Elections in a Broken Nation

On Wednesday evening, March 1, in a plaza in the city of Ilobasco, Department of Cabañas, El Salvador, a crowd of over 500 were listening to FMLN party (Frente Faribundo Marti para la Liberación Nacional) candidates and supporters. The 2006 election campaigns for control of municipalities and the National Assembly were in their last week, and emotions were running high. A chant was started from the stage, which the crowd took up, “Se escucha, se escucha, Schafik es en la lucha” (listen up! Schafik is in the struggle!).

The crowd chant referred to Schafik Jorge Handal, who was stricken by a heart attack and died on January 24, on the way home from the inauguration of Evo Morales, the recently elected President of Bolivia. Schafik, at 75, was a member of the Communist Party of El Salvador (PCS) from a very young age and had 50 years of history in the struggle for social change in El Salvador. In the 1970’s, he was a member of the National Opposition Union (UNO) that won elections in 1972 and 1977. In each case, the elections were simply stolen by fraud from the UNO by the military governments as waves of repression swept the country. In 1980, the PCS joined the FMLN in an armed struggle that fought the Salvadoran and United States military to a standoff. Schafik was part of the negotiating team out of which came the Peace Accords of 1992, and then became part of the leadership of the FMLN political party that has steadily gained in strength in the years since the Peace Accords. In 2004, he was the FMLN candidate for President, and was maligned as a terrorist by the opposition ARENA party, as the United States pursued a policy of intimidation to ensure the FMLN would not attain the Presidency of El Salvador (see Democracy in El Salvador?, from 3/26/2004 Counterpunch).

Schafik’s death produced an outpouring of grief and support. As he lay in state in the days before his funeral, thousands filed past with flowers and gifts, and 30,000 turned out for his funeral, a sea of red in honor of his life. In various conversations, I heard people say that while Schafik was often a difficult personality, he never lost his integrity. His continued presence in the struggle became the theme of the FMLN campaign, and his face and name appeared on posters and signs all over the poles and buildings of El Salvador.

The current President of El Salvador, Tony Saca of the ARENA party (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista) defeated Schafik soundly in 2004. He is an ex-sportscaster who has led this municipal and legislative campaign for his party of the extreme right. His conduct during the campaign was a clear violation of the Salvadoran Constitution’s prohibition on using a public office to work for a political party. Saca appeared on billboards, in radio and television ads, and his voice went out on hundreds of thousands of phone calls to Salvadorans, one of which I received, a clear voice coming over the phone, “Habla Tony Saca, su Presidente”. It was a phantasmic rerun of the 2004 campaign: the ghost of Schafik Handal versus a digital and media version of Tony Saca.

When the FMLN candidate for Mayor of Ilobasco, Miriam Hernández, took the stage before the crowd March 2, she urged support for the FMLN in the spirit of Schafik, and also promised that if she were elected, she would be able to provide oil at a reduced price to the municipality, from Venezuela. Nidia Diaz, a hero of the civil war, a signer of the Peace Accords, and a member of the Central America Parliament, gave a campaign speech. Then, the Venezuelan music group Guaraguao took the stage to sing their songs of protest and hope that continue the spirit of the Venezuelan musician, writer and revolutionary Ali Primera. They were touring with FMLN candidates in the last week of the campaign, and the professional sound system, clear voices, and sharp instrumental work rocked the crowd as the red banners waved and the people sang along to songs including “Casas de Carton” (Houses of Cardboard), and the unoffical anthem of El Salvador, “Sombrero Azul” (Blue Hat), which is sung out with gusto, as just 15 years ago to sing it invited death.

The crowd dispersed quietly a bit after 10, satisfied, and buzzing. The appearance of Guaraguao was a rare treat for this town of about 80,000, located in the poorest Department of a very poor country. I was there because it is on the way to Jutiapa, the even smaller municipality where I was going to organize the presence of an election observer team for the Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (CIS) Election Observer Mission 2006. It was the seventh observer mission for the CIS, which has now covered every election since the peace accords.

