When COVID-19-related lockdowns just started sweeping across countries around the globe, it was apparent that this pandemic will highlight all intra- and intergovernmental issues. Some speculated that countries with authoritarian regimes will go in and out of quarantines in no time because it is just easier to impose any mask or social distancing mandates when you are a ruthless dictator.
El Salvador’s newly elected president, Nayib Bukele, does not think he is a dictator. In his words, if he was one, then he “would have taken control of everything.” But The New York Times warns that he is slipping into dictatorship and the Economist says that Mr. Bukele is on the way to become “the first millennial dictator”.
El Salvador is in a tough spot. And it has been for a while. How did we get here?
For a country that is centuries old, El Salvador is a very young democracy. Since the start of the Economist’s Democracy Index, the democracy index of El Salvador has been very slowly growing, with an average rank of 6.4. In 2016, this number climbed to 6.63 and dropped to 5.96 in 2018, the lowest it has been (The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2007 – 2020). The Freedom House called El Salvador “free” in 2017 and 2018 but “partly free” in 2020.
But before that El Salvador was torn apart by an incredibly violent and bloody civil war that lasted twelve years. By the late 1800s, El Salvador established itself as a “coffee republic” and throughout 1910s, coffee accounted for half of the nation’s revenue. At the beginning of the Great Depression, coffee exports have dropped by almost sixty percent, and in order to keep profits, coffee barons slashed their workers’ salaries by more than half. This, toppled with poor working conditions, inadequate food supply and declining economy, made rural poor peasants seek radical changes. Then, in the middle of last century, the economy of El Salvador started growing. But in 1972 the military stole the election and in 1979 the civil war began. The war was exceptionally bloody, lasted 12 years, and took more than 75,000 lives. In 1992, a peace deal was signed. The agreement led to a complete cease-fire, reduced military, and transformed a guerilla group into a political party.
Now, El Salvador holds the status of the most violent place on earth that is not an active war zone. The Country’s Ministry of Defence estimates that about 500,000 people or about eight percent of the population are members of or are involved with gangs. Gang violence is also characterized as brutal, because after firearms, machetes are the most common weapon of choice. The current level of violence takes its roots in the civil war.
When the war ended in 1992, local communities who were brutalized by government security forces lost all trust into law enforcement, so gangs filled this void by establishing control over poor urban areas. For twenty years, the El Salvadoran government tried to eradicate the problem.
During Nayib Bukele run for president, he promised to establish law and order and to bring gang violence down. Instead, they are patrolling neighborhoods and enforcing COVID-19-related curfews. In late March of this year, when El Salvador had three cases, Mr. Bukele imposed a national lockdown and subsequently rolled out what have been named the strict anti COVID-19 measures. In April, the Human Rights Watch rang alarm bells because at that point hundreds of people were arrested and detained arbitrarily. Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling, Bukele encouraged excessive use of force.
In a report from El Salvador, Médecins Sans Frontières, noted that the virus nearly collapsed the country’s health system and many patients are already dead when non-profit’s medics arrive. They attribute this delay of seeking medical attention to stigma and fear of contagion – people are scared to leave their homes.
Unfortunately for the people of El Salvador, the virus became politicized, and so far the country reported over 37,000 cases.