To learn more about Salvadoran Pastors Ruth and Alex Orantes, and for information about contributing to support their ministries in El Salvador, please visit

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Reflections on El Salvador delegation

Andy Smith was one of four delegates from Central Baptist who participated in the March 2009 SHARE Foundation election observers delegation. Following is Andy's personal report about the elections and about some of his time visiting with a Salvadoran friend prior to the start of the official delegation.

I returned recently from El Salvador where I had the privilege to accompany the Salvadoran people as one of 4000 international observers for the Presidential elections on March 15. I went as part of a delegation from Central Baptist Church in Wayne, Pennsylvania, that was also endorsed by the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and the Alliance of Baptists. First I want to celebrate with the Salvadoran people. The victory of the FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front), the party formed after the 1992 Peace Accords from former guerillas in the civil war, is a victory for the people. Having a President who for the first time will be on the side of the majority of the Salvadoran people who are poor will be a striking change. At the same time, replacing the system of global capitalism and domination by foreign powers that has kept the people in poverty for so long is a task that is much larger than this election, but the election does mark an important and hopeful step in the process of building a different kind of society, one based on justice, equality and sharing of resources.

I started the election day at the stadium in San Salvador where the Salvadorans living in the United States were to vote. The turnout there was low, only 175 for the entire day, out of some 39,000 who had received the necessary document of identification. For the afternoon our group decided to move to another location where there would be more voters.

The whole process that I witnessed took place in a peaceful way. As an election official at my own local polling place in the United States, I was struck by the similarities of the Salvadoran process. At the same time I noticed many differences, most strikingly the many vehicles with large groups of people and flags from the two parties, riding through the streets all day and chanting for their party. In front of the building where I was for the afternoon, there was a continuing demonstration with hundreds of people waving banners and chanting but the atmosphere remained more that of a festival than a political demonstration. In the middle of the afternoon as Rodrigo Avila, the candidate of the ARENA party (the party in power) came to the hall, a large group of FMLN supporters marched through the hall waving banners and shouting their party slogans. They continued to do so from the balcony as Avila, surrounded by a large group of ARENA supporters also with flags and chanting, entered, went to one of the polling stations, and then left. While such overt demonstrations are not permitted by the Salvadoran electoral law within the polling place, they were not stopped. The police were ready but always on the sidelines as the demonstrations continued in a peaceful way.

There was a real celebratory mood among the people at the place where I ended the day. As the election results were announced at each of the 60 polling booths in the large hall, chanting broke out. When all had reported a large group of FMLN supporters began to dance in the middle of the hall.

During the day I had opportunities to listen to Salvadorans. One man, Armando, wanted to tell me about how his people were without work and suffering. He wanted to know what it was like in the United States and if Obama could make a difference. While I understood much of what he said and could respond in my limited ability to speak Spanish, the experience made me resolve to recover my ability to speak and understand Spanish more fluently. It also made me more aware of how I, a person from the United States, carry the imperialism of my country by not being able to converse in the language of the people where I am.

In gathering the reports from all of the 150 observers in the SHARE Foundation group of which I was a part, we heard few incidents of problems, most of them minor. Overall the election process went very smoothly. In spite of the overwhelming spending of ARENA compared with the FMLN (about $24 million to $4million), many threats of job loss for not voting for ARENA, suppression of poll results that showed the FMLN with large leads, strong bias in the press for ARENA, well-publicized positions of Republicans in the United States of security threats to the United States if the FMLN won, and threats that an FMLN victory would mean the cessation of Salvadorans in the United States sending money back to Salvador (about 18% of the Salvadoran economy), the people spoke in an organized and deliberate process and hopeful change will occur. As observers we received many thanks from the Salvadoran people for being there. We learned on the day after the elections that the presence of so many international observers had been the reason that ARENA had conceded the election peacefully and did not challenge the results.

Several days prior to prior to observing the elections I had the opportunity to visit several places I had not been before and see some of the natural beauty of this small country which is slightly smaller than Massachusetts. The contrast between the dire poverty (about fifty percent of the population) with the wealth of the elite and the beauty of the land is stark. On the trip into San Salvador from the airport I observed many roadside stands selling coconuts and other fruits and vegetables. These stands line many of the roads and streets in the cities and represent the alternative economy for those who can find no other work. Items for sale range from food, including entire roadside restaurants, to musical instruments to clothes to handcrafted furniture. Others who have nothing to sell but their own labor often stand at intersections and wash windshields.

