It was a long, but rewarding journey home from El Salvador last week for Woodinville residents Jim and Jan Rettig.
They were official international elections observers for CISPES, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador.
The country was holding its presidential elections for 2014.
On the ballot were five candidates, with these three the frontrunners: current Vice President Salvador Sanchez Cerén, representing the Farabundo Martí national Liberation Front (FMLN) party, San Salvador Mayor Norman Quijano of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), and former president Antonio Saca of the Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA) party.
Unlike the United States where the candidate with the most votes wins, in El Salvador, since none of the three candidates won a majority of the votes, there will be a runoff election on March 9.
Advancing to the next election are Cerén and Quijano. Cerén was ahead by about 10 points over Quijano in the February 2 election. The Rettigs will not travel to observe the runoff election.
Why would the Rettigs want to travel to El Salvador and volunteer their time and own personal out-of-pocket money to monitor the presidential elections? After all, the outcomes of presidential elections, or most daily matters, in the small Central American country are not high on the list of most Americans want- or need-to-know lists.
For Jim Rettig, the interest began many years ago – 1965 to be exact when he traveled to Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula as a college student missionary.
While there, he befriended a young man of Mayan descent, Oscar, who challenged Rettig’s opinions on U.S. foreign policies.
He returned on a fact-finding mission with a group of about 20 fellow Presbyterians to Central America in 1984, traveling to Mexico, Nicaragua and Costa Rica listening to people tell their stories during the height of the Contra war in Nicaragua and the Civil War in El Salvador.
It was after that trip, that they joined two organizations, one of them being CISPES, that were actively working to change American foreign policies in the region that were not listening to the desires of the people of El Salvador.
It took until 1992 for the civil war in El Salvador to finally end when the United Nations helped broker a peace agreement.
The FMLN transitioned from being a guerilla military fighting force to a political party focused on fighting for the rights of their fellow citizens using the ballot box rather than through warfare.
Cerén, the FMLN candidate, was a commandant during the civil war.
According to the Rettigs, Cerén felt participating in a revolution was his only recourse to affect change in his country because the government in power at the time wouldn’t allow him to enter the political process.
Slowly since 1992, the FMLN has gained political strength, until finally in 2009 it seemed to have a good chance at winning the presidency. That’s when CISPES was invited to send a team of international observers to monitor the election. Rettig was part of that group that got to monitor and see the FMLN candidate win the presidency.
Cerén became the vice president. Despite winning the presidency, the party is in the minority in the national legislature.
The 2009 election was difficult compared to American elections.
Each polling place was assigned in alphabetical order of a citizen’s last name, so many voters had to travel great distances in order to exercise their right to vote.
Since then, the agency in charge of elections made several policy changes, beginning with increasing the number of polling places and assigning voters to polling places close to where they live.
“The number of polling stations increased four-fold, like from 400 to about 1,600 places,” Jim said.
All voters are required to have a DUI, prounounced “due-ee,” an official voter identification card with a photo.
And, for the first time absentee ballots could be requested, a huge benefit to the almost three million Salvadoran citizens currently living and working in the U.S.
“It is a great irony that our country is moving in the direction of requiring voter ID, and the Salvadoran people are already there,” Jim said.
Also since before the 2009 election and continuing through this year’s election, the Rettigs said CISPES has been vigilant in exposing members of Congress and each administration in office who were trying to influence the outcome of El Salvador’s election.
CISPES has been actively involved in working to change U.S. foreign policy in Central America since 1980, specifically in improving the well-being of the common folk, not maintaining the interests of the elites or transnational corporations. They’ve also worked with local groups in El Salvador to establish and secure human rights, free speech, free press and fair elections, to name just a few of their efforts.
A handful of Republican and Democratic congressmen and former Reagan and Bush administration officials have been against the FMLN party and its candidates, even threatening in the past to block the ability of Salvadorans living in the U. S. to send money to their families in El Salvador if the FMLN candidate was elected.
In advance of the 2014 election, CISPES was able to get written support from many members of Congress to remain neutral through the efforts of one congressman who asked colleagues to sign a letter of support. “Fifty-one members of Congress, all Democrats, signed the letter in support of free and fair elections in El Salvador and no threats,” Jim said, adding, “The State Department also announced they would remain neutral and would work with anybody that gets elected.”
The result was a smoothly run, transparent election, according to CISPES and the Rettigs.
What is required of an international election observer?
“We look for fraud and manipulation and the buying of votes,” Jim explained, adding that it didn’t happen in the 2009 election that he observed, but in the past there were instances of bribery documented.
Observers monitor the series of steps a voter goes through to reach the voter booth and submit their ballot, from showing their DUI and having it verified, to taking lots of photos to document the process, to monitoring the counting and sealing of ballots voted at the polling place.
They even monitor the process involved when a ballot is invalidated due to improper procedures in filling out the ballot.
“People would take photographs of their ballot after they’d marked them. Their boss, for example, would want them to vote for the right wing instead of the left wing. So they would take a picture of that ballot, take it back to their boss and say ‘okay, now give me $20,’” Jim said of one example of what’s been done in the past.
The Supreme Electoral Tribunal, an independent nonpartisan body, has done their best to prevent that by creating new voting booths that make it difficult to use a camera to photograph a ballot without someone noticing it.
Jim only noticed one instance this time of a voter approaching the voting booth with their camera phone visible from a front pocket. The voter was asked to put their phone away before proceeding to vote, Jim said.
When the election was over, the 70 members of the observation team brought to El Salvador for CISPES wrote up reports and held debriefing meetings, then made suggested changes for CISPES’ position for future elections, Jim said.
Overall, though, from various conversations the Rettigs had with officials from several of the political parties, everyone was very impressed with how transparent the elections were this year.
“The final report was that this was so open, so transparent, and not a real problem here, but we need to be vigilant,” Jim said.
In addition to observing the election, Jan Rettig, along with other female observers, was given a tour of one of four nationally funded Women’s City free health clinics.
The clinic offers a wide range of care, including police officers onsite for women to report crimes and consult attorneys; prenatal and postnatal care and children’s health care including vaccinations; along with many other services tailored specifically for women and help improve their quality of life.
Of the 70 members of the observation team, many were college students, while others were retired like the Rettigs, along with a contingent of about six American lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild. Most of the group were Americans.
CISPES is always looking for volunteers to become election observers. The application process takes several months. Volunteers are required to pay their own way to El Salvador, but CISPES offers fundraising ideas to help cover the costs to travel.
To learn more about CISPES, apply to be an observer, or support their efforts, visit www.cispes.org.