Following up on our trip last May to Guajoyo, Austin’s Salvadoran Sister City, (See Austin-Guajoyo Sister City Project, May 31, 2014), Jennifer Long and I decided to return to El Salvador as International Observers of the February 2nd Presidential Election. Three parties, the FMLN, which currently holds the presidency in the person of Mauricio Funes, ARENA and UNIDAD would be contending. The FMLN, with Salvador Sanchez Ceren as its candidate (presidents serve one five year term), is the peacetime successor to the wartime guerilla organization of the same name. ARENA, whose candidate is Norman Quijano, has been the FMLN’s right wing nemesis since the war and held the presidency from 1989 until Mauricio Funes was elected in 2009. UNIDAD, a new coalition party made up of three small parties, is basically the creation of its candidate, Tony Saca, who was president from 2004 – 2009, and is supposedly intended to split the difference between the FMLN and ARENA. The Election Observer Delegation was under the auspices of the U.S. – El Salvador Sister Cities Network (www.elsalvadorsolidarity.org) and the SHARE Foundation (www.share-elsalvador.org), an organization doing similar work but not in a city to city format.
Jennifer and I had a bit of a stumble right out of the gate. As we were on our separate ways to the Austin airport to catch our 7:50 a.m. United Airlines flight to Houston, where we would connect to San Salvador, sleet and freezing rain began falling. By the time we boarded, enough freezing precipitation had accumulated to require the plane to be de-iced. As this is an extremely rare occurrence in Austin, the airport has only one de-icing truck. Consequently, although our pilot managed to position us number three in the queue, we were nevertheless delayed an hour. However, on our arrival in Houston, we discovered that it was a moot point.
While there was some confusion as we de-planed as to whether our connecting flight had already departed, by the time we arrived at our gate it became obvious that it had not. In fact, all the passengers who had boarded were now back in the waiting area. Houston was suffering from the same icing issues as Austin, and while the Houston airport has a significantly greater de-icing capacity, it was insufficient to meet the current demand. With the United gate personnel offering only a vague proposed departure time several hours in the future, Jennifer and I withdrew to a nearby restaurant for breakfast.
Over the course of the next several hours, we stayed in touch via texts and emails with Estela Garcia and Catie Johnston, Co-Coordinators in El Salvador of the U.S. – El Salvador Sister Cities Network, and Cori Ring, an intern who had been instrumental in coordinating the delegation. At about one o’clock, almost an hour after we were supposed to have arrived in San Salvador, we began boarding. Still, because every plane had to be de-iced before taking off, we spent another hour on the tarmac. Our pilot noted that in 25 years of flying through Houston, this was the first time he had ever had a plane de-iced there. I sent a text just before we reached the de-icing trucks to let the San Salvador team know it would be five by the time we arrived and that we could take a taxi if they didn’t want to come pick us up.
Once in the air, the flight was smooth and there were no glitches in immigration or customs. Jennifer and I emerged into the reception area to find Catie waiting for us. The drive to the Los Pinos Guest House in central San Salvador took a little more than half an hour and we arrived to find Giovanni, a young member of MPR-12, a group that arose in opposition to CAFTA (Central America Free Trade Agreement) giving a lesson on the history of El Salvador to the delegates who had already arrived. Although the official introductions would take place the following morning, we had already introduced ourselves by email. In addition to Jennifer and myself, there were eight delegates.
Adam Olson works in Oxfam’s Policy and Campaigns Division in Chicago. He does lobby visits, teams up with allied organizations, speaks at events and engages in other advocacy activities intended to fight poverty and injustice. He learned about the election observer delegation from Estela at a joint Oxfam/Sister Cities event in Milwaukee. He’s young, in his twenties, which puts him in good company with our Sister Cities San Salvador team, had never been to Central or South America and speaks minimal Spanish.
Daniel Stein teaches ESL (English as a Second Language) at Truman College, part of the City Colleges of Chicago. He started his career about five years ago in New York City, where he’s from. He’s young also, a bit older than Adam, and also had never been to El Salvador before. He’s fluent in Spanish, having begun studying it at age six. Both Daniel and Adam are members of the Chicago – Cinquera, Cabanas Sister City Project.
