One of Latin America’s most unstable countries of the current moment is Nicaragua, a nation of 6 million people sandwiched between Costa Rica and Honduras. Just like Venezuela, the country is ruled by a long-standing left-wing regime, where freedom of the press is scarce and political prisoners are many. But unlike Venezuela — which has been finding its way into headlines around the world — the repression under Daniel Ortega’s government doesn’t draw so much attention.
However, as the coronavirus outbreak surpasses 100 deaths in Latin America, Nicaragua is shaping up to become a disaster within a disaster, with scarce official data being released by authorities. Nicaragua only reported its first confirmed case on March 18, while the region as a whole has already recorded 8 deaths and more than 1,200 cases.
Amid the regional lockdown, Mr. Ortega’s wife and ultra-religious Vice President Rosario Murillo called the people to the streets for a march against the virus, dubbed “Love in Times of Covid-19.” Ms. Murillo said that Nicaragua “won’t follow other countries” in applying restrictions on movement to fight the pandemic. Since then, the government has only confirmed two cases, but local NGOs say the number is much higher.
In government since 2007, Orteguismo is repeating the same mysterious agenda when it comes to a social crisis. Besides Ms. Murillo’s statements, the military is also withholding information, with army spokesperson Álvaro Rivas Castillo bluntly admitting that they would not confirm any case of Covid-19 among officials.
The Health Ministry is also under pressure. This Wednesday, Health Minister Carolina Dávila canceled a press conference due to the presence of independent media outlets, the same ones that have been persecuted by the Ortega regime. According to Reporters Without Borders, Nicaragua is in 114th position on the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, out of 180 countries. The government even deprived Nicaragua’s best-known daily newspaper La Prensa of paper and ink for 500 days.
As people can’t access reliable information, the country is expecting the worst. Even the local football championship is still running, though matches are taking place behind closed doors. Lucia Pineda, from media channel 100% Noticias, reported that due to the government’s inefficiency, people are putting themselves in “self-quarantine,” deciding to close churches and small businesses.
President Ortega’s public absence has also encouraged some ribbing from Nicaraguans online. The hashtag “Be Like Ortega” spread across the country, recommending people not to show their faces publicly, just like their president. Since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, Mr. Ortega is nowhere to be seen.
Central America, despite Nicaragua
According to the World Bank, Central America remains the poorest region in Latin America, with the region’s smallest middle class making up just 24.7 percent of the population. It is also notorious for its murder rates, with Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras regarded some of the world’s most violent countries.
Even though instability is not exclusive to Nicaragua, being a bad example in managing the crisis certainly is. In Guatemala, far-right leader Alejandro Giammatei — who is also a doctor — was quick in his calls for people to stay home. He addressed important information to the nation, not putting ideology ahead of medical advice, unlike the behavior of Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.
Salvadorean leader Nayib Bukele is one of the best examples amid the crisis. He has been using his social media accounts to warn people about his measures, even holding a live broadcast with famous Puerto Rican singer Residente to warn people about the risks of leaving home.
According to Jorge E. Cuéllar, Assistant Professor in Latin American, Latino & Caribbean Studies at Dartmouth College, the prevention of Covid-19 in Central America must be a shared effort that complements the measures taken by neighboring countries. Especially when lots of them migrate, mainly from unprotected Nicaragua south to Costa Rica.
“The hermetic Mr. Ortega hasn’t appeared in public since February 21. His government, however, has offered mixed messages about the novel coronavirus — downplaying its seriousness and going on with civic life as normal despite the pandemic’s spread,” the expert told The Brazilian Report.
Due to how the virus is testing the fortitude of communities, neighborhoods, and families, Nicaragua is putting not only its own country at risk but also endangering the measures taken by neighboring nations. As the borders are not closed, citizens can flee across the border. Since 2018, the Costa Rican government reported at least 70,000 asylum requests from its northern neighbor.
Next door in El Salvador, President Bukele was one of the first in all of Latin America to shut down all human entry into the country and has since placed the nation under what is essentially house arrest. As the leader of an already chaotic country, he thought extreme measures could be the solution. Will it be enough? Mr. Cuéllar said it is uncertain, but, at least, some leaders are not just waiting to be proved wrong.
“Only time will tell if his preventive methods — that have also remilitarized Salvadoran society — were worth it. However, what they do show, at a fundamental level, is proactivity to combating the virus and an understanding of the limitations of health services in El Salvador.”[/restricted]