We were going to observe in Jutiapa because there had been a 36% increase in the voting registration list, or padron, from 3100 to 4236. The increase was engineered by Ciro Cruz Zepeda, a Deputy from the Partido Conciliation Nacional (PCN) and the President of the National Assembly of El Salvador. He was born and raised in Jutiapa, and had organized hundreds of government employees and friends who lived in San Salvador and Ilobasco to register to vote in Jutiapa, in an attempt to take the Mayor’s seat there from the FMLN. He was also a candidate for Deputy in the Department of Cabañas, so every vote he could organize in Jutiapa would also benefit his candidacy in the Department. This process is known as “traslado de votos”, and is widely practised by ARENA and the PCN, and also used at times by the FMLN in order to maintain equality. It requires only party members who will attest to their residency in a municipality where the vote is needed and the money to pay them to travel on election day.

The PCN is the oldest existing political party in El Salvador, the party of the military of the 1960’s. The military won every election, and took by force those it did not win, as in 1972 and 1977. It retains its power as a third political force because it has the money to run a full slate of candidates in each of the 262 municipalities and 14 Departments. The El Salvador system of apportioning National Assembly delegates uses the “cociente”, which favors minority parties. The PCN has used this system to achieve a Deputy count that is always greater in percentage than its share of the vote. This year the PCN will have 10 Deputies of the 84 in the Assembly, with 11% of the national vote. (In past elections, they have done much better, as they lost 6 seats in 2006.) In 2004, they technically lost their right to survive as a political party, as they got less than the 3% of the vote required by the constitution for a party to continue, but a controversial legislative decree revived the PCN as a valid existing party in 2006. Political Scientist and Sociologist Antonio Uribe commented on this gift of existence to the PCN and PDC as follows, “The electoral code says that if a party does not get 3%, they disappear, and this did not happen. Why not? Because the law is not respected here.”

Taking a public bus to Jutiapa required more time and patience than I had on Thursday morning. I got to the bus stop a little after 8 AM, and the next bus was 10:30. So I approached one of the fleet of three-wheeled taxis that swarm around the crowded streets of Ilobasco, and soon had negotiated a driver for the morning. We bounced down the rugged 25 kilometer road through Teotopeque and onward to Jutiapa in the peculiar Indian vehicle, a 2 cylinder cross between a motorcycle and a car. My driver spoke English, and related his tale of marital betrayal, which he discovered by recording his wife as she pursued an extramarital affair. His subsequent personal collapse resulted in his deportation from Virginia. He wanted nothing more than to return, and he knew if he got a second chance, he would do it right.

Dreams of a life in the United States are the norm here among working people. Since the country converted its currency to the dollar in 2003, the low wages and high unemployment mean working people live in poverty, if they are lucky enough to find a job. The maquilas pay starvation wages, and there are no unions. Each day, over 700 Salvadorans flee on the dangerous trek through Guatemala and Mexico to the United States. Young Salvadoran women look for a mate that is “going north”. I heard a tale of a high school class of 18 young men, all of whom got on a bus out of the country the day after their graduation. The effect of this economic migration is that 2 million Salvadorans working in the United States sent back $3 billion to their families in 2005. These remittances, or “remesas” support the economy, and are the source of the cash for the malls and fast food restaurants that proliferate in this poor nation. They are not a source for investment that develops the infrastructure. The cash simply recycles back to the corporations and banks of the United States and El Salvador.

We rattled into Jutiapa, a hot, bright lazy town that lies in the volcanic hills of central Cabañas. A boy on a horse cantered down the steep main street. I went into the office of Mayor Ovidio Martinez Rodriguez, of the FMLN. He had won his post in 2003 by 23 votes over the ARENA party, and had begun water and electrification projects to the poor villages in the outskirts of the municipality. He had also started a project which would allow local students to continue their educations at the National Institute. We introduced ourselves, exchanged pleasantries, and he directed me to the office of the Junta Electoral Municipal (JEM), the election board that would administer the elections on Sunday, March 12. The JEM is composed of 5 representatives from different parties participating in the elections.

