Columnas / Politics

Latin America’s Next Generation of Authoritarians is Using COVID-19 to Consolidate Power

Wednesday, May 13, 2020
Geoff Thale

From Brazil in the 1960s, to Chile, Argentina and elsewhere in the 1970s, and Central America in the 1980s, Latin America has a long, brutal history with autocratic leaders and authoritarian governments. 

That tragic history has taught all of us painful lessons about the nature of authoritarianism. We’ve seen how no country or political system in the region is naturally immune to autocratic or dictatorial temptation. We’ve learned first hand that leaders of all political stripes can succumb to the siren call of authoritarianism. And we remember, with devastating clarity, the human cost of autocracy and dictatorship: the millions of fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters murdered and disappeared during the darkest decades of the post war twentieth century.

Today, following nearly thirty years of unstable, imperfect but still measurable democratic progress in Latin America, the hard lessons from the past are more important than ever before. That’s because the last decade has brought about significant democratic backsliding and rising authoritarianism in the region. As civil society and the public have pushed countries to strengthen democracy and human rights, elites have found new ways to entrench and fortify corruption networks that weaken the rule of law and accountability to the citizenry. Simultaneously, economic and social inequality has deeply divided societies and undermined social cooperation within countries.  

The onset of COVID-19 has intensified these trends, and tempted a new generation of autocratic leaders to use this public health pandemic as a pretext to consolidate power. Their actions not only ignore the critical role that democratic values like public trust and social cooperation play in preventing the spread of the virus; they also disregard the heartbreaking lessons of the past.

Perhaps one of the most disturbing situations is the sustained assault that President Bukele of El Salvador is leading on the political institutions that can check his power. Prior to COVID-19, his campaign to concentrate power had met stiff resistance. His attempted power grab in February of this year, in which he deployed the military and police to bully El Salvador’s legislative branch into approving an international loan he favored, was met with ultimately successful resistance from the legislative and judicial systems, as well as from civil society and the international community. 

However, since the pandemic, Bukele, asserting the need to act quickly and decisively to stem the virus, has rammed through actions that concentrate power and endanger citizens. In moves that harken back to the dark days of El Salvador’s civil war, he has authorized the use of lethal force by public security forces against suspected gang members, and he has ordered public security forces to detain and confine any one violating a quarantine order. As a result of the latter move, hundreds of people have been illegally detained in crowded ‘containment centers’ that could become vectors for disease. Though El Salvador’s Constitutional Court has repeatedly ruled that his orders to detain individuals violating quarantine are unconstitutional, Bukele has openly and repeatedly defied these rulings, setting up a constitutional crisis in the country. The civil society and international actors that succeeded in curtailing Bukele’s earlier attempts at consolidating power have been unable so far to stem his actions. For now, it seems that Bukele’s actions will continue to harm public health responses to the pandemic, and pull his country backwards toward authoritarianism.

Though Bukele has been one of the more prominent leaders in this new generation of authoritarians, he’s not the only one using the COVID-19 pandemic to justify his power grabs. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro had already earned a reputation for autocratic behavior by bringing in record numbers of military officers into the government, undermining oversight of human rights abuses, and seeking to hobble civil society by imposing legal and reporting requirements on civil society organizations that make it almost impossible for them to operate.  While downplaying the severity of the pandemic, Bolsonaro has used the opportunity to attack freedom of the press by placing restrictions on critical public health records that are vital in accurate and life-saving reporting about the virus. Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega has behaved in a similar fashion, asserting there is no community transmission in Nicaragua, and continuing government efforts to restrict access to information and muzzle independent journalists.  In Bolivia interim President Áñez has used the pandemic to bolster her campaign to stay in power. As elections have been delayed, the interim government has arrested more than 22,000 people accused of violating quarantine, and issued decrees that threaten prison sentences for the vague charges of ‘disinforming’ and ‘inciting crimes against health.’ Both the de facto Maduro government in Venezuela and the Hernandez administration in Honduras have used the pandemic to silence freedom of the press, either through harassment and detention of journalists in Venezuela or issuing a decree restricting freedom of speech in Honduras. And just this week, the government of Uruguay imposed press controls on public television and radio networks.

Finally, in the United States, President Donald Trump and his administration have responded to international aspects of the pandemic in ways that have subverted democratic norms, helped spread the virus, and propped up authoritarian partners in the region. His administration has used COVID-19 as a pretext for shutting down the U.S.-Mexico border, leading to the spread of the virus among migrant populations in detention center and new hotspots throughout the region. What’s more, the Trump administration’s consistent failures to speak out as Central American countries destroyed anti-corruption institutions, to push back against naked power grabs by Bolsonaro and the interim Áñez government, and to seriously support efforts to achieve a negotiated outcome in Venezuela have only emboldened the region’s authoritarians, who see the White House as an ally in their efforts.

The unprecedented nature of the pandemic does require aggressive and urgent action, but effective efforts must rely on public engagement and accountability. The number one priority of governments and civil society should be saving lives and reducing community transmission. At times, this requires implementing evidence-based public health recommendations, like stay-at-home orders, that infringe on fundamental rights like freedom of movement. However, unlike President Bukele’s approach in El Salvador which defies checks and balances and places people in crowded conditions where the virus is likely to spread, these infringements should be clearly delineated, time-bound, and implemented in a way that prioritizes public health. The fact that some infringements on key rights might be necessary doesn’t give leaders carte blanche to restrict other crucial freedoms. There have been no public health recommendations that call for restrictions on freedom of speech or freedom of the press, like those we’ve seen in Bolivia, Brazil, Honduras, and Venezuela. Rather, the spread of COVID-19 can only be counteracted by the spread of vital, factual, life-saving information.

At an even more fundamental level, fully responding to the pandemic requires foregoing authoritarianism in favor of embracing the protection of key values like democracy and human rights. These two values are of critical importance in the face of a virus that requires a society-wide response because they strengthen public trust and social cooperation. Without those two ingredients, any response to the pandemic is destined to fail. That key insight is lost among this latest generation of authoritarians looking to strengthen their hold on power in the region. Also lost to them are the heartbreaking lessons we’ve learned throughout Latin America’s dark history with authoritarianism and dictatorships.  

Which is why it’s more important than ever that civil society investigate challenges to human rights, forcefully question the autocratic actions of leaders, and hold governments accountable to effective public health responses that adhere to democracy and human rights. Otherwise, not only will the fight against COVID-19 be ineffective—we’ll have to relearn the devastating lessons we thought we’d already learned after decades fighting authoritarians and dictators in the Americas.

Geoff Thale, President of WOLA. Photo Fred Ramos
Geoff Thale, President of WOLA. Photo Fred Ramos

Geoff Thale is the President at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a leading research and advocacy organization advancing human rights in the Americas.

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