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A worker wears a protective face mask works while cleaning the interior of a public bus, amid concerns over the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Guatemala City, Guatemala, March 15, 2020.

COVID-19: The latest from The World

In Central America, efforts to slow spread of coronavirus could lead to 'autocratic tendencies'

While public health and medical workers worldwide agree on the urgency of the pandemic, human rights observers say they are becoming increasingly concerned with how some political leaders in Central America may use their emergency powers.

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A worker wears a protective face mask works while cleaning the interior of a public bus, amid concerns over the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Guatemala City, Guatemala, March 15, 2020.

Credit:

Luis Echeverria/Reuters 

As lawmakers in several countries across Central America rush to implement measures to slow down the spread of the new coronavirus, they have granted their heads of state extraordinary powers, raising concerns from observers that unchecked leaders could violate the human rights of their citizens.

In El Salvador last weekend, the congress approved a temporary suspension of some constitutional rights, allowing President Nayib Bukele to ban gatherings of 75 or more people and to force private employers to send home workers aged 60 and older.

In Honduras this week, President Juan Orlando Hernández signed an executive order limiting constitutional rights, including the right to liberty and the freedom of expression. Hernández has shut down public transportation and prohibited gatherings of more than 50 people.

And in Guatemala earlier this month, President Alejandro Giammattei declared a state of calamity, which similarly allowed him to shut down public transportation and gatherings.

El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras had reported fewer than 20 infections between the three countries by Friday, according to Johns Hopkins University.

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“That doesn’t rule out the possibility that there are cases we simply don’t know about. The difference between Europe and Latin America is just a matter of days.”

Nayib Bukele, president, El Salvador

“That doesn’t rule out the possibility that there are cases we simply don’t know about,” Bukele said in a nationally televised address. “The difference between Europe and Latin America is just a matter of days.” 

While public health and medical workers worldwide agree on the urgency of the pandemic, human rights observers say they are becoming increasingly concerned with how some political leaders in Central America may use their emergency powers.

“It’s a tool that could be arbitrarily used and abused,” said Celia Medrano, of the human rights organization Cristosal.

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This is particularly troubling in the case of El Salvador, Medrano said. The country emerged from a civil war less than 30 years ago in which the military frequently violated citizens' human rights. Just two months ago, Bukele barged into congressional chambers with the police and military demanding lawmakers approve a loan he was requesting. Bukele has said he would use military force again to break up groups during the pandemic.

“It’s clear this president has been, to be charitable, tempted by autocratic tendencies. In a country with this kind of history, that’s a real concern.”

Geoff Thale,  Washington Office on Latin America

“It’s clear this president has been, to be charitable, tempted by autocratic tendencies,” said Geoff Thale, of the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy organization. “In a country with this kind of history, that’s a real concern.”

In Guatemala, Giammattei blocked travel from the US and Canada and initially placed restrictions on private businesses before scaling them back. In that instance, some observers said they believed Giammattei wasn’t doing enough to slow down the spread of the virus.

“I don’t sympathize with this administration, but I had backed the measures they had taken,” said Juan José Hurtado of the Guatemala City-based Asociación Pop No’j. “They’re worried about the economic crisis that will come with this pandemic, but the lives that are at stake are more important.”

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