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Weekly Report - 18 June 2020 (WR-20-24)

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EL SALVADOR: Lockdown eases but institutional tensions persist

El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele recently confirmed an end to the strictest lockdown in the region as part of efforts to stop the spread of coronavirus (Covid-19). The easing of lockdown measures, in place since 12 March, has not, however, been accompanied by an easing of the tensions between Bukele’s executive and the other two branches of government, the judiciary and opposition-controlled legislature, which have overshadowed his administration’s response to the pandemic.

On 14 June President Bukele confirmed an easing of the quarantine and the start of efforts to open up the economy via ‘decree 31’, despite concerns, as in neighbouring countries, that this is taking place as the number of infections continues to rise. The economic reactivation plan is divided into five phases from now until August. The first, from 16 June to 6 July, incorporates sectors considered key to the economy, such as textiles, manufacturing, and construction; the second, extends to public transport; the third provides for the reopening of churches and the resumption of non-contact sports; the fourth, tourism; and the fifth, all activities not previously included.

  • Cases continue to rise

On 16 June, the same day that the first phase of economic re-activation began, El Salvador registered its highest number of confirmed new daily cases of Covid-19 (125), bringing the national total to 4,066, including 79 fatalities.

Bukele boasted that this plan was the fruit of discussions with 22 productive sectors, observed by members of the international community. However, on 14 June civil-society groups and think tanks, such as Fundación Nacional para el Desarrollo (Funde), the local branch of international NGO Transparency International, published a statement complaining that ‘decree 31’ is illegal as it restricts constitutional rights to free movement and economic liberty which would require legislative approval. (Since last month the legislative assembly, with which Bukele has repeatedly clashed, has refused to ratify measures proposed by the executive, citing transparency concerns and opting to approve separate initiatives to open up the economy which Bukele has vetoed).

The statement also highlighted Bukele’s failure to heed yet another ruling by the constitutional chamber (SC) of the supreme court (CSJ), with which he has also had frequent run-ins, over his response to the pandemic [WR-20-20]. The SC ruling in question was issued on 8 June in response to Bukele’s 3 June decree extending the national quarantine until 15 June, on the grounds that by authorising continued restrictions of fundamental rights, the executive was overstepping its remit. The SC suspended its ruling for four days to allow the assembly to pass the necessary legislation, but this failed to materialise. While these ongoing clashes continue to spark criticisms that Bukele is acting in an authoritarian manner and failing to respect institutional process, his record approval rating [WR-20-20] provides him with little incentive to heed such complaints.

Further concerns

The US-based NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement on 9 June raising concerns about the government’s decision to suspend public information requests, including for Covid-19 individual test results and quarantine conditions. According to HRW, the national public information access agency (IAIP) has suspended all hearings and processes to comply with the state of emergency since 20 March. As well as reducing citizen oversight of the government’s response to the pandemic, HRW warns this is particularly problematic for local residents in quarantine, as they lack essential information on the number of days they are to be held in quarantine facilities and the results of their Covid-19 tests. HRW warns the suspension of administrative processes has affected thousands of people held at containment centres, which are quarantine facilities for people who return from abroad or violate the nationwide quarantine - a practice against which the SC has ruled on various occasions. As of 16 June, 13,570 people had completed quarantine, while 1,919 people were still being held in 44 centres.