Salvadoran Army Helps the Poor While Coronavirus Spreads

Lake Suchitlan, seen from Suchitoto, Cuscatlán Province, looking across to Chalatenango Province in El Salvador. Both provinces saw heavy fighting and massacres during the Salvadoran civil war. (Courthouse News photo/Miguel Patricio)

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (CN) — With Covid-19 cases increasing in El Salvador after the supreme court and Legislative Assembly overturned President Nayib Bukele’s strict quarantine orders, the Salvadoran army is delivering emergency care packages to remote villages, where landless people rent land to gamble on the corn harvest.

There is no crop insurance in El Salvador so a crop failure can be disastrous. By spring planting time these families have no money to buy seeds or fertilizer so the national government hands out free seeds and fertilizer to the most destitute of a destitute population.

The care package consists of 4 pounds of pasta, 4 pounds of pricey black beans, 8 pounds of powdered milk, 10 pounds of corn flour, four cans of tuna from Mexico, 4 pounds of rice, cooking oil, canned chicken breast, sugar and coffee.

In a relatively prosperous neighborhood in a small city the army trucks were just as welcome as they were in the zones of squalor. Delmy was thrilled: her house was given three portions of food because there are three generations living under one roof.

“It was a welcome change of diet for most of us,” the 42-year-old mother of two adolescents said. “The towns have fared better than the villages, but the villages live in collectivism, so food is shared and folks take care of everybody.”

Izalco Volcano in El Salvador.

The army applied a sticker to the houses affirming the delivery of food: three bags, three stickers. People in this small rural city are exhausted by the three-month lockdown.

Schools, universities and churches remain shut. President Bukele’s early, tough constraints were working, but as the founder of a new political party, Nuevas Ideas, with no members in the Assembly, the national legislature pried the country open — to the virus.

The constitutional wing of the supreme court declared Bukele acted in violation of the human rights of Salvadoran people and the rule of law and invalidated his measures against Covid-19.

Although cars and trucks can be confiscated if their driver has no license, and motorcycles can be seized for lack of a helmet, the court found that use of quarantine to seize a vehicle to protect public health violated the Salvadoran Constitution.

The court also ruled that home confinement was unlawful, as were shopping restrictions and forced use of face-coverings. Now the right-wing constitutional court seems ready to declare business closures a human rights violation.

Nobody talks yet about opening the schools, so the nation’s 35,000 teachers are expected to educate remotely. Silvia Martinez, a veteran high school teacher in San Salvador who has taught high school in the country’s prisons, says that social inequality “means that I have students who have top-shelf laptops with large download capacity and I have students who don’t have a phone or a tablet or wi-fi. As a result, very little educating is taking place.” 

Eugenia, who has taught rural elementary students for 30 years, blames long-term failures on educating the agricultural underclass.

“My students rarely have another person in the household who is literate. I field at least 20 calls a day from parents who ask me what the homework I assign refers to. These are people with no money, with no books, with no pencils.

“To deal with the lack of internet access among half the population, the ministry of education has put classes on public television, starting for kindergartners at 7 in the morning. Many people don’t have televisions or cable access or even money for an antenna.” 

In the early stages of the pandemic, Bukele made El Salvador one of the Americas’ few success stories, along with Costa Rica, Paraguay and Uruguay. Then everything he advocated was stricken down.

On May 12, the country had reported 1,037 confirmed cases and 20 deaths. The courts and Assembly declared an end to Bukele’s restrictions on May 15. As of Thursday, El Salvador had confirmed 5,336 cases and 126 deaths. 

The president, who remains extremely popular, advocates a very gradual return to normal. He wants buses to stay off the roads for two more weeks. He urges everyone to wear masks outside their homes. But he no longer has executive authority. His role has been subsumed by the courts and the national legislature.

National elections are scheduled for February 2021, in which Bukele is expected to consolidate political power. His unprecedented popularity has not softened after his first year in office. That may be why the national press is reporting that his political opposition is calling for postponement of the elections for a year, due to the pandemic.

Courthouse News correspondent Miguel Patricio is based in El Salvador.

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