MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
El Salvador is emerging from one of the strictest coronavirus lockdowns in the hemisphere, and it is doing so over the objections of the country's strongman president, who says cases are still rising. He has pitted himself against lawmakers and the courts. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, the COVID-19 crisis has been a test of democracy in El Salvador.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: First, the airport was shuttered. Then came the lockdown, with the military on the streets to enforce it. Residents could only leave their homes twice a week for quick food runs. Thousands caught violating the quarantine and those who arrived in the country after March 12 were put in so-called containment centers.
LUIS MORA: It's a room and a bed. You know, it's white wall, room and a bed.
KAHN: Luis Mora, a Salvadoran businessman, found himself in one of the ad hoc centers - this one in an old hostel - after finally getting back home from a business trip in late May.
MORA: And I can't open the window and can't - and I only open the doors when they get me the food and do the temperature checks.
KAHN: Luckily, Mora was released from his confinement after two weeks. Thousands, however, were thrown in overcrowded centers, with stays dragging on longer than a month. Some even contracted the virus in the centers and died, says Omar Serrano, a human rights defender and academic at the Central American University in San Salvador.
OMAR SERRANO: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: These kinds of violations are the order of the day in the country, says Serrano.
Critics of President Nayib Bukele, who came to power last year, say the 38-year-old leader spends too much time on Twitter and not enough governing. Opposition lawmaker Jorge Schafik Handal says the president doesn't respect the balance of powers. Bukele famously sent the military into the national assembly after lawmakers refused to give him the funding he wanted for security forces. And Schafik says the president has ignored Supreme Court rulings against extending the lockdown.
JORGE SCHAFIK HANDAL: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: Bukele has taken advantage of the coronavirus to concentrate his power, says Schafik. Francisco Alabi, El Salvador's health minister and one of Bukele's closest advisers, shrugs off the criticism. He says the president has saved lives.
FRANCISCO ALABI: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: We knew our best strategy to fight this virus was prevention, especially given our fragile and long-underfunded health system, says Alabi. El Salvador does have lower COVID case and death rates than most of its neighbors, and that's won Bukele much praise. Polls show he has sky-high approval ratings well into the 90s, even among those hardest-hit by the lockdown - people like Freddie Barrientos.
FREDDIE BARRIENTOS: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: Barrientos had a small clothing stall in the northern city of Santa Ana but had to sell everything after the country closed up. He quickly ran out of money to feed his wife and four kids.
BARRIENTOS: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: I told my neighbors, let's get a big stick and wrap a white flag around it and go to the road. Maybe the cars will stop and give us something. He's surviving on handouts and doesn't know how he'll recover his business. But he says he does have faith that El Salvador's young president will get the country back on track.
Carrie Kahn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.