Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 147 | Octubre 1993


El Salvador

Elections: Will all be Able to Vote?

With six months till elections and only three to finish the enrolment process, almost 800,000 Salvadorans still don’t have the electoral ID card which will allow them to exercise their vote. Will the Supreme Electoral Tribunal be able to solve this problem?

Omar Serrano

One of the key challenges in Salvador's democratization process is to assure that the March 1994 elections be genuinely different from the simulation that took place last time. But elections can hardly be called democratic if no reliable electoral system is in place that allows all eligible citizens to vote.

For months, the US and other governments, some Salvadoran political parties and social forces, and the ONUSAL mission which helped prepare the elections have been expressing concern about irregularities in the process for obtaining voting credentials.

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) has received concrete charges that the electoral registry has not been purged of its irregularities or updated, and that the process of registering and receiving credentials has serious flaws. Some who registered as long as four months ago have still not received their voting card.

A recent study by ONUSAL and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) determined that 2,745,000 Salvadorans are of voting age. Of those, 783,000 still do not have their registration cards, but over 360,000 of them do not have birth certificates, an indispensable requisite for registering. Six months are left before the elections but only three until the registration process is finalized. Will these problems be solved in time?

Who Benefits?

According to a study similar to the ONUSAL/UNDP one, done by the Office of Statistics and Census using a sample of 19,000, the eligible Salvadorans who have either not registered or not received their cards are concentrated in the country's most populated areas or those where the war was hardest fought in the last decade. In the latter areas, most of the municipal offices were destroyed and civil registries containing birth certificates and the like were lost. In those zones, then, the obstacles to recovering birth certificates must be added to the other steps required to get a voting card.

The lack of registration is not, as the UN argues, just a case of apathy and frustration provoked by the distances the rural population must go to register. Everyone knows that in the zones where the conflict took place, most of the population is sympathetic to the FMLN.

To date, those most involved in monitoring the TSE's work are the opposition parties. The Democratic Convergence (CD) committee in the department of La Libertad, working in alliance with the FMLN, charges anomalies in the way the voting cards have been handed out. None of the 22 municipalities in La Libertad most of whose mayors are from the ARENA party have sent the TSE an updated list of birth certificates. The CD has warned that ARENA may be preparing an electoral fraud to stay in power.

What is Being Done?

As the close of voter registration draws nearer, national and international pressures on the TSE are mounting. But though it has yet to finish registering almost a third of the country's eligible voters, nearly half of whom have no birth certificates, TSE President Luis Arturo Zaldívar claims it can be done.

Supposedly in an effort to collaborate, the Legislative Assembly approved an ARENA proposed amendment on August 25 that will make the voter card obligatory as of January 1, 1994. The new law also stipulates that the card will be used by the citizenry as an identification card, which some consider unconstitutional, since the personal ID card established by the Constitution has not been repealed. Although the left generally favors the measure, Rubén Zamora, presidential candidate of the CD FMLN, claims that ARENA is using it to shake off national and international pressure and polish up its image. He feels the bill should have been studied carefully, and not pushed through so quickly. In 1989, a similar measure was proposed prior to the elections, but ARENA, the party currently in power, appealed through the Supreme Court, which declared it unconstitutional.
In an another attempt to help resolve these pre electoral problems, the international community through the UNDP initiated what is called the Electoral Process Support Project, which will cost more than $4 million. According to ONUSAL, the project "attempts to collaborate in the preparation for and holding of the elections and to help strengthen the TSE."

Can It Be Done?

On September 1, the TSE finally began a campaign to promote the registration of the hundreds of thousands of still uncarded Salvadorans. But not all the problems are just involuntary setbacks. Others are of a more operative character, such as the purification of the Electoral Registry and review of the National Registry, which could turn out to be serious obstacles. As the Salvadoran Institute of Legal Studies sees it, the TSE lacks the administrative capacity to register all those who want to vote in 1994. To do so, it says, the TSE "needs to increase its capacity by 600%." Technical analyses done by the Central American University in San Salvador show that the TSE can only hope to register 50,000 Salvadorans monthly.

The problem is much more complex than the government and ONUSAL think and its resolution is crucial to El Salvador's democratic future. The TSE, to achieve the greatest number of registrations possible, should not just process people who come to its offices. It must go out into the barrios, villages and rural communities with the greatest unregistered populations. The law making the voting card obligatory should go hand in hand with recommendations that the TSE magistrates take administrative measures to make compliance with the law possible.

Welcome, US Army

The arrival of a contingent of 400 US soldiers left over from those recruited for the Gulf War to built roads, latrines, wells and the like in rural El Salvador caused an uproar in the country. For the first time since last century, US troops openly set up shop on Salvadoran territory.

The government, the armed forces and the US military group itself say that the two phase mission, called "Strong Roads," is purely "humanitarian." Its first phase will take place from September 1 to December 2 of this year, and the second, dubbed "Volcano", from May to August of next year. The interruption, according Colonel Rudolph Jones, who commands the group from the US Embassy in San Salvador, is so "we not be seen as involved in the electoral process."
The greatest concern to Salvadorans is their own health. The stationing of US troops in neighboring Honduras during the past decade led to an alarming rise in the rate of Hondurans infected with AIDS. That country today has the most AIDS cases in Central America, and San Pedro Sula, one of its major cities, holds the undisputed and hardly desired record of having more AIDