Crucial Day in El Salvador’s Fight With Covid-19

El Salvador’s major political parties, displaced by a popular president, are prepared to cancel his nationwide quarantine that has limited the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

A Salvadoran woman collects firewood in the Guazapa valley, before the nationwide lockdown. (Miguel Patricio photo/Courthouse News)

(CN) — El Salvador faces a health crisis, as the Congress is about to cancel the president’s nationwide quarantine that has kept the infection from spreading.  

It is also a political crisis, as President Nayib Bukele has the support of the vast majority of the population and the security forces in his policy to close the airport, the borders and to insist that all who are on the streets or in a car or motorbike without a valid purpose be sent to quarantine centers for 30 days.  

Legislation to be considered Thursday will bar the security forces from enforcing the strict measures that have limited the deaths from the novel coronavirus to 6, with 164 confirmed infections. Police will be prevented from seizing vehicles in violation of the state of emergency and from preventing people from circulating without an essential purpose or enforcing the mask requirements.

Enforcement of Bukele’s protective health measures will become impossible. Even medical personnel will be forbidden to enter private property to verify infected people, even if neighbors report an infected person is in the house without obeying the health measures and risking the lives of others in the house.

In addition, clothing factories would be permitted to reopen, people will be gather together again, the gorgeous Pacific ocean beaches would reopen, and jobs would suddenly return.

The problem stems from the makeup of the Congress. Bukele’s party, Nuevas Ideas, has no members in the body. In the March 2018 legislative and mayoral elections, the party didn’t even exist. The seats and municipalities were divided up by the traditionally corrupt parties, right-wing ARENA and nominally left-wing FMLN, leaving Bukele without any allies when he won the presidency in 2019.

El Salvador has a unicameral Congress of 84 seats. It is dominated by the right-wing ARENA, once known as the party of the death squads, which controls 37 seats. The right-wing National Concertation Party, or PCN, traditionally aligned with the military, has nine seats and the more moderate right-wing Grand Alliance for National Unity, or GANA, has 10.

The FMLN, which arose out of the guerrilla movement during the civil war, but has been largely discredited by rampant corruption while it held power, holds 23 seats. And the Christian Democratic Party, discredited as weak and ineffective, holds three.

The Congress apparently wants Bukele to fail, even if that brings about a medical catastrophe. The Congress is opposed by nearly 90% of the population, according to recent polls. One hears it wherever one goes. Even the main dailies and news blogs acknowledge it, including the right-wing La Prensa Gráfica and Diario de Hoy, and El Faro, an influential digital outlet that is usually moderate.

If the legislation passes, Bukele will veto the measures, and there will be debate before the Constitutional Court, which will decide whether the quarantine is even legal. Whether the right and the historical left can join forces again and override the veto remains to be seen. Fifty-six votes will be needed for an override — precisely the number of seats held by the three right-wing parties.

Guatemala, El Salvador’s northern neighbor, has had few problems with an even more severe quarantine, with prison penalties for curfew violations. They too have had impressive health outcomes but with only minor political discussion, according to Guatemalan press reports. Guatemala has confirmed 196 cases of Covid-19, and 5 deaths.

Meanwhile, in the fertile Guazapa valley, the sugar harvest is wrapping up and the mango harvest has begun. One retired teacher there opened the gates of his little mango orchard and let young girls climb and pick mangoes and put them in baskets to sneak around and make a dollar or two selling them for a nickel apiece. El Salvador uses the U.S. dollar as its currency.

Few even bother to try to get to the capital without a police permit, allowing them to leave their home. As the rain season approaches, people are planting corn and beans, for daily sustenance, and it they’re fortunate, to have a little left over to sell. Most households have been given a month’s pay, $300, to survive.

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