Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Future under Funes

This article was written for the April 2009 issue of The Mustard Seed, published by the Denver Justice & Peace Committee.

The significance of Mauricio Funes’ election as president of El Salvador on March 15, 2009 cannot be overstated. His victory is not just a break—it is the break—with a history of exclusive rule by conquerors and oligarchs. As a result, the stakes are high for Funes and his party, the FMLN.

Funes ran on a party platform that pledged his government would: lower the cost of living and increase purchasing power; create more and better jobs with special opportunity for youth and women; defeat crime and increase family security; direct concentrated support to poor rural and urban families; and defend and support families in El Salvador whose primary wage earner has migrated. The platform calls for increasing the availability of and access to employment, housing, health, education, and safety so that all Salvadorans can live dignified, productive and happy lives in El Salvador.

Funes, who will assume office on June 1st, has his work cut out for him. These are ambitious goals for a number of reasons. Funes does not bear the traditional FMLN credentials, i.e. he was not a guerrilla during the civil war. So, he has to develop trust and cooperation within his own party. He must do the same with parties of the right who together have the votes to block legislation. The FMLN holds the greatest number of seats in the Legislature but not a majority. As the party platform indicates, the problems facing El Salvador are monumental. Additionally, the country has never adequately dealt with the legacy of war. Until it comes to terms with the root causes of its social and economic ills, which went unresolved despite 12 years of combat, making meaningful progress will be a formidable task.

Despite outgoing President Saca’s assurances two weeks prior to the election that public finances were stable and that “there is nothing to worry about,” there is a lot to worry about. The global crisis has significantly affected El Salvador. Exports and tax revenues are down, job loss has risen over the last eight months, and remittances are projected to drop by 13% in 2009. Fitch, Inc., the financial risk rating agency, has stated that El Salvador and the new Funes government will confront a “disproportionate impact” from the global economic crisis.

In the face of all these challenges, hope lies in the fact that Mauricio Funes is an intelligent, capable leader in whom the Salvadoran people have put their trust. He did not win on FMLN votes alone and people are willing to give him a chance. He is known as a pragmatist so will lead from a position closer to center than other FMLN candidates might have. He was painted as a pawn of Cuba and Venezuela during the campaign, but his professional history and comportment during and after the election show that he is very much his own person. It will be an uphill struggle, but with Funes’ tenacity, El Salvador does have a future.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Election Issues and Fears

Some have asked what this election observation business is all about and what an international presence brings to the process. For me personally, the most important reason that I do it is to bear witness to people regaining their dignity and equality by casting their votes in what are hoped to be free and fair elections. It really means a lot to the Salvadoran people to have so many make this effort on their behalf. Some thank us with words, others with a smile. It is very rewarding.

As for our work, we note anamolies that occur and heighten the issues that need to be resolved in order to have a sound electoral system. The Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (CIS), with whom I have observed three elections, has monitored all elections in El Salvador since the signing of the Peace Accords in 1992. Their analysis and recommendations, to which all observers contribute, are taken seriously by the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE). Many of CIS's recommendations have been implemented although often later, rather than sooner!

The main issues being faced in the 2009 elections were:

  • Splitting the elections into two parts -- Presidential elections are held every five years and legislative and municipal, every three. In those years when they overlap, they have all been scheduled for March, until this year. The TSE is under the primary control of the rights-wing ARENA party. Their decision to hold the legislative and municipal elections in January and the presidential in March was clearly a political one. The left-wing FMLN party was favored in the polls early on. It was hoped that by splitting the elections, the FMLN's anticipated presidential win would not have a "rub-off" effect on local races. The FMLM lost San Salvador in the municipal elections but otherwise faired well in January and prevailed in March.

  • Propaganda -- The great thing about Latin elections is that they call it like it is! According to the Electoral Code, campaigning is not to start until four months prior to an election. This was a conveniently forgotten fact as all parties began their campaigns at least a year in advance. Both party leaders and the media should have been sanctioned but no action was taken against them. Three out of five TSE Magistrates condoned the early propaganda as long as it did not specify, "Vote for Candidate X." There was quite a bit of consternation on the FMLN's part over propaganda made by individuals and groups of individual groups as the Code specifies that propaganda can be made only by the parties. As you might have guessed, this type of propaganda was extraordinarily negative and dirty--unbelievably so.