Rachel Wyon is a retired public school bilingual teacher, currently teaching ESL part time to adults in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She’s been a member of the Cambridge – San Jose Las Flores Sister Cities Committee from its inception in 1986 when members escorted Salvadoran refugees from Honduras to San Jose Las Flores in Chalatenango, then a very hot zone. She has since visited El Salvador many times with delegations and is fluent in Spanish. However, this would be her first experience as an election observer.
Esther Chavez is from El Salvador, but fled the country in 1980 to avoid political oppression, and very possibly death. She now lives in Asheville, North Carolina and works for an immigration attorney as a translator, among other duties. Esther has participated as an observer in elections since the first post-war one was held in 1994. She was a member of New Jersey – Lost Amates and San Isidro Chalatenango Sister City Project and was the U.S. Sister Cities National Coordinator in the 1990’s.
Joaquin Chavez is Esther’s youngest son. He works for Verizon in New Jersey, is, of course, bilingual and has been observing elections in El Salvador since the 1990’s, when he must have been in his teens.
Ed Brylawski is a semi-retired Civil Engineer from Milford, Pennsylvania who has largely handed the family business over to his son. Having spent a couple of years in the Peace Corps in Panama in the late 1960’s, Ed’s Spanish is fluent. This would be his first trip to El Salvador and his first time as an election observer.
Margaret de Rivera has worked with Central American refugees since 1984, assisting them in obtaining asylum in the U.S. and Canada. She has been a long-time supporter of the Bangor, Maine – Carasque Sister City Project and speaks fluent Spanish. From 1984 through 1986, Margaret hosted a radio program, “Central America in Crisis” and in 1996 accompanied a Salvadoran refugee too terrified to make the trip home to Chalatenango alone.
Michael Berghoef is a professor of Social Work at Ferris State University in Michigan who has been bringing students to El Salvador annually for the past six years for a two week academic service learning course. Sister Cities has been one of the partners in this endeavor and Sister Cities’ representatives have visited the Ferris State campus three times. Mike’s Spanish is functional and this would be his first experience as an election observer.
Jennifer Long is the director of Casa Marianella, a shelter for immigrants in Austin, Texas. She has visited Austin’s Sister City of Guajoyo, San Vicente each of the past three years and is fluent in Spanish. This would be her first experience observing an election.
And, for the record, I’m a retired attorney for the Texas State Comptroller and a freelance photojournalist. My wife Sharla and I lived in San Salvador from June, 1987 to June, 1989 while I covered the war and politics and she did freelance computer programming and taught English at the American School. I returned to El Salvador in November, 1989 for a month and in 1994 for the elections, but then had not been back until last May when I went with Jennifer and John Brickley, also from Austin, to Guajoyo. I would describe my Spanish as serviceable at this point and I had never officially observed an election, although I have covered them as news events.
Wednesday morning after breakfast we did our official introductions, which involved introducing someone else, in my case Daniel, and them introducing you. We then spent some time discussing solidarity and accompaniment. After breaking into groups of three, my partners were Mike and Joaquin, we reunited for a group discussion.
Joaquin had pointed out to Mike and me that just being from the U.S. gave us significant stature. As elaborated on in the group, this is partly because Salvadorans, regardless of their other attitudes towards the U.S., recognize that it is a hugely powerful country and are impressed, and to some extent flattered, that there are U.S. citizens interested enough in El Salvador to come observe elections. We are seen as powerful allies just by virtue of our provenance and our presence. And for those Salvadorans who were involved with solidarity groups during the war, our involvement signifies continuity and ongoing support from people who accompanied them through literally life and death situations.
On the other side of the coin, we as observers could draw strength from our association with such courageous and determined people. Their persistence in the face of huge obstacles to get to this point shows what people can achieve with belief in and dedication to a righteous cause. For us, this would be an honor to assist them in the continuation of a democratic project that has cost so much in suffering and blood.
