Shortly before the announcement of Guatemala’s daily Covid-19 totals, on April 7, military helicopters, under order of president Alejandro Giammattei, towed an enormous national flag through the skies of the capital. Around the world, there are those who believe that the waving of a flag is a cure to all ills. As the global pandemic runs its course, it so happens, countries around the world are weary of multilateralism and high on nationalism. And as contagion silently takes root in Central America, some will—almost reflexively—take comfort in flags and military fanfare; the pandemic has caught the region in an increasingly authoritarian creep.
So far, Central America has registered fewer than 200 coronavirus-related deaths—two-thirds of these in Panama. The region is crossing its fingers that the border closures and early preventative measures will blunt the impact of the virus, even as it cuts through Spain, Italy, the United States, and nearby Ecuador, leaving a long trail of bodies in its wake. The region’s health systems—especially those of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua—are ill-equipped to face a wave of contagion of similar magnitude. If the pandemic hits full-force, it will have devastating consequences—particularly for the millions of people subsisting on daily earnings who cannot self-quarantine, and those lacking running water to wash their hands.
In the lull before a storm, we yearn for a soothing voice of reassurances. Some chide journalists for failing to be that voice. Tragically, the mounting evidence is anything but reassuring.
There are currently just 125 intensive care units in all of El Salvador, a country with close to seven million inhabitants. The government, which in November approved budget cuts to healthcare and a funding increase of 52 percent to Defense, has broken into a sprint to refurbish hospitals and construct a new facility that the popular president Bukele promises will add 2,000 ICU beds. It’s hard to say when it will be ready or which workers will staff it. Of the estimated 500 critical caregivers needed, there are only 50 in the country, according to the Colegio Médico, El Salvador’s largest organization of healthcare workers. Even more complicated than enlisting doctors, however, is the task of wrangling information from the government. Most press conferences, led by the president or Francisco Alabi, the newly-appointed minister of health who replaced former minister Ana Orellana—mid-pandemic, and without warning or explanation—leave no room for questions from the press.
From the pulpit, the government is preaching unity—another flag of sorts—even as it deals in secrecy. Leaning on the pandemic as a pretext, all offices under the executive branch have stopped responding to public information requests. For weeks, Bukele’s administration demurred in providing updated testing figures or its criteria for administering those tests. At times, the secrecy has bordered on absurdity. Of the more than 4,000 people arriving from abroad that the government has confined to hotels for month-long quarantines, dozens have had to petition the Court of Constitutionality to uphold their right to access their own testing results. For a while, new arrivals were lodged in the same quarters as those who had already spent weeks in government quarantine, and those under suspicion of contagion shared hospital rooms with those having already tested positive. Only after concerted pressure from the press and social media did the government establish basic isolation protocols.
In light of the state of exception passed by the legislature on March 14, the Court of Constitutionality, a division of the Supreme Court, has issued two resolutions, limiting the armed forces and police to imposing fines for breaches of quarantine, and ruling out detention and imprisonment. Claims of arbitrary detention and excessive use of force are reaching the hundreds. The president—yes, the same president who occupied the Legislative Assembly with military force on February 9—is openly stating that any debate of the constitutionality of his pandemic response should be off-limits. On April 7, he doubled down on his defense of the use of force: “I have instructed the minister of Defense and the minister of [Justice and Public Safety] to have a heavier hand with people in the street, people breaking quarantine,” he said. “I won’t be concerned to see on social media: ‘oh, they seized my car; oh, they slapped my wrist.’” Three days later, a police officer shot a 19 year-old man suspected of violating the lockdown two times in the leg. The victim alleges he was shot for refusing to pay a bribe to the officers; authorities qualified the incident in a press release as an “accident.”
After just three months in power, the Giammattei administration in Guatemala is likewise showing troubling signs of arbitrariness and secrecy. In the past three weeks, revelations from Plaza Pública have forced the government to suspend three bids for million-dollar relief contracts. In one instance, the proposed treatment lacked scientific backing; in another, the contract had been awarded to the company of a former public sector employee. The company admitted that it had no available protective masks, but promised to urgently import them from China after the ink dried on the contract.
Voices like Amnesty International are warning of the troubling political scenarios that could survive the pandemic, especially if the region manages to emerge from the public health crisis relatively unscathed. Juan Orlando Hernández remains in power in Honduras, despite his fraudulent reelection in 2017 and drug trafficking indictments from U.S. prosecutors permeating his inner circle. As Nicaragua rounds its two-year anniversary of the bloody repression of political dissenters, which killed hundreds and exiled thousands, the government of Daniel Ortega is quietly operating in the shadows. For over a month, Ortega has led the government's denial of the crisis without appearing in public, orchestrating from behind the scenes a delirious protest against the virus through Managua streets.
None of the four heads of state in northern Central America are currently facing unified, viable opposition parties. The tendency toward centralized pandemic responses could end up further normalizing the image of the political strongman and the wielding of patriotism as a cudgel against dissent and criticism. To ask the press to put off damage assessments as the panorama unfolds is to suggest that entire countries stick their heads in the sand for months to wait out the crisis.
One often tires of writing—just as readers tire of consuming—news of neglect, corruption and death. The weight of informing Central American societies, time and time again, that the worst is perhaps yet to come can be overwhelming. Such was the news that the late Ángel Mejía, one of the last survivors of the El Mozote massacre, passed away on March 23 of cancer, just as military officials stood trial for the crimes some 40 years later. Such was the revelation that his neighbors and survivors were unable to attend his funeral due to the quarantine. Such was the report that a visiting doctor, Óscar Méndez, 56, died in quarantine for reasons purportedly other than coronavirus, because the soldiers guarding the hotel-turned-detention-center prevented his family from sending him medicine and refused to call a doctor, despite his pleas. Such is the task of asking the grieving to ration their energy and brace for more grief.
To tell the stories of Central America is, to a large degree, to put words to a present filled with wounds, fear, and bad omens. Hope always manages to take root in this patch of land, even as reality works most of the time to tear it out. It is a tiresome cycle. But the flame of possibility is never fully extinguished; But the flame of possibility is never fully extinguished; even in the thrust of a global crisis, the hope remains that the reader will take the bad news as provocation to do something worthwhile.
El País and El Faro joined together to expand the coverage of, and conversation about, Central America. Every other Saturday, a journalist from El Faro lends their perspective to El País to contextualize events in a region passing through one of its most turbulent times. The original text in Spanish can be found here.
*Translated by Roman Gressier