As COVID-19 Ravages Latin America, Expat Families Confront 'Appalling' Tragedies
Controversial coronavirus deaths like Carlos Henríquez's in El Salvador leave Latin American relatives in the U.S. feeling increasingly helpless.
Latin America and the Caribbean account for only 8 percent of the world’s population – but the region has recorded twenty-eight percent of the world’s COVID-19 cases and thirty percent of the pandemic’s deaths.
And you can find reasons for that tragedy in the story of Carlos Henríquez.
His ordeal started amid the early March chaos at the El Salvador International Airport in San Salvador. The Salvadoran government was taking tough lockdown measures against the new coronavirus, and Salvadorans returning home from abroad knew they’d have to quarantine to make sure they weren’t infected.
But they didn’t expect armed soldiers would herd them to places where they were more likely to be infected.
That’s what happened to Henríquez. He was a Salvadoran steel company engineer arriving back from business in Guatemala. He was 67 – and he had a document from the Salvadoran embassy in Guatemala City clearly stating government protocol allowed persons his age to quarantine at home. Henríquez instead was forced onto a bus to a makeshift quarantine center.
“That’s where the nightmare began,” says Oscar Monedero, Henríquez’s son-in-law.
“The conditions were just horrible. You didn’t have functional toilets or showers. You had bunk beds eaten by rats that were not distanced. Just appalling.”
Monedero, an international sales manager, is also Salvadoran and lives in Sunrise with his wife Karen, Henríquez’s daughter. Henríquez’s son, Carlos Henríquez Jr., says his father made sure all four of his children were educated in the U.S., and they all live in this country today.
“His family meant everything to him,” says Carlos Jr., who lives in California’s Silicon Valley, where he works in the tech industry. “He knew that being here was the best thing for us.”
But Henríquez also believed his country could modernize. He was born into small, developing El Salvador’s lower middle class; he rose through education – and as a young man became a big Beatles fan, back when that was considered subversive in culturally conservative Central America. That hope for change is why Henríquez, who loved to play guitar for his family, voted last year for a young political outsider, Nayib Bukele, who is now El Salvador’s president.
“He had that faith that things would be handled differently with President Bukele,” says Monedero. “But that was shattered, totally shattered.”
What Henríquez’s family went through this year is something more and more expats are struggling with as COVID-19 explodes back in Latin America. They’ve had to watch helplessly as loved ones get caught in the region’s web of decrepit public health systems and authoritarian government actions.
Henríquez texted his family photos of the abandoned athletes’ residence on the outskirts of San Salvador, the Villa Olímpica, which had now become a squalid quarantine facility.
“He started telling us people are coughing all night, sneezing, spitting on the floor,” says Carlos Jr. “It was a recipe for disaster.”
Carlos Jr. says his father was healthy when he arrived from Guatemala. Henríquez sent his family pleading texts to “get me out of here” because he was quarantined alongside people returning from places like Europe – which at that time was being ravaged by COVID-19. Not surprisingly, Henríquez himself was soon infected and eventually needed a ventilator to breathe.
He was transferred from one hospital to another. But his family here was kept largely in the dark as they kept trying to locate him. As soon as they’d establish communication with a doctor in one facility, Henríquez would be inexplicably moved to another.
“He was a man of strong religious faith, so when they first moved him he felt grateful, like things were going to be better,” says his son-in-law Monedero.
“But then we’d call a hospital he told us he’d been sent to and they’d tell us he’s not there,” says Carlos Jr. “We’d be like, What the hell?”
And since the borders were closed, they weren’t even able to be with their mother Patricia in San Salvador.
“She was alone,” says Carlos Jr. “It was a complete lockdown in El Salvador. Nobody could come see her.”
They lost touch with Henríquez in April when his cell phone was somehow taken from him during another hospital transfer.
“The last conversation I had with him, in early April, was, y’know, I still can’t breathe on my own, but I’m improving,” Carlos Jr. recalls. “I don’t know at what point he got that bad.”
He adds, his voice choking: “I, um…we didn’t hear from him again.”
They found out later Henríquez’s suffered a collapsed lung and his kidneys eventually failed. He died April 22.
Carlos Jr. – who last month also lost his father-in-law to COVID in El Salvador – says the family feels fortunate his father was able to visit his children and 10 grandchildren in the U.S. during last year’s Christmas holidays. But he and his brother-in-law Monedero say keeping his memory alive – and the memory of his controversial death – has become a mission, if only to remind people that if this could happen to an affluent professional like him, things are even worse for poorer Salvadorans.
We rightly complain about the pandemic situation in the U.S., but at least here we still have certain rights people in countries like El Salvador still don't.
“My dad believed in helping people thrive who don’t have the opportunities he had,” says Carlos Jr. “We rightly complain about the pandemic situation in the U.S, but at least here we still have certain rights people in countries like El Salvador still don’t. Right now it's like optics matter more there than people.”
Says Monedero: “After this experience we want to be a voice for Salvadorans who don’t have a voice.”
So now do Salvadoran watchdog groups, like Central American University’s Human Rights Institute in San Salvador. In a recently released report, it blames Henríquez’s death on a dysfunctional, “untransparent” and “authoritarian” government and public health system whose pandemic strategy relies more on muscle than medicine. His family says that reflects how little things have really changed under Bukele – the man Henríquez hoped would reform El Salvador.
Bukele’s government refutes the report and others like it; and it insists its actions have contained the pandemic in El Salvador. But in the past month COVID-19 cases there have quadrupled to more than 20,000.
And several Salvadoran epidemiologists – including Dr. Iván Solano, vice president of the Central American and Caribbean Infectology Association – say independent data bases indicate the actual number of cases and deaths is far higher than the official count.
“The data are being manipulated for political, not public health purposes,” Solano recently said.
If that is the case there, it’s one more reason expat families like Carlos Henríquez’s are speaking out here.