  • Electoral Registry -- The "purity" of the national registry was called into question. The mayoralities are responsible for submitting updates (e.g. moves, deaths, etc.). Approximately three-quarters are controlled by ARENA and other conservative parties. It appeared that they dragged their heels submitting changes on a timely basis so there was great fear that the dead would be voting en masse. The Code does not include regulations about address changes, i.e. someone can obtain a voter card (known as DUI's!) with having to verify their address, which prompted additional fears.

  • TSE Composition -- The TSE is composed of five Magistrates and five Alternates. Three of each are to come from the political parties which received the most votes in the last presidential election with a minimum threshold of 3% of the vote. The other two members are appointed by the Supreme Court. The "third" political appointee is from the right-wing PCN party even though its vote fell below the 3% requirement. "Special arrangements" were made to its favor even though this violated the Constitution and the Electoral Code. A more concerning issue about the TSE is that it is responsible for both the administrative and judicial functions, i.e. it is monitors itself. This flaw was recognized by ARENA and FMLN and both proposed an electoral reform in their platforms.

  • Campaign financing -- No legislation exists to control the amounts spent or their sources. The TSE does not have access to the amounts of money raised by the parties.

  • Training of Election Workers -- The parties are responsible for training their members who work the polls on election day. This often results in inconsistencies and partisanship in the process.

  • Lack of Residential Voting -- Polling stations are assigned by last name in El Salvador. Following traditional Spanish naming conventions, almost all married women continue to use their maiden names while their children take the father's name. This means that families vote in different places. This is not a problem in smaller communities where there is only one polling place, but it does present a significant problem in larger cities. In 2006 and again this year, the TSE conducted pilot programs for residential voting in the Department of Cuscatlan.

The FMLN expressed concern over a number of things, in addition to the integrity of the Electoral Registry:

  • Transport of voters from outside the country -- As in past years, there was worry that "voters" might be imported from Guatemala and Honduras. This is very difficult to prove but was in a few cases.

  • Transport of voters within the country -- Given the ease of obtaining voter credentials, the possibility of people voting twice existed. Some of these cases were proven, as well.

  • Purchase of votes -- In 2004, votes were said to be purchased for $10. In 2006, it was $20. By January 2009, it was $25. I met a man the day before the election who told me that he had been offered $50 the day before. He had very specific information as to the place and the person but unfortunately, our group was not able to follow up on his lead.

ARENA's greatest fear was the the FMLN would win the election and assume the presidency for the first time in history. Their fear was well founded!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Some Perspective: From History to Hope

An understanding of El Salvador's past is critical to being able to appreciate just how historic the 2009 presidential election outcome truly is. El Salvador was conquered by the Spanish in 1524. In 1821, it gained its independence from Spain but fell under the control of the oligarchs. Wealth has always been concentrated in the hands of a few, from the "Fourteen Families" who dominated the coffee sector and/or owned most of the land to the eight business conglomerates that currently control the financial sector, including the largest banks, insurance companies and pension funds.

The military ruled El Salvador from 1930-84. The roots of the recent repression can be traced to the 1932 massacre, La Matanza, in which approximately 30,000 indigenous campesinos were killed over a two day period for trying to become a political voice for justice for all Salvadorans. Agustin Farabundo Marti, the social revolutionary leader of this opposition, was tried and put to death in its aftermath.

By the late 70s, the social-political-economic polarization in the country had intensified. 1980 saw the formation of both the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) parties. The FMLN was formed from a coalition of five parties, including the Communist party. While it received some backing from the Soviet Union via Cuba, one has to consider what "communism" meant in context. There is no evidence of a "red scare takeover plot" ala the Cold War--the great fear of the U.S. Rather, the intention was to make decent housing, food, water, education and health care available to those who had been denied these basic rights for centuries. This political philosophy reflected the "preferential option for the poor" articulated by the Latin American bishops at Medellin, Colombia and Puebla, Mexico, that was being lived out in Christian-based communities as the practical application of liberation theology. Those church leaders who lived and worked by this preference, such as Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero or the six Jesuits, were immediately considered politically suspect for these beliefs. Their murders, by the hands of those in power, indicate how high the stakes were.