After our orientation session, we set out for a meeting with Marcos Galvez, the president of CRIPDES (Association for the Development of El Salvador, http://www.cripdes.com), the first of a series of essentially non-stop meetings and activities that would fill the next three days. (For a more detailed discussion of CRIPDES and MPR-12, see Austin – Guajoyo Sister City Project, May 31, 2013). After lunch at CRIPDES we visited the Museum of Words and Images, a small museum dedicated primarily to the war and Salvadoran artists. From there we proceeded to the Centro Monsenor Romero, a museum at the Central American University (UCA) dedicated to all the innocents killed during the war, and particularly the six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter, who were murdered by the Salvadoran Army’s Atlacatl Battalion at the UCA on November 16,1989.
Thursday began with a meeting with Pedro Cabezas, Coordinator of the International Allies Against Mining in El Salvador, at Los Pinos. From there we returned to the CRIPDES office for a meeting with MPR-12 concerning the social movement in the electoral context. After lunch we attended a participatory democracy panel featuring experts on human rights, militarization, U.S. intervention in Central America and grassroots solidarity advocacy.
Friday morning we split into two groups with Catie, Cori, Jennifer, Adam and Daniel going to a press conference with U.S. and Canadian organizations to announce the election observation delegations at the Hotel Alameda. Estela, Ed, Margaret, Mike and I, meanwhile, went to a forum of the Vice-Presidential candidates (Oscar Ortiz – FMLN, Rene Portillo Cuadra – ARENA, Francisco Lainez – UNIDAD) at the Sheraton Presidente Hotel. While all three candidates largely stuck to their party’s talking points, the consensus in our delegation was that, on this morning at least, UNIDAD’s candidate won the likeability contest. His ability to joke fluently in English may have tipped the balance. Once reunited, our delegation went to Nelly’s, a buffet restaurant, for lunch, then to the Alameda for our electoral observation training.
The training, which was being given by Carlos from Equipo Maiz, a Popular Education organization founded during the war, and held with the SHARE delegation, was in a large conference room on the ground floor. After a short delay caused by technical difficulties, Carlos got underway. Standing at a whiteboard with us arrayed before him, he began with a history of elections in El Salvador. Once up to date, he moved on to the details of the polling process for the election we would be observing.
All polling is under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE). The process begins when the Municipal Electoral Board (JEM) presents the electoral packet containing all of the materials required by the voting process to the municipality’s Vote Receiving Boards (JRV) at the municipality’s polling places, which are schools, at 5 a.m. In this election, each JRV consists of three members, a President, Secretary and First Board Member, one from each of the contending parties with sufficient representation in the area, and there is one JRV per polling station. For example, there might be a polling station representing a portion of the alphabet (voters whose names end in A – D, for example) in each of several classrooms. When the JRV receives its materials, it opens the box and sets up its voting table, all under the watchful eyes of election observers, both party and international.
The set up involves verifying that all required materials are present and in good condition. These include, among many other things, ballots (500 per JRV), electoral registries (Exhibition, Search and Signature), various forms (Installation and Opening, Blind Voter Inspection, Closing of the Polls, Return for unused ballots and materials), instruction booklet, Electoral Code, ink pad, indelible ink and a bag to collect ballot tabs. Once verified, the materials are set out on the voting table. Finally, the members of the JRV construct the cardboard ballot box.
Voting begins at 6:30 a.m. with the JRV members, followed by the party observers and the police assigned to the polling place. The polls open to the public at 7 a.m. and the voting process begins with voters finding their names on a list of voters registered to vote at the polling place posted outside the polling stations. Once a voter verifies that she is at the correct polling place, she goes to her polling station and presents her DUI, a national identification card required to vote, to the President of the JRV, who either validates or disallows it (a DUI might be disallowed for being expired or issued after the electoral registration date). DUI’s may also be pre-checked at a table outside the polling place. Once the President has validated the DUI, he checks the voter’s hands for an indelible ink stain that would signify that she had already voted. Assuming no stain, the President finds her name in the Electoral Search Registry, verifies her personal information and marks in the Registry that she appeared to vote. He keeps her DUI and she moves on to the Secretary.
The Secretary signs and stamps the ballot with “JRV” and shows it to the voter and other JRV members for confirmation. The Secretary then removes the small, perforated corner and puts it in the bag provided for that purpose. She hands the voter the ballot and a marker that the voter takes to the voting booth, where she marks a “X” on the symbol of the party whose presidential candidate she supports. The voter deposits the ballot in the ballot box on her way back to the voting table.
