U.S. – El Salvador Sister Cities 2014 Election Observation Delegation

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.

U.S. - El Salvador Sister Cities 2014 Election Observation Delegation: (left to right, front) Joaquin Chavez, Rachel Wyon, Esther Chavez, Margaret de Rivera, Ed Brylawski, Mike Berghoef, Cori Ring; (back) Jennifer Long, Adam Olson, Daniel Stein, Vic Hinterlang

U.S. – El Salvador Sister Cities 2014 Election Observation Delegation: (left to right, front) Joaquin Chavez, Rachel Wyon, Esther Chavez, Margaret de Rivera, Ed Brylawski, Mike Berghoef, Cori Ring; (back) Jennifer Long, Adam Olson, Daniel Stein, Vic Hinterlang

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.

The Cyber Café.  The mural was designed by Catie.

The Cyber Café. The mural was designed by Catie. Photo by Rachel Wyon

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.

Centro Escolar San Romilio

Centro Escolar San Romilio

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.

A woman votes by proxy for her mother.

A woman votes 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.

Ballot dispute between the FMLN and ARENA.

Ballot dispute between the FMLN and ARENA.

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).

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SOIL Operations, Port-au-Prince, June, 2013

My first morning out with SOIL in Port-au-Prince, Sasha Kramer, SOIL’s co-founder and Executive Director sent me out with Jimmy Louis, SOIL’s Sanitation Coordinator and Davidson Ulysses, SOIL Drum Collection Supervisor, to the Kan de Viktim tent camp to pick up empty drums from the public toilets managed by Marieneuve Fellisant. Once we had a pick-up bed full, we took them out to SOIL’s Trutier composting site, near the Port-au-Prince municipal garbage dump. While we were there, SOIL employees Junior Bazar and Antoine Yves cleaned the drums we had brought with soap and chlorinated water and filled dry ones with bagasse, shredded sugar cane or peanut shells used in the composting process. (See posts Haitian Soil, February 9, 2011; SOIL Operations, Cap-Haitien, June, 2013; photoessays SOIL, Haiti, July, 2012; SOIL Toilet Construction, Cap-Haitien, June, 2013; SOIL Operations, Cap-Haitien, June, 2013 and SOIL Operations, Port-au-Prince, June 2013 at www.vichinterlang.com and www.oursoil.org)).

Jimmy and Davidson load empty drums.

Jimmy and Davidson load empty drums.

Later that afternoon Jimmy and I went out to the Pernier composting site, now also being used as a garden where SOIL experiments with growing various crops with and without compost.  I took some pictures of the manager and another SOIL employee shoveling compost from the bed of a truck, as well as of the garden itself. I also did a couple of headshots of the manager, on his initiative. We then briefly went back by the office before heading off to speak to the proud owner of an EcoSan household toilet in the St. Etienne II neighborhood.

Jocelyne Augustin with her daughters, Pialuzzi and Standale outside their house.

Jocelyne Augustin with her daughters, Pialuzzi and Standale outside their house.

Jocelyne Augustin, who is probably around 30 years old and has two daughters, Standale, 12, and Pialuzzi, 7, has had her toilet for six months and is satisfied with its performance. “At first I was afraid it would smell, but it doesn’t,” she said. The toilet itself is basically a laminated wood box with room beneath the seat for one five gallon bucket for solid waste, and one one-gallon jug for urine. After each use the person who just used the toilet spreads bagasse, or shredded dried sugar cane or peanut shells, over the waste to initiate the composting process and vitiate odors. SOIL changes out the buckets and replaces the bagasse every two weeks. For 100 gourdes, or about $2, a month Jocelyne believes she’s getting a fair deal to have a private indoor toilet, which she admitted was strange at first.

SOIL Executive Director Sasha Kramer with SOIL Compost Team member Antoine Yves.

SOIL Executive Director Sasha Kramer with SOIL Compost Team member Antoine Yves.

I spent the next morning, my last in Port-au-Prince before flying to Cap-Haitien for a couple of days, taking portraits of the staff in the garden. This turned out to be big fun as a combination of Sasha, Tracy Thompson, a Program Assistant from Cap Haitien who was photographing the whole scene, and the staff waiting to have their pictures taken all helped enliven the proceedings. The waiting staff in particular was intent on making the current subject laugh while being photographed, sometimes using downed palm branches and other found items as aids. I generally took three or four pictures of each person, their expressions almost always ranging from very to not very serious over the course of the series.

After the photo shoot, Jimmy and I took a fairly long drive out to Titanyen, a government run and, in fact, one of only three waste treatment plants in the country besides SOIL’s. SOIL is considering trying to get a contract with the government to compost the waste that goes to Titanyen. One problem is that there is a lot of garbage, such as various kinds of plastic and cans, in the waste, but Sasha is confident that it can be filtered out. At any rate, it would be a significant expansion of SOIL’s operations should a deal be struck.

SOIL communal toilet in Cite Soleil.

SOIL communal toilet in Cite Soleil.

I finished up my time in Port-au-Prince in Cite Soleil. Jimmy and I went out to check the SACALA/Pax Christi Ayiti garden, which was much improved from my last visit, and some communal toilets. These four toilets, each in a porta-potty shell, are each shared by three or four families, each of which has a key to the padlock on the door. SOIL replaces the drums every two weeks for a small fee, but the maintenance of the actual toilets is the responsibility of the families. The spic-and-span toilets and hand-washing station reflect the pride the families take in them, and contrast sharply with the general atmosphere of Cite Soleil.

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SOIL Operations, Cap-Haitien, June, 2013

Theo Huitema, SOIL’s Cap-Haitien Regional Director, met me at the airport. After coffee and a bite to eat at the office, located downtown not far from the waterfront, I went out with Monika Roy, a Program Coordinator whose specialties are environmental economics and sustainable agriculture, to have a look at the SOIL farm in Limonade and the SOIL composting site in Mouchinette, just outside of Cap-Haitien. The farm, where Theo lives in a converted former compost bin, has seen a few changes since I visited a year ago. (See SOIL, Haiti, July, 2012 at www.vichinterlang.com and www.oursoil.org). There’s now an entire field filled with zaman (almond), zabriko (apricot), kakawo (cacao), zaboka (avocado), gwayav (guava), and kanel (cinnamon) trees, among others, and a large experimental peanut field. SOIL is testing the rate of growth of the peanuts with and without compost, looking at overall yields. The results have so far been as expected, with the composted plants far outstripping their deprived neighbors. And in another development, SOIL has added several additional fish tanks stocked with tilapia fed with compost.

Field of fruit trees at Limonade farm.

Field of fruit trees at Limonade farm.

The SOIL composting site in Mouchinette has also changed. There are now six composting bins as opposed to the three of a year ago. As we arrived, a couple of local SOIL employees were shoveling compost into bags while another sifted bagasse on a wood-framed metal sieve about five feet long by four wide. Also while we were there, Job Etienne the Agricultural Supervisor at the SOIL farm and compost sites, took compost samples to test for pathogen indicators (E. coli). This is a routine task meant to insure that harmful bacteria that exist in human waste being composted are killed in the first stage of the composting process, before the first turning.

From the composting site, we returned to the office for lunch and, for me, a bit of a break while Theo attended meetings. Later that afternoon, his meetings completed, Theo and I headed over to the Shada neighborhood to check out the household toilet bucket exchange. In the past year, the household toilet situation in Shada has gone from a pilot project with just a few families to a system that now services 130 families.

Jocelyn and Benick at work in Shada.

Jocelyn and Benick at work in Shada.

Once there, we met up with Jocelyn Cadet and Benick Nordeus, who were doing the bucket run. For the next hour or so, Theo, Madame Bwa, a community activist and SOIL public toilet manager in Shada, and I followed Jocelyn as he pushed his cart of 20 five gallon buckets through Shada’s narrow streets and alleys, exchanging empty buckets for full ones while Benick kept track of them in a notebook. Once Jocelyn had a full load, he deposited the buckets at one of the public toilets and reloaded his cart with empty ones.

Residents are supposed to pay 200 gourdes (about $4) a month for the household toilet service, slightly more than in Port-au-Prince, although because the service began as a free pilot project, SOIL is easing into the collection process. Ultimately, the 200 gourdes price is expected to cover the full cost of waste collection and toilet maintenance, laying the groundwork for social sanitation businesses to replicate the service around the country.

