Latin American Free speech and civil institutions will Be a Casualty of COVID-19?

Protesters in many countries may find themselves facing down state forces with extralegal powers and a muzzled press.

Sixteen Latin American countries severely restricted their borders in mid-March, creating a physical firewall against the coronavirus that they hope will allow them to avoid the fate of countries such as Italy, Spain, and the United States. Nine nations—Honduras, Colombia, Suriname, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina—have closed their borders completely, leaving many travelers and foreign citizens trapped for the foreseeable future.

The most dramatic closure occurred in Colombia, which for years had maintained an open border with Venezuela amid the worst refugee crisis in modern Latin American history. Since 2015, over 6 million Venezuelans have fled their collapsing state, mostly through Colombia, where 1.7 million have taken up permanent residency. That is no longer a legal option, and the closure has put millions along the Colombian-Venezuelan border at the mercy of armed gangs who control informal smuggling paths.

“We have no choice,” an immigration official told Reason in March. “Colombia is not a rich country. If Italy and the U.S. can’t handle the virus, how can we?”

“I am a strong critic of the authoritarian government” of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, says Jihan Simon Hasbun, a doctor and political activist in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. “But our health system almost collapsed under a dengue [fever] outbreak last year. Coronavirus is much more contagious and statistically much more deadly.” At the same time, Hasbun believes Hernández is using the COVID-19 outbreak to distract from accusations of government corruption and drug trafficking and to quash protests against privatization of the medical sector.

Honduras isn’t the only country in the region taking advantage of the crisis. In the latest of a series of eyebrow-raising authoritarian actions, the unelected interim government of Bolivia indefinitely postponed national elections that were scheduled for May 3. In Colombia, the government’s response to prisoners who rioted out of fear of infection left 23 people dead.

The mandatory national lockdowns in 12 countries, which allow citizens to leave their houses only to buy food or medicine, have been enforced with fines, arrests, and even deportations. In Ecuador, the military was put in charge of quarantine enforcement for an entire city. Meanwhile, the sudden halt in economic activity has left millions of working-class citizens across the region unemployed—people who were already living day-to-day with no savings and few options.

Free speech and civil institutions can be effective at preventing governments from abusing power, yet some Latin American leaders are taking steps to silence critics. In Honduras, the government passed an emergency measure that temporarily suspended constitutional protections of free speech. On March 25, the Bolivian government announced a decree that allows the imprisonment for up to 10 years of those who “misinform” or “promote noncompliance” with government regulation. The nonprofit Human Rights Watch says the decree is intentionally vague and could be used to prosecute political opponents and journalists.

In Venezuela, protests by hungry citizens have spread to 15 cities and have been put down violently by state forces. Freelance journalist Darvinson Rojas was arrested by the Special Action Forces (FAES) and imprisoned for his coverage of the coronavirus crisis and local press has covered half a dozen instances of journalists being intimidated since lockdown began. On April 6, FAES arrested Luis Serrano, a civil assemblyman who had been tasked by Congress with choosing members of the next national election oversight board, according to the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group. FAES seized masks and protective gear that Serrano’s organization, Redes Ayuda, had donated to journalists covering COVID-19 and detained politicians who’d contradicted the government’s official coronavirus statistics.

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has claimed that the press is trying to destroy his presidency through misinformation. He used the crisis as justification to abolish freedom of information legislation, preventing journalists and nongovernmental organizations from obtaining public health data. Fortunately, the executive order was quickly struck down by Brazil’s Supreme Court. “This is a continuation of a pattern of [Bolsonaro’s] attacks on the bodies that limit presidential power,” says Camila Asano, program coordinator of the Brazilian human rights organization Conectas. “He is using the crisis to silence critics and those he perceives as enemies.”

In 2019, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Bolivia were all criticized by the United Nations for violently repressing protests. If civil unrest flares up again during the current state of emergency, protesters in many countries may find themselves facing down state forces with extralegal powers and a muzzled press.

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