In the midst of the rapidly spreading COVID-19 pandemic in Latin America, saving lives and reducing community transmission of the disease should be the number one priority of governments, international organizations, the business community, and civil society groups. Addressing the virus will require decisive public health interventions grounded in the best available public health recommendations.
At the same time, the pandemic is having serious consequences for democracy, equality, and human rights in Latin America. Actions that are taken by governments today will have long-term impact.
Over the years, WOLA has worked with civil society partners in the aftermath of disasters, both natural and man-made. Though this pandemic is unprecedented, the lessons we’ve drawn from those experiences are clear: we cannot wait until the pandemic passes to investigate challenges to human rights, raise questions, and hold governments accountable.
Some public health interventions will include infringements on key rights, like restrictions on freedom of movement and assembly. Those should be time-limited and legally grounded restrictions. Other interventions will require significant investment in health care, social safety nets, and community support and action. These should be transparent, equitable, and accountable.
While acting promptly and decisively, governments across the Americas need to protect key values like democracy and human rights. Upholding these values is critical to establishing the public trust and the social cooperation that will be required to combat this public health emergency and to move forward in the future. Otherwise, the fight against COVID-19 will not only lead to ineffective public health responses, but could further fuel anti-democratic and authoritarian tendencies in the region.
Some challenges that WOLA will be monitoring in the Americas include:
Many governments have appropriately invoked emergency powers to respond to the crisis—but their implementation has not been without concern.
In El Salvador, over 1,200 people have been detained in “containment centers” for violating curfew orders, provoking debate among legal experts about the legality of such measures (the country’s Supreme Court ruled on April 8 that curfew violations do not justify arbitrary detentions by the police and military). In Honduras, the president issued a decree temporarily restricting freedom of speech rights as guaranteed in the nation’s constitution, asserting this was necessary to combat the spread of misinformation related to the pandemic; the move received strong criticism from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the United Nations. In Bolivia, the IACHR’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression has called for the interim Áñez government to withdraw a decree that threatens prison sentences for overly broad and vague charges of “disinforming” and “inciting crimes against health.” In Venezuela, the de facto Maduro government has sought to silence criticism of its response to the pandemic, harassing and detaining journalists who question official statistics.
Emergency powers need to be clearly limited; the role of legislatures and judiciaries in overseeing and reviewing the exercise of executive power should not be indefinitely suspended. These powers and roles are easy to ratchet up and hard to ratchet back down. It’s been a difficult struggle for governments and societies in the hemisphere to overcome the legacy of Cold War-era military dictatorships; backsliding needs to be avoided.
In some countries, militaries will necessarily play an important role in responding to public health emergencies given their resources, surge capacity, off-the-shelf plans, logistical capabilities, and medical facilities.
In El Salvador, the military has supported the police in enforcing nationwide curfew orders and cordoning off certain areas; in Honduras, the military police was deployed to confront protesters demanding food, after stay-at-home orders left low-income families without access to basic goods. Elsewhere, Bolivia’s military is playing a leading role in patrolling streets, building infrastructure, and enforcing border shutdowns. Mexico’s President López Obrador issued an executive order to deploy as many soldiers and National Guardsmen as necessary to support the government’s response (which included placing the military in charge of some hospitals and healthcare services, with López Obrador promising “the Army will cure the people”). In Argentina, the armed forces were tapped to play a major role in supporting the COVID-19 response effort, with the Ministry of Defense stating, “No state agency has the logistical capacity that the armed forces, and above all the Argentine Army, has.”
In a region still struggling to overcome a history of military dictatorships, any deployment in the current crisis must have a clear end date so that the military’s presence on the street does not become “normalized.” Whatever supporting role the armed forces may play in responding to the pandemic, the military should remain under firm civilian control.
This is incredibly important given recent worrying signs prior to the pandemic that military forces in some countries were being drawn into public security and border control responsibilities. Elsewhere, the military was increasingly playing important decision-making roles on public security, migration, crowd control, and other government policies.
This is a dangerous trend. It undercuts the fundamental democratic principle that militaries should be subordinate to civilian authority. Public health responses that need military involvement must not result in a retreat of democratic progress made over the last few decades in the region.
Many governments will need to quickly invest significant amounts of funds in struggling healthcare systems, social safety nets, and other critical services. These investments should not be an excuse for sweetheart deals, misuse of funds, or setbacks in the fight against corruption. Honduras in particular has come under criticism for rushing through a bill aimed at expanding hospital capacity, without consulting local public health experts and without ensuring safeguards on how some USD$420 million will be spent. In Guatemala, the Attorney General’s Office received reports that municipal authorities are improperly distributing food assistance packages.
In recent years, there have been multiple examples of corruption and diversion of funds in health care and social safety net programs that have hurt the delivery of vital services. One prominent example is Honduras, where the public health sector has long been the target of diverted funds that have led to thousands of deaths.
Across the region, there is a distinct need for strong anti-corruption and accountability mechanisms. Beyond weakening responses to the pandemic, corruption corrodes democratic governance, and the population’s trust in authorities.
The fight against corruption is a key part of restoring—or establishing—functioning democracies. In Latin America, we’ve seen a major attack on entrenched corruption in the last few years, from Peru to Mexico, and in reaction we’ve seen corrupt actors fighting to preserve their privileges and impunity in countries like Guatemala and Honduras.
Both to provide effective guidance to the public and to assure accountability, governments need to provide clear, consistent, and accurate information based on the best available science from health professionals about the virus and its spread.