I spent my last morning in Okap (as Cap-Haitien is known in Creole) at the farm in Limonade observing Josaphat Augustin (SOIL’s Construction Coordinator) and SOIL employee Bos Ewod construct a formed concrete household toilet. Generally, the toilets have been a plywood box large enough to accommodate a five-gallon bucket, but SOIL is now experimenting with formed concrete toilets that have the advantage of being the shape of a traditional flush toilet, with enhanced durability, at a lower cost. (See post Haitian SOIL, February, 2011 for more on household toilets). In either case, the top of the toilet is a board with a hole cut in it. A molded polyurethane urine diverter is attached to the front of the hole in the board and a toilet seat is screwed onto the top. Josaphat and Monika demonstrated the molding of a urine diverter for me (See SOIL Toilet Construction, Cap-Haitien, June, 2013 at www.vichinterlang.com).

A formed concrete household toilet with urine diverter.

A formed concrete household toilet with urine diverter.

The equipment used to make the urine diverter is very simple, yet extremely efficient. A lidless aluminum foil-lined wooden box contains a hotplate. An appropriately sized wooden frame holds a thin sheet of polyurethane. The frame is placed on top of the box, the hot plate is fired up and, as the heat in the box builds, the polyurethane softens. When the polyurethane is sufficiently malleable, the frame is removed from the top of the box and the polyurethane is pressed down over a nearby plaster mold. The urine diverter is then removed from the frame and cut to fit the shape of the household toilet.

With its developments in the household toilet program, SOIL continues to advance toward its goal of providing not only dignified sanitation services, but also livelihoods for the people using those services. Although a great deal remains to be done, the progress I’ve witnessed over the past year augurs well for the future.

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Route des Rails Another Year On

Camp Chavez

Camp Chavez

It had been almost exactly eleven months since Brillant and I last visited the former inhabitants of the Route des Rails median tent camp (Route des Rails Follow-up, August 22, 2012) and two years since they moved into their new neighborhood that, on our most recent previous visit, was known as Brotherhood Village.  Although the name has now changed to Camp Chavez, in honor of the late Venezuelan president, little else has.  The steady deterioration we saw on our last visit has continued apace, abetted, if not directly caused, by the continued neglect and indifference of authority at every level.

A young woman resident led us to the home of an older man, who, although he holds no official title, seems to be the unofficial camp spokesman.  He told us basically the same story we heard on our last visit, that Camp Chavez is a forgotten camp.  No one, neither governmental authority nor NGO, comes to visit or offer aid.  Even the elementary school that was provided by the Slovenian government and the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) has not benefitted the camp inhabitants.

A hog relaxes in the mud outside non-functional toilets.

A hog relaxes in the mud outside non-functional toilets.

The spokesman complained that ADRA had hired teachers who were untrained solely because of their connections with the organization.  In addition, he noted that the camp residents are expected to pay the teachers’ salaries, clearly an impossibility, if they want their children to go to school.  Several other camp residents, who had gathered around, supported this story and added that the school now benefits, if a school with incompetent teachers can benefit anyone, the adjoining neighborhood.

Given the situation, I asked if the camp inhabitants could qualify for the roughly $400 stipend that the Haitian government is offering families to move out of tent camps.  He replied that he hadn’t heard of that possibility, but that the situation is so bad that people are finding ways on their own to move, mostly by going to live with relatives or friends.  After ten minutes or so, he reluctantly agreed to accompany us on a tour of the camp.

Street scene

Street scene

Walking around, dodging puddles of raw sewage, there being no functional sanitation system, we passed familiar sights.  People were sitting or standing outside their homes cooking, washing clothes, playing dominoes and doing each other’s hair.  Young children, some half, some totally, naked, played through the alleys.  All of which just seems to show that life goes on, even under extreme duress, until it doesn’t.

After a few minutes, Johnny Sterling, one of the young men who had guided us last year, appeared, significantly the worse for wear.  Whereas last year he was nicely dressed and healthy looking, now he’s rail thin, his ragged clothes hanging off of him.  Whether he’s ill or just malnourished, another woman told us she was hungry while tapping her stomach, the change was striking.  He accompanied us for the remainder of our visit, benefitting me particularly, as people were much more willing to allow me to photograph them with him essentially vouching for me.

Johnny Sterling in his doorway

Johnny Sterling in his doorway

It’s hard to see where, if anywhere, these people go from here.  They appear to be on their own to make whatever future they can for themselves.  And, in truth, this is the case for the vast majority of Haitians, assistance from any quarter, governmental or non-governmental, being rare and unreliable.  Nevertheless, that truth doesn’t make life any easier for the residents living among the squalor of Camp Chavez, who were, at a time that seems ever longer ago, promised support in building a better future.  (For more pictures, www.vichinterlang.com).

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Jane Chalker’s Cange, Haiti

I met up with Jane Chalker and Karen Brooksbank at the Port-au-Prince airport where they had a car and driver waiting to take us to Cange. Jane is a retired elementary school teacher and Karen is a speech language pathologist at the Highlands School in Highlands, North Carolina. Jane is a member of the Episcopalian Church of the Incarnation in Highlands, which has had a presence in Cange, originating with Jane, since 2002. Jane recruited Karen to come to assist Papouch, a student who suffers from stuttering.

Karen and Jane lead a Methodist youth group into Cange.

Karen and Jane lead a Methodist youth group into Cange.

Jane’s association with Cange began when she met Dr. Salzarulo, an anesthesiologist who had recently moved to Highlands and who had been coming to Haiti for eight years (See Jane’s Children video on YouTube). He asked her if she would come down for a week to teach English and she readily agreed. She spent that week teaching English classes to children from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and then teaching the teachers. One of those teachers was Leneus (pronounced Lenoose), who was cordial but not particularly friendly. On Jane’s second visit, in October, 2002, he was much friendlier and Jane mentioned this to him. He replied that the first visit he assumed that he would never see her again, as this was the pattern he had become accustomed to.

On this visit, Jane was accompanied by the Deacon of the Church of the Incarnation, and Beth, the wife of one of the priests. The Upper Diocese of South Carolina, to which the Church of the Incarnation belongs, wanted its churches to adopt a mission and Father Lafontant, a priest at Cange’s Bon Saveur Episcopal Church, asked Leneus, one of his parishioners, to take the delegation to Tierra Muscady, at that time an hour and a half drive northeast of Cange over dirt roads. The church there was a palm hut and the Deacon essentially decided on the spot that that was the mission the Church of the Incarnation should adopt.

When the delegation returned to Highlands, the Church of the Incarnation allotted money in its budget to build a school, as Father Lafontant and Leneus insisted that the school should precede the church. The school was completed on the site of the palm hut church in 2005. The first service at the church that replaced the palm hut was in September, 2011. Over the years, the Church of the Incarnation has expanded its support to provide educational opportunities through the Bon Saveur Episcopal Church and the LaPleiad Community School, which was founded by Leneus when Bon Saveur School reached its capacity and there were still children needing an education.

After a roughly hour and a half drive northeast of Port au Prince to Haiti’s central plateau, we arrived at the house Jane and her husband Selwyn, along with Father Mike Jones and his wife, built several years ago to accommodate Incarnation’s, and other’s, delegations. The stone and cinder block house sits on a hill about a quarter mile from the main road through Cange and consists of three large bedrooms, two bathrooms, a dining room/living area and a kitchen, as well as porches front and back and a staircase that leads to what is currently the roof, but could at some point in the future be a second floor. In addition, there are two wood frame guest houses on the property, each with two bedrooms and one bathroom.

We had a tasty lunch with Leneus of frittata and home cut French fries, after which Jane and Karen retired to their room for a rest while I settled in on the back porch to enjoy the southerly view and do a little reading. Around 3:30 or so I heard thunder in the distance and noticed an ominous looking incursion of clouds from the northeast. Intermittent thunder continued without really seeming to approach for a half hour or so, but then, suddenly, the wind picked up sharply, the sky darkened and thunder cracked closer. At about 4:15, the storm broke in a largely horizontal deluge, the wind whipping through the house, banging windows and doors and rousing Jane and Karen from their rest. The tempest continued for a half hour or so, knocking out the electricity and, at one point, causing Karen to physically hold the front doors closed in the not unreasonable fear that their banging would break their glass panes. The storm finally past, the three of us celebrated our survival on the back porch with Prestige, the award winning beer of Haiti, as the sun set.

Sunset from the back balcony.

Sunset from the back porch.

Shortly thereafter, some of the students the Church of the Incarnation is helping to go to school began to drop by. The first were Wilfrid and Diego (pronounced Jaygo), who arrived together. Wilfrid is in his third year of dental school and as part of his education works part time cleaning teeth at the Partners in Health (see Guerrier Carmine and Kerline Jean Louis, posted June 20, 2010) dental clinic in Cange. Diego is in 11th grade. Soon we were joined by Mani, a young woman in her second year of nursing school at Gonaive. Papouch also showed up, as well as Sonel, a teacher at the Community School.

