El Salvador: Observing the moment of change | Guest Column | March 20

On Sunday I watched as the people of El Salvador elected their next president, Mauricio Funes, who represents the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN).

His election marks the end of a 20-year domination of the right-wing ARENA party. The FMLN’s win is not only that of a political party, but a social movement that has been the victim of fraud, political violence and U.S. intervention for decades.

U.S. intervention

I arrived in El Salvador on March 8 as an election observer for the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES). Little did I know that the week leading up to the March 15 election would be an emotional roller-coaster through the world of international relations with my own country.

Despite a March 5 letter from 33 Democrats (including Washington Rep. Jim McDermott) and others from 140 academics seeking a statement of neutrality from President Obama regarding the El Salvador elections, the front-page news here involved a statement by five Republicans, who spoke on the House floor on March 11:

“Should the pro-terrorist FMLN party replace the current government in El Salvador, the United States, in the interests of national security, would be required to re-evaluate our policy toward El Salvador, including cash remittances and immigration policies.” (Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz.)

Within 24 hours, the statements made front-page headlines in two leading Salvadoran newspapers, several TV and radio broadcasts, provoking fear in the Salvadoran people who depend greatly on income sent by family members living in the U.S. As an American, I was ashamed by members of Congress who made statements that threatened huge repercussions for Salvadorans – similar to what occurred in the 2004 elections.

Our delegation of 70 Americans in El Salvador and CISPES activists in the U.S. made hundreds of calls and emails to our representatives to push for a statement of neutrality from the Obama administration. And we had it by the afternoon of the very same day.

The letter by the Democrats was published in one of the top Salvadoran newspapers and the State Department’s statement of neutrality was repeated on radio and news outlets nationwide.

We, as Americans, had done our best to counteract our country’s interference in the electoral freedom of the Salvadoran people, hoping to set the stage for a free and fair election on Sunday.

Election Day

Early on March 15, I arrived at Rosario de Mora, a village near San Salvador, to observe the elections. Despite the eerie darkness, there was a frenetic energy in the air. By 4:30 a.m. the poll workers were already lined up at the gates of the voting center, organized by party, table number and role. The leader of our four-person observation team commented that she had never seen such an organized start to elections day in her several experiences observing El Salvador elections.

The community of Rosario de Mora had elected an ARENA mayor in the Jan. 18 municipal elections, but the FMLN had finished within a few hundred votes.

This made for a political tension that was visible at the voting tables, each of which was staffed by two members of each party. The tension had a positive effect in that the party members kept each other in check – along with our constant presence by peeking over their shoulders, taking notes and photos.

The voting appeared to be going smoothly until about 2 p.m. when I was approached by three poll workers. Their eyes were desperate as they explained the situation: “The ARENA party is buying people’s votes for $20 each at the mayor’s office. We need your help to take a photo of it. Without proof, we are helpless. You are our only hope.”

I contacted our group leader and we took turns monitoring activity at the mayor’s office, but we were unable to document any acts of fraud. Even so, people mobilized to report it, whereas in the past much fraud was left undocumented.

Later we received reports of irregularities from observers in other parts of the country, including: an ARENA poll worker smuggling additional final vote count sheets; 800 Nicaraguans being bused in to vote with identification of deceased persons on the voter registry; and voters asking when they would get their tin roof for voting for the ARENA party.

In each of these examples and hundreds more, the people mobilized against the fraud. For example, people of the community spotted the 15 buses being used to transport the Nicaraguans and stopped them before the voter fraud could occur.

Across the country, people didn’t just go out and vote, they mobilized to defend their vote.

A New El Salvador

The FMLN has won. I congratulate the Salvadoran people for their fine work to make these elections free and fair. And what is the first thing the FMLN plans to do when it takes over the executive office? Create electoral reform so that future elections will be even more democratic.

I applaud the Obama administration for putting forth a statement of neutrality and non-intervention in El Salvador’s elections.

A half-hour after Mauricio Funes made his acceptance speech, his party received a call from Robert Blau, the charge d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador, requesting a meeting with the president-elect. In that meeting, Blau stated that the United States would respect the results of the election and looked forward to working with the new government.

Later that night, the streets of San Salvador filled with FMLN red. Cars stopped and people took to the streets, gathering in disbelief and joy.

The moment was summed up best by a Salvadoran-American in our delegation who said, “It’s like you have been working for a dream so long and when it is finally realized it’s hard to believe it’s even real.”

To find out more about CISPES, contact www.cispes.org or call Seattle CISPES at (206) 325-5494.

Maggie Pettit is writing a monthly column during her 11-month stay on Ometepe island, Bainbridge’s sister island in Nicaragua.

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