While the voter is marking her ballot, the JRV stamps the voter’s name in the Electoral Signature Registry. When the voter gets back to the voting table, she signs and stamps her fingerprints on the Registry. The First Board Member then has the voter dip her right thumb in the indelible ink. The First Board Member returns the voter’s DUI and crosses out the corresponding number on the control sheet. In the case of the police, the JRV holds their DUI’s until the polls close.
During voting, election observers need to be sure the secrecy of voters’ ballots is respected. This involves making sure no one uses a cell phone or camera from the time they present themselves at the JRV table until they deposit their ballot in the ballot box and that voters do not show their marked ballots to other voters. In addition, observers should keep an eye out for any signs of voter intimidation by party representatives.
The polls close at 5 p.m. when the JRV President announces the end of voting. The JRV members then put all materials that won’t be used for vote counting back in the box in which they came and tape it closed. The JRV President counts the leftover ballots and notes their number on the Official Closing Form. The First Board Member stamps the ballots “Not Used” and places them in a plastic bag. The members of the JRV then remove the used ballots from the ballot box, verify that they correspond to the JRV table number and begin counting. During counting, a JRV member holds the ballot so that everyone can see it, announces who the vote is for and passes the ballot to a representative of that party, who keeps it until the vote counting is completed. Annulled, abstained and challenged ballots are placed in a separate pile. Once the counting is complete, the JRV Secretary completes the Official Closing Form (Acta). The JRV President then passes this to the TSE representative who faxes in the results.
If, in the course of our observation, we were to see questionable activity, our course of action would be to first ask the individuals involved about the situation. If not satisfied with the response, we should bring the matter to the attention of the Municipal Electoral Board (JEM) which is responsible for monitoring the activities of the JRV’s. At that point, we should probably step back from the process, leaving any further escalation in the hands of the JEM. In response to a question, Carlos discouraged the idea of pursuing a suspected miscreant beyond the boundaries of the polling place, or going straight to the police.
On the way back to Los Pinos after our training, Joaquin shared the benefit of his first-hand experience. He encouraged us to not be shy about questioning activities that we found suspicious, or even just confusing. He pointed out that we should be confident in our mission and politely, but firmly if necessary, express that confidence in our observational activities.
Back at the hotel, we had a special guest for dinner. Wilfredo Paz, an opposition legislator in the Honduran National Assembly came to talk to us about the results of the 2009 coup that deposed Honduran president Manuel Zayala and the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). The short story is that large swaths of Honduras have been acquired, often in at best questionable transactions, by multi-national corporations to grow palm trees to produce palm oil. The palm plantations destroy the soil, leaving it worthless for growing anything else. Attempts by displaced Hondurans to challenge this situation have been met with threats, violence and death at the hands of para-military organizations, some from the U.S., hired by the corporations. Wilfredo is planning a speaking tour of the U.S. to raise awareness and solicit support in fighting back.
Saturday was the day we would split up to go to our observing communities, Cinquera, Cabanas for Estela, Cori, Esther, Joaquin, Adam and Daniel and Guajoyo, San Vicente for Catie, Jennifer, Margaret, Ed, Mike and myself. We had received our international observer vests and caps the night before, but not our credentials. Thanks to Estela, I had received a Press accreditation the day before through CRIPDES and a local newspaper, the Independent, but the other credentials had not appeared as expected. So, before we separated, we had to go to the Crowne Plaza Hotel. Once there, it took Estela about a half-hour to obtain the credentials. Now legitimate, me doubly so, we said our good-byes and took off for our respective communities.
The hour and a half drive to Guajoyo passed pleasantly and as we bumped into town we came upon the welcoming committee standing in the road leading to downtown Guajoyo, where the school, Cyber Café and corn mill are located. A number of familiar faces, including, among others, Don Francisco, the director of the Junta Directiva (community board), Julio, a local religious leader, Antonio, the father of Catie’s Guajoyo family (Catie lived in Guajoyo for just under a year) and Marta, a local community activist, as well as a variety of children, stood holding welcome signs, some featuring all our names. The welcome party moved to a classroom where we made our introductions and then to a lunch of pupusas at Marta and Oscar’s house.