The ARENA party was founded by Roberto D'Aubuisson, who trained at the U.S.-operated School of the Americas (SOA) in Panama in 1972 and operated the death squads from 1978-92. (The SOA, now WHINSEC and located at Ft. Benning, GA, has trained well over 60,000 Latin American military personnel, hundreds of whom were responsible for the most horrendous human rights abuses committed throughout Central and South America.) In 1984, D'Aubuisson was honored at a Capitol Hill dinner in Washington, D.C. for his "inspiration to freedom-loving people everywhere."

A 1993 U.N. investigation confirmed that D'Aubuisson ordered the murder of Romero, thus starting the civil war that was waged from 1980-92. According to the U.N. Truth Commission report, the government, through the military and para-militaries, was responsible for 95% of the 75,000 war deaths. The FMLN was assigned responsibility for the remaining 5%. The U.S. was a key backer of the Salvadoran government throughout the war, investing $6 billion.

The ARENA party first won the presidency in 1989, and repeated that victory in the elections that followed the signing of the Peace Accords in 1992--until this year. While the outright fighting stopped at the end of the war, the underlying social, political and economic issues that led to it have remained unresolved under ARENA's leadership.

  • Poverty is extreme as 62% of the population cannot afford life's basics. This would undoubtedly be worse if 2.5 million Salvadorans were not residing in the U.S. In 2008, 22.3% of Salvadoran families received remittances that totalled $3.8 billion. The current population is 5.7 million.

  • Unemployment and underemployment are high and, of course, would be higher if so many were not living abroad. Statistics are difficult to obtain and almost meaningless as so much employment is realized through the "informal economy," e.g. selling trinkets on the bus, CDs on street corners, etc.

  • Labor conditions are poor and workers' rights are commonly denied. Attempts to organize workers are regularly challenged, and union leaders' lives are at risk.

  • The judicial system does not function adequately. Many people have told me that it is not that laws do not exist in El Salvador, it is that they are not enforced. The immunity granted to the perpetrators of war-time violence, after the signing of the Peace Accords, is the most egregious example of this.
  • Government social investment is low. To some extent, the ARENA party acknowledges this as it included a number of increases in social spending in its platform.

  • Environmental degradation continues. El Salvador has experienced significant deforestation. Mining has been introduced and, while less extensive than in Guatemala and Honduras, is responsible for increased water contamination and reduction of supply.
  • Education is not easily accessible in remote communities and of poor quality in most areas. Too many children do not complete high school so have no chance of going on to the university or technical training.
  • Health care delivery is poor everywhere, but especially in rural communities where about 20% of the population resides. The availability of medicines is of particular concern now. Not only is it difficult to obtain prescription medicines (even in hospitals!) but the costs are among the highest in the world. The quality of generic medicines is not regulated so they do not provide a viable alternative at this time.

  • Security is a major issue. El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, relative to its small population. Homicides averaged nine per day in 2008, and 12 per day thus far in 2009. The weekend after the election saw more than 30 people killed through probable gang violence despite almost six years of "Mano Duro" ("hard hand") and "Super Mano Duro" enforcement.

The social, political and economic systems have continued to favor the elites and multi-national corporations under ARENA. Finally, this year that privilege had to be put to a stop. While ARENA fought a campaign based on fear of the past and the future, their message ultimately did not resonate with the people. Nationally, 61% of the population voted and elected Funes by a margin of 3%. (In my traditionally ARENA voting center, probably about 70% of registered voters cast ballots.) Nationwide, there were some interesting changes in voting patterns: 46% of Evangelicals voted for the FMLN and the city of San Miguel, historically ARENA, went for the FMLN, as well. (We heard this about 7 p.m. on election night. It was the thing that made me think Funes' victory really was possible.)

There is so much more to say but I don't want to put you off from reading what the experience really was about. Thank you for your interest!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Funes Won!

