Salvadoran Congress Backs Down; National Lockdown to Continue

The archbishop of El Salvador’s forceful call to keep the nation under lockdown on Thursday caused the Congress to back down on its effort to undermine the popular President Nayib Bukele’s quarantine measures.

A locked-down street in rural El Salvador, overseen by the Virgin Mary. The archbishop of El Salvador’s forceful call to keep the nationwide quarantine in effect caused the Salvadoran Congress to back off its plan to lift it Thursday. (Miguel Patricio/Courthouse News.)

(CN) — After a day of debate and drama, the Salvadoran Congress punted on whether to cancel the nationwide quarantine and voted late Thursday to prolong the state of emergency for two more weeks.

Two major events deflated the Congress’s plans: a viral video showing an FMLN mayor leading a group of men, some armed, trying to hijack a load of fertilizer and obstructing police who tried to stop them, and a strong statement from the archbishop of El Salvador.

What definitively squelched the Congress’ attack on President Nayib Bukele was the forceful position the Catholic Church finally announced on live television. Archbishop José Alas virtually demanded the National Assembly keep the country locked down. 

The church had been slow to recognize the immense suffering this pandemic could cause. But the plans to end the lockdown so soon brought out many voices insisting that it continue. 

Until Thursday the Congress seemed certain to vote to end the restrictions imposed by President Bukele, who, though wildly popular in the polls, has no members of his New Ideas party in the Congress.

Bukele’s severe lockdown has limited the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases to 164, and only six deaths. Dengue is more of a problem in El Salvador, in the sense that it has more victims.

Health experts say it is all but certain that the radical containment measures have at the moment stopped the spread of Covid-19 in this densely populated country of 6 million before it became a nightmare.

Bukele’s efforts have been condemned for going too far: Taking cars away from folks for unauthorized driving drives the right wing crazy. He also closed churches, forbade funerals, and demanded that everyone wear a mask in public, and appear in public only for essential reasons such as buying food or medicine, or doing an essential job such as policing.

Public opinion favors the quarantine. Most families have a relative in Italy, Spain or the United States, all of which have been devastated by the continuing pandemic. They have seen their remittance money dry up. They’ve heard from their daughters who work in nursing homes in the North, from their sons who have lost jobs.  

Before the churches weighed in to keep the quarantine, an opposition mayor in a small city brought a couple hundred folks to set up roadblocks and allow a fertilizer shipment to be commandeered. Tons of agricultural products were being offloaded when police arrived.

The mayor was caught in the act. The fertilizer was a shipment from the Agricultural Ministry to a large co-op. Television footage showed it all: the thugs trying to fight the police when the mayor was arrested, and blocking the road so police couldn’t take him away.

Now the mayor is jailed and faces a bond hearing on Friday. He is a prominent FMLN mayor, the once-leftist party that was discredited by massive corruption during its years in power.  The video circulates on digital media. The embarrassment to the party, along with the admonition by the Catholic archbishop, shifted public opinion. What was expected to be a landslide for the three right-wing parties that control the Congress turned into a 65-0 rout in favor of the president.

Even half of the ARENA party, the intransigent rightists, voted for Bukele’s plea to learn from Spain and the United States. Still, the agreement to keep the severe quarantine in place is but for two weeks. 

It was, by far, Bukele’s best day as president. The right wing is unlikely to abandon its campaign to delegitimize him as a dictator because of the strict quarantine. Though popular among the people, he is hated by the traditional parties, for having disrupted their control of the halls of power, and the lucrative opportunities that once offered.

By May 1, events in other parts of the world may determine what the next move of Congress will be. Guatemala has enforced a lockdown nearly as strict as El Salvador’s, with nearly equal success: 214 confirmed cases and 7 deaths. Neighboring Nicaragua so far has been virtually unscathed, with only nine reported cases of Covid-19 and just one death. But Nicaragua does not test for Covid-19, so his claims are widely discredited. The next few weeks may show whether his country’s luck will hold.

Courthouse News correspondent Miguel Patricio is based in El Salvador.

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