In the office, I actually found two JEM members, the ARENA President Carlos Ernesto Olmedo Figueroa, and the Partido Democratico Cristiano (PDC) representative Oliverio René Lopez. The PDC was formed as a “center” party in the 1980’s, in the hope of identifying a political force that could calm the war-ravaged country. It was led by José Napolean Duarte, who held the Presidency. There was no center to hold, however, and the party has slid into decline. It failed to receive 3% of the vote in 2004, and is only a party in 2006 because the Assembly passed a special law to allow it to survive, as it did with the PCN. The JEM members greeted me warmly, heard me out as to our role during the elections, accepted the mission and offered their support for our presence. I met the local police official of the Policia Nacional Civil (PNC), who also was friendly and offered his support. Our mission receives credentials from the national governing board of the elections, the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE), and after so many missions, the election officials accept our presence, with varying degrees of grace.

After a couple of hours in Jutiapa, it was back to Ilabasco, where I overpaid the taxi driver and caught a bus to San Salvador, crumpled in a standing position in the crush of bodies. I had been worried about traveling from San Salvador on the 1st and 2nd of March, because CAFTA, or the TLC (Tratado Libre Comercio, as it known in Central America) went into effect on March 1, and riots and road blockages had been threatened. They did not materialize, and the roads were open. CAFTA was not a campaign issue, because it was a done deal, and there was no political traction as it went into effect.

Even before CAFTA, El Salvador was completely dominated economically by the United States. For example, the profitable national electric company was privatized, and rates soared as service declined. The telecommunications companies have been sold to Spanish multinationals. The ports have been sold. The sole refinery of the country was sold to ESSO, Texaco, and Shell. The Central Reserve Bank of El Salvador is in Washington, DC. The currency of El Salvador became “dollarized” in 2003, which was necessary for the banks to control the exchange rate due to the huge debt in dollars. Dollars are imported by the banks at 6% cost to the bank, and lent in El Salvador at 25%.

CAFTA codifies the exploitation. It is not just an economic treaty, but is also a political instrument with great reach. It is constructed to protect corporate interests related to the national security of the United States. Under CAFTA, Central American governments support the war in Iraq, and El Salvador actually has troops in Iraq, unique to Latin America. El Salvador is totally obedient to the United States, and CAFTA is an instrument of annexation that determines public policies and violates the Salvadoran constitution. As Raul Moreno, Professor of Economics at the University of El Salvador, and a leader in Sinti Techan, the Citizen Network on Commerce and Investment, stated, “The liver of CAFTA is investments ­ it has no heart. There is no regulation on foreign investment. Under it, investment is all, debt investment, maquila investment, public service exploitation, food, gas, healthcare, investment beyond regulation, and there are mechanisms to guarantee profits.”

In short, El Salvador is a broken country. Murder rates are the highest in the hemisphere, poverty is institutionalized, the environment is degraded badly, the political climate is polarized, the economy is predatory in its avarice, and the average person is trying to get out. I heard the phrase “ungovernable” many times. This is the backdrop before which the 2006 elections were held in El Salvador.

Election day in Jutiapa brought a grand influx of people to the small town. Soon after the 7:30 AM opening of the polls, there were hundreds of people in the small school that was being used as the Center of Voting. Long lines snaked through the uneven grounds leading to the eleven tables where the Juntas Receptoras de Votos checked people’s identification, handed out the paper ballots containing the symbols of the six parties, which were deposited in the cardboard “urnas” after the voter crossed out with a crayon his party of choice. The voting was heavy throughout the hot bright day.

One troubling aspect of the elections in Jutiapa was the presence of armed and uniformed military soldiers in the Center of Voting. The military were ordered to the streets by President Tony Saca. He stated the PNC needed reinforcement for security reasons, which was pure nonsense in Jutiapa. When I asked the soldiers if they thought it was really necessary for them to be in the voting center, they said, simply “yes”. They stated they were colloborating with the police, another troubling trend for the already militarized police department. There were military also in the streets of Ilobasco, where our observer team observed the ARENA system of delivering up to 15,000 lunches to voters they had transported to the polls on election day. (ARENA won big in Ilobasco ­ the way to the voter is through the stomach.) The military presence at the polls was an echo of the vicious years of the civil war.

While the turnout in El Salvador was less than 50%, in Jutiapa we watched a 74% participation of registered voters, as the three competing parties, the FMLN, ARENA, and the PCN pulled out all the stops to get out the vote. Busses, cars, and trucks full of people filled the town. A carnival atmosphere prevailed as vendors took the opportunity to sell food, and the gutters filled with paper, bottles and cans. As busses let off their passengers, voters lined up at the PCN office for two boxes of fried chicken and Pepsi. All the political parties made it a point to offer food to their workers and voters.

