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El Salvador: The Magic of Witnessing

Cathy Stripe LesterAmericans take our right to have elections somewhat for granted. This was brought home to me by the enthusiasm of the Salvadoreños. They were not only glad simply that they were allowed to have elections, they were extra-glad that, as I said in my previous blog, the electoral process has been reformed into something they could believe in.

The Election Monitors arrived at the voting center at 5:00 a.m., when it was supposed to open. By then, both the major parties already had tents up and were making lots of noise.

ARENA (Right-wing) party setup outside at 5:00 a.m.

I have to say the party of the Right had a lot more money to spend on tents, balloons, signs, drums, banners, food, etc. Their music had a triumphal, bouncy, we’ve-already-won air. I also noticed a certain racial divide: None of the right-wingers had “Indian” features, most of them had a middle-or-upper class air, and a lot of them were tall, fat and/or had big booming voices. (I think the “vigilantes” were chosen partly for that.)

The workers’ party had more country people, and more that looked Indian, and few that were fat. Or tall or overbearing. Their music was strong, serious, and determined – in a minor key but very upbeat.

FMLN (workers' party) supporters marching into the hall to help set up voting booths.

The observers were surprised by the almost carnival-like atmosphere. I spoke to some Finns from a European group of Election Monitors, and they were saying, “In Finland, when we vote we’re so silent, it’s like going to church!”

Outside the center, there was a constant stream of cars honking. Groups from the various parties were waving flags and chanting, singing, playing music. In addition, the sidewalks were crowded with vendors calling their wares: Mango-mango-mango! Election souvenirs, best prices!

The vendors were even allowed inside the vast hall, though they didn’t make much noise there. I had gone out to buy a cup of coffee and came back in to find a guy with a coffee urn on his back, dispensing it into little cups!

Though I’d been prepared for some disorder, people were enthusiastic but purposeful. Whole families came to accompany one voter. There were only one or two fights that had to be prevented that I know of.

toy drone fallen to earth

At one point someone released a drone which first dropped confetti in one party’s colors and then ran into a pillar to cheers and jeers from the other party. However, the biggest disruption came when the president himself came to cast his vote. Police, cordons, TV crews, wait, wait, wait, then huge amount of handshaking and hullabaloo. Pat Thornburg, who came from Michigan with me, was wedged right by the corner of the table and managed to video it.

Just to be a devil’s advocate, I asked afterward why the Election Monitors were needed in the first place, if things went pretty smoothly.

Firstly, we were there because the Salvadorean Election Tribunal invited us. We weren’t being witnesses to the success of any one party, but to the system.

People who had been there for previous elections said ballot destruction used to be wanton, vote-buying was blatant and intimidation was totally out in the open.

In every election since the civil war, the voting has gotten more honest and less fraudulent, and Election Monitors are a part of the process. Our witness has in the past forced electoral reform, little by little, until now it seems to produce a more honest and transparent result.

I was a monitor in a big urban center, but one of the other monitors, Francisco Lopez, was in one of the poorest and most violent areas. He said the monitors were welcomed there “amazingly,” because our witnessing gave voters peace of mind.

Someone else added that, more than our physical presence, our being there showed that we as Americans care for good elections. That’s a notable point because for years, American politicians (often fiercely lobbied by big business multi-national corporations) had supported the Right wing party and blithely accepted the results of fraudulent elections (which the Right supposedly “won”). I even met one American (not an Election Monitor) who told me if we “LET” the other party win, we’re helping the communists.

One thing that helped a lot was that this year the USA has said in advance that we’d recognize the winner of the election no matter who won.

So we were there to be witnesses to an election that may go against the oligarchs, and indirectly against American politicians (and the lobbyists). I say “may” because, of the five parties contesting the election, no one got a 51% majority. As a result, there will be a run-off on Mar. 9. Observers are hopeful that it will go as smoothly as the one in February.

Countless Salvadoreans want fairness and clean elections. And if we help them have it, they’re one step closer to being the kind of country we SHOULD want to encourage. The “American Dream” is a dream many Salvadoreños have – of a country that gives everyone a chance even if they’re on the bottom of the heap, and a country that plays by the rules.

In the words of one monitor, Robert Leleux (creative director of Domino magazine), “You can’t quantify the power of witness. There’s a magic to witnessing.”

  • CathyStripeLester

    When i said the voting center was supposed to open at 5:00, I meant open for setting up the tables, etc. It opened for the actual voting at 7:30 (half an hour late).

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