Witnessing Democracy in Soyapongo, El Salvador

I travelled to El Salvador in late January to participate as an international election observer (Observador Internacional) for the February 2nd Presidential elections in this, the smallest country in Central America. This is where I spent Super Bowl Sunday. I met up with four lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), where we joined seventy other activists, organized through the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) in San Salvador. The grassroots organization CISPES, has a singular mission: supporting the Salvadoran people’s struggle for self-determination and social and economic justice.

CISPES has been working in El Salvador since the civil war, which exploded in 1980 and ended with the signing of the peace accords in 1992. That conflict left the country shattered. Even now, as one wanders El Salvador, known for its perfect environmental conditions for cocoa bean culture, one feels that sense of loss a civil war reaps, the feeling that those responsible for the ruin of an entire nation, still roam free. Indeed, as part of the peace accords signed in 1992, an Amnesty Law was implemented; any human rights violations perpetrated before 1992 cannot be investigated or prosecuted, a wound in the minds of many El Salvadorans that can never be healed.

My interest in El Salvador, besides improving my elementary Spanish, lay in securing free elections and the ability of a people to determine its own destiny. I became infatuated with elections after Florida, 2000 and the 2004 Presidential election and witnessing the ease with which an election may be manipulated for an outcome, especially if one is in charge of the electoral apparatus.

I knew the stories of US intervention all over the Central American region and recently became acquainted with the left’s victory in El Salvador in the 2009 elections – won by former guerillas of a revolutionary movement (made up of five different groups) called the FMLN. While in El Salvador, we visited medical clinics, human rights organizations, and governmental programs and met with the US embassy – and some of us briefly with our own US Ambassador, Mari Carmen Aponte. I didn’t know if I planned to write a word about my experience, but after reading Jim DeMint’s outrageous, xenophobic tirade in the Miami Herald regarding El Salvador’s “road to a narco state,” I thought I would offer my own thoughts.

My election observation spot lay in Soyapongo, one of the poorest cities in El Salvador, just north of San Salvador, and, as we were told, a “gang infested” area, known to other Salvadorans as the “ghetto.” Gang activity is a hot topic in El Salvador, as it is in Honduras and Guatemala, where gangs have become widespread. A gang truce was initiated before the election, however, and when we travelled to San Salvador, the crime rate was falling.

We travelled in teams of ten and arrived at our post at 4:45 AM on February 2nd, after scoping the area the day before, and we were greeted by hundreds of volunteers working for the FMLN party, Unidad, and the ARENA party, the three political parties that would dominate the day’s activities. The volunteers lined up outside the outdoor plaza where ten thousand voters would make their way to the polls.

As the doors opened at 5:00 am, FMLN leaders screeched “Quien esta aqui?!” The volunteers shrieked back in unison: “La Freinte de Farabundo Marti!” And they marched in solidarity to their positions, collecting their ballots to set up the voting booths. I felt a rush of excitement; elections for me are a secular holiday, an almost religious experience, a sign that a society has chosen the ballot box as their weapon of choice. For a country still fresh from civil war and electoral manipulation, the atmosphere proved electric.

Earlier in the week, we met with representatives of the Supreme Electoral Council (TSE) and learned the electoral code of El Salvador, something we would need to know if we were to do our job as election observers correctly. This TSE representative, a short, handsome man with hair in a ponytail down to the middle of his back, allowed us a glimpse of just what these elections mean to Salvadorans.

After exhaustively covering the new election code in an epic four hour meeting full of election jargon, rules and legal conclusions, the representative sat down. After being peppered with questions from International observers regarding the code, he took a final breath before crashing into his chair, and grinned darkly. Exasperated, he said.

“This is what we do to avoid war.”

Elections in Context

Electoral fraud is as much a part of El Salvadoran history as is US intervention. El Salvador gained its independence from Spain in 1821, joining the United Provinces of Central America. Two decades thereafter (1), El Salvador declared its independence in 1840 as the independent nation of El Salvador. The United States helped build a railroad from the Atlantic to the Pacific to help the growing Coffee Oligarchy. US intervention was becoming a matter of right in the Americas. The Monroe doctrine, “America for the Americas,” was instituted, and with the assistance of “criollo elites” and military juntas, the people of El Salvador suffered poverty and deprivation, forcing the indigenous people, campesinas and workers to radicalize.

