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An Observer in El Salvador PDF Print E-mail
Justice News
Posted by Joan Russow
Wednesday, 11 June 2014 17:06

By Alan Boyden, Nanaimo

Reposted from the People's Voice

In February and March of this year Gilberto Mayen, a member of the Nanaimo Club of the Communist Party of Canada, served as an International Observer during the first and second rounds of the presidential elections in El Salvador.

Gilberto was born in the small village of La Libertad, close to San Salvador. During the bloody clampdown by the military he was a union leader; however, he was compelled to seek asylum in Canada after his son, a teenager at the time, had been "detained" by the dreaded National Police. Hundreds of "detainees" had become "desaparecidos" so it was a terrifying time. Thanks to the courage of a doctor, a very close friend, the young man was released.

In December 2013, shortly after campaign started, Gilberto was contacted by the Electoral Tribunal and asked to become an official international observer. He accepted without hesitation and soon received the necessary papers, becoming one of about 500 observers selected. (Eight were from B.C. and included Kevin Neish from Victoria.)

Upon arriving in El Salvador the observers underwent procedural training to ensure that the elections would be free, fair and democratic. They also received a copy of the National Constitution and the "togs for the job" i.e. the official vest (not bullet-proof), hat, shoulder bag and accreditation certificate. 

Gilberto was assigned to a north ward of Santa Ana, the second largest city in El Salvador, for the Feb. 2 first round of voting and the March 9 second round run off. His work was ultimately rewarding, but not without frustrations, and real and implied dangers.

While the electoral process itself was apparently free and fair, the circumstances leading up to the voting were more than subtly skewed against the FMLN, the left-wing governing party. The mass media in El Salvador is almost completely controlled by corporate entities notoriously hostile to the aims and aspirations of the FMLN. Thus, the people receive information or, more commonly, misinformation from private radio, television and newspapers which receive generous corporate funding. This is particularly true of the three leading national newspapers: El Mundo, El Diario d'Hoy and La Prensa Graphica. The only objective reporting is found in the co-op newspaper, the Diario Co. Latino.

The bias in the media facilitated manipulation of the electoral rules by ARENA (the opposition), enabling the right wing to present its political platform under the guise of five apparently different parties. These morphed into ARENA in the final round of voting, allowing them to siphon off votes from some easily guiled and unsuspecting center left voters.

This worked against the FMLN which had been ten points higher than ARENA in round one. Big money, as always, was able to "persuade" and/or bribe poor people. Various gifts were given or promised, such as t‑shirts, bottles of drinking water with the ARENA logo, children's toys, gizmos, kitchen brooms etc., all bearing the ARENA colours and slogans. In some villages every household received a "free" chicken.

Larger gifts included lucrative jobs and even pickup trucks. Bribes of cash were offered in the usual way; the recipient was given a small down payment with the promise of much more money to follow after an ARENA victory.

Where these ploys were unlikely to work, strong arm and thuggish tactics were applied. In a country where decades of violence has resulted in hundreds of thousands of dead and disappeared, this approach was cruelly effective. The unfortunate individuals were warned that their jobs would disappear if they voted for the FMLN, or they or a family member would "disappear". This may have caused votes to leach away from the FMLN in some areas, but it did not prevent thousands of loyal FMLN supporters in dangerous areas from casting their ballots.  

On the election days there were many irregularities. "Ballot stuffing" was tried, and attempts at voter list tampering occurred at some polling stations. Some ARENA voters tried to cast ballots under assumed names ‑ even the dead were "resurrected" for this purpose. 

Gilberto, being politically astute, didn't just witness these attempts at electoral fraud, but was able to photograph many of them. A "nice" lady has her handbag checked ‑ oh dear! Some extra ready-marked ARENA ballots are inside! An angry ARENA lady is caught as she tears down the official list of registered voters ‑ not so fast young lady! Some toughs in ARENA t‑shirts and waving party banners are flexing their muscles under the noses of little people right outside a polling station! Looks impressive, but it is a violation of the rules, so please move on.

These were just a few examples in one area in north Santa Ana. It was heartening to see though how many people were obviously delighted to cast their votes at stations where there were international observer teams. Gilberto recorded many dozens of positive comments.

One disappointing aspect of the final tally was the much lower than expected acceptable ballots from the expatriate community. This is mainly composed of families who fled from the violence perpetrated by the National Army, National Police and associated right‑wing vigilante gangs. (During this period an estimated 500,000 people were brutally killed.)

The expatriates are spread throughout Latin America and other, mainly Spanish-speaking parts of the world. (The USA only accepted less than 4% of the total number of refugees from the death squads.) For obvious reasons, the "out‑of‑country" people eligible to vote support the FMLN.

However, language and semantic problems related to the way in which the official instructions for "out‑of‑country" voters was couched resulted in widespread errors. Over half of the estimated 10,337 voters failed to understand that the marked ballot for the first round had to be sent in a separate envelope from the ballot for the second round. In their enthusiasm many FMLN supporters sent their ballots in the same envelope, thereby invalidating both votes. This resulted in the loss of more than 60% of the important external support for the FMLN.

Despite this major set‑back, the "nail biting" final count resulted in a victory for the FMLN and for the freedom‑loving people of El Salvador.

Gilberto was ecstatic! Surrounded by family, and by old and new friends, they started celebrating.

The grand victory celebration was held in San Salvador on Saturday, March 15th, attended by over a million people. Gilberto walked through throngs of happy people, past lines of buses which brought supporters from the west and north lining the pavements. The Electoral Tribunal declared that the election was the most free, fair and transparent ever in the history of El Salvador. For all involved it had been very hard work. Long distances had to be walked to numerous polling stations in weather which was frequently in the 34 degree range.

An exhausted but happy Gilberto returned to Canada on March 18, to the great relief of his family, friends and comrades.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 11 June 2014 20:45

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