17 March 2004

El Sal - Week 3 of 5

In my third week here, the big news is the elections. The papers have been full of election polls, news, photo ops, percentages and charts all along. But in this final week before the election on Sunday, the 21st, the media attention goes full bore. The parties ‘close’ their campaigns in the week before the election. I had to ask what that meant. It means that they don’t campaign in the streets, make appearances, that sort of thing, but they do continue media presence.

The two major parties are ARENA (the right-wing party currently in power) and FMLN (the left-wing party formed after the Peace Accords were signed back in the early 90s). There are a couple other, smaller parties. From what I understand, they don’t stand a chance of winning but they are important because, in close elections, the smaller parties may band together to boost their numbers or align themselves with one of the major parties to assure its majority. If no one party gets at least 51% of the votes in this election, they will have a second election between the top 2 candidates in April.

Opinions of the people I’ve asked about this are mixed. There is general agreement that the papers are heavily slanted toward the right, and at least one (of the two major ones) is owned by a candidate. So there is decided skepticism about the coverage printed there. Pretty much the same is true of TV coverage, although I haven’t watched any TV to see what that’s like.
However, that leaves them with trying to decide what to believe when they know they can’t believe the media.

I spoke with one native Salvadoran and he thinks FMLN will win. Then I asked him what he thought would happen after that. He didn’t know but ARENA has had complete control of the country for a long time he couldn’t imagine them willingly or cooperatively turning that power over to anyone else.

I asked a Peace Corps volunteer who has been here for a couple years and he thinks that FMLN will win the big cities but not the whole country. If they should happen to win he sees the potential for unrest and upheaval also. It would be fairly easy for the ousted party to sabotage the incoming administration and blame it on their mismanagement.

A teacher at the school said he didn’t think FMLN would actually win but if they do there will be problems in all the cities…especially Sunday night. He suggested I not leave the house. Which I had planned anyway but he’s the first person to state it so bluntly.

There have been incidents of violence in the cities during the campaigns…people have been hurt and hospitalized. Both parties have been urging people to not be afraid of violence, to go out and vote on election day. I saw a map of voting locations in the paper yesterday and they are cordoning off security zones around voting places in San Salvador and restricting traffic around those.

There is a non-governmental organization here that coordinates ‘election observer’ groups. These are people who come from other countries (the U.S., Canada, European countries) to monitor the elections to make sure they are fairly conducted. In the last week or so, the current administration has been threatening to deport or refuse entry to the election observers but so far I don’t think it has happened. [post script… observers from the U.S. were detained at the airport, some for more than 24 hours. The U.S. embassador personally went to the airport to expedite their release. All observers from the NGO mentioned above were admitted, however, there were some observers from other countries/organizations that were refused entry.] There is a group of four observers that is due to arrive here on Saturday to monitor the elections in Berlin. I hope to find out from them a lot more about how the election observer process works.People show their support for a party by flying that party’s flag over their house. A lot of the flags I’ve seen around Berlin are ARENA. However, there is one house behind the Casa Pastoral that seems to be hedging bets by flying flags of all the parties.

There is an undercurrent of unease as the election approaches because no one knows what may happen. However, people go to the patron saint festival activities, children go to school, women go to the market…and life goes on.

On Tuesday, Erin and I walked up the hill behind the Casa Pastoral to a family she met earlier. The house has 6 people spanning 4 generations…the woman we talked with; her mother; her son, his wife and their little boy; and one other person who was not there when we visited. Their home is in one of the barrios of Berlin and is typical of houses there. Typical in that the walls are made of bamboo and mud with scavenged pieces of tin for the roof and ‘siding.’ The floors are dirt, the doorways have no doors and there are no windows except for a smoke hole in the kitchen area. They sling hammocks across the main room at night for sleeping. They have a sow with a few piglets and some chickens…all of which have run of the house and occasionally get shooed out when they get too bothersome.

Yet, as poor as this family is, this home is ‘upscale’ compared to others in this barrio. Other homes in the area are government-issue ‘temporary’ housing from earthquake relief projects. They have about a 12’ x 12’ footprint and are made of 2x4 framing wrapped with a tarp type material or that plastic/fiber wrap that is used as a wind/vapor barrier under siding on homes in the States. The roofs are corrugated tin. They generally have no windows and only the one, doorless doorway. We were there close to noon and I couldn’t help thinking those huts in the direct tropical sun had to be like ovens.