After lunch, Mike, Ed and I went with Catie and some members of the Guajoyo Youth Committee for a swim in the Rio Lempa, a 20 minute walk through woods and fields. Jennifer and Rachel decided to walk to mass in Mirador, the next community down the road, a couple of miles past Guajoyo. Margaret decided to remain at Catie’s family’s house and rest.
The river was refreshing, although a strong current made swimming very far from shore ill advised. Still, it was possible to go out to where the water was over my head without being washed too far downstream. Some of the Youth Committee members with us said that sometimes they would fish by dragging a net across the river and then moving upstream with the net suspended between the two banks. Once we were nicely cooled off, we headed back to town. Of course, by the time we reached it, we were covered in sweat once more.
Back in town, we met up with the rest of our group for a tour of Guajoyo, specifically of the projects sponsored by Austin. These included the fences for chicken coops, the Cyber Café, the water tank and the corn mill. There had been some improvements since Jennifer and I visited in May. Most impressive was that the Cyber Café was now connected to the internet. In addition, the water tank was new, having replaced the old, leaky one. As the tour drew to a close, we headed to our lodgings to get ready for dinner. Catie, Jennifer, Rachel and the driver were going to stay with Catie’s family while Mike, Ed, Margaret and I would be staying with Carlos, a soft-spoken member of the Junta Directiva.
Once we got more or less settled in, Mike and I took turns taking a pila bath in the dark, as the sun had now long set and the pila had no light (for a fuller discussion of pila baths, see Austin – Guajoyo Sister City Project, May 31, 2013). Having somewhat clumsily completed this task, at least in my case, the four of us, escorted by Carlos, set out following our flashlights for dinner at Marta’s, over which we discussed the next day. We decided that Catie’s family group would pick the rest of us up at 4:30 a.m. so that we could get to our polling place by 5. Hoping to get as much sleep as possible, Mike, Ed, Margaret, Carlos and I returned to Carlos’s house right after dinner. Ed, Margaret and I got beds, but Mike ended up in a hammock, which he graciously said he didn’t mind.
My phone alarm went off at 3:45, but I was already awake. Everyone else was up shortly, and after performing minimal morning ablutions, we gathered our official election observer vests and caps and were ready to go before our ride arrived. As we were trundling toward the highway, Jennifer, who had been under the weather with a cold for a couple of days, but had gotten a full night’s sleep by turning in at 7:30, suddenly broke our somnambulistic silence by blurting: “This is exciting you guys. This is what we came here to do!”, which had the effect of bringing the rest of us around in a chorus of agreement. We arrived at the house next to our polling place, the Centro Escolar San Romilio in the municipality of Tecoluca, although actually out in the countryside 30 minutes or so from Tecoluca, a little before 5.
The San Salvador Sister Cities team, realizing that this was going to be a long day and that we would need a place to eat and rest, had arranged a deal in which we could hang out at the house. In addition, the woman who owned it would cook breakfast, lunch and dinner for us. For the moment, we would all go to the school in order to be there to observe the JRV’s setting up, but after the voting had been going on for a while we would return to the house one or two at a time for breakfast. We would also all take a lunch break.
We entered the school grounds through an iron gate under the watchful gaze of several national police officers in their navy blue uniforms. Inside, we split up to cover the four alphabetically arranged classrooms that were being used as polling stations. Rachel took number one, Jennifer two, Mike three and Ed and Margaret four. Catie and I would float among all four rooms and fill in when one of our colleagues took a break. I started out with Jennifer.
As we, and observers from the three political parties, watched, the JRV opened the cardboard box containing the polling materials, set out the registers, ink pads and indelible ink, counted the ballots and constructed the ballot box. The observers from the parties voted first, followed by the police. Then at 7 a.m. the polls opened to the public and for the next 10 hours a fairly steady stream of voters flowed through. Moving from room to room, and even to a couple of other polling places in the afternoon, one in Tecoluca itself, I believe I got a good overview of the election, or at least a sense of the voters.
