Looking out the window of my van near San Salvador, I felt as if I were in Cuernavaca, Mexico. The flora, the climate and the people looked familiar. El Salvador, settled by the Mayas and then the Toltecs, has indigenous and Spanish place names. Outside of Mexico, El Salvador has one of the largest mestizo populations in Latin America. Like Mexico, it suffered 300 years of Spanish colonial rule.
As in the case of the Mexicans, Salvadorans have migrated to the United States in great numbers. More than 400,000 arrived in the Los Angeles area during the 1980s alone. Traveling through the country, it is not difficult to see why.
A country torn by a decade of civil war, El Salvador is run by the military. Soldiers, like God, are everywhere. The government, controlled by Arena, the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance, is the alter ego of the military. It has put its garrisons in the middle of civilian populations to shield the army from attack from the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).
Its economy is monopolized by the elite. U.S. funding has allowed El Salvador's military complex to buy a large share of the nation's commercial and financial infrastructure.
Last September, the Democratic Convergence, a coalition of three parties of the left, decided to challenge the military's monopoly in the March 10, 1991, elections for the National Assembly. The goal of the Convergencia was to elect 12 to 15 deputies, who would enter into an alliance with other progressive parties and pressure Arena to negotiate a peace settlement.
Convergencia's first step was to register new voters. Its leaders approached Antonio Gonzalez of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project to help map a strategy and train volunteers. The group, based in San Antonio with an office in Los Angeles, has conducted thousands of registration drives in the United States. But this was its first experience in voter registration in Latin America. With Southwest Voters' assistance, Salvadoran volunteers contacted 10,000 homes and 40,000 potential voters during the next few months.
Afterward, the Southwest Voter Research Institute received a grant from the U.S. Congress to provide official observers of the elections. Although invited by the SVRI to be an official delegate, it is my policy not to accept federal funds for such activities, and I went instead as a columnist.
Official delegates for the SVRI from Los Angeles included attorney John Huerta and professor Gloria Romero of Cal State Los Angeles, Antonio Orea of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, along with Gonzalez and Rita Moreno, both of SVRI.
What made the observer process so important was that, unlike the Nicaraguan elections of 1990, the international community ignored the Salvadoran elections. In the 10 days I spent there, not once did I encounter a U.S. journalist. News was mostly collected by Salvadoran part-time news gatherers, known as "stringers," or government press releases.
The SVRI, known as the Chicano contingent, was one of five organizations receiving congressional money to monitor the elections. The others were the Organization of American States, Freedom House, the Center for Democracy and the National Republican Institute. Freedom House and the National Republican Institute, it seemed to me, came to El Salvador as Cold War warriors and both rooted for an Arena victory.
The OAS is not an independent organization of American states. It received $2 million from the United States to monitor the elections. Its 160-member team was made up of upper-middle-class Latin American professionals who, although they tried to be objective, were prisoners of their class biases. Many OAS observers socialized with Arena party functionaries and were not as open to working-class leaders.
The SVRI monitored 35 municipalities during the electoral campaign and Election Day. They witnessed numerous instances of intimidation of opposition party members by the military and Arena loyalists, producing what the SVRI termed "a climate of intimidation and fear." A recurring theme was a concern of the opposition candidates for their physical safety. Two campaign workers from the left were killed, another was wounded, and bombings were not uncommon.
The government disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans by failing to issue carnets , voter photo identifications, to 400,000 registered voters. It was not until the 11th hour that it announced that persons with national ID cards and voter registration slips could vote. This caused further confusion and hundreds of thousands of potential votes were not cast.
On Election Day, I followed Armando Villareal, a veteran voter registration organizer from Texas, in his mission to make certain that the people of northern Morazan province were not disenfranchised.