It’s been 20 years since the end of a bloody civil war in El Salvador, but the bloodshed isn’t over yet. Journalists in community radio stations see friends killed and family members threatened. Voters see violence committed at polling stations. Canadian mining companies may be responsible for hiring thugs. But there is hope for a more democratic future.
King’s journalism student Rachel Ward travelled to El Salvador this month with JD Hutton, a Dalhousie international development and economics student, to observe and report on the March 11 legislative and municipal elections.
Ward, who also studies political science, was motivated by a desire to prevent rampant election fraud by the right-wing National Republican Alliance (ARENA) party.
“As an observer, you’re impartial. You can stand around and take photos, and just your presence prevents people from breaking the rules.” Ward said.
“Those who might be inclined to commit fraud know that non-partisan are present, and that is a very powerful deterrent,” added Hutton.
Hutton became involved in Salvadorian politics in 2008, when activists came to his political science class looking for observers to go to El Salvador. He attended a meeting and ended up observing the Salvadorian presidential elections in 2009.
Hutton chose to return this March out of a desire to reconnect with people he’d met and to continue overseeing this “fascinating process.” Ward came along to do some reporting and to learn.
Ward and Hutton were part of a group of about 30 people, including members of the American National Lawyers’ Guild. They spent a week and a half touring the country, meeting journalists, politicians, literacy circles and women’s groups. “They gave us a sense of what’s happening in El Salvador besides the political parties, and a chance to understand what actually are the politics of this country,” said Hutton.
Their visit to a small community radio station, Radio Victoria, was especially significant for Ward.
“I was quite aware of the situation of journalists in Central American already because that really hits me,” Ward said. “There have been a lot of murders…We went up to the radio station, he told us how his friends have been killed, and he’s on the run because he’s had death threats. And it’s because of Canadian mining companies.”
“Control of the media in El Salvador is highly concentrated in a few powerful corporations, and independent media is limited and weak,” explained Hutton. “In the few instances where they require a license or have a broad audience, they face threats from thugs.”
While it isn’t immediately obvious who is operating behind these thugs, says Hutton, many suspect that it’s the Canadian mining company Pacific Rim, which has been trying to build a mine in the area of Cabañas (northern central El Salvador).
“At the very least, threats are coming from local politicians or companies that have been bought-off by the (mining) company, or who realize that if the mine goes through, they’ll make lots of money off of it,” said Ward.
Ward said that politicians have “additional motivation to threaten and push forward policies that would benefit the mining company because they stand to make a lot of money off the situation.”
Hutton explained that there is already lots of evidence to suggest that politicians are making money outside their regular salaries. “You see several cars appearing in their driveways that their basic salary could not afford.” Hutton said they may be involved in narco-trafficking.
On election day, Ward was in San Salvador—a city with 24 candidates for each of the 8 political parties—while Hutton was in La Union, a northern town.
This election was the first with the right-wing ARENA party in opposition since 1989; the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party won the 2009 presidential election. In this election, the ARENA party claimed 33 seats, while the FMLN party won 31 seats. There are 86 seats in total in the Salvadorian legislature, with the remaining 22 seats filled by smaller parties (the Grand Alliance for National Unity took 11 and the National Coalition won 7).
Both Ward and Hutton are hopeful for the future of democratic elections in the country. “This is the cleanest election,” said Ward. “Much cleaner than the one JD saw in 2009.”
As Ward explained, past elections have seen people bussed in with fake IDs to vote for the ARENA party. Ward heard of only one such bus in this election. “We just saw minor things, like cutting corners in the vote counting— nothing that would disqualify the polling station from being valid.”
“There were three instances of violence in polling stations, and those have been re-voted in,” said Hutton.
Another positive change in this election was having polling stations in residential communities. “The polling stations were much closer to their homes, so it made it much easier. Voter turn-out was higher. A lot of these people had never voted before,” said Ward.
Because of these residential polling stations, more government policies were targeted at rural and poorer communities, including literacy groups and rural health clinics.
Both Hutton and Ward are eager to continue spreading the word about Salvadorian issues they witnessed. Ward is working on a radio documentary for the CBC and plans to write articles. Hutton says they will also be “pressuring politicians” on certain issues, especially foreign Canadian mining companies.
“The big thing that someone acting in solidarity with a foreign country can do is just get the word out. The way that Canadian international media reports on issues there isn’t completely accurate,” said Hutton. “We try to get the voices of Salvadorian people directly to a Haligonian audience. We want to share those stories and update people on what’s going on.”
“El Salvador is going through a stage of transformation right now. It started in 2009, the first ever peaceful transition of power,” said Hutton. “This election has proven that power can go back and forth between opposing parties peacefully, and I think that’s very encouraging.”
Hutton and Ward will host a report and discussion on Salvadorian politics at Just Us! Cafe on Spring Garden Rd. on Thursday, March 29 at 7 p.m.
The original print version of this article spelled JD Hutton’s name incorrectly. We regret the error.