In the early 19th century, the progressive Manuel Enrique Araujo was elected to the Presidency, implementing reforms for workers and opposing US intervention in the region. He was assassinated and pro US intervention leaders, the Melendez-Quinones dynasty, ruled the country for fourteen years through repression and electoral fraud. Through the ’20s and ’30s, the global collapse of the stock market crippled El Salvador, shredding jobs and plunging Salvadorenos into deeper poverty. Populist Arturo Araujo was elected, but failed to fulfill his promises. Salvadorans took to the streets in protest, which led to a coup d’état and General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez assumed power and engaged in massive electoral fraud in the 1932 mayoral elections.

This led to the further radicalization of Campesinas, workers and indigenous communities stuck in an unjust system, but led by Farabundo Marti (For whom the FMLN is named), the newly formed communist party desired to fight for reform through the electoral system, instead of armed struggle. Eventually, Marti was captured and murdered along with several of the struggle’s leaders, the revolt squashed through death squads and the murdering of over thirty thousand indigenous Salvadorans. This led to a twelve year dictatorship full of repression and violence and a ban on any political organizing.

Over the next two decades, workers organized further, leading to more revolt, met with equal repression by military commanders. The United States pressured the government for elections, which led to the fraudulent election of General Castaneda Castro, a puppet of the US government. Note: the appearance of fairness seems more important to the US than actual fairness.

After Castaneda was ousted by a revolutionary group, who provided hope, but failed, two successive military officers assumed control of the country – the second assuming power, again in fraudulent elections. Workers continued to organize and the union movement grew into worker strikes.

These union led movements appeared in the midst of the Cuban revolution, which frightened the US government and led to even more intervention on the part of our favorite liberal President of yesteryear, John F. Kennedy, announcing his Alliance for Progress, aimed at quelling political discontent in Latin America and the establishment of “democratic” governments.

In El Salvador, only one party participated in the so-called elections of 1962, the National Conciliation party, led by military officers. The party launched an era of state terrorism, leading to brutal crackdowns on political organizing, which infuriated unions and student movements and set the stage for the birth of the modern revolution in El Salvador.

In the 1972 elections, the governing party lost to a progressive coalition, but the PCN (National Conciliation party) candidate ignored the results and assumed the presidency, igniting the feeling that electoral politics were never going to be a free and fair process in El Salvador, and the only way to fight for its soul was through armed insurrection. Five years later, in 1977, a repeat of the previous elections occurred, a progressive coalition won, but the PCN party named Carlos Humberto Romero as President.

Monsignor Oscar Romero

A profound event in the history of El Salvador was the appointment of Monsignor Oscar Romero as the Archbishop of San Salvador, “by nature a conservative man.” He was appointed to placate the oligarchy and to prevent the spread of liberation theology, taking hold amongst many in the cloth in El Salvador. Once appointed however, upon spending his days and nights with the populace in El Salvador and witnessing state repression, he became a “voice for the voiceless.” He was assassinated on March 24, 1980 after giving a mass the day before urging the state to “stop the repression!” Romero remains a “Jesus” like figure in the country today.

At his funeral, hundreds of thousands gathered in the civic plaza outside the metropolitan theater in downtown El Salvador. The government placed sharp shooters around the surrounding areas and opened fire on the mourners. It has been widely reported that Robert D’Aubuisson, founder of the right wing ARENA party was the intellectual author of the assassination.

The US-backed government, with growing impunity (a word that has extraordinary power in El Salvador) murdered over 75,000 Salvadorans through massacres and extermination squads. According to CISPES, it was the largest US-backed counterinsurgency war since Vietnam. Though the US backed these militarized governments under President Jimmy Carter, Reagan entered office intent on stopping the people’s revolutions in Central America and chose El Salvador as the place to draw the line. The FMLN, which was made up of several revolutionary movements in the country held strong, however, and controlled various “liberated zones” throughout the rural countryside. The FMLN stood for three things, “democracy, social justice and national sovereignty.”

During the ’80s and Reagan’s presidency, the US funneled over $3.4 billion dollars to the government and military machinery of El Salvador that it used to massacre and terrorize the population.

Benjamin Schwartz eloquently argued in an article for the Atlantic online.

“Whether the geopolitical stakes demanded that involvement and whether letting events take their own course would have resulted in even more atrocities can be debated. What is indisputable is that for a decade American policymakers in Washington and American civilian and military personnel in El Salvador consorted with murderers and sadists.”

