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Authoritarianism, Populism & Democracy in Times of Pandemic

Between Ortega’s antiquated authoritarianism and Bukele’s millennial version, we have variations on the theme from Guatemala and Honduras

Between Daniel Ortega’s antiquated authoritarianism and Bukele’s millennial version

Elvira Cuadra

15 de mayo 2020


Central America is a small and at times nearly invisible region lodged between the two great continental masses of America. It occasionally appears in the international news for some relevant occurrence, such as the 2015 destitution and prosecution of Guatemalan president Otto Perez, for leading a web of high-level corruption.

Or for the extensive protests that began in Nicaragua in 2018 and the repressive response of the government. Or, more recently, for the military takeover of the legislature executed by Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele.

As in other parts of the world, in Central America the unforeseen pandemic brought on by the novel Coronavirus has put back on the table the permanence of the old authoritarian models, once considered in decline, the new authoritarian populism and the advantages of democracy. The way in which each government has opted to confront the situation reveals the virtues and failings of the region’s regimes and political processes.

Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua

In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, with over thirteen years in the presidency and whose government has become a dictatorship accused of crimes against humanity, has decided to deal with the pandemic through a logic of denial that contradicts all the measures recommended by the World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization: promoting public activities such as fairs, carnivals, sporting activities and tourism.

His government has refused to suspend schools, realize informational and preventive campaigns, and has prohibited health personnel from using the protective equipment needed to shield them from contagion.

From the onset, the Ortega regime’s official discourse has denied the presence of the pandemic and its effects in the country. They maintain a coordinated strategy of iron control over the information, refusing to release transparent and current data to international organizations or the public. In addition, they’ve used threats to keep medical personnel and the families of the infected from divulging any data to the press.

Amid the emergency, Ortega has been absent for prolonged periods and has only appeared publicly twice [from his residenence], without making any direct reference to the situation on those occasions, while his wife and Nicaragua’s vice president Rosario Murillo directs a daily message over the telephone to the population, sprinkled with religious expressions alternating with epithets directed at those she considers her political enemies. The Ortega regime is the embodiment of the decayed past model of authoritarian government in Central America and its severest expression.

Nayib Bukele in El Salvador

Authoritarian populism is a perverse inheritance of the 20th century that persists in the region, dressed in new clothes from time to time. The most recent version has appeared in El Salvador with President Nayib Bukele who assumed the post in 2019, splintering the hegemony of the ARENA [rightist] and the FMLN [leftist] parties.

Bukele quickly projected himself as a young leader, gaining popularity for his use of social media. Shortly afterwards, however, the first symptoms of an authoritarian populist style began to emerge, until at the beginning of 2020 he burst into the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly with a military contingent, a crisis that didn’t go any further.

Bukele was one of the first Central American presidents to adopt public health measures to prevent and contain the pandemic, measures that were applauded by the majority of Salvadorans, especially the economic support offered to vulnerable sectors of the population.

His top-down and centralized style of dealing with public affairs has accentuated with the advance of the pandemic.  To mention three recent decisions: the use of the military and police forces to detain and confine those who violate the quarantine imposed on the country; the authorization of lethal military and police force against the gangs; and the punishment measures imposed on gang members confined in the penal centers.


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These measures have generated a wave of contradictory opinions among Salvadorans. Some, tired of the violence and insecurity, applaud the president; others denounce these actions as human rights violations. Recently called a candidate for the title of “millennial dictator”, Bukele represents authoritarian populism clad in modern dress.

Guatemala and Honduras

Wedged between Ortega’s throwback version of authoritarianism and Bukele’s millennial version, are the Guatemalan and Honduran approaches. Both countries adopted public health measures for the prevention of Covid-19 fairly early, and both have been dogged for years by strong political crises.

During the pandemic, denunciations of corruption have increased, along with complaints about the use of police forces to suffocate the demands for support from vulnerable sectors of the population. In Guatemala, the government adopted measures in an early and efficient way, but the lack of institutional capacity for their implementation has been criticized. At the same time, the presidency has very little legitimacy.

In Honduras, the government of Juan Orlando Hernandez has been dragging a serious crisis of legitimacy for several years. When the first case was confirmed in the country, the government adopted public health measures for contention of the virus. At the same time, though, it opened the doors for certain public officials to take advantage of the situation though acts of corruption. In addition, Hernandez hasn’t hesitated to utilize the police to contain the population’s demands in different localities of the country for access to water and basic services.

Costa Rican democracy

In the southern part of the isthmus, Costa Rica and Panama reveal a different panorama. Costa Rica, considered the oldest and most consistent democracy in the region, was one of the first countries in the region to confirm a case of the Covid-19 virus at the beginning of March. The government immediately imposed a series of preventive measures that were gradually increased as the curve of infections rose. In addition, it implemented a packet of economic measures to mitigate the pandemic’s effects among the sectors of the population with the scarcest resources.

Before the first case of Coronavirus was announced, President Carlos Alvarado had been facing an institutional crisis due to an investigation conducted by the public prosecutor’s office into an office managed by some close associates, accused of supposedly spying on political leaders. The pandemic postponed the crisis, and Alvarado dedicated himself to confronting the emergency.

Doubtless, the government’s management of the situation and the recognition it has earned before the world has given him a breather. It’s worth mentioning two factors that have played a crucial role: the strength of the Costa Rican Health System and the behavior of the citizenry who have complied with all the recommended preventive measures in a conscientious and responsible way. It really has represented the successful democratic management of a public health crisis.

The pandemic in Panama

Panama is the Central American country with the largest number of Coronavirus cases. The government of Laurentino “Nito” Cortizo imposed protective and contention measures against infection as soon as the first cases appeared. However, the country hasn’t managed to slow the curve of contagion.

Cortizo was a newcomer to the presidency, amid a complicated political situation due to the denunciations and trials for corruption involving high-level officials, including former presidents Torrijos (2004-2009), Martinelli (2009 – 2014), and Varela (2014-2019). Panama is now considering measures to deescalate the quarantine, including economic decisions that were put off. These decisions are now reviving the political crisis between the Presidency and the Legislature, with one of the central issues involving the Social Security system.

The global pandemic of Covid-19 has brought to light the failings of democracy in Central America, with different shadings and specifics in each country. It has revealed the sharp teeth of the old authoritarianism that has devastated the region. These policies, in all their rawness, have had a new resurgence in either a brutal or a disguised manner. But the crisis also highlights lessons to be learned about the democratic processes, with all their virtues and defects. These two conflicting realities remain the great challenge for this bridge between the Americas.



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Elvira Cuadra

Elvira Cuadra