Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Is El Salvador’s Bukele Operating Above the Law?

El Salvador's President, Nayib Bukele. File Photo: Salvadoran Government.

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele was among the first leaders in Latin America to react to the threat of the Covid-19 pandemic, closing the country’s borders and mandating strict stay-at-home orders, with violators facing arrest and potentially being transferred to so-called quarantine centers run by the police and the military. The Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court issued several rulings against such detentions, but Bukele defied them all, saying he “could not follow” orders that he said would allow thousands of Salvadorans to die. How well is Bukele handling the Covid-19 pandemic? Is he right or wrong to hold his ground on lockdown measures, and where does public opinion stand? How worrying is his apparent disregard for the court’s rulings, and what are the risks for El Salvador’s democracy if the constitutional standoff continues?

Mari Carmen Aponte, former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador: “In modern constitutional democracies, even in today’s pandemic world, presidential powers are not unlimited. Consequently, when Salvadoran President Bukele recently declared that he could not abide by the decisions of the Salvadoran Supreme Court, it was extraordinary. Regardless of the circumstances, such action should give Salvadorans cause for concern. In the last 12 weeks, President Bukele has engaged in actions that challenge and undermine the co-equal legislative and judiciary branches of government. On April 23, in a single tweet, President Bukele closed down the legislature as it met to override presidential vetoes by declaring, without evidence, the presence of Covid-19 on the legislative floor. This is a worrisome trend of concentration of executive power and a violation of the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Democratic Charter. Covid-19 is placing a significant burden on all governments. In the absence of a vaccine or effective treatment, governments have limited and imperfect policy tools at their disposal to keep citizens healthy. One of the most effective measures thus far has been government authorities’ imposition of lockdowns. This approach, however, must balance the protection of health with civil liberties. Already, there have been expressions of concern in the European Union that El Salvador has used the pandemic to justify civil rights abuses. Similarly, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy and U.S. Representative Eliot Engel have called on President Bukele to respect Supreme Court rulings. With less than a year in office, this popular president has placed himself above the law. In the process, he managed to trample two hard-earned Salvadoran achievements: democracy and the delicate peace accords that concluded the bloody Salvadoran civil war less than three decades ago. From El Salvador, the international community is receiving a ‘mayday’ signal.”

Leonor Arteaga, senior program officer at the Due Process of Law Foundation: “El Salvador took an early stand in fighting Covid-19, instituting border closures, quarantining Salvadorans arriving from abroad, closing schools and prohibiting mass gatherings—all before registering a single coronavirus case. On March 21, a mandatory national quarantine took effect to further combat the pandemic and avoid dire consequences for El Salvador’s underfunded health care system. In enforcing these orders, security forces—with President Bukele’s authorization—have arbitrarily detained hundreds of people in containment centers with inadequate sanitary conditions. The Supreme Court has issued three rulings prohibiting these detentions, which Bukele has publicly dismissed. This threatens the constitutional separation of powers—an essential pillar of democratic government. This also sends a concerning message that anyone can defy high court decisions, especially crucial ones involving human rights violations. Even though the public seems to widely accept Bukele’s measures, there has also been international condemnation for the disproportionate restriction of certain rights for health purposes. Bukele doesn’t appear to grasp that government should be firm and serious, but not arbitrary and conceited. Bukele and his supporters insist that harsh measures to combat Covid-19 will put his administration on the right side of history. We worry, however, that we are witnessing a testing ground for how far executive power can be stretched—now, and possibly in the near future. Allowing the president’s ongoing extraordinary powers is more dangerous than it is potentially beneficial. It is also unnecessary: emergency public health legislation would be enough to address this crisis. We hope that the legislature and Supreme Court will recognize this, and consequently act with clarity and courage.”

Beatrice Rangel, member of the Advisor board and director of AMLA Consulting in Miami Beach: “President Bukele was indeed a first responder. And the experiences of New Zealand, Switzerland, South Korea, Singapore, Germany and Taiwan seem to support the content of his public policies. Indeed, countries that have successfully tamed Covid-19 are those that launched mandatory testing, enforced quarantines with high fines and sequestered all those who tested positive, sending them to specially installed locations, leaving hospitals only for those in respiratory distress. By these means, these countries were able to detain contagion while maintaining economic activity, albeit at a reduced pace. In Latin America, it is almost impossible to seriously implement social distancing and quarantines without resorting to law enforcement. These are nations where elites are above the law and thus promote noncompliance with the law and regulations among the population. A culture of impunity settles in, and the only way to puncture such a malefic bubble is to harshly enforce the law. Should this emergency pass and El Salvador avoid catastrophe, many will see the merits of President Bukele’s staunch defense of his policies.”

Carlos Dada, founder of local newspaper El Faro in El Salvador: “The last week of April, after a wave of homicides attributed to gangs, Bukele authorized the police and army via Twitter to use ‘lethal force’ against gangs and assure that the government will defend those ‘unfairly’ accused of using force. He published photos of hundreds of gang members in prison centers, in handcuffs and sitting one on top of the other without any type of protection or social distancing to avoid Covid-19 contagion. These tweets illustrate Bukele’s government. Since taking office in June, Bukele has given orders via Twitter; he portrays himself always guarded by soldiers and police; and he disregards state institutions and laws. He has made use of photographs and propaganda as his key strategy. In less than a year, he has managed to get international human rights organizations to publicly express concern or condemnation of the advancement of an authoritarian regime in El Salvador. He tried to orchestrate a military coup against the Legislative Assembly in February and has declared journalists, human rights advocates, opponents and critics as enemies of the state. In March, when it was evident that coronavirus would reach El Salvador, we were already living a deep political crisis. In the face of the pandemic, Bukele took audacious and drastic measures: he banned nonresidents’ entry and ordered a quarantine for anyone coming back to the country, and he closed borders and airports before any other country on the continent. Lawmakers approved an emergency decree that restricted freedom of movement and association, necessary to curb social contact. But Bukele soon demonstrated that what he wanted was control and a show of force, not the health measures. He took advantage of the crisis to pursue opponents, disregard the Supreme Court, consolidate his alliance with the army and continue dismantling democratic institutions. His response to the pandemic has been characterized by arbitrary acts including detentions and military sieges of whole cities without one single health measure; by a disastrous management of quarantine centers and hospitals and an advancement in his authoritarian and anti-democratic agenda. But his rhetoric of hate, authoritarianism and populism is very popular among Salvadorans.”

Editor’s note: The Advisor requested a commentary for this issue from the Salvadoran Embassy in Washington but did not receive one.

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