At approximately eight o’clock, we had a candlelight dinner, the electricity still being out, of chicken legs, rice, black beans and mixed vegetables, including carrots, onions and squash. After we ate, I took advantage of the second bathroom in the house being vacant to have a proper shower, there being only a makeshift one of a large barrel filled with water and a ladle in my guesthouse, before retiring beneath my mosquito net. I started out sleeping on top of the sheets, but, surprisingly, woke up a little chilly during the night so slipped between them.

Kindergarten students practicing graduation dance.

Kindergarten students practicing graduation dance.

Waking feeling refreshed, I set out a little after seven only to find Jane, Karen and Sonel on the front porch about to begin an English lesson on common phrases. After a while, we retired to the dining room for coffee and a breakfast of peanut butter, pineapple and banana sandwiches. With Sonel’s departure for work, Jane, Karen and I put on our walking shoes and headed to the Partners in Health campus, also Cange’s WiFi hotspot, so that Karen could download some teaching apps to assist her in helping Papouch and Jane could check her email. That mission accomplished, we started back through the campus, stopping at the church to watch the Bon Saveur kindergarten students practicing the dances for their Sunday graduation ceremony. Finally, before leaving the campus, we visited Wilfrid at work in the dental clinic, where he showed us his office, stacked with patient files overflowing from the desk to the floor, and two not entirely serene looking patients having their teeth cleaned.

Returning to the house, Karen, Jane and Papouch, who had arrived in our absence, went out on the back porch for a session. Papouch’s friend Reberson, who had come along with Papouch, followed them, as did I. It wasn’t long though before Ezekiel, another student, and Diego showed up as well. With the situation clearly getting out of hand, Karen gave us a gentle shove and we all departed, Jane, Ezekiel and Diego for the dining room to work on hand made baskets of cardboard and candy wrappers that Jane sells in Highlands and Reberson and I to the front porch to talk. Actually, Reberson and I probably only missed out on the basket making due to a misunderstanding.

Reberson asked if I wanted to learn how to make baskets and, not understanding that he meant did I want to take part in what was actually collaborative basket making, I declined. Alone on the front porch, we spent a while discussing our lives, mostly his. Reberson is 19 and wants to be a doctor. Many of the students aspire to be doctors as PIH is the dominant institution in town. Reberson has a 21 year old sister, a 17 year old brother, Mekey, and seven year old twin brothers. Sadly, Reberson’s mother died recently of complications from a motorcycle accident, a development that Reberson is clearly still in mourning over. He is obviously grateful, as are all the students I met, for the assistance and support provided by the Community School and the Church, personified by Jane.

Around 4:30 that afternoon, just as Jane, Karen and I were settling in on the back porch for our afternoon Prestige, Brian Cloyd, a Baptist minister from Blacksburg, Virginia showed up. In addition to being a minister, Brian is a professor of Business Accounting at Virginia Tech University. But it was his ministry that brought him to Cange, as he is building a church here. We were soon joined by his 24 year old project manager, Nick. The church is scheduled to be dedicated in August and Brian had come down to check on its progress.

The following morning after breakfast, Brian, Jane and I walked over to take a look at the church, which appears to be coming right along. Workers were busy plastering, cutting rebar and arc welding among the puddles from the previous night’s storm as we wandered around, and through, the still roofless structure, roofless ourselves, as only supervisors get hard hats. Jane and I left Brian to tend to business and returned to the house, stopping briefly on the way to watch a bit of an impromptu soccer game being played with a football at the Community School. Once back home, we reunited with Karen and Papouch, their session concluded, to continue the work on baskets, which I had escaped the day before.

Basket making assembly line.

Basket making assembly line.

The baskets are made by folding paper or plastic, usually candy wrappers, over a thin cardboard strip about four inches long and one inch wide. You fold the strips in half lengthwise, then fold the narrower strip in half. Next you fold both ends to the center, then fold it in half again, making a link. The links are connected to make the basket. A couple of hours doing this makes you appreciate the beauty of the end of the manual assembly line.

That afternoon around 2:30 a van pulled up with a group from the First United Methodist Church of Bessamer City, North Carolina. The group was made up of twelve people, all women and girls but one, Preston Davis, the church pastor. Later in the afternoon two more women, Joy and Amber, arrived. They and Preston, all of them photographers, had worked together on a photo project in which they brought cameras to Cange and taught some of the children photography. They then printed the children’s photos and held a gallery show, with the proceeds from the photos sold going to the child photographers. This trip was to re-establish contact and introduce a new group to Cange.

Sunday morning we all walked to the Bon Saveur Episcopal Church to attend mass and the kindergarten graduation ceremony. The mass was scheduled to begin at nine o’clock, but didn’t actually get under way until almost 9:30, being on Haitian time. At that point, the church was only a little over half occupied, but by ten or so it had largely filled up. The mass ended about 10:30, and shortly thereafter the graduation ceremony began. The graduates, roughly 100 of them, entered down the center aisle and were seated front to back, boys on the left and girls on the right. Once everyone was in their places, the priest gave a half hour or so sermon that, unsurprisingly, had them squirming in their seats. You didn’t have to be five years old to sympathize.

Kindergarten graduation dance.

Kindergarten graduation dance.

Then there were speeches and readings, some by students and some by adults, interspersed with four dances performed by members of the graduating class. These were quite entertaining and for those of us not family of or graduates ourselves, clearly the highlight of the event. The first was a sort of Haitian national dance featuring straw hats and Haitian flags, but the crowd favorite was, some would say, a rather inappropriately suggestive dance where the girls turned around and gyrated their booties at the audience. The crowd went wild, however, when the one little boy dancer turned around and stuck out his skinny butt by knocking his knees together.

At long last, some four hours after we had arrived at the church, the school principal began handing out diplomas. The system was supposed to be that she would call out the name of a student who was at the front of the line, hand the diploma to a teacher who would then hand it to the graduate, giving the graduate a kiss on the cheek into the bargain. But, perhaps as should be expected when dealing with five year olds who had been expected to sit still for three hours, the system did not function exactly as planned, the result being that a number of students were either pushed to the front at the last minute, or simply had their diplomas passed to them up the line. And just to show that no good deed goes unpunished, the last to receive their diplomas were those at the top of the class, although their suffering was sweetened with gifts.

Monday morning Jane, Karen and I went with the Methodist Youth Group to the LaPleiade Community School to visit the classes. We began with the kindergarten where the group led the children in several dances, some of a religious nature and some not. From the kindergarten class, the group visited the first through sixth grade classrooms. However, given that the students were all taking exams, the visits were brief. On our way out, one of the teachers showed us a room filled with meals members of the Church of the Incarnation youth group had packaged and sent.

In the afternoon we all went in Leneus’ tap-tap (see Around Port au Prince, Part One, posted June 22, 2010 for a discussion of tap-taps) to Tierra Muscady, Casse and Ti Peligre, northeast of Cange. In Tierra Muscady we saw the school and the new church, a far cry from the palm hut it replaced. The youth group delivered toothbrushes, toothpaste and dental floss to the school in Casse. A member of the group would demonstrate correct brushing technique and request a brave volunteer. In the first class, kindergarteners or first graders from the look of the students, Preston had a little trouble getting a volunteer, then realized that no accommodation had been made for rinsing and spitting. The little girl just stood there grimacing for a few seconds, her mouth full of toothpaste, until one of the youth group chaperones hustled her out of harm’s way and gave her some water.

From Casse we set out on foot for Ti Peligre, our most remote destination. We walked for almost an hour, mostly uphill, on a dirt road through verdant rolling green countryside. Along the way we passed women on horseback carrying supplies in woven palm reed saddlebags, young children in their blue skirts and pants and blue checked shirt school uniforms leaving class and men driving cattle. We crossed a suspension pedestrian bridge over a river that was designed and built by Nick, the young engineer overseeing the construction of Brian’s church in Cange. Arriving at the church and school thoroughly hot and sweaty, we discovered that classes were finished for the day, although some students remained.

On the road to Ti Peligre.

On the road to Ti Peligre.

The youngest were soon at work with some of the youth group coloring in coloring books. It’s an indication of the isolation of communities such as Ti Peligre, and even Cange, that coloring books and crayons are a novelty that immediately draw a crowd, and not only among young children. Some of the high school students in Cange are perfectly content to sit and color for an hour or more at a time. And while we were there, the number of students did increase. The older kids got soccer balls and were soon happily kicking them around the schoolyard with other members of the youth group. Eventually Leneus led us to a porch where the church pastor made a little speech.

He thanked us for coming and told us how much they appreciated our interest and gifts. Then in a friendship ritual, one of the men who worked at the church whacked the tops off of coconuts with a machete and passed them around to us to drink the milk, with Jane going first. When we were finished drinking, he cut the coconuts in half and scooped out the meat for us to eat. Our visit at an end, we set out, accompanied by a number of the children, on the walk back to Casse. The children stopped at the bridge, leaving us to cross alone back to, more or less, modern civilization, and for me, my last night in Cange.

