WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

13 May 2020 | Commentary

Opinion: Latin America’s Next Generation of Authoritarians is Using COVID-19 to Consolidate Power

In a new opinion piece for El Faro, WOLA President Geoff Thale calls on the governments of the Americas to save lives, but to also respect human rights and democracy when responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today, following nearly thirty years of unstable, imperfect but still measurable democratic progress in Latin America, the hard lessons from the past are more important than ever before. That’s because the last decade has brought about significant democratic backsliding and rising authoritarianism in the region.

El Salvador

Perhaps one of the most disturbing situations is the sustained assault that President Bukele of El Salvador is leading on the political institutions that can check his power. Prior to COVID-19, his campaign to concentrate power had met stiff resistance. His attempted power grab in February of this year, in which he deployed the military and police to bully El Salvador’s legislative branch into approving an international loan he favored, was met with ultimately successful resistance from the legislative and judicial systems, as well as from civil society and the international community.

However, since the pandemic, Bukele, asserting the need to act quickly and decisively to stem the virus, has rammed through actions that concentrate power and endanger citizens. In moves that harken back to the dark days of El Salvador’s civil war, he has authorized the use of lethal force by public security forces against suspected gang members, and he has ordered public security forces to detain and confine anyone violating a quarantine order. Though Bukele has been one of the more prominent leaders in this new generation of authoritarians, he’s not the only one using the COVID-19 pandemic to justify his power grabs.


In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro had already earned a reputation for autocratic behavior by bringing in record numbers of military officers into the government, undermining oversight of human rights abuses, and seeking to hobble civil society by imposing legal and reporting requirements on civil society organizations that make it almost impossible for them to operate. While downplaying the severity of the pandemic, Bolsonaro has used the opportunity to attack freedom of the press by placing restrictions on critical public health records that are vital in accurate and life-saving reporting about the virus.

The United States

In the United States, President Donald Trump and his administration have responded to international aspects of the pandemic in ways that have subverted democratic norms, helped spread the virus, and propped up authoritarian partners in the region. His administration has used COVID-19 as a pretext for shutting down the U.S.-Mexico border, leading to the spread of the virus among migrant populations in detention centers and new hotspots throughout the region. What’s more, the Trump administration’s consistent failures to speak out as Central American countries destroyed anti-corruption institutions, to push back against naked power grabs by Bolsonaro and the interim Áñez government, and to seriously support efforts to achieve a negotiated outcome in Venezuela have only emboldened the region’s authoritarians, who see the White House as an ally in their efforts.

In the opinion piece, Thale recommends that while COVID-19 is an unprecedented challenge, that now more than ever, it’s important for civil society to investigate human rights violations, question the autocratic actions of leaders, and call for the accountability of governments to prepare effective public health responses that adhere to democracy and human rights. Otherwise, not only will the fight against COVID-19 be ineffective, but we will have to relearn the devastating lessons that we believed we had learned after decades of fighting authoritarianism and dictatorships in the Americas.