Amid the Covid-19 emergency, some governments take the opportunity to impose decisions contrary to the urgent needs of their peoples
By Miguel Puentes / Connectas (Confidencial)
HAVANA TIMES – Thousands of half-naked gang members, wearing face masks, without access to daylight and huddled in unhealthy cells. This is the inhuman scenario that Human Rights Watch unveiled in El Salvador’s prisons following president Nayib Bukele’s order to keep rival gang prisoners locked up and commingled for 24 hours and authorizing the use of “lethal force” by the Police and the armed forces against them.
The president made the decision after receiving intelligence information regarding crimes committed, apparently, by gangs operating from the prisons. This president’s contingency measure goes against social isolation recommendations to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
On April 24, El Salvador lived the most violent day during Bukele’s mandate: 23 people were killed in different parts of the country by common criminals, who took advantage of the absence of the police and military forces, which were enforcing the mandatory quarantine measures. The crime was attributed to members of the “maras” or Salvadoran gangs that also operate from the city’s prisons, where they have nearly 12,862 gang members, according to data from Directorate of Penal Centers.
The action of illegal groups led the Salvadoran president, Nayib Bukele, to decree: “The use of lethal force is authorized for self-defense or for the defense of the life of Salvadorans.” In early 2020, the current government announced that the country had registered the lowest rates of violence in the last 30 years, with an average of 3.8 deaths a day, a fact that contrasts with what happened in recent days.
“He seems determined to become a true autocrat,” emphasized Jose Miguel Vivanco, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch for the Americas. Bukele’s decision recalls the management during the quarantine of the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, who authorized the police corps to shoot anyone who did not comply with the quarantine laws, or that of his Central American colleague, Daniel Ortega, a president with a track record of abuse of authority dating back to 2007. One of the most remembered took place in 2018, when official government authorities murdered and tortured young people who protested against the regime. Now, in the midst of a pandemic, the Nicaraguan government is hiding the real numbers of those infected with coronavirus, and has even fired medical personnel who report on the factual data of Covid-19, as reported by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Authoritarianism: current situation as a shield
The current situation of the pandemic, and the resulting states of exception and emergency in the region have become the shield of several governments, especially those with a long history of authoritarianism and abuse of power, in order to impose decisions that openly violate the rights of its inhabitants and their needs during quarantine.
Cases such as Bukele or Ortega remind us that, over time, the possible new pandemic that the region may be facing, along with inequality and hunger, is that of the abuse of power in certain countries.
But these countries are not the only benchmark that makes this risk visible. Venezuela and the Nicolas Maduro regime join the list with the Special Action Force of the Venezuelan National Police (FAES). In the midst of the pandemic, the agency has deployed all its power against whoever disseminates any information related to the Covid-19 figures.
The FAES are in charge of implementing Maduro’s orders, and of harassing citizens who oppose the regime, often violating their vital rights. They have been accused of murder, extreme abuse of force and more recently of harassing journalists who have questioned the official figures of the virus in the country.
The case of the journalist Darvinson Rojas was the most prominent in recent weeks in the Venezuelan media. The professional was arrested the night of March 20, “after questioning the cases of Covid-19 confirmed by the Government.” On that day the FAES arrived at his home on the pretext that a coronavirus case had been reported and took him prisoner. He spent 12 days behind bars.
Health professionals, photojournalists and those who are not part of Maduro’s following have been under surveillance. The same occurs in Cuba under the power of Miguel Diaz-Canel. Journalists, activists and artists are subjected to the authoritarianism of the Cuban State Security, which without any previous warning summon them or arrive at their homes in a defiant tone and take them to interrogations where all the isolation rules to stop the spread of Covid-19 are violated.
Journalist Yoe Suarez, one of the 245 political activists and journalists forbidden to travel outside Cuba by the government, put it: “They have done it twice against me and twice against my mother. Captain “Jorge”, of counterintelligence, insisted that my work as a reporter for “Diario de Cuba” is harmful and unethical; however, he has not read my texts,” he told “Radio Television Marti.”
Timothy Snyder, a United States historian, in an interview for the Spanish newspaper “El Pais,” pointed out the relevance of reducing the “pain” in the pandemic, “because the worst authoritarian leaders find ways to make that suffering work in their favor. If you do not face the facts, if you dedicate yourself to telling lies, you consume the time you need to save lives.”
Jair Bolsonaro’s case exemplifies what Snyder said. His authoritarian pulse has acquired a narrative of “Bolsonaro vs the coronavirus,” going against everything that reminds him of the impact of the virus or that his country, for now, is losing the battle of prevention against it. Currently, Brazil accumulates 85,380 confirmed cases and 5,901 deaths.
One of his most visible fights took place on April 16, when he fired his Health Minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, for being in favor of compulsory isolation, a measure with which the Brazilian president still disagrees, despite the examples he has to follow in the region. Instead, Bolsonaro continues to urge the population to go out and continue with a “normal life.”
Some parts of the Americas, since some time ago, confront the authoritarian voices of their rulers. From the times of yesteryears of Fidel Castro or Manuel Noriega, to the years of Hugo Chavez’s mandate.
However, the current scenario is different: in the midst of one of the largest health crises in history, in a context of inequality, poverty, hunger, informal employment, and various irregularities in the health system, thousands of Latin Americans are dying in a matter of days.
Instead of trying to avoid this lethal scenario, several rulers have dedicated themselves to worsening it, imposing authoritarian decisions, regardless of the outcome that these may have on their peoples. In a few months the death toll and the voices of the survivors will be the only witnesses of the abuse of power that is subjugating part of the region during the pandemic.
*This analysis was first published in Spanish by “Conectas,” a Latin American journalism platform.