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Austin – Guajoyo Sister City Project

“The U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities Network is a grassroots organization of U.S. citizens and residents working in partnership with small rural communities in El Salvador. Through these partnerships, which began in 1986 as a citizen-based response to the U.S. intervention in El Salvador’s civil war, Sister Cities members work to develop economic and social justice throughout El Salvador and in their own communities in the U.S.  Sixteen sister cities from across the United States are paired with Salvadoran communities in 5 of El Salvador’s 14 provinces. The U.S. committees and their sister communities share political and moral solidarity, and strategy and advocacy for common struggles for peace and justice.”  U.S – El Salvador Sister Cities Orientation Packet for Delegations


Welcome to Guajoyo

Reading the Fall, 2012 Austin – Guajoyo Sister City Project Newsletter, I came across an item stating that Jennifer Long was planning a trip to Guajoyo in the next few months and inviting Newsletter recipients to contact her if interested in tagging along.  Jennifer is the Executive Director of Casa Marianella, an emergency homeless shelter in East Austin serving recently-arrived immigrants, asylum seekers and asylees and has been a member of the Austin – Guajoyo project since its inception.  While my wife Sharla and I have contributed modest financial support to the Austin – Guajoyo project for many years, and have discussed visiting, we had never done so.  But with a more or less open invitation staring me in the face, I decided that this could be the year.

A few emails and a couple of meetings later our delegation was set.  In addition to Jennifer and I, John Brickley, who grew up as almost a second son to Jennifer and her husband Walter, being one of their son Walter’s best friends, also signed on.  Unfortunately, due to inescapable work responsibilities, Sharla wasn’t able to come along.  Having filled out our Delegate Profiles and Waivers, reviewed the Delegation Orientation Packet and submitted our $325 registration fees to the U.S. – El Salvador Sister Cities Network, we boarded a seven a.m. flight to San Salvador on May 9.

Coming out of customs at Comalapa Airport around noon, we were met by Estela Garcia, the Salvadoran Co-Coordinator of U.S. – El Salvador Sister Cities in El Salvador, and Catie Johnston, a recent graduate of St. Edwards University with a degree in Social Work, and Austin’s first volunteer in Guajoyo, meaning that she will be living and working there for up to a year, or until November (to follow Catie’s adventures, go to www.austinelsalvador.wordpress.com).  Estela and Catie would be our hosts, facilitators and translators during our week-long visit. Estela was basically in charge of logistics and navigation, as well as our orientation.  Catie was our driver and primary translator, although Estela translated as well.  Exiting the airport into the humid heat of El Salvador’s coastal plain, we made our way to the small SUV that would be our transportation from there to Guajoyo, the mountains of the northern department (state) of Chalatenango and back.

Our first stop was the Los Pinos Casa de Huespedes where Jennifer, John and I would be spending the night.  Located in the center of town near the Camino Real Hotel (now the Intercontinental) that served as the unofficial headquarters of the international press corps when Sharla and I lived here from 1987 – 1989 and I worked as a freelance photojournalist, Los Pinos is liberally decorated with FMLN memorabilia and photos of guerillas, leaving no doubt about where the proprietors stand on the political spectrum.  Airy, with a small inner courtyard, it offered a comfortable start to our trip.  John and I would share one room, at a very reasonable $20 each, and Jennifer would occupy another.  The agenda for our first afternoon was lunch, a visit to the Museo de la Imagen y la Palabra (Museum of the Image and the Word) and orientation.

The Museo was started by Santiago, one of the driving forces behind the FMLN’s Radio Venceremos (Victory Radio) that broadcast primarily from a cave in the remote, northeastern department of Morazan during the war.  The museum featured some of the broadcasting equipment used by Radio Venceremos as well as a collection of guerilla portraits.  Additionally, the museum had a map showing migration routes to the U.S. and letters from Salvadorans who had made the trip.

Orientation began with Estela going over the information contained in the Delegation Orientation Packet.  This covered health and hygiene, personal security, cultural issues and the group process.  The information concerning health and hygiene was pretty much familiar to anyone who has travelled in the developing world.  Don’t eat unpeeled, raw fruit or vegetables, uncooked fish or basically anything for sale by street vendors.  Always drink bottled, purified water.  Sealed drinks, such as soft drinks and beer, are okay.  Put toilet paper in the trash can provided for that purpose so as not to clog up the plumbing.

As for security, Estela emphasized that San Salvador in particular is a high crime zone.  This is partly due to the serious gang problem and partly to common street crime.  She suggested that we not go out walking around after 8 p.m. and that we always exercise normal preventative measures.  Among these are not going out alone, always being aware of our surroundings and dressing modestly and inconspicuously.

Regarding cultural issues, Estela pointed out that we should always greet and shake hands with the people we met.  Also, when entering a room or someone’s home, we should always take the offered seat.  To decline indicates unhappiness in being there and a desire to escape as soon as possible.  Finally, in meetings, we should be prepared to introduce ourselves, stating who we are, what our position is and perhaps a little something personal about ourselves.

In explaining the group process, Estela offered a little background on CRIPDES, the Salvadoran organization with which the Sister Cities Project works.  Established in 1984 in the midst of the Salvadoran civil war, CRIPDES (then known as the Christian Committee of the Displaced) was formed to support displaced people returning to their homes.  It began organizing repatriations in 1986, accompanying and supporting refugees who had been living in Mesa Grande, Honduras in their return to San Jose Las Flores in Chalatenango, an active conflict zone.  In San Jose and the other communities CRIPDES supported, it assisted the residents in organizing to govern themselves while pushing for a fair resolution to the war.

When the war ended in 1992, CRIPDES became the Association for the Development of El Salvador.  Its mission now is to aid economic, social and political organizing in rural communities still struggling to achieve a just society.  CRIPDES works with local community councils (junta directivas in Spanish) as well as international and other Salvadoran organizations, to advance women’s empowerment, youth organizing, political participation, advocacy and the protection of the environment.  There are currently 300 rural communities organized through seven regional organizations under the CRIPDES umbrella.

This explanation essentially confirmed what I had suspected, that the Sister Cities are FMLN communities, populated by former guerillas, their families during the war and now their children.  Estela would later say that the current organizing principles are basically the same as those developed by the FMLN during the war when the FMLN in effect created a parallel society in the communities it controlled, although the Salvadoran government never acknowledged any such communities existed.

The last item in our orientation program was a cultural sensitivity role playing exercise.  Estela split us into teams of two and gave us two situations we might encounter and had us discuss how we might react.  Both situations were similar, the second, for which Catie and I and Jennifer and John were teamed, was that we notice that in a poor community where most people have very little, a few have expensive cell phones.  Without much difficulty we all agreed that given our limited understanding of the situation the thing not to do was to jump to conclusions.  As we were in El Salvador to learn about the lives of the residents in the communities we visited, we concluded that perhaps the best course of action would be to try to subtly figure out why the situation existed.


Panel discussion at the Metallic Mining Conference

Our first scheduled activities were dinner that evening and a conference the next morning with the International Allies Against Metallic Mining in El Salvador.  The conference, at the University of Central America (UCA), was attended by a diverse group of environmental and human rights activists, union leaders, policy makers, academics and journalists representing more than 30 countries and four continents.  It focused on the human and environmental damage produced by mining for gold and other metals.

In El Salvador, as well as Honduras and Nicaragua, mining companies often lure people into selling their land with false promises of good jobs.  Then, once the companies obtain the land, they strip it bare in the process of mining, adding to the problem of deforestation.  In addition, the run-off of the water used in the mining process, which contains heavy metals as well as other toxins, flows into rivers and streams.  One particularly chilling fact is that over 80% of El Salvador’s water comes from the Lempa River, which is already at risk from mining in Honduras and would be even more so if mining proceeds in Chalatenango.  As of now, mining there is blocked, largely thanks to the brave resistance of local communities, but there is great concern about what might happen if ARENA, the party of big business interests, regains the Presidency and control of the National Assembly in 2014 and 2015.

After having lunch at the conference, we went to a nearby grocery store to stock up on drinking water, roughly five gallons each, to carry us through our five days in Guajoyo and Chalate.  The back of the car completely filled with luggage and water, we set out on the roughly two and a half hour drive to Guajoyo.

Guajoyo is in San Vicente department, southeast of San Salvador, about two-thirds of the way from the western to the eastern border.  A community of approximately 200 families, it consists of small, mostly one room, houses strung along a dirt road.  The Catholic Church and the school, on the main road through town, and the community corn mill and soccer field, down an intersecting road, provide the community’s civic and social anchors.  On our arrival, we were treated like visiting dignitaries.