Napoleon Duarte, a loyal puppet of the US, was installed in 1984 after another round of elections infiltrated with faulty counting. The FMLN called on the government to postpone the 1989 elections so they could ensure their transparency and participate as a party, but the government refused. Instead, Felix Alfredo Cristiani won; his ARENA party was linked to death and extermination squads and the volcanic Romero assassination – it was also being advised by the United States Republican Party.

The peace accords were signed in 1992, which were to end all armed conflict, as well as Constitutional and electoral reform. Many Salvadorans would come to call this period the “civil dictatorship.” Through electoral fraud, propaganda and right wing media control, political violence and repression, ARENA would hold office for the next three election cycles, through 2009. With neo-liberal policies instituted by ARENA, and the likes of USAID, the state took a less active role in the government, leaving the Salvadoran economy to the “free market.” Income, property, and import and export taxes were slashed, while a sales tax was imposed that punished the poor and working class in far greater numbers. The government dollarized the economy (El Salvador has used the US dollar as its currency since 2001), “liberalized” the price of necessities, privatized industry, all of which plunged the poor into deeper poverty and benefited the rich and upper classes only.

Under these polices, Salvadorans fled. Nearly seven hundred Salvadorans flee the country every day, most to the United States. The money that these migrant communities send home every week constitutes over 20 percent of the Salvadoran GDP, an astounding figure. Because of these polices, the economy was in shambles and a political awakening shook the country, not unlike the San Salvadoran earthquakes of yesteryear.

An alliance between the FMLN and other progressive forces sought to defeat ARENA and its privatization of the economy. El Salvador elected its first leftist government in history on March 15, 2009 with an election that was considered a success for the people of El Salvador.

The FMLN Period of Rule

Since the 2009 Presidential win of Mauricio Funes, the FMLN has overseen the government – and while many on the left have criticized the slow progress of the Funes Presidency, there have been gains, most notably in health care.

Twenty five of us traveled to rural Panchimalco, the country’s poorest region, for a tour of one of the area’s “ECOS” health clinics, a new concept implemented under the FMLN, borrowed from Cuba: health clinics, largely for young mothers, that are free of charge. The Panchimalco ECOS proved highly successful in the three years of implementation, and the staff spoke glowingly of the transformation of the community. These ECOS have recently been under assault by the right wing ARENA party during the campaign, threatening to shut them down if ARENA proved victorious. Staffed by members of the community, the clinics have collectively eradicated malaria, and brought the infant mortality rate down from about 14 incidents per year, to zero, the staff’s proudest accomplishment. Many of these successes are seen throughout El Salvador.

The most fundamental change however, has been in the area of voting. The FMLN government, in charge of the electoral apparatus, made improvements over the past five years and led to a smooth, transparent and fair election. (Other improvements have also been effected in education and in women’s rights). There were nearly five million people on the voter registry as of Election Day. Approximately three hundred and twenty-eight thousand new voters registered to vote for this election. There is no registration process in El Salvador. To vote, one obtains an ID at the age of 18 and this allows one to vote (unless it is expired). A person must show the ID to be allowed to vote.

The new government vastly improved voting in one’s community. Under the old system, a citizen voted according to an assignment of the first initial of one’s last name. This was a highly inefficient, chaotic situation. Some voters travelled hours to their voting polls. The new system, called “residential voting” established voting centers in voters’ own communities, and the new government increased the voting centers by over three hundred percent from 462 in 2009 to 1,591 centers in the 2014 elections.

Absentee balloting was also allowed, but approximately ten thousand voters only obtained a proper ID card. As there are over 2,000,000+ eligible Salvadoran voters, (the majority in the US) this was a disappointingly low number, but was treated as a triumph because it sets the stage for absentee voting to be a part of the future in El Salvador, a community that has enormous influence over the country.

A new fraud prevention measure was also put in place and over fifty-four thousand names were struck from the voting record. In 2007, over one hundred thousand deceased voters appeared in the registry and it was alleged the ARENA party shipped folks in from Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua to vote in the election to pad the totals for their party.

Further, the recent problems in Honduras, in what appeared to be a problematic, if not outright fraudulent, election gave everyone in our delegation pause, so we expected the worst, but hoped for the best. Indeed, it was the latter we witnessed.

Election Day – February 2, 2014

In Soyapongo, we covered three voting centers, a total of thirty thousand voters in three areas close to one another. Each center held approximately ten thousand voters, which meant approximately 20 voting tables per center. A voting table (called a JRV) consisted of three people, a President, a Secretary and a Primer Vocal, all with specific duties to engage the voter, checking their ID, handing the ballot to the voter and ensuring the process of vote counting. Further, each JRV included one member from each party – the FMLN, Unidad and ARENA party – to help oversee the process, ensuring assistance to the voters and influencing the JRV with election knowledge, if a question of voter status arose.