As all the world now knows, the FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes won the presidency of El Salvador on March 15. Despite the incredible nastiness of the campaign, the election count went smoothly. The Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE) does not certify election results for 48 hours, but went on-air about 9 p.m. to report the returns (approximately 90% were in) which showed Funes the clear winner. Rodrigo Avila, the ARENA candidate, conceded. Funes spoke and claimed victory. The FMLNistas celebrated, the ARENistas didn't, and the international observers went to bed.

The election was historic--and exciting! My group observed in Antiguo Cuscatlan which just happened to be where Funes voted. The place went wild while he was there. It was something to stand in the midst of so much hope. It was hard to maintain our neutrality in all the excitement, but we did! I can only say that I saw Funes' arm and the top of his head. But I successfully held up my camera and got a great shot of all of him! There were a number of other international observers at our center and approximately 5,000 others all around the country. A few of us got to meet the best known, Rigobertu Menchu of Guatemala! (She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.) I had met her ever so briefly a few years ago when she was at the University of Denver, but this time got to speak with her for about 45 seconds before getting a photo.

Our center experienced some number of voting anamolies but relatively few and minor in comparison to the centers in which I've previously observed. Members of both parties staffed each of the 64 voting tables and worked amazingly well together, particularly given the stakes for each in this election. Each of us selected a table to concentrate on throughout the day. CIS is concerned with how the processes of the elections are conducted. By having each observer follow a single voting table, particularly during the opening and closing activities, they develop a good sense of how the elections were carried out. The ARENA and FMLN members who staffed the table I chose were exemplary in the execution of their duties. Most CIS observers felt that their centers handled the process pretty well this time, however, others saw a great deal of room for improvement.

CIS has each of its observers make notes throughout the day and comment on specific points relative to compliance with the Election Code. The next day, each group met to develop a preliminary report on how the election was conducted at its center. Individual reports were turned in. All of these will be used to compile an organizational report that will be submitted to the TSE. CIS has observed all elections since the Peace Accords and many of their recommendations have been implemented by the TSE. This makes for a very rewarding experience.

It will be a few months before the CIS report will be available, but please visit to check on its progress.

Lacy Wittman, who also observed the 2004 election, made a video ("A Glimpse at Election Observing in El Salvador") for this year's observers. You may view it at

Some of our Canadian journalist friends have videos that you may also enjoy watching:

Campbell Webster - Chaotic scene as Funes voted

Jesse Freeston - Report on Elections

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Day Before the Election

We don´t have much downtime on the election mission so this will be short. My group and I are in Antiguo Cuscatlan, essentially a suburb of San Salvador. Yesterday, we met with the ¨JEM¨ which is the body responsible for elections in this municipality and saw the school where the elections will be held. Today, thus far, we´ve met with members of the ARENA party (right wing), including four high school and college students (the latter from the UCA). The students were great, and it was interesting (and disconcerting) to hear their perspective. They held to their party's beliefs with a vehemence that was palpable. The Rogers and Hammerstein song "You Have to Be Taught" from "South Pacific" came to mind. The visit with them really made me think about how we convey values and ideals.

Then we visited the community, La Cuchilla. These folks have been in the municipality for decades, living literally in tin shacks on land which they ¨possess¨ but which is "owned" by the state. Their struggle for the basics, i.e. everything from water to their human dignity, is almost incomprehendible and humbling. We heard compelling testimony of their tenacity in fighting for their own justice. Their community is across a 6 lane highway from the MultiPlaza Mall. Many members were pushed off this land when its construction was started. The tin roofs of La Cuchilla were visible from the road where we were dropped off. At our point of entry, they were crowned by a billboard advertising quality homes for sale at almost half a million dollars!

Antiguo Cuscatlan is a community of constrasts--clearly! As the mall description might imply (and this mall is one of three of the largest malls in the country), the municipality includes the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor. Curiously, our voting center is where the FMLN (left wing) candidate, Mauricio Funes, will be voting tomorrow. There is some amount of conversation that the FMLN candidate lives in this mostly prosperous community. Sorry, but I must run. In five minutes, we´re off to meet with FMLN party members.

