As COVID-19 cases continue to climb in the Western Hemisphere, Central American countries’ chronically weak governing institutions, economies and public health systems must cope with this additional strain. The pandemic has aggravated political polarisation in some capitals and caused economic contraction in countries already wracked by poverty. In some places, officials may be exploiting the crisis for corrupt purposes. At the same time, criminal gangs have resumed predatory activities they had suspended at the start of the outbreak.
The Politicisation of the Crisis
The management of the COVID-19 emergency has moved to the centre of political disputes between governments and opposition forces across the region.
For example, El Salvador’s enormously popular President Nayib Bukele has repeatedly accused the opposition-led Legislative Assembly of thwarting his efforts to protect the population by denying him needed resources and (together with the Supreme Court) blocking legislative initiatives intended to respond to the crisis. Bukele says his rivals are seeking to discredit his government ahead of the 2021 legislative elections, while his opponents ground their resistance to giving him carte blanche on his lack of transparency in the use of emergency funds and alleged disregard for the country’s separation of powers.
In Nicaragua, the pandemic has rekindled political tensions between the government and the opposition organisations that sprung in April 2018, when massive protests were met with security forces’ crackdown. President Ortega has both downplayed the pandemic’s severity and suggested that he did not wish to impose a nationwide lockdown, or even social distancing measures, because of concerns about the country’s struggling economy. (In a recent white paper, Ortega’s government attributed the nation’s economic woes to the 2018 protests, which it referred to as a “failed coup d’état”.) But as evidence of the pandemic’s impact grows—with increasing numbers of “atypical pneumonia” deaths, reports of “express burials” intended to dispose of COVID-19 victims without calling attention to their deaths, and fatalities even within the ruling Sandinista party’s ranks—opposition groups are denouncing the government for bringing the country to the brink of collapse and calling on the population to enter a “voluntary quarantine”.
In Honduras, opposition parties and activists worry that President Juan Orlando Hernández will use the crisis to postpone elections scheduled for next year, and suggest that he is politicising humanitarian aid by channelling it to ruling National Party sympathisers, though the government has denied these claims. The crisis has also jeopardised the electoral reform process aimed at preventing political violence in next year’s polls by stalling congressional debate over the laws regulating newly created electoral bodies and slowing progress on digitalisation of the voter registry.
The economic and humanitarian fallout
The economic impact of the crisis in the seven Central American countries is alarming. The World Bank estimates that this year their gross domestic products (GDPs) will contract between 2 per cent (Panama) and 6.3 per cent (Nicaragua). The drop in remittances sent by Central American emigrants, most of whom live in the U.S., currently the global epicentre of the pandemic, is the most immediate cause of this downturn. In Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, where remittances account for between 12 and 22 of GDP according to the World Bank, they plummeted by between 20 and 40 per cent in April alone. Quarantines and border lockdowns have also decimated the tourism industry and severely affected national economies, primarily the informal sector, which employs more than half the workforce in the region, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). The lack of coordination among countries in the region to cope with the pandemic has also affected regional trade. For instance, cross-border traffic between Costa Rica and Nicaragua ground to a halt during a 12-day shutdown caused by a squabble between the two governments after Costa Rican authorities detected dozens of truckers from Nicaragua infected with the virus.
The sharp economic contraction “is likely to cause millions to lapse into extreme poverty in Latin America”, according to the World Bank. Central America is among the areas most at risk, given that in countries like Guatemala and Honduras more than 60 per cent of the population live under the poverty line. The pandemic’s impact on people’s livelihoods and food security has been symbolised by the use of “white flags”, which are displayed by citizens who are in need of food donations, particularly in Guatemala and El Salvador. In Honduras, citizens staged more than 180 protests between 23 March and 27 May, mostly centred around the demand for food. In Guatemala, cases of child malnutrition have tripled in the first four months of the year, compared to the same period last year, with over 13,000 cases.
Against this backdrop, governments have made available emergency funds to strengthen ill-equipped healthcare systems, cushion the humanitarian impact of the crisis and stimulate economic recovery. But fast-track tendering procedures, combined with opaque public procurement practices and limited judicial oversight, have provided corrupt officials with opportunities for embezzlement. With the recent dissolution of international commissions to fight crime and corruption in Guatemala and Honduras, the watchdog role played by civil society organisations and the media has become even more important. The Guatemalan government, which has only spent two per cent of the emergency funds made available by its Congress, dismissed eight health officials in April, including one deputy minister whom the media outlet Plaza Pública had signalled for alleged wrongdoing in purchases of medical equipment. In Honduras, civil society organisations such as the National Anti-Corruption Council have spotlighted alleged corruption through the purchase of overpriced medical equipment by the government of Juan Orlando Hernández.
Prospect for unrest, violence, and migration
While governments have been slow to implement socioeconomic relief packages, they have been quick to apply punitive measures, with large numbers of arrests for those who violate state-imposed mobility restrictions such as quarantines and curfews in the countries where they have been imposed. At the latest count, more than 33,000 people have been arrested for violating these measures in Honduras, around 25,000 in Guatemala, and 2,500 in El Salvador. This focus on punishing non-complying citizens and, in the case of Nicaragua, the secrecy with which the crisis is being handled, are fuelling discontent and aggravating pre-existing grievances about issues such as poor governance, social injustice and economic inequality, which have spurred major protests in the region in recent years. The people most affected by government restrictions and failure to provide economic support, such as farmers and taxi and public transport drivers, have already staged protests across the region, although so have wealthier parts of the population in some cases.
Meanwhile, homicide rates – which dipped with the onset of the crisis – are going back to pre-pandemic levels, particularly in Guatemala and Honduras. Street gangs initially responded to the pandemic by suspending the collection of extortion payments – particularly in public transport and local markets – while also stepping up their participation in other illicit activities such as drug peddling. In certain cases they also supported state efforts, including through humanitarian handouts, the production of face masks and even quarantine enforcement to help contain the spread of the virus. As a result, the region experienced unusually low levels of violence throughout March and most of April. But gangs rapidly adapted to the new context, and have recently resumed violent, predatory practices which, coupled with a widespread increase in domestic gender violence, have brought homicides figures virtually back to pre-crisis levels. El Salvador is something of an exception. Its murder rate more than doubled in April (as compared to the previous month) due to a killing spree triggered by the MS-13 gang that took the lives of more than 80 people within a five-day span but then levels of violence went back down to historic lows in May.
As for migration, the pandemic may have reduced outward flows for now, but they are likely to bounce back over the longer term. Displacement and migration have in recent years been driven primarily by economic hardship and unemployment (the biggest factor) and gang violence. Hundreds of thousands of Central Americans have either been forced into internal displacement (454,000 in El Salvador alone in 2019, according to some estimates) or sought to flee their countries for the U.S., where they have run up against the Trump administration’s increasingly harsh border enforcement and deportation policies, which Washington has strong-armed Mexico into mimicking. Mexico and the U.S. have continued to deport Central American citizens during the pandemic, despite the impact that this has had on some receiving communities and on health systems in the countries of return, since many deportees have tested positive for the virus. Government-imposed border shutdowns in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are further hindering people’s options for displacing internally or abroad, and difficult economic conditions in Mexico and the U.S. are even prompting many Central Americans to return voluntarily to their countries. This has contributed to limit arrivals at the U.S. southern border by more than 70 per cent since they reached their peak in May 2019. Yet the underlying conditions that force people to entertain the journey north in most cases remain unchanged or have worsened during the pandemic, suggesting these flows could well resume as soon as restrictions on mobility are eased.