This morning at the Aeropuerto Internacional San Salvador, the agente de migración knew why I had come to El Salvador even before I stepped up to his desk. While checking my documents and collecting my ten dollar “tourist card” fee, he told me that the capital is filled with observers from the United States and Canada. “Hay bastantes,” he said, using a word that could mean either “a lot of” or “enough.”
There are approximately 5,000 international observers in the country right now, including a strong showing from the European Union which embarked on its first ever Electoral Observation Mission to El Salvador with January’s legislative elections.
The delegation I’ve travelled here with is sponsored by the Los Angeles based Salvadoran American Leadership and Educational Fund (SALEF) whose Executive Director, Carlos Vaquerano, has been organizing electoral monitoring delegations since the 1992 UN-brokered peace accord that ended El Salvador’s 12-year civil war.
Vaquerano works closely with Ramón Villalta, Director of Iniciativa Social para la Democracia (Social Initiative for Democracy), “a non-governmental civic education organization that promotes the processes of public transparency and citizen participation in the electoral system.” Villalta described El Salvador’s electoral institution as dominated by, dependent upon, and in service to ARENA, the party that has been in power for the past two decades. In effect, ARENA – along with its coalition of supporters – organizes, administers, and evaluates the electoral system, thereby creating obvious opportunities for fraud.
According to Villalta, there is a frightening lack of regulations and/or equal enforcement of regulations in the areas of campaign financing and propaganda, a devastating logistical breakdown at the polls and in the communication of results, and a commonplace use of bribery and intimidation tactics.
In addition, on the rise are politically motivated homicides in which the victims, as cited in an open letter distributed by the Council On Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) on behalf of 150 chief U.S. scholars, are “leaders of trade unions, community and religious organizations and members or supporters of the FMLN.”
These realities, says Villalta, have resulted in a “growing wave of mistrust [of the government] amongst the people,” and at the same time, a higher level of interest in politics now that an opposition party is in a position to win the presidency and be given the opportunity to make positive change.
Our discussion of El Salvador’s rising levels of civic participation caused me to think of this morning’s drive from the airport to our hotel. While I saw very little political graffiti on walls, the light posts and power poles were covered in campaign propaganda only to be outdone by the billboards above. However, as we drove through different communities, it became clear that either one party was visually represented or the other – rarely was there any type of mix.
I asked Mario Matute, Chairman, President, and Founding CEO of El Salvador/U.S.A. Healthcare Foundation, if these percieved zones in any way reflect boundaries between government and rebel controlled areas during the civil war. He said that indeed they do.
On Sunday, an old war will be revisited in the ballot box, and both sides hope that is where it will end.