health system into crisis. This is the dilemma.
Regardless of what Bukele thinks, nobody wants the country to sink into ruin. In this crisis, the citizens, hopeful and above all patient, have been for the most part respectful and generous with the president and his cabinet. Among these citizens are university professors, businesspeople, political opponents, engineers, the medical community, tax experts, and scientists.
Today, the Head of State should value ability and knowledge above blind loyalty. In this crisis there is no need for opportunistic flatterers (of which we have more than enough). The president said in one of his televised addresses that in this situation there would be errors that should be corrected. Now that he has recognized the first errors, it is time to start correcting them.
*Translated by Brendan Fields