I probably won´t be able to post again until Monday. Keep us--and the Salvadoran people--in your thoughts and prayers. There is a lot riding on the outcome tomorrow. Preliminary results are expected about 8 p.m. Gracias! hem

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A VERY Busy Time

Glad that I said my posts might be few and far between. The trip is going extremely well but we are extremely busy!! I have been taking copious notes on our activities so will fill in the many blanks later.

Over the weekend, Denise and I spent time with friends here. We traveled to Suchitoto on Saturday. It´s a charming colonial town which was the site of a great deal of violence in the early ´80s. We were accompanied by a friend whose family lived there at that time. As we looked out over Embalse Cerron Grande (known as Lake Suchitlan), she spoke of how her family fled their home. I've heard the story before but it came to life as I looked out at the lake and mountains where it all took place. Although she was only 5, she has distinct memories of walking for months, only at night, with her parents, three younger brothers and grandmother to escape the military forces. She remembers the sounds of bombs and helicopters, and crossing the lake on launches that had so many people on them, they were at water level. The family had to abandon their property and lost all title to it. She is soon to graduate from the law school of the University of Central America (UCA), the Jesuit university in San Salvador. So, clearly the family´s journey has been a long one, thankfully with a happy ending.

On Monday, we received our observer credentials and then visited the UCA. This is where six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter were murdered on November 16, 1989, an act that proved to be a turning point in the war. The fighting had recently come to San Salvador, the capital city. The Jesuits were renowned for their support of justice for the poor and, as such, it was deemed that they had to be silenced. What had not been properly anticipated was the fact that their murders would rally international support for an end to the violence. While it was more than two years before the Peace Accords were signed, the murder of the Jesuits was not in vain.

As you will learn in the next posting, we visited the U.S. Embassy on Tuesday. With my somewhat perverted sense of humor, I always find these visits to be interesting. Earlier Tuesday, a magistrate of the Tribunal Supremo Electoral spoke to us about this election and the issues and fears surrounding it.

Wednesday, we could opt for one of 11 field trips. I went to San Isidro, Cabanas (the same department where I observed in 2006) to visit a group fighting mining exploration and exploitation. The fact scenario is strikingly similar to the situation of mining at the head of the Clark Fork River in Montana, although they´re only beginning to feel the consequences. We also visited with a woman whose family has had a large farm for generations. They´ve been affected by the falling water table. In just the last few years, they have lost 500 orange trees, many other crops and are no longer able to raise cattle. A very pòwerful experience.

Today we met the non-Coloradans who will be part of our observer group: Julia Quincy from Connecticut and Cindel Redick from Michigan. (We were later joined by Campbell Webster, a Canadian journalist, who was embedded with our group!) We all participated in a full day of training on the voting process. Tomorrow, we´ll visit our voting centers for the first time. We are going to be in Antiguo Cuscatlan, a suburb of San Salvador. This is the first time that I´ve not not had to travel so it will provide a new experience.
Not sure when I´ll be near a computer again. Please know that I´m happy and well. Thanks for your support!

Abrazos y amor,

U.S. Position

The U.S. has a history of inserting itself into the politics of El Salvador just prior to an election. In what I have come to term the ¨late Wednesday afternoon attack¨in the House Foreign Relations Committee, a few House members regularly issue threats to Salvadorans in the U.S. if their family members vote for the FMLN. (Former Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado was a regular participant in these attacks.) The timing of these threats is intentional as the campaigns have to stop at midnight so there is no opportunity for rebuttal in El Salvador.

On Tuesday, we visited with the political affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador. I have met with political and trade officers on four embassy visits, and he was by far the most welcoming of the bunch. He has been with the State Department for 17 years and has the savvy to show for it. He gladly took all of our questions but stuck very closely to the official line. Regarding the elections, he consistently said that the U.S. would not issue a formal policy statement as called for by members of Congress (not the ones who participate in the Wednesday attacks!), academic groups and various citizen organizations. He did say that the U.S. supports free and fair elections that reflect the will of the Salvadoran people and will work with the new government regardless of party affiliation. In fairness, they have maintained this line throughout this election cycle. We only hoped for something more "official." Three days later, on March 13, the U.S. Embassy did issue a formal declaration of neutrality in the elections.