Central America and the Pandemic: Different Priorities and Risky Bets

By Alexander Segovia*

Presidents of Central America participate on a SICA virtual meeting

Reunión Extraordinaria de Presidentes del Sistema de la Integración Centroamericana (SICA)/Flickr/Creative Commons

In most Central American countries, the social dimension of the COVID‑19 emergency has competed with economic priorities, and in some it hasn’t even been a top priority. Governments have responded independently of one another, showing little regional coordination aside from a $1.9 billion Regional Contingency Plan approved by the Sistema de la Integración Centroamericana (SICA) and funded by the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (BCIE), to support national-level efforts.

El Salvador has designed a response strategy that prioritizes the health dimension of the crisis, not the need for economic recovery. The rigorous implementation of stay-at-home and social isolation measures has caused a number of problems, including essentially shutting down the economy, with enormous political costs. The Legislative Assembly authorized the government to issue coupons worth $3 billion to help families get by, causing a significant increase in the country’s external debt and fiscal deficit.

  • The Salvadoran response has been well-received by the population so far, but this could change quickly in the face of the high economic and social pain it has caused. Moreover, the authoritarian and militarist way the confinement regulations have been enforced, and the government’s lack of respect for the Constitution and the separation of powers, have also troubled many.

Nicaragua is the opposite case of El Salvador. The government has refused to adopt social isolation measures and has encouraged people to take to the streets and participate in large events. The Ortega Administration’s concern is about the economy, which has been in a deep crisis since the social protests in 2018 and the government’s repressive reaction to them. This priority partly explains the government’s resistance to implementing shelter-in-place and social-distancing regulations.

  • The government is playing with fire. If the health crisis spins out of control, it will cause both a great loss of human lives and a profound socio-economic crisis – which sooner rather than later will spark a social and political crisis of massive proportions.

Costa Rica, with its good universal health care system and the region’s most developed state infrastructure, is best prepared. Its initial response to the health emergency was slow and permissive, reflecting a government decision to confront the crisis in a manner that causes the least damage possible to the economy. It has since acted more decisively and has suffered only 10 deaths from COVID‑19.

  • Costa Rica is the only country in the region trying to finance the additional costs by reducing non-priority public expenditures and by introducing a temporary solidarity tax on capital gains and on the salaries of higher-paid managers in government and the private sector, who have economic security and safe jobs.

Guatemala is implementing a response in which the health emergency is competing with leaders’ desire for economic recovery. This reflects the enormous influence over the government and Congress enjoyed by the economic elites, who hold sway over public policies and have a veto over any that affect their interests.

  • By putting the social and economic challenges on an equal plane, the elites have demonstrated, in what they see as a politically correct way, their ability to equate human life with the accumulation of capital.

Honduras has implemented a strategy that gives insufficient attention to the health crisis by assigning higher priority to containing the economic impact. Its response has been fragmented and confusing; it combines emergency measures with economic recovery actions that will take effect only in the second half of the year. In addition, policymaking processes have been opaque, and there are no guarantees that public funds will be used transparently.

  • Concerns that the crisis has also given rise to greater militarization of the country and an increase in human rights violations by security forces are also mounting.

The best way for Central America to confront the COVID emergency is through energetic responses focused on containing the health crisis – with effective stay-at-home and social-distancing measures – and strengthening of social protection systems and programs, including direct financial payments to households. These policies should be backed up with broad political and social agreements and sustained with absolute respect for democracy and human rights.

  • Preliminary evidence indicates that, while addressing the health crisis has high costs in the short term, delaying that investment increases the number of deaths and leads to a deeper and longer economic crisis. Central American governments and economic elites have a clear choice: pay a smaller price now combatting the virus, or pursue short-term benefits and pay a much higher price in the long run.

* Alexander Segovia is a Salvadoran economist. This blog article is based on and updated from an analysis originally published here by Análisis Carolina in Madrid.

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