A welcome song

A welcome song

A good part of the community turned out in front of the church, holding signs of welcome.  We were ushered inside to a place of honor at the right front of the church, just in front of the altar where we were seated in plastic chairs, three of only 50 that the community owns.  Members of the junta collectiva made welcoming speeches, lauding Austin’s contributions to Guajoyo.  Then there were songs by a local band consisting of two guitarists and two singers and games that were actually as much, or more, in honor of Mothers’ Day, which was that Friday was in El Salvador, as our arrival.  Finally, it was our turn to perform.

Jennifer, being our delegation leader both by virtue of her involvement, having visited the two prior years, and her superior Spanish, went first.  She thanked the community for our welcome, told them how happy she was to be back and said she was looking forward to learning what was new since her last visit.  I went next and just said, in Spanish however, my name, that I’m a photographer and that I was very happy to be there.  John batted clean-up in much the same vein.

The official welcoming ceremony concluded, we left the church for a tour of the community.  But before we could leave the churchyard, Jennifer was accosted by a woman wanting to know why a bakery, a proposed project to be funded by the Austin group, hadn’t been built.  This served as John and my introduction to the local politics of the relationship.

As we were walking through the community, Julio, one of the singers in the band, and the religious coordinator for Guajoyo and a couple of nearby communities, asked me if this was my first time in El Salvador.  When I told him that I had been a photojournalist during the war and had visited San Vicente during that time, he mentioned that it had been dangerous.  I agreed, telling him that a colleague had been killed there on the day of the presidential election in 1989 when the army attacked while he and some other journalists were with the guerillas.  After that Julio got quiet and then changed the subject.

But that evening at a dinner of corn tamales and pupusas at Marta’s house (Catie and Estela had arranged for us to have dinner at a different person’s home each night), Julio was there and the fact that I was a journalist during the war came up again.  This started a round of war stories, beginning with Julio telling one about the guerillas essentially saving a group of journalists who lost all their equipment and very nearly their lives during an army attack at the Sumpul River in the early 1980’s.  Then he segued into the story of an attack on a patrol of the Atonal battalion of the army that he participated in when he was 19.

The Atonal was one of a half-dozen or so elite counterinsurgency battalions trained by U.S. Special Forces.  In Julio’s story, a group of 30 or 40 guerillas encountered a patrol of roughly the same number of Atonal troops and in the initial balacera, or firefight, 14 of Julio’s comrades were killed.  But the remainder withdrew and ran to get into position to ambush the Atonal on their way back to base, which they did, killing all but one, who escaped.  Then Julio sang a song he had written at the time about the battle.

Julio sings a "cancion de combate" as Marta and her husband, Oscar, look on.

Julio sings a “cancion de combate” as Marta and her husband, Oscar, look on.

Marta, and her mother, also had a story, about having to flee their home and live under a bridge where soldiers killed people and threw their bodies into the river.  Apparently there was another bridge controlled by the guerillas within shooting distance and firefights were frequent.  Marta reported that eventually the guerillas told the army that if it didn’t stop killing civilians on the bridge they would blow it up, which they ended up doing, fortunately not while Marta and her mother were under it.

After dinner, around eight o’clock or so, we retired to our accommodations.  We were staying in a three room cinderblock house owned by someone from the town living in the U.S.  It’s absolutely one of, if not the best, house in town and the only one with a flush toilet and shower, albeit in a separate building a short walk away.  There were three beds, one in each room, and a hammock in the largest room.  Estela and I took the two smaller rooms and John and Jennifer shared the larger one, with John sleeping in the hammock.  The first night Catie stayed at home with her Guajoyo family, but shared Jennifer’s bed, which was full size, the next two nights.  With the fans we had brought, the sleeping was fine.

Clockwise from lower left, Catie, John, Estela and Jennifer at our guest house.

Clockwise from lower left, Catie, John, Estela and Jennifer at our guesthouse.

The next morning after a breakfast of eggs, beans, tortillas and coffee, brought to us by Dona Carmen, the woman who lived next door and owned the property our guesthouse sat on, it was time for our meeting with the junta directive (community council) and communal committees.  Don Francisco, the mayor, was in charge.  We began with introductions and an overview of the agenda.  Then we proceeded to reports by the various committees, the three most important being the Youth Committee, the Women’s Committee and the Water Committee as these were all involved with projects that Austin had funded.

The Youth Committee, represented by a thin 17 year old named Darwin, was most excited about the Cyber Café.  Austin has provided materials, including a half-dozen or so old computers and modems to allow access to the internet.  The café is located in a building close to the soccer field and the Youth Committee was attempting to get it up and running while we were there.

Projects such as the Cyber Café are important in order to give young people something productive to do.  Even in Guajoyo, gangs are a threat.  The hope is that activities such as the Cyber Café will provide sufficient diversion that kids won’t go looking for trouble, or attempt to go illegally to the U.S.  In the same vein, Austin provides eight scholarships for young people to attend high school and university.  These, along with all the other projects are administered by CRIPDES, although the junta directive chooses the recipients.

For the Women’s Committee, the most important projects are the corn mill and the fencing for chicken coops.  But the corn mill is their pride and joy.  Located in a building across from the Cyber Café, it can run on either electricity or gasoline, having both an electric and an internal combustion engine.  Not only a huge physical effort and time saver, it has become a sort of community water cooler, where the women gather not only to grind corn, but also to socialize and exchange news.

The corn mill

The corn mill

A third potential project, the aforementioned bakery, is also of considerable interest.   There are a couple of differences of opinions regarding the bakery.  Promoters believe the bakery could be a success because it could serve not only Guajoyo, but two or three nearby communities as well.  Currently, the nearest bakery is in San Nicolas, a fifteen or twenty minute car ride away.   Although that bakery sells bread in Guajoyo and the other towns nearby, it sometimes runs out before everyone who wants bread gets it.

Skeptics worry that the bakery might be a major investment that fails.  They note that another community bakery failed because it turned out that people wanted French bread and the bakery wasn’t able to produce it.  And some just believe the money that would go into the bakery could be better used for other things.  Then, there is the split between the Youth Committee and the Women’s Committee.

It turns out that both committees want to be in charge if a bakery is built.  The Women’s Committee feels that baking is something traditionally done by women.  But the Youth Committee believes it would be a great opportunity for young people and that perhaps they would be more attuned to people’s desires because, well, they’re young.  Finally, a compromise proposal that the two committees could share responsibility was offered and seemed acceptable to both.  However, there’s still no active project to build a bakery.

The big news from the Water Committee was that the town had basically constructed a new system to bring spring water to Guajoyo and its neighboring communities, Miramar and Granzaso.  Over the course of roughly a month, the residents had worked shifts in teams of 15 for 12 to 15 hours a day to lay pipes and put in a 20 odd foot deep natural filtering system made from sand and gravel on a mountain roughly an hour’s walk from town.  On a less positive note, the plastic water tank that Austin had provided to Guajoyo, located adjacent to the soccer field, was leaking and could not be fixed.

Marta's chicken coop

Marta’s chicken coop

At the conclusion of the meeting we set out to visit the projects that had been funded by the Austin Committee.  We began with a visit to a home whose yard was neatly enclosed by a chicken wire fence roughly six feet tall.  From there we proceeded to the corn mill, passing by the brightly painted violet and orange Cyber Café that was not yet ready for an interior inspection, being still under construction.  Although no corn was ground during our visit, the gasoline engine was cranked up to full throttle, billowing great clouds of smoke and almost breaking Darwin’s wrist in the process.  Our next stop was the water tank, suspended on a stand eight or ten feet above ground level, and, indeed, leaking.  Our last visit was to Marta’s neat chicken coop, occupied by a number of plump, healthy looking chickens.  This, however, was somewhat deceptive, given that a recent epidemic had wiped out a large portion of the local chicken population.

After lunch, we strolled down to the Lempa River with members of the Youth Committee for some riparian entertainment.  The river at Guajoyo is about half a mile wide, flowing at a fairly languid pace.  We all went in for a refreshing dip and everyone but me went for a ride in a genuine dugout canoe.  After a snack of a homemade licuado made of purified water, local fruit and sugar, we headed back to town.

The remainder of the afternoon until dinner was open except for an optional 5 o’clock mass that only Jennifer attended.  John and I, in the meantime, took pila baths, there being no water flowing to the shower.  A pila is a large sink, usually located outdoors and usually filled from a spigot.  The water is used for almost everything, cooking, washing clothes and dishes and bathing, to name a few.

Taking a pila bath

Taking a pila bath

To take a pila bath, one wears shorts, or in my case, my swimming suit, for modesty, and uses a bowl, or guacale, to dip water from the pila and pour over oneself.  It’s actually quite an efficient way to bathe.  Shaving without a mirror was a bit trickier, but I managed it without hurting myself by imagining my reflection was actually there in the bushes.