After the close of the polls at 5 PM, each table counted the ballots one by one. It was close. The FMLN held the mayoralty with a count of 1073, the PCN got 1058 and ARENA 1053. There was a handful of votes for the other parties. The vote was an example of the fierce local allegiance to party in El Salvador. There is no ideological difference between ARENA and the PCN.

Another super-close election occurred in San Salvador, where the FMLN cadidate, physician Violeta Menjívar won the mayor’s office of San Salvador by 59 votes over ARENA candidate Rodrigo Samayoa in the capital city where 274,800 citizens are registered to vote. The final tally was 64,881 for Violeta to Samayoa’s 64,822. She will be the first woman mayor of San Salvador. On Thursday, fighting broke out between the National Police and FMLN supporters at the Radisson Hotel, where the vote count was held. Tear gas and rubber bullets were used by the police to disperse a crowd angry about ARENA accusations of fraud, and a count many felt was intentionally slowed as soon as it was realized that the FMLN had won. Leslie Schuld, the Director of the CIS, said, “It got very tense because ARENA would not recognize the vote. When President Tony Saca announced on Sunday that ARENA had won the election in San Salvador, it was very dangerous. Election fraud led to the civil war. If ARENA had not recognized the vote, it would have been a state of lawlessness.”

The FMLN attained the largest number of votes in the country, 624,635 to ARENA’s 620,117. There is a deadlocked political situation, as the National Assembly results left ARENA with 34 members, the FMLN with 32, PCN 10, the PDC 6, and the Cambio Democratico (CD) 2. The big winners are the PCN and PDC, whose Deputies’ votes will be necessary to obtain majority initiatives to govern. The deals will be flowing as these rightwing parties bargain their votes to ARENA.

On the municipal level, the FMLN lost 14 municipalities to ARENA, who targetted FMLN mayors with success, by transferring votes and directing resources to municipalities that were deemed vulnerable. This hurts the grassroots base of the FMLN, and makes it difficult for the crucial 2009 elections, when both the local and Presidential elections will be held. ARENA’s success in turning out their conservative evangelical base for Presidential elections leaves the FMLN with a real challenge ahead in the electoral field.

Also, the role of the United States cannot be underestimated in a critical election. This year, the US played a relatively reduced role, yet still managed to extend Temporary Protective Status to 250,000 Salvadorans living in the United States on February 24, with the well publicized lobbying of Tony Saca. On election day, the US Ambassador to El Salvador, H. Douglas Barclay, personally accompanied the ARENA Vice President of El Salvador, Ana Vilma de Escobar, to a busy polling center in San Salvador, making clear his sympathies toward ARENA to the voters at the polls.

This election changes nothing in terms of governance in El Salvador. The current of hope I felt so strongly in the rally at Ilobasco on March 1 is obstructed fiercely by an oligarchy that has ruled the country since its inception, and by the policies of the United States. It will not be possible for any structural changes before 2009. The FMLN will hold a strong minority presence in the legislature, but will not be able to pass any initiatives for change.

On the day after the election, Beatrice Carrillo, the Procuradoria de Derechos Humanos (Human Rights Ombudsman) of El Salvador, addressed the observers of the CIS mission. She stated she now has the distinction of being unwelcome in the United States. She stated that her country has lost its sovereignty, is deadlocked politically, is ungovernable. Yet, she has faith and hope in the Salvadorans who have struggled for these many years for a decent society, who fought a war to a standstill against one of the great powers in human history with a ragtag guerrilla army of 15,000, who await and welcome our support in their struggle for justice.

Dále que la marcha es lenta
pero sigue siendo marcha

Yes progress is slow
But the march continues on
-from El Sombrero Azul, Ali Primera

For a more complete analysis of the election process, CIS will publish preliminary findings and a final report on their website, www.cis-elsalvador.org.

JOE DeRAYMOND has observed the elections in El Salvador with the CIS Observer Mission in 2003, 2004 and 2006. He will soon start serving a three month prison sentence for participating in the annual protests against the School of the Americas/Western Hemisphere Institute of Security Cooperation at Fort Benning, Georgia. He can be reached at: jderaymond@enter.net