Evolutionary Steps: Bearing Witness to the Historic Presidential Election in El Salvador
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By Will Thomas
As a member of a small contingent of Veterans for Peace, I joined a larger group called Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (CIS) to be an official observer of El Salvador's presidential election on March 15, 2009, and thus had the remarkable privilege of witnessing the election of Mauricio Funes.
CIS provided training for its over 250 volunteers, some of whom had traveled from Australia, Norway, Canada, the UK, and the U.S. As election observers, we were trained to look for any election irregularities and to document any such violations. As neutral, unbiased observers, we were certified by the Salvadoran Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) and had to carry our photo ID badges. Following the election, observer teams submitted notes on various voting violations and also included recommendations to the TSE. Our presence at the elections in various municipalities across El Salvador helped ensure the conduct of free and fair elections and the building of democracy in a nation that has endured so much. Past CIS observer reports have been used by the TSE and the legislative assembly as a basis for debate on election reform.
On March 15, 2009, the leftist Farabundo Marti para la Liberacion National Party (FMLN) won its first ever presidential victory over the long-ruling right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), the party formed in 1980 by the acknowledged leader of the death squads in El Salvador, Roberto D'Aubuisson, who trained at the US-operated School of the Americas (SOA) in Panama in 1972. Today, SOA, renamed WHINSEC, is located at Ft. Benning, GA, and has trained over 60,000 Latin American military personnel, thousands of whom have been responsible for horrible human rights abuses in Central and South America.
FLMN presidential candidate, Mauricio Funes, was declared the winner on March 17. Prior to his nomination, he had been a television reporter who did an interview program which was generally critical of the government. Funes became the first FMLN candidate who was not an ex-guerilla commandante since the leftist guerilla movement incorporated as a legal political party in 1992. Funes' election, along with those of Morales (Brazil), Lula (Uruguay), and Chavez (Venezuela), signal a change in the direction of governments and social and economic policies that are more democratic and progressive. These new leaders have vowed to increase the availability of and access to employment, housing, health, education, and safety so that all citizens can live dignified, productive, and happy lives. Change has come and is coming in Latin America and Funes' victory is the latest example of this fact.
An observer in San Salvador remarked that the FMLN victory was not a revolutionary act, but an evolutionary step on a journey to achieving a true democracy in a country that has suffered much. Some 80,000 people were "disappeared" and murdered during its civil war between 1978 and 1992, including Archbishop Oscar Romero, four U.S. churchwomen, and the six Jesuit martyrs and their housekeeper and her daughter. Many of the Salvadoran military who participated in the killings, including the massacre of the entire village of El Mozote, were "educated" and trained at the School of the Americas in Georgia.
Part of our 8-day visit was spent traveling to various locations in the country to gain a personal perspective of how Salvadorans are struggling to improve their lives. Prior to the election, I met Ruth Serrano and Raul Acevedo who live in Comunidad Monsenor Romero. Named after the assassinated archbishop who spoke for the poor and for peace and justice, the Romero community, about 45 minutes by car from the capital, San Salvador, houses ninety-three families. These people came together following the devastating 2001 earthquake when many were homeless and searching for land. The majority of the inhabitants are women as many of the men were either killed during the civil war or left El Salvador to find work in the U.S. The ruling council and other community members were so welcoming, so kind and so dignified that they have made a lasting impression on me. Ruth and Raul told us that the Romero community actually "squatted" on both government and private property, but from its inception, has struggled to raise money to legally purchase the land on which they live. Their struggle for the basics - everything from water to their human dignity - is incredibly moving and humbling. Those of us present heard compelling testimony of their tenacity in fighting for their own justice.
Ruth, Raul and other members of the Romero community were optimistic that a win by the FMLN candidate, Mr. Funes, would signal a shift in how the government prioritized its spending. They seek more help with education, housing, and medical care. Poverty in El Salvador is extreme: 62% of the country's population cannot afford life's basics. This statistic would undoubtedly be worse if 2.5 million Salvadorans were not residing in the U.S. The average daily income in El Salvador is $2. In 2008, 22.3% of Salvadoran families received remittances from relatives in the U.S. that totaled $3.8 billion.
On visiting the town of San Jose Villanueva, where we would observe the actual voting, we were introduced to both ARENA and FMLN officials, the police, the newly-elected FMLN mayor, the local parish priest, and other local dignitaries.
Voting day was warm as the polls opened at 7 am. Initially, a partner and I walked around the voting area located in the courtyard of a school. As with all observers, we watched as citizens went up to the voting tables (28 in all), and gave their national ID cards to the appropriate official. Each citizen who had his or her name checked off was then given a ballot which only had two symbols on it (ARENA and FMLN). Adjacent to the tables were the actual voting "booths" which had a small screen to provide some privacy. Following the marking of their ballot, voters placed their ballot in a box, then gave their names to another official at the table where their names were checked off, and the ID card returned. Finally, the voter's thumb was dipped into a jar of brownish ink to prevent voter fraud. Members of both parties staffed each of the 28 voting tables and worked amazingly well together, especially regarding the stakes for each in this election.
Some have asked what motivated me to travel to El Salvador to become an election observer. Having taught US History and read about the struggles of the Salvadoran people, I wanted to bear witness to people regaining their dignity and equality by casting their votes in what I believed CIS could help ensure - free and fair elections. It was very rewarding to have so many Salvadorans thank us just for being present as the election was held. Yet, I am the one who will be forever grateful for having had the opportunity and good fortune to meet such strong, determined, and hard-working people as Ruth and Raul.
Will Thomas is a former history teacher and a leads the New Hampshire chapter of Veterans for Peace.
Tags: Latin America
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