Bogota, Colombia—People are never more willing to give up their civil rights to the government than when they feel threatened. Nearly 19 years after the United States enacted the supposedly temporary measures of the PATRIOT Act, citizens still live under the microscope of a surveillance state. The law has been used to justify torture as well as the assassination of U.S. citizens without due process. As humanity stares down a new enemy, the coronavirus, some states in Latin America are considering similarly broad expansions of power.
The world response to the COVID-19 epidemic has been completely unprecedented. At the time of writing, 82 countries have restricted travel through their borders and 37 have completely closed them completely. Both the invisible and physical walls that separate the world have grown less penetrable, but no region has enacted measures as strict as Latin America, whose governments fear their vulnerable health systems will not be able to cope with widespread outbreak.
A dozen Latin American countries—with a combined population of more than 175 million people—have placed their citizens on full lockdown, a measure which some countries are enforcing by deploying soldiers to the streets.
Jihan Simon Hasbun is a doctor and political activist in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. “Lockdown is unfortunately our only option,” she tells Reason. “I am a strong critic of the authoritarian government of ‘Joh’ [the nickname for President Juan Orlando Hernandez], but our health system almost collapsed under a Dengue outbreak last year. Coronavirus is much more contagious and statistically much more deadly.”
Hasbun also believes that the president is using the COVID-19 outbreak as an opportunity to distract from ongoing corruption and drug trafficking accusations, as well as popular protests, all while pushing his long-running privatization agenda while the world is distracted.
Honduras isn’t alone in having citizens worry the government is taking advantage of the crisis. Across the region, would-be autocrats are trying to dismantle the very institutions that safeguard democracy.
In the latest of a series of eyebrow-raising authoritarian actions, the unelected interim government of Bolivia has postponed national elections that were scheduled for May 3 and has yet to announce a date for rescheduling.
In Colombia, prison riots over infection fears were put down violently in a confrontation that left at least 23 people dead. Armed groups, meanwhile, have taken advantage of occupied authorities to resume their campaign of killing activists and social leaders who oppose their interests.
When the coronavirus crisis eventually passes, will these encroachments on liberty recede? If history is any guide, the answer is likely to be no—at least not easily.
The primary barrier to governments enacting controversial power grabs are the critics and institutions who would object, so a handful of Latin American leaders are taking dramatic steps to silence those who check their power. They’re now muzzling journalists through intimidation, arrest, or character assassination.
In Honduras, the government passed an emergency measure that temporarily suspended constitutional protections on free speech for both citizens and journalists. On March 25, the Bolivian government announced a decree that allows imprisonment for up to 10 years of those who “misinform” or “promote non-compliance” with government regulation. The nonprofit Human Rights Watch has criticized the language of the law, saying it is intentionally vague and could be used to prosecute political opponents and journalists alike.
In Venezuela, freelance journalist Darvinson Rojas was arrested by Special Action Forces (FAES) and imprisoned for his coverage of the coronavirus crisis. The local Venezuelan press has covered half a dozen instances of journalists being intimidated. And on April 6, FAES arrested Luis Serrano, a civil assemblyman who would have determined the next election oversight board in Venezuela, according to WOLA, a human rights group in Latin America. They seized masks and protective gear Serrano’s organization had donated to journalists covering COVID-19 and detained politicians who’d been contradicting the government’s official coronavirus statistics, which many medical experts consider unbelievably low.
In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has turned the crisis into a political weapon, claiming that the press is trying to destroy his presidency through misinformation. Despite ignoring advice from health officials within his own party about the danger of the epidemic, he used the crisis as justification to release an executive order that abolished freedom of information legislation, effectively undermining the ability of journalists or NGOs to obtain public health information. 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,” Camila Asano, program coordinator of Brazilian human rights organization Conectas, says. “His attempts to bypass and attack the Brazilian press and the judiciary have been especially problematic. He is using the crisis to silence critics and those he perceives as enemies.”
Most of Latin America, 16 countries in all, severely restricted their borders between March 14 and 18, creating a physical firewall against the coronavirus that they hope will allow them to avoid the fate of countries that responded more slowly to the threat like Italy, Spain, and the United States. Nine Latin American nations—Honduras, Colombia, Suriname, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina—have closed their frontiers completely, leaving many travelers and foreign citizens trapped for the foreseeable future, and many immigrants dangerously vulnerable.
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, a symbol of successful open borders policy for the world. 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 me on the Colombian-Venezuelan border in March. “We don’t have the resources or robust health systems of North America or Europe. Colombia is not a rich country. If Italy and the U.S. can’t handle the virus, how can we?”
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 assigned control of an entire city to enforce the quarantine.
The sudden halt in economic activity has left millions of working class citizens across Latin America unemployed—people who live day to day with no savings and few other options.
Meanwhile, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Bolivia have all been heavily criticized by the United Nations for violent repression of a continent-wide wave of protests that swept through Latin America just months ago. If civil unrest flares up again over economic or health issues during the current state of emergency, protesters in many countries may find themselves facing down state forces with extralegal powers and a muzzled press.
The degree of authoritarianism varies by country: Brazil’s institutions of democracy have proven sound for now, stopping dangerous and unjustifiable expansion of executive power, but Bolivian, Honduran, and Venezuelan citizens have been less fortunate. Many other nations teeter on the brink of policy decisions that would have grave consequences for liberty. Across the whole region, however, millions find themselves at risk from extreme government containment measures and borders that may never completely reopen.
People who live here in Latin America hope that life will return to normal once the crisis passes, but there’s a very real possibility that many may soon be demanding their rights from governments loath to return them.