The road from the airport to San Salvador climbs as it passes through the hills, many of them deforested as is much of the Salvadoran land. Groups of houses built from whatever could be found like corrugated metal stand on the hillsides. There is no electricity or running water. A major daily job of many rural Salvadoran women is to fetch water for their family. Often a long walk of several hours is necessary with the water being carried in a large urn on top of the head.

Along the way we also passed a group of maquiladoras. These foreign owned companies are assembly plants for items like clothing. Workers are paid little to put together materials shipped in which will be shipped out as finished products. The Free Trade Agreement required that new, interstate-like highways be built so that the tractor trailors could transport the materials to and from the maquiladoras. These new highways cut through towns and mountains without viable ways to cross for the people on foot and bicycles and were built with money diverted from education and healthcare.

As we approached the city I was warned to put my window up because we could be approached by someone with a gun who could demand something from us. At one intersection we passed through several times a 14 year old girl was washing car windshields. My host remarked that this could be her own daughter. She always stopped and gave her some money, noting the need to change the kind of a system that could put girls of this age in the streets because they had no other way to survive. When asked late one evening how long she would be there, the young girl remarked, “Until I get enough money.”

On Saturday we went to a beautiful volcanic beach where the coves and cliffs with the black sand reminded me of Hawaii. The surf is good here with several resorts devoted to serving foreigners. Some Salvadoran boys with their surfboards were enjoying the waves at a public beach next to the club where we were. The impact of the world financial crisis was clear at this club. Of the 30-40 shelters with picnic tables and hammocks, only three or four were occupied on a beautiful, warm Saturday afternoon.

Our trip along the Route of the Flowers took us through five small towns and majestic scenery of the many volcanoes in the Western part of the country. This was once prime coffee country. Now many of the coffee plantations have been converted into hotels and restaurants since the coffee business is not viable for the owners with the market price of coffee as low as it is. Each of the towns had its own unique ambience with a church and town square, an open air market, and many small stores with various arts and crafts. The markets were bustling since Sunday is the prime market day where one finds food of all kinds, clothing, shoes, and some arts and crafts.

Suchitoto is a treasure in the hills about one hour North of San Salvador. It’s the cleanest town I’ve seen in El Salvador with many houses having a sign painted on the wall beside the door indicating that they recycle solid waste and the slogan reduce, reuse, recycle. Other houses have a sign indicating that no violence against women is practiced in that home. A relatively new institution in town is housed in an old school that was abandoned during the civil war since Suchitoto was the scene of much intense fighting. The Center for Peace and the Arts is the vision of Sister Peggy Smith, a sister of Charity of New Jersey, who has made this her home for many years. The center includes a facility for housing delegations. Its mission is to provide training for people in the arts including theater, photography, music and many others.

Lake Suchitlan lies below Suchitoto. Created many years ago as a reservoir for the production of electricity, today it is a spot for fishermen and tourists. We spent a wonderful Saturday afternoon there with a group from Shekina, our partner congregation in Santa Ana. Following lunch at a restaurant beside the lake we boarded two small boats for a sunset cruise around several of the islands. Bird Island has a large population of nesting cormorants and some Great and Snowy Egrets, Great Blue Herons and Little Blue Herons. Other bird life seemed abundant with vultures, Crested Caracaras, and swallows. The magnificent sunset over the mountains provided a fitting close to a beautiful day.

I have been to El Salvador six times since 1986 through relationships that my congregation has with congregations there. Each time I have had many feelings and new insights about the destruction of people’s lives and the earth through the systemic effects of the global economic system. Yet each time I have renewed personal relationships and started new relationships. Each time my resolve to fight this system and help create a new one is strengthened. The strength, creativity, and joyfulness of the Salvadoran people in the face of what appear to be overwhelming odds continue to be an inspiration to me.

El Salvador is a land of many contrasts, yet in spite of the poverty its people remain a people of hope. The electoral victory of the FMLN provides a monumental shift in the political scene that adds to this hope. My various times in El Salvador have always nourished my soul and stimulated my thinking. They provide an experience that I find necessary to continue my own life journey without becoming numb to the world-wide impacts of the society in which I live in the USA. I recognize anew each time I go the interconnectedness of our world. Deep and lasting relationships with Salvadorans will continue to be an important part of my life as I seek to work with others in building a world of justice and integrity.

Andy Smith
Devon, Pennsylvania USA