They ran the gamut from young to very old. There were many young women with children in tow. There were also a number of old voters accompanied by their daughters and sons, mostly women, but some men as well. In most of these cases the daughter or son just helped their parent through the process, often accompanying them to the voting booth, but in one instance a woman voted by proxy for her mother.
The old woman was reclined in a wheelchair with a damp towel covering the upper part of her face as her daughter, with some help from people waiting to vote, rolled her up to the table. The daughter removed the towel, but the old woman looked to be, at best, semi-conscious, her eyes closed. Nevertheless, her daughter handed over her mother’s DUI, signed in for her, took a ballot and rolled her mother to the voting booth where the daughter cast her ballot for her. Her daughter then rolled her mother back to the ballot box where she deposited the ballot and then to the other end of the table where the ink pad and indelible ink were located. With her daughter physically manipulating the still seemingly unconscious woman’s hand, and with the assistance of one member of the JRV and an ARENA observer, the voting process was completed, to the point of the daughter sliding her mother’s DUI back between her fingers, even though her mother clearly couldn’t grasp it.
Given the rather extraordinary nature of this series of events, I asked the JRV member who had helped the old woman with the ink if it was allowed for someone to vote in this manner. She replied, “Yes, her daughter could vote for her.” The FMLN observer added: “It’s in the electoral code.” As everyone watched what was going on and nobody dissented, I concluded the vote must have been legitimate.
Throughout the course of the day, despite our best efforts, no one in our group witnessed anything very suspicious. Jennifer reported that when the ARENA observers in her room voted, they waved their completed ballots about, allowing for others to see their vote and technically violating its secrecy. However, given that the only people in the room at the time, other than Jennifer, were party representatives and that there was no secrecy about how they would vote, the violation was deemed simply technical. I had a voter approach me in the courtyard to tell me to keep an eye on one of the ARENA observer supervisors, a fierce looking man in a straw cowboy hat. I followed him around for a while, but saw no questionable activity. There was also some confusion over the indelible ink because it took 30 seconds or so to darken peoples’ fingers. Still, it wasn’t until after the polls closed and the votes were being counted that a real dispute occurred.
During the counting at Jennifer’s station, an argument broke out over a disallowed vote that the FMLN representatives believed was theirs. The issue was whether the ballot was clearly marked for the FMLN. The woman counting the vote ruled it invalid and the situation rapidly devolved into a shouting match among her, the FMLN and the ARENA representatives. Having strongly registered their objection, the FMLN representatives eventually accepted that they were not going to get the vote and the counting resumed.
By 7 p.m. or so the results had all been passed to the TSE representative and faxed in. At our polling place, the vote split was 54% FMLN, 36% ARENA and 8% UNIDAD. Nationally, the numbers were 49% FMLN, 38% ARENA and 12% UNIDAD, resulting in the need for a run-off election between the FMLN and ARENA, to be held March 9. Our work done, we withdrew to our refuge next door for dinner, after which we drove back to Guajoyo and pretty much fell into bed.
Monday morning at about 8 or so our delegation met at Marta’s for breakfast before going to visit the elementary students at the school. We returned to Marta’s for a lunch of fried fish and vegetables before gathering our belongings, bidding our hosts a fond farewell and heading back to San Salvador. That evening at Los Pinos we reconvened with the Cinquera team to compare notes and reflect on our experiences.
It seemed that the atmosphere in Cinquera had been more fraught. This may have been due to Cabanas being an ARENA stronghold, but in any event, there were significantly more disputes in Cinquera than we had in Tecoluca. (For an account of Election Day in Cinquera by Adam, see http:// politicsofpoverty/oxfamamerica.org/2014/02/el-salvador-new-democratic-norm/). In spite of the atmospheric differences between our polling places, we all agreed that we hadn’t noticed any serious violations. And we also agreed that it had been a moving experience to witness the democratic process play out, in some instances among individuals who not that long ago had been trying to kill each other.
Tuesday morning we had one more official activity, a joint Sister Cities/SHARE press conference at the Alameda. Representatives from the two organizations, with Catie as our spokesperson, read a statement to the effect that from our observations the election had been clean and then took questions. The press conference completed, we piled back into the van for the ride to the beach and a well-earned vacation day. (For additional photos, see www.vichinterlang.com).