The following day, Sunday, began with a visit to the newly installed water system.  A group of us pretty much filled the bed of a pickup, standing and holding onto the metal frame rising above the bed, for the almost hour ride.  We parked in a clearing and walked the last half mile or so uphill.  The system was quite an impressive sight to see.  The mountain sloped down to a stone and concrete box covered by a hinged, vented green metal lid.  Francisco and Julio explained the system.

Francisco explains the new water system.

Francisco explains the new water system.

The slope leading to the box consisted of the filtering material.  Spring water flows down the mountain and into pipes in the box that carry it to Guajoyo and its neighboring communities.  Excess water flows out of the box down the mountain into the jungle below.

We returned to town just in time to hop in our car and head to the home of Gilma del Carmen Romero, a few miles outside of Guajoyo.  Gilma was the wife of Freddy, a CRIPDES staff member who was shot and killed last year by unknown assailants while waiting for a bus just down the road from his home.  In addition to Gilma, Freddy left three young children.

With the assistance of CRIPDES, the Sister Cities program and CORDES, a sister organization to CRIPDES, Gilma has been able to install a fish pond, an enclosed chicken coop and a new latrine.  We went to visit to view the improvements, but as much, if not more, to offer moral support.

However, perhaps in the future Austin can offer something more concrete.  Working in the fields is the husband’s job in El Salvador, leaving Gilma at a loss in yet another way.  Jennifer, therefore, suggested looking into the possibility of arranging for someone to help Gilma plant her crops.  After a lunch of vegetable soup and grilled chicken, and a long chat between Jennifer and Gilma, we took our leave and headed back to Guajoyo.

Sunday afternoon we, along with a substantial part of the rest of the community, attended a soccer game between Guajoyo and San Miguel, which Guajoyo won.  Then, just at dusk, we attended our farewell party at the school.  Members of the Youth Committee put on a show outside on a concrete slab that could serve as a basketball court or dance floor, as well as a stage.  Members of the drama club put on a short play about the dangers of gangs, the comedy troupe performed a skit about an ugly guy who is granted the gift of beauty, with unintended consequences, and the breakdance team leapt and whirled, all emceed by Catie.  But, although this was our official farewell party, we were not quite finished with Guajoyo yet.

Checking out the Cyber Café with Darwin

Checking out the Cyber Café with Darwin

Monday morning before we left we visited the elementary school to see the students in class, stopping by the now almost functional Cyber Café on the way.  In Guajoyo students go to school only half a day.  Children in kindergarten through fourth grade attend in the morning and those in fifth through ninth grade in the afternoon.  School attendance is free and the national government provides uniforms and supplies through one of its most popular policies.  Most of the classes we visited had desks for up to 20 students, although the kindergarten, where Jennifer delivered a set of blocks she had brought, had room for twice that many.  After visiting the classrooms, we attended our second farewell party.

A farewell dance

A farewell dance

This time, a group of the older students, the girls dressed in colorful dresses and the boys mostly in white shirts, dark pants and straw cowboy hats, performed a traditional folk dance.  Featuring high stepping and intricate patterns, it provided a fitting send-off .

From Guajoyo, we drove to a meeting with the CRIPDES San Vicente team at their headquarters.  This was essentially an update of their activities, but was enlivened by a spirited discussion between Jennifer and a couple of the CRIPDES members, Erika and Esmeralda, regarding priorities.  CRIPDES’ official position is that organizing for political action is their number one priority and projects, such as the Cyber Café for example, are secondary.  Jennifer took issue with this, arguing that organizing and projects should go hand in hand.  After a bit of back and forth, Erika and Esmeralda seemed to largely accept Jennifer’s point of view.

Our next meeting, at the same location, was with a group of scholarship students.  Sister Cities provides scholarships of $25 a month to help high school and university students pay for transportation and food.  In return, the students are expected to not only attend school, but become leaders in their communities, starting by attending monthly assemblies that address such issues as leadership, political formation and gender issues.  In addition, the students should join the Youth Committee and attend meetings of the junta directiva.

Guajoyo’s seven high school scholarship students have to travel to San Nicolas, almost an hour away by public transportation, as there is no high school in Guajoyo.  In addition, Guajoyo has one student, Carlitos, with a scholarship to attend the Lutheran University in San Salvador.  Because of his responsibilities in Guajoyo, he can only attend on Saturday.  This schedule requires him to leave Guajoyo Friday night so that he can catch the first bus from San Nicolas to San Salvador Saturday morning.  He attends classes all day and returns that night.  Sunday, he collects people’s water payments and often leads work teams, including one for the new water system.

Our final meeting at CRIPDES was a briefing on the effects of growing sugar cane in Tecoluca.  Sugar cane cultivation along the coast has expanded greatly in the last decade, primarily due to the demand for ethanol.  This has resulted in farmers switching from growing locally consumed crops, such as corn, beans and millet, to sugar cane.  The sugar cane cultivation is dependent on the use of pesticides that have been linked to greatly increased rates of kidney disease, and, in fact, there has been a significant increase in the incidence of kidney disease and premature death among the men who work in the sugar cane fields.  CRIPDES is pushing for environmental groups and the Salvadoran government to seriously address the situation, so far without much success.

Our meetings with CRIPDES completed, we set out at about 2:30 on the approximately three hour drive to San Jose Las Flores in Chalate.  Crossing the Rio Lempa, I was hit with a wave of nostalgia recalling the Salvadoran army reten, or checkpoint, that was omnipresent there during the war.  Without a safe conduct pass from army headquarters in San Salvador, this was usually as far as journalists were allowed to go.  But now, it’s just another bridge.

Pulling into San Jose Las Flores, a pretty, almost Alpine town with a proper plaza anchored by a large church, we went straight to the alcaldia to meet with Felipe Tovar, the mayor.  Felipe filled us in on the town’s struggle to prevent gold mining in the area.  Initially, the community leaders tried to reason with the mining company representatives, telling them they were not welcome and believing that they had been convinced to abandon their plans.  However, when the mining company went behind the community’s back to try carry out its plans, Felipe and other community leaders decided it was time to employ some nonviolent direct action.

Having discovered that the leader of the mining company, along with three carloads of workers and company representatives from the U.S. and Canada, were planning a visit to the neighboring community of Guarjila, Felipe and the community leaders went door to door the night before to organize a protest.  When the mining company representatives arrived at 6 a.m., they were met by a crowd of 500 residents from the surrounding communities who blocked their way and drove them out of town.  The battle was won, but unfortunately, the war goes on.

We spent the night at a school just off the plaza that’s now used to host delegations and had a simple dinner of bean and cheese pupusas and beer at the comedor, the only restaurant in town.  The next morning we visited the communal projects in San Jose Las Flores, the bakery, which might provide a model for Guajoyo, the handicraft, sewing and screen printing workshops and what can probably best be described as a general store.

The bakery in San Jose Las Flores

The bakery in San Jose Las Flores

As we talked to the workers at the projects, a mixed picture emerged.  While all of the workers were proud of their roles, a consistent theme was that each of the enterprises was barely profitable.  The woman who managed the general store, in the process of showing us the extent of manual bookkeeping required to guarantee transparency, complained that a woman who had previously worked at the store had quit and gone into competition, cutting into business.  This tension seems to speak to the uneasy marriage of socialism and capitalism that the communal projects are trying to pull off.

After our visit to the communal projects, we took a short ride out of town to the Sumpul River Tourist Center for a pescado frito lunch and, in my and Catie’s cases, a swim in the roughly half Olympic size pool, with water slides that Catie insisted be turned on.  In addition to the pool and restaurant, the Tourist Center features a covered pavilion suitable for dancing and cabins that can be rented.  Although largely deserted on this Tuesday, the Center does a big business on weekends and holidays.

Our last scheduled activity of the day was a meeting with Nelson, the principal of the San Jose las Flores elementary school.  But on our way we ran into Sister Theresa, a nun who has lived and worked in Chalate since the war.  She had just returned from a commemoration of the 1980 Sumpul River Massacre where the army killed more than 600 civilians, among them women and children, as part of its scorched earth policy of that time.  She reported a turnout of perhaps as many as 500 people, all of whom had to walk an hour or more each way over sometimes treacherous terrain to reach the site.

We met Nelson at the school and sat outside in the shade as the sun slid down and he explained how he came to his current position and the theory of popular education.  A survivor of the Sumpul River Massacre as a very young boy, Nelson fled to Honduras, only to return to San Jose Las Flores when the community was re-populated in 1986.  A precocious student, and just a little too young to become an FMLN combatant, he found himself a teacher at the age of 13, often instructing students older and larger than himself.  With the peace agreement in 1992, he and his fellow teachers went to university in order to become certified by the Salvadoran government.

Nelson shows us the school garden.