Authorities also need to be transparent about how public funds are being spent to address the crisis. Additionally, once states impose restrictions on the freedom of movement and assembly, leaders should be clear about what criteria they are using to justify implementing—and eventually lifting—these restrictions. As was highlighted in the IACHR’s resolution on the pandemic and human rights in the Americas, governments must also refrain from restricting the work and movement of journalists and human rights defenders to provide information and document abuses that may occur in the governments’ response to COVID-19.
The spread of disinformation related to the pandemic is a particularly serious concern. Contrary to other presidents in the region, the presidents of Brazil and Nicaragua have sought to downplay the crisis and even encourage social interaction, while Mexico’s president was slow to act to promote social distancing. The situation in Brazil is particularly worrisome, with President Jair Bolsonaro disregarding all expert medical advice and defying measures taken by governors across the country, as cases of COVID-19 continue to rise at an alarming rate.
These actions, which contradict public health experts’ advice, present the population with damaging mixed messages about how they should respond as concerned citizens, which will worsen and prolong the severity of the pandemic.
Nationwide shelter in place or stay at home instructions are an aggressive but effective measure to slow the spread of the virus. However, this response will have serious consequences for the economies of countries and the region overall.
Restrictive measures will disproportionately affect low-income workers and those in the informal sectors of the economy, which accounts for over 50 percent of employment in Latin America. Many of these measures will especially impact women, who make up a large share of the informal sector in Latin America.
Governments will need to implement income supplements, food security, and strong social safety net measures to protect this population. These measures must take into account gender disparities, and the particular risks that women face; there are already reports from across the region of increases in domestic and gender based violence.
Without increased support, poverty and inequality will increase, along with political discontent and instability. Communities in Colombia, Honduras, and Bolivia have all protested in recent weeks—“the government locks us up, hunger is going to kill us,” read one protest sign in Bolivia, reported El País. In Colombia, where some 40 percent of the workforce consists of informal workers, communities across the country have taken to hanging red flags outside their homes to indicate that they are hungry.
Governments will need to prioritize protections for historically underserved populations, who traditionally have poor access to health services and live in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions. Specifically, governments will need to ensure protections for:
Migrants and asylum seekers
Many countries have closed their borders and are limiting entries to their own citizens and legal residents. Others are taking more extreme measures and closing their borders completely.
These measures will limit movement and the ability of individuals fleeing violence and persecution to seek protection abroad. The United States, for instance, has used public health as a pretext for ending the right to asylum at the border. In the last two weeks, U.S. border agents have expelled more than 6,000 migrants, including asylum seekers, without giving them a chance to seek protection.
Similarly, countries like Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador have imposed new restrictions making it difficult for Venezuelan migrants, who are fleeing dire circumstances, to gain entry and access services. Many are choosing to return home despite the humanitarian emergency in Venezuela; some of these migrants are now being confined in overcrowded “quarantine zones” with reportedly poor sanitary conditions near the border.
As governments in the region limit public services, asylum seekers waiting for a resolution of their cases will confront an even longer period of uncertainty. For undocumented migrants who are apprehended and detained in countries such as Mexico, they may be held in detention centers with a history of overcrowding and poor hygiene. Anti-immigrant sentiment is likely to increase in this context.
There are an estimated 1.6 million people behind bars in Latin America, many of whom are in pretrial detention. With prisons and detention facilities already overloaded and ill-equipped to control contagion or address COVID-19 illness, governments should urgently take measures to ease prison congestion, such as releasing those who are older and have underlying health issues, mothers and pregnant women, those in pretrial detention, LGTBQ+ individuals, and those who have completed much of their sentence. Moreover, governments must and refrain from measures that would result in even more people being confined in such facilities, including those detained for violating stay-at-home orders.
Afro-descendants, Indigenous, and other groups
Progress on public health requires understanding that we are all in this together. Placing blame on specific groups or excluding them from access to health care and other necessities can be a dangerous temptation for leaders seeking scapegoats or those who seek to deflect blame from their own failures. Limiting access to health care or other protections to certain categories of people is a violation of fundamental rights and will only serve to exacerbate the current crisis.
Additionally, as governments move to implement public health measures like nationwide lockdowns, in the case of collective territories of Indigenous and Afro-descendants, the state should respect the authority of local governance structures and uphold the right to prior, free, and informed consent. All public health materials and messages about COVID-19 must also be translated and promoted in Indigenous languages. Persons living in historically marginalized areas such as La Guajira and the Pacific region of Colombia and the Amazon rainforest are particularly at risk, requiring that immediate measures are taken to protect them from an acceleration of physical and cultural extinction.
Governments may be tempted to use restrictive measures imposed for public health reasons as a tool to repress political opponents. Even where restrictions are initially conceived in good faith, certain sectors of the population may be targeted for more aggressive controls, policing, and disproportionate punishments.
Increasingly empowered nationalist leaders may face the temptation to undermine or defund international systems and conventions, processes of conflict resolution, and human rights. But now more than ever, there is a need for international cooperation during a pandemic. This is a time to strengthen institutions that promote peaceful, negotiated solutions—not only to deal with the health crisis but also to other arenas of political conflict.
Critically, the United Nations, the European Union, and Pope Francis have all called for a global ceasefire as countries confront the pandemic. Communities in Colombia’s most conflict-ridden areas are echoing this call, asking that all armed actors in the country implement a ceasefire as the pandemic continues, and that the unilateral ceasefire declared by rebel group the National Liberation Army (ELN, by its Spanish acronym) be used an opportunity to advance peace negotiations.
We will be investigating and analyzing trends. We will be making recommendations to policy makers. We will be working with partners and civil society activists throughout the region who are facing new challenges to basic freedoms. As we recognize the absolute centrality of taking strong and decisive measures to protect the health of the public, we will redouble our efforts to stand for human rights and democracy during this crisis and beyond.