Wednesday, April 8, 2009

SHARE delegate reflects on experience as an international observer

Jeannie Berwick, a SHARE delegate who monitored the presidential elections in March, reflects below on her experience as an international observer.

“Salvadorans, you have the sky for your hat, so great is your dignity.”

So begins the song that became the popular anthem of El Salvador’s poor communities as they resisted military repression during their country’s civil war that formally ended with the 1992 Peace Accords.

On March 15, 2009, seventeen years after the war, we witnessed the great dignity of ordinary Salvadorans as they voted in elections that were miraculously absent of the violence that has characterized the Salvadoran political process for generations.

We were in El Salvador, along with thousands of people from several countries, to serve as accredited international election observers. Our delegation of 150 people from 18 states was sponsored by the SHARE Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has accompanied El Salvador’s poor for over twenty-five years, through twelve years of war and now in the arduous process of rebuilding.

We learned that before our arrival, the opposition candidate of the FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation) Party had enjoyed a substantial lead for months before local media blasted the public with threats that employers would move their businesses abroad or shut them down if the FMLN candidate won. Even members of the US Congress got into the act. Republican Representatives Dana Rohrbacher and Dan Burton declared that if the Salvadoran people voted for the opposition candidate, (1) the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program that allows thousands of Salvadorans permission to live and work in the US would be discontinued; and (2) El Salvador would be declared a “terrorist state,” which would prohibit Salvadorans living in the United States from sending money (“remittances”) to their families in El Salvador. To understand the implications of these threats, it’s important to note that remittances constitute a whopping 18% of El Salvador’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Our delegation responded by holding several press conferences to protest these threats and reassure the public that the Obama Administration had no intention of punishing the Salvadoran people for the free exercise of their vote. After international outcry, the US Embassy and State Department issued statements affirming the US government’s position of neutrality in the Salvadoran electoral process and its commitment to work constructively with whomever the Salvadoran people elected.

In presentations by various representatives from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the Salvadoran legislature, and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), we learned that there is plenty of room for improvement in the current electoral system, including cleaning up voter registration rolls that include thousands of deceased Salvadorans, foreigners not eligible to vote under the Salvadoran Constitution, and people who have two voter registration cards (“DUI”). But our task on Election Day was only to observe the elections and note any violations of law; we were not in El Salvador to intervene in the process. After our accreditation training on the Salvadoran elections laws, we fanned out into polling stations in the capitol of San Salvador and outlying rural municipalities.

To read the rest of the article, email Sara Skinner at

- Leslie O'Bray, SHARE Grassroots Education and Advocacy Intern

* Photos taken by Claudia Rodriguez-Alas

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