Nelson shows us the school garden.

All schools in El Salvador must teach a core curriculum.  However, there is flexibility allowed as to the manner of teaching.  In San Jose Las Flores, as well as a number of the other Sister Cities, the schools employ the popular education model developed by the FMLN during the war.  This is an interactive approach in which the students and teachers work as a team, with significantly more student input than in a traditional classroom where the teacher spends most of her time standing at the front of the room while the students sit at their desks.  As an example of the popular education model, Nelson and one of the students took us on a tour of the school garden.

The following morning, Wednesday, May 15, we departed San Jose Las Flores at 7:30 for Suchitoto and a meeting with members of PROGRESO and some high school scholarship students.  While central Suchitoto has become a tourist destination, the outlying areas suffer from the same challenges as other small Salvadoran communities, including a lack of jobs and the threat of gang violence.  Still, two of the scholarship students proudly reported having established radio stations in their communities, also a possibility in Guajoyo.  After the meeting the five of us drove to a nearby restaurant overlooking Lake Suchitlan for lunch on our way out of town.

Back in San Salvador, we met with the coordination team of the Movement of Popular Resistance October 12th , better known simply as MPR-12.  The group’s name is in recognition of October 12, 2002, when in response to CAFTA (Central America Free Trade Agreement) countries from Mexico to Panama closed their borders to the passage of goods.  This event precipitated a coming together of popular organizations and unions with the shared goal of mobilizing the people to demand that their needs and ideas be represented in government and the decisions it makes.

Three issues of particular interest that were discussed were metallic mining, which is, of course, a trans-national concern, and human rights and upcoming elections in Honduras and gangs in San Salvador.  In 2009, Honduran president Manuel Zayala was deposed in a military coup, ushering in an ongoing period of repression and violence.  Land rights activists, human rights lawyers and journalists have all been targeted, in some cases resulting in their deaths.  The second elections since the coup are scheduled for November and a Salvadoran MPR-12 delegation of poll watchers plans to attend.

Near the end of the meeting, two high school scholarship students spoke of their efforts to fend off gang violence in their neighborhood.  Although they live surrounded by gangs, they have so far managed to maintain the integrity of their area by organizing mutually supportive youth committees.  It was an inspiring story, especially given its against all odds nature.

From MPR-12, we returned to Los Pinos where we would spend our last night in El Salvador.  Around a dinner at a very pleasant open air restaurant where I finally had my first Pilsener beer, my Salvadoran favorite, of the trip, we held a de-briefing session where we discussed our impressions of the trip and possible future Austin-Guajoyo Sister Cities activities.

Thursday morning we had an early meeting with Marcos Galvez, President of CRIPDES, at which he basically fleshed out the information we received at the briefing with the San Vicente team.  Then it was back to Comalapa where Estela and Catie, our intrepid, gracious and indispensable, not to mention delightful, hosts, dropped us off.  (For more pictures, www.vichinterlang.com).

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Route des Rails Follow-up

Brotherhood Village, Carrefour, Haiti

The last time Brillant and I visited the former residents of the Route des Rails median tent camp in January, 2011, they were happy and excited to be moving into their new neighborhood, later to be named Brotherhood Village, of brightly colored, one room, fiberboard homes. (Eating Crow in Carrefour, January 17, 2011)  Now, a year and a half later, little apparent happiness and excitement remained. Guided by several of the young men we had previously interviewed and photographed, we moved through the narrow streets listening to the residents’ complaints and disappointments.

A number of the residents told us that since moving in, the community hasn’t received any assistance from USAID, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) or the Carrefour municipality, the organizations that were responsible for the move. Others, however, pointed out that the Carrefour municipality had partnered with the Government of Slovenia to acquire a pre-fabricated metal primary school, resembling a row of shipping containers with windows and doors, and with Water Missions International to provide public toilets, which, unfortunately, are non-functional due to the failure of the water system meant to supply them.

Pre-fabricated primary school

In any case, there’s no dispute that the houses, built to last three years, are deteriorating. Many have been scrawled with graffiti, and one resident showed us a hole at the corner of his house made by rats chewing their way inside. In addition, the houses flood, up to a foot deep, in heavy rains, which are common. There’s no electricity, potable water or health care. And with no law enforcement presence, crime is constantly lurking.

Residents of Brotherhood Village

Among the people we talked with, there seemed to be agreement that the situation has gotten worse since Michel Martelly was elected president, but little anger directed at him, perhaps because the residents realize this would have happened no matter who is president. And in fact, they look to Martelly, through the national government, as their best chance for improvement, hoping that he can somehow directly accomplish what the organizations that set up the neighborhood have not. Unfortunately for the residents of Brotherhood Village, the odds of that happening are about as long as those that they would end up living in the Route des Rails median tent camp to begin with.

To view more photographs go to www.vichinterlang.com.

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Two Nights in Ciudad Juarez, August, 2011

Luis, my host and guide, and I were out and about in his Jeep when, at about nine at night, we came upon the Festival of San Lorenzo at the San Lorenzo church in downtown Ciudad Juarez. San Lorenzo, a third century martyr supposedly grilled to death on orders of Roman Emperor Valerian, is the patron saint of Ciudad Juarez and this was his day. His festival had nothing of the grim circumstances of his demise, nor of Ciudad Juarez’s current reputation, about it.

Festival of San Lorenzo

All was frenetic action in the courtyard to the church’s left as well as in the plaza facing it. Groups of the faithful, dressed for some reason as if they belonged to various American Indian tribes, performed highly choreographed dances to the rhythm of pounding drums. In and among the Indians, fantastical masked characters ranging in appearance from satyrs to clowns to Father Time circulated. Each dance went on and on at an increasingly frantic rate until it ended in a spasm of ecstatic exhaustion.

Eventually, after Luis and I had been at the church for an hour or more, and still in the midst of the dancing, the San Lorenzo procession arrived. Led by a pickup with a small statue of the saint attached to the roof , the procession reportedly stretched several miles and consisted of thousands of believers. On this night at least, San Lorenzo seems to have trumped the cartels in downtown Ciudad Juarez.

Festival of San Lorenzo

We were relaxing at Luis’ house the following evening, digesting another excellent dinner prepared by Nanna Chalia, Luis’s nanny when he was growing up, when the call about the body in the empty lot came. It was nearing seven when we set out into the rapidly gathering dusk. By the time we arrived at the scene almost half an hour later, there was just enough light left for me to photograph without using flash.

The victim, a young man with close cropped hair wearing a white, now blood-stained, shirt and black pants lay on the bare dirt as Federal Police officers, some wearing ski-type masks to protect their identities, examined him. It was not an extensive evaluation. The cause of death, gunshots from an AK-47, was both obvious and no doubt very familiar. Within a few minutes of our arrival, the police finished writing up their report and began the process of removing the body.

Federal Police remove a murder victim

One of the officers stretched a black body bag out parallel to the victim and unzipped it. Then he took the body by the wrists while another officer grabbed the pants legs at the ankles and the two of them lifted him, sagging toward the ground as rigor mortis had not yet set in, and eased him into the body bag. The officer who had laid out the body bag then folded the victim’s arms across his chest and, with his partner holding it taut, zipped the bag shut. The two men then placed the body on a stretcher and loaded it into the coroner’s van which soon departed for the morgue.

Later that night as Luis and I continued driving around the city, we received a report of another murder victim. After much searching and consultation with Luis’s source, we finally arrived at the scene. By the time we got there a couple of TV crews and several other photographers were already in place. However, there wasn’t anything to see.

The press was restricted to an empty lot between two houses. Across the street was another empty lot containing a steep hill that loomed over the houses in the neighborhood. As we watched, Federal Police entered the lot and, using flashlights to light the way, disappeared from view around the hill. A short time later one or two returned, but that was the extent of the observable activity. After a half-hour or so Luis decided we should leave.

As we drove off we passed the other side of the hill and decided it might be worth trying to climb to the top to see what we could see. Starting up I saw figures at the top, probably forty or fifty feet above us, and I thought they were police. But they were other journalists instead and one of them shouted down that we had to climb up because the view was incredible. He didn’t exaggerate.

Federal Police examine a murder victim

The hill directly overlooked the murder scene in the courtyard of a house. As police examined the body of the victim, Ciudad Juarez glittered to the horizon. The perspective made it appear that the courtyard was below street level, as if in a cave. And this seemed appropriate, given the nature of the scene I stood photographing.

To view more photographs, see www.vichinterlang.com.

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Presidential Run-off, Port-au-Prince, March 20, 2011

Brillant and I got a relatively late start covering the presidential run-off between Michel Martelly and Leslie Manigat, setting out on foot from the Palm Inn at about 10:30. It being a national holiday, for the first few blocks of our trek in the general direction of downtown we saw only a handful of other pedestrians and the very occasional car or pickup. We arrived at our first polling station, a fairly large school, after about a ten minute stroll.

