Since signing the peace agreements in 1992, after a brutal civil war, the population of El Salvador has become divided in terms of their political stances. This is closely related to their personal experiences and livelihoods. Election Day therefore, is a big deal in this country, an opportunity to see these divisions come to the surface.
It’s exciting to be witnessing El Salvador’s Election Day from Nuevo Gualcho, a community only 24 years old and made up of 500 families, the majority being refugees returned from camps in Honduras where they spent many years during the civil war in the 1980s. It is refreshing too, to see its youth population animated and passionate about their vote, eager to cast it and celebrate the results a few hours later. Many of these young people were born in refugee camps, others born in the early days of this community, when the houses were made of tin and put up inside the remains of a hacienda, the only structure around when they returned.
I remember taking my vote in England four years ago. I remember doing so with a slight disinterest that I’m ashamed to admit. But the truth is that in my little village in Somerset, the youth were not brought up to live and breathe politics, to really understand the power behind a vote. Unlike in Nuevo Gualcho, my village was not the product of war. Its inhabitants have not been left wounded by their own government, yet powerful and organised, determined to bring about positive change in their country. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone out in the streets waving flags for their chosen party back home, but here the town is dripping with propaganda. From the flags hanging outside nearly every house, to the bracelets and t-shirts modeled by the nationals volunteers.
This is a predominantly left wing community, consisting of campesinos (land workers) that support the current ruling FMNL government and will be voting in Salvador Sanchez Ceren, an ex-guerrillero commander. You wouldn’t think these people are political on first glance. They live simple lives cultivating beans and maize in the cooler hours of the day, and rest in brightly coloured hammocks in their porches when it’s too hot to move. They have big families and so there is always someone around to chat to, share a coffee and a pupusa. Yet this is a community that has always had to be organised, whether it be in fighting for their rights, delivering workshops and dividing resources in the refugee camps, or building a community from scratch. Here in Nuevo Gualcho, the vote matters.
Their government was derived from five guerillera organisations during the war and became a legitimate political party at the end of the war in 1992. According to this community, the FMLN is the only party that will represent and address the needs of the country’s poor majority. After 20 years of ruling from ARENA, the right wing political party that ruled throughout the war, FMLN came into power for the first time in 2009. President Funes became president and gained popularity in Nuevo Gualcho by implementing social programmes that distribute books, uniforms and other resources to school children and agricultural supplies to the farmers.
I spent this Election Day with Rocelia, an incredibly interesting, inspiring and strong lady. As my host mum while I’m out here she is both my mother away from home (tucking me up in a hammock when I have a headache), and my connection to this community’s past. We asked her to explain to us the reasoning behind this community’s strong commitment to FMLN, why it is that everyone here will be voting for them today. She told us of the horrors of the war; the massacres that took place in towns and villages to anyone suspected of guerrilla activity. She told us about the assassination of her sister, who was taken out of her home and killed while Rocelia waited inside with the children. Her sister was murdered because she refused to tell the armed forces of her husband’s whereabouts. There are many stories such as these in this community, everyone here has lost someone. It is for this reason that Rocelia and other members of this community say they will never be voting the right back in.
The second round of elections happens to be taking place in the same week that the community celebrates its 24th anniversary. Watching the leaders of the community take to the microphone one by one to tell their stories of suffering and hope helps me to further understand the significance of voting. They speak of never forgetting; of telling their story and making sure that the youth of today truly understand what they had to go through to get to where they are today. They spoke of fallen companions, those who never made it safely to this community but are still considered part of it. For these individuals, the community of Nuevo Gualcho is determined to continue forward. Teodora, the grandmother of one of the national volunteers puts this across in a way that left me with goose bumps and tears in my eyes. Barely tall enough to see over the lectern, this tiny elderly lady tells us of the children she left behind when she made the trip to Honduras. Despite the welcoming she received when she crossed to the other side, her mind was always in El Salvador. And so when the time came to return, she barely noticed the weight she was carrying on her back as she was so happy to be returning home. Punching the air, she shouts that “we are going to continue fighting and we are going to win”. As Elias, one of the first people to come to this community expresses, this country still has a long way to go. Although the youth of today won’t be preparing to fight with uniforms and guns, there are many other battles to face. Alcoholism, drugs, gangs, unemployment and a general lack of opportunities are just a few of the problems that young people face in this country today. For both the elderly and younger generations, to vote is to speak out for a better future.
Teodora dancing with her granddaughter Idalia (ICS national Group Leader) at election celebrations.
Today the population of El Salvador will be voting in a second round. In the last round of voting FMLN was up by ten percent. If FMLN win then Teodora’s predictions will come true, ‘we are going to eat, we are going to drink, and of course, we are going to dance’.
After an intense week of waiting, due to such a close result that caused disagreements and produced an inconclusive result, FMLN won with just over 50 percent of the votes. Needless to say, in Nuevo Gualcho, there was a big a party in the street, and Teodora was the last one to leave the dance floor.
By Progressio ICS volunteer Jess Lee