El Salvador Just Used COVID to Justify a Ban on Protests

President Nayib Bukele is widely popular, but his most recent measure has drawn accusations that he is trying to suppress opposition demonstrations.
Emperor Nayib Bukele
After the recent vote, President Nayib Bukele posted an image of himself as a Roman emperor. (Screenshot via Twitter @nayibbukele)

El Salvador's Legislative Assembly approved a decree Wednesday prohibiting public and private gatherings that are not related to the arts, culture, or sports until December 8. While legislators described the measure as a precaution after a spike in COVID-19 cases, it also followed a couple of large protests against the government, leading critics to call the decree a disguised ban on demonstrations.


While El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele remains extremely popular, he's been criticized for passing authoritarian measures and consolidating power since taking office in 2019. He also controversially introduced the cryptocurrency Bitcoin as legal tender in the Central American nation amid questions about the feasibility of the initiative.

On Sunday, thousands marched through the capital of San Salvador carrying banners that said “No to the dictator” and chanting phrases like “Nayib Bukele, we don't want your Bitcoin.” At one point during the protest, a dummy of Bukele was burned in effigy, according to local media. It followed a similar protest a month ago. Until recently, Salvadorans had held very few protests against Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party, which has a majority in congress.


Bukele, who won office at the age of 37, has brushed off his critics mostly by mocking them on social media, and repeatedly joking that he actually is a dictator. In January, he changed his Twitter profile picture to an image of Sacha Baron Cohen in the film The Dictator, where the English actor portrays a childish, violent and misogynistic authoritarian leader. After yesterday's vote banning large gatherings, he posted an image of his face imposed on a picture of a Roman emperor.

Although the decree allows gatherings provided that participants are masked and show proof of vaccination, the events will be subject to approval from the health ministry which can also set a limit on the number of people who attend. Violating the decree could lead to a charge of disobedience that is punishable by as much as three years in prison.

Ahead of the vote, opposition lawmakers criticized the initiative as being nothing more than a way for Bukele to quell the bubbling protests. Johnny Wright Sol, from the Nuestro Tiempo party, said the decree was “disguised” as a measure to prevent an increase in COVID cases when instead it was “clear evidence” that the government had “agglomerations it favored and others that bother them,” according to local newspaper La Prensa Grafica.


Claudia Ortiz, from the Vamos party, also took issue with the decree.

“We are not saying that measures should not be taken to control the pandemic,” she said. “This only shows that the marches, that the influx of people that has continued, generate annoyance. It is being seen as a threat that citizens demonstrate in this way.”

But the President of the Legislative Assembly, Ernesto Castro, who presented the decree and is an ally of the president, defended the precautions.

“At no time is freedom of expression, of demonstrating, being curtailed here. They can continue to do so, the only objective is that it be done with the necessary measures,” said Castro. 

Despite an aggressive vaccination program, coronavirus cases and deaths in El Salvador have reached their highest levels since the pandemic began.