COVID-19 and authoritarianism in Central America
Crises have a way of pointing and letting out the detritus that hides in the structural sewers of power. In this sense, the COVID-19 crisis has become the perfect excuse for authoritarian governments to scale up and justify oppression employing strategies whose ostensible purpose is to minimize or contain the pandemic.
Like a Glove
This does not mean that everything began in 2020; 2020 was just the year the mask fell off—if indeed it still existed—and problems that have existed for years, even decades, became more acute. Since the beginning of the pandemic, hate crimes have increased, repressive public policies have been implemented, cybernetic and institutional attacks against activists that were not aligned with authoritarian governments’ official narratives have risen, and militarization has been the governments’ response to the disease, which has resulted in the violation of human rights of various people and social groups—primarily women, and trans and non-binary people.
Faced with the pandemic, several Central American governments have adopted quarantine or isolation measures, but they have not implemented social welfare measures that consider and factor in the needs, features, and realities of traditionally marginalized and vulnerable groups. Instead, these measures have allowed governments to legitimize and expand coercive policies in which sex and gender have been defined as key dimensions to control people and used as criteria to segregate them. Likewise, militarization has been the governments’ go-to response to the crisis, which has been framed as a matter of national security under the argument that it is necessary to control the population and ensure their compliance with the lockdowns.
In consonance with the governments’ discourse, religious fundamentalists have drawn from apocalyptic narratives and taken advantage of the pandemic to publicly reaffirm their project to construct confessional states, which they contend will heal the social chaos unleashed by COVID-19. This has promoted the appropriation and use of religious references by public officials, who, for example, have sung Evangelical hymns, had a statue of the Virgin Mary and the Holy of Holies flown over Tegucigalpa, established a national day of prayer in El Salvador, etc. These gimmicks are clear evidence that religious fundamentalist thinking is embedded in and legitimized by the public political-institutional sphere.
Organized religious and political zealots have carried on with their agenda and intensified their work in social media; in certain contexts, they have even deployed targeted attacks. Some of the measures proposed by religious fundamentalists have also begun to gain media coverage during the pandemic. Among the narratives pushed by conservative religious groups is the notion that recognizing the right to abortion or the rights of people with diverse gender identities and sexual orientations is partially responsible for the emergence of the virus and society’s continued decay. These messages add fuel to the flames and increase and justify acts of hatred, repression, and “punishment” against those who dare to swim against the fundamentalist current and defend human rights.
Bodies and Contravened Rights
In Central America, violence against women and people with diverse gender identities and sexual orientations continues to rise. Transwomen especially suffer due to societal discrimination, government measures that restrict mobility, and the violence that derives from policing sex work. This persistent inequality and the region’s inadequate income redistribution worsened with the pandemic. Trans comrades in El Salvador and Guatemala share a little of their experience:
Many transwomen’s livelihoods rely on sex work and informal work, and the State has not acted to provide them with food security or access to healthcare and other rights. Clients insist on paying only half of the value of our trans comrades’ services and threaten them with looking for other sex workers if they refuse their demands. Many give in because they do not have food, because they’re deep in debt, and because they have to pay rent. Trans activist, El Salvador.
Before the beginning of the pandemic, basic antiretroviral treatments were available for people with HIV. When COVID-19 spread, the medication ran out, and this made transwomen more vulnerable because the healthcare system stopped treating them; they were focused on the COVID-19 cases, which were no less important, but turning their backs on the issue of [HIV] treatments… it jeopardized the life of human beings, particularly transwomen. Transgender leader and activist, Guatemala.
Similarly, an analysis of the employment situation has shown that women, young people, and migrants have been some of the most affected groups, especially if they are part of the informal sector. Many paid domestic workers have been laid off, making domestic work even more precarious. This situation evidences that racism and sexism transcend politics. In Central America, a large segment of domestic workers is Afro-descendant, indigenous, or from highly economically insecure rural and urban contexts.
When the lockdown began, [my employers] didn’t allow me to leave for three months. I had to do all the housework because the colleague who had been in charge of cleaning left. I went back to my room at 10:30 pm after getting up at 5:00 am to make breakfast. It was only then, at night, that I could call my family and my friends. I got tired. I was sad, and I often felt despondent. It was incredibly stressful to have to take care of four people all day long with no rest. Verónica (41), domestic worker, Guatemala.
Additionally, due to the lockdown measures and the macho and sexist imaginaries that persist in our societies, thousands of women have had to stay with their abusers during the lockdowns, and they have also encountered enormous barriers that preclude their access to justice and sexual and reproductive rights.
People with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities have been victims of attacks, abuse, and psychological and physical violence during the lockdowns. Many were forced to leave their homes because the lockdowns exacerbated the homophobic and transphobic behaviors of the people they lived with. In fact, for activists, it is essential to ascertain how many of the deaths by suicide that occurred during the pandemic were linked to homophobia and transphobia.
Two situations have worsened violence in the region. First, the increase and non-redistribution of domestic work due to machismo and sexism; and second, the violence that takes place in the public sphere, especially in countries that implemented measures to restrict mobility such as the so-called pico y género, i.e., lockdown measures that restricted public circulation on the basis of gender.
Panama implemented a kind of quarantine divided by gender, which put transpeople in a vulnerable position. During the quarantine, women and men were assigned three days of the week each to leave their homes, [a measure that was enforced] by checking the sex and the last number on their national IDs. We only had two hours to be outside before returning to our homes. This evidenced the need to recognize the vulnerability of and violence perpetrated against the transgender community as well as the absolute legal limbo they find themselves in as regards the issue of national IDs and their gender identity, which should be respected and acknowledged as a matter of human rights. Sexual diversity activist, Panama.
For activists in Central American countries where binary gendered mobility measures were applied, the increase in gender-based violence has been notable, and it has been compounded by the lack of socioeconomic measures to mitigate the population’s precarious situation.
Activists have exposed the increase in complaints filed with public institutions about gender-based violence, and they have demonstrated how their organizations, as part of wider community and feminist networks, have moved heaven and earth to accompany the countless cases of violence against women and LGBTQI+ people.