Elections are naturally chaotic; this is part of their charm, the mess of democracy breathing life into a nation, to elect its leaders. This was certainly the case at the outdoor Park in Soyapongo, where we spent the opening and the closing of the election. In all, we spent almost sixteen hours at the polls, gaining knowledge of the inner workings of the voting apparatus, speaking my elementary Spanish to voters who asked me questions, to functionaries who questioned our presence and to party leaders who shared information.

The elections were free, fair and transparent as both the NLG and CISPES declared in their statements. What amazed me most about the elections were the little democracies among each voting JRV. Invariably disputes regarding a voter’s I.D., or a voter’s eligibility to vote occurred. Each JRV experienced these disputes throughout the day.

I personally witnessed several; one in particular became very heated. A young voter arrived at his voting JRV and showed his I.D. As it happened, this voter had moved since acquiring his I.D. (called a DUI) and his address did not match his DUI. The voter however, was on the registered voter list and a dispute regarding his eligibility to vote cropped up. The three member JRV was unsure and engaged the party apparatus of Unidad, FMLN and ARENA at their table. Soon, the “Jefe” of each party from each center arrived at the JRV stating their opinion as to the voter’s eligibility.

A member from the FMLN was adamant the person be allowed to vote, while an ARENA member refused to give consent for the person to vote. Party members raised their voices over one another and the three member panel tried to maintain order, while a gathering storm of voters waited their turn and a gaggle of observers mulled around the growing chaos. The Panel quickly called the JEM supervisor in charge at the voting center (the Municipal authority in charge of elections) for advice and direction. He arrived at the JRV and surveyed the problem. “Listen,” he said. “You are in charge of this voting table, if you all agree he can vote; then he can vote.” The members appeared relieved, unsure of their authority, but all eventually voted yes and the young voter was allowed to vote. The matter was resolved, fairly and reasonably.

This process of disputes and resolution played out all over El Salvador throughout the day. I witnessed a woman, recently divorced, and with a different name inscribed on her DUI. Another heated process commenced and eventually the JRV voted 2-1 that she not be allowed to vote. The woman accepted the decision politely, and while I may have disagreed with the outcome, it was difficult to question the process. After justice long denied, the people of El Salvador, for the second time in five years, voted to elect a President.

After the votes were meticulously counted and recorded, we waited for each JRV to transmit the voting counts as we ate” Pollo Compero,” a must dining experience we were told, if any time was spent in El Salvador. As I ate my meal, my observer colleagues discussed in amazement the witnessing of clean elections, El Salvador making the climb out of American intervention, military dictatorship, and impunity to a nation with free and fair elections.

In the end, FMLN candidate Salvador Sanchez Ceren, garnered the most votes, gaining almost 49 percent of the vote. The ARENA party candidate, Norman Quijano, gained almost 39 percent of the vote. Under the El Salvadoran constitution, a candidate must garner 50 percent +1 vote for victory. The two parties, arch political rivals, will square off on March 9, 2014 for a final vote. The FMLN was expected to be victorious as it ascended in the polls.

Sunday, March 9, 2014, the run-off election appeared much closer than observers and polling initially suggested. The unofficial count separated the former guerilla commander of the FMLN Salvador Sanchez Ceren and Mayor of San Salvador, Norman Quijano by 0.2 percent, approximately 7000 votes. Though the election is very close, the leader of the Supreme Electoral Council, Eugenio Chicas said, the results are “irreversible.” Though the elections were close, it looks like Ceren will be elected the first FMLN guerilla to lead the El Salvadoran nation.

Unfortunately, the right wing ARENA party leader, Quijano, is using dangerous rhetoric and says he is “prepared for war.” He also called on the armed services to defend against fraud and against the Venezuela style stolen election, which is patently ridiculous. Not only does Venezuela have one of the most transparent election practices in Latin America, CISPES has already said that just as on February 2, 2014, the run-off elections were transparent and accessible. CISPES noted two differences from the February 2 elections: one, that these elections were a bit tenser in many voting areas and the voter turn-out appeared much higher. The official results will be released in a few days. Stay tuned.

1. Much of the history from this article was gleaned from the CISPES reading packet given as part of the election observer training.