Observing Democracy in El Salvador
Panchimalco, El Salvador -- Thirty years ago, on a miserably hot and humid July day in 1983, I went to Washington DC with my wife and two-year-old son in his stroller. We were there with tens of thousands to protest US involvement in civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Last month, I became re-acquainted with the political struggle of El Salvador as a member of an international delegation to observe the first round of their presidential election on February 2nd.
Old enemies ran representing parties that either ruled during the civil war or grew out of the armed struggle after peace accords were signed in 1992. On the right, there’s the Nationalist Republican Alliance or ARENA, and on the left, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front or FMLN. After the accords, ARENA retained the presidency until the 2009 election, when the FMLN and independents of the center and left won the presidency with the candidacy of Mauricio Funes, a respected Salvadoran journalist.
This election was among three candidates: Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a former guerrilla commander and the current vice president representing the FMLN; Norman Quijano, a former ARENA mayor of San Salvador; and Antonio Saca, the ARENA president from 2004 to 2009 who was expelled from ARENA in 2009 and formed a new party called the Grand Alliance for National Unity of GANA that has worked with the FMLN in the legislature.
I arrived in San Salvador a week before the election with a good friend. We were met at the airport by seven other members of the delegation and began a process of getting to know, and learning to work with, what eventually became a 70-person delegation that included supporters of CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador), National Lawyers Guild, Share and Sister Cities. Together, we would observe voting at some 30 centers with more than 300 stations, each the voting location assigned to 500 people.
For the first four days we learned a lot about El Salvador, its recent history and the reforms that have been initiated to benefit the poor and especially the rural poor since 2009. The event I enjoyed most during these days was a visit to a rural health clinic serving an indigenous community about an hour outside of San Salvador. We arrived at 10 AM and were met by Mario Melendez, the FMLN mayor of the district of Panchimalco. Melendez is a charismatic man with wit and a constant smile; he took time from his campaign schedule to greet us and show off the clinic he helped build.