Fried plantain vendor at polling place

In the courtyard beyond the open gate, voters were coming and going. There was an orderly line of twenty or thirty people standing in the sun waiting to enter the building. A fried plantain vendor circulated, carrying his stock in a wire basket balanced on his head. Going to the head of the line and peering inside, I saw two election workers sitting at a desk checking voter identification cards.

Brillant slipped in and asked them if I could come in to take pictures. They said I could if I had a press identification card, which, technically, I didn’t. Partly because of this, but more because the interior was so dark that it would have been impossible to photograph without using flash, I chose to move on and hope for better conditions.

Our next stop, just a few blocks down the road, wasn’t a polling place, but rather the Centre du Vote where voters went to locate their Delmas 31 polling places. Within another courtyard, six rows of eight and a half by eleven inch typewritten pages placed edge to edge stretched along a wall fifty yards long. Voters peered at the pages searching for their names. In the center of the courtyard, a poll worker surrounded by people sat holding what looked like the same information contained in a sheaf of paper. While I was photographing this scene, another poll worker challenged me.

Poll worker surrounded by voters looking for their polling places

Brillant told him that I’m a journalist from the U.S. covering the election and showed him my business card. This satisfied him and he gave me a thumbs-up to show his approval. Apparently, the bar for press credentials is pretty low here, which is a good thing for me. Of course, under the circumstances, there was really no reason to suspect that I was anything other than what I appeared to be.

From the Centre du Vote we walked to a fairly major artery that would take us further towards downtown. Here, we saw tap-taps running and hopped aboard one. Reaching the point where we needed to change, we found ourselves across the street from another school. We went upstairs to a classroom where people were actually voting and this time the light was sufficient to allow me to take pictures without using flash. Brillant did his card trick again and I was cleared to proceed.

Man voting at a school being used as a polling place

For the next half-hour or so we remained there and in an adjoining room that could be accessed through a hole in the wall. The activities to photograph were voters getting their ballots, marking them behind a cardboard screen about three feet tall and divided into four quadrants, placing them in the voting boxes and having their fingers marked to show that they had voted. Interestingly, for all their reluctance to be photographed generally, people by and large didn’t object to being photographed voting and a number of them seemed positively happy about it. I asked Brillant about this.

“I think it is because this is a public thing and everybody understands that. People are used to elections being photographed. When we go to the camps it is a personal thing and people are more suspicious.”

As we got closer to downtown, we came upon the first polling place we had seen with U.N. troops providing security. As we approached, an APC rumbled by and outside we found a small detachment of Brazilian troops, fully outfitted with weapons and blue helmets, flanking the entrance. Once inside we found much the same scene as the one we had just left. The only security issue we observed involved a voter who had lost his voter identification card, but was demanding to be allowed to vote anyway. This resulted in some raised voices, but finally the man left peacefully, accompanied by a couple of poll watchers, without voting. From here we continued towards the Champs de Mars and the Presidential Palace, shortly coming to a large, three story school very near them.

Brazilian U.N. troops providing security outside a polling place

Here we encountered the most significant U.N. presence of the day. In addition to numerous troops standing outside the entrance, there was an APC parked just down the street. The reason for this heightened security was probably related both to the size and the location of the school, being near the seat of the Haitian government and in an area known for its insecurity. However, inside the expansive courtyard calm prevailed as voting proceeded in an orderly fashion. Moving past the Champs de Mars tent camp and the Presidential Palace through streets largely empty except for U.N. peacekeepers, we reached our last stop, a small school, a little after four.

Outside, there were just a few U.N. soldiers standing guard as voters looked for their names on the courtyard wall in the declining afternoon light. Upon entering, I saw open air classrooms to my left and internal classrooms to my right. Given that the light was relatively good in the open air rooms, I spent my time photographing there. The polls were scheduled to close at five and business seemed to be dropping off. Many of the poll workers, with nothing else to do, stood around chatting. It was a quiet end to what appeared to be a quiet election day in the capital.

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Bon Retour J.B. Aristide

Welcome home march in Aristide's Tabarre neighborhood

On Saturday, March 12, one week and one day before the Haitian Presidential run-off election between Leslie Manigat and Michel Martelli, there was an article on page two of the Austin American Statesman announcing that Jean Bertrand Aristide’s return to Haiti from exile in South Africa was “imminent.” The article went on to note that President Barack Obama was sufficiently concerned about the potentially destabilizing effect of such an occurrence that he had telephoned President Jacob Zuma of South Africa and President Rene Preval of Haiti to personally ask them to do what they could to prevent it.  For me, the destabilization was immediate, forcing a reconsideration of my decision not to return to Haiti for the run-off.

That decision was based on evidence that with the two most popular candidates from the first round of voting in the run-off, and Jude Celestin, the hand-picked candidate of President Preval, out of the picture, the final round would be an orderly affair. However, if Aristide, who remains hugely popular among Haiti’s poor, returned at some point in the week leading up to the election with mischief in mind, all bets were off.

I had little doubt that I should go if Aristide went back. But, despite the declaration in the article that his return was imminent, there was no guarantee that it would actually happen prior to the run-off. It occurred to me that Aristide might be trying to influence the election simply by saying he was going back. Then, there was the question of whether the government of South Africa, or of Haiti, would yield to President Obama’s blandishments and somehow prevent Aristide’s return.

So, given the uncertainty of the situation, I decided to take a wait and see attitude. Rather than going and hoping Aristide would show up, I waited and hoped that if he did, I would have enough notice to get to Haiti ahead of him. It almost worked out.

Throughout the week, I diligently scanned the news online several times a day, but there was nothing. By early Thursday afternoon, I had pretty much decided that the announcement of Aristide’s return had been a feint. Then, at about three, as I was getting ready to go to a St. Patrick’s Day celebration at the Dog and Duck Pub, I decided to do one more check before I left, and there it was. The AP story stated that Aristide was on his way to the airport in Johannesburg and was expected to arrive in Port-au-Prince Friday around noon.

After discussing the situation with Sharla and weighing in my own mind the odds of Aristide’s return actually being disruptive, I decided that I should assume the worst regarding his motives and get to Haiti as soon as I could. Sharla, though considerably less than enthusiastic, particularly regarding the price of a flight leaving the next morning, consented to indulge me.

I booked an American Airlines flight leaving Austin at 6:50 a.m. and arriving in Port-au-Prince at 3 p.m. and hoped that Aristide would be somehow delayed. Unfortunately for me, he was on a charter flight and actually arrived earlier than expected, at about 9:15 a.m., while I was still in mid-journey. By the time I got to town at about 4:30, my flight from Miami being late departing, Aristide was already ensconced in his villa in the Tabarre neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, the initial flush of excitement at his return already fading.

When Brillant’s next door neighbor Jean drove us by on the way to the Palm Inn Hotel, there were just two Haitian policemen standing in front of the locked gate and a small crowd of curious onlookers mingling across the street. Nevertheless, the possibility of auxiliary excitement, perhaps in the form of a demonstration in front of Aristide’s home the next day, remained. Consequently, at about nine the next morning, Brillant and I set out by tap-tap for Tabarre.

Even as we were climbing down, Brillant said “There is something happening” and pointed up the street. I didn’t see it, but unhesitatingly followed along, matching Brillant’s brisk pace. Within a half block or so of turning the corner, we could see, and hear, the tail end of the march, which consisted of some sort of a band, a block and a half or two blocks ahead. Increasing our gait to a jog, we overtook the march a block or so later.

La Kove Rara sets the tempo for the march

It was a small, probably no more than 150 people, but enthusiastic pro-Aristide organization called Asosyasyon Baz Solide an Aksyon Tet Ansanm (roughly, Association Based in Solidarity of Action to Move Forward), abbreviated to ABA Satan, which gave me the false impression that it was a religious group. As the march proceeded, the band, La Kove Rara, consisting of a dozen or so musicians playing what looked like oversized vuvuzuelas, a variety of drums and cymbals, beat out a lively rhythm. I had hoped that the march was going to Aristide’s place, but as it turned out it was heading to the group’s headquarters. This was simply a large tent under which about 50 chairs were set up in four or five rows.

Etienne Getro dancing in the lead

In a brief interview, Etienne Getro, the group’s leader, said that ABA Satan, banned during Aristide’s exile, (and, technically, probably still so) is a political and social organization dedicated to fighting for education, health and economic progress for the Haitian people. He added that its activities include operating training programs for young people who want to become plumbers and electricians. Now that Aristide has returned, he said the group’s primary objectives are to welcome him back, organize meetings and rebuild its base. “People said we were crazy to think that President Aristide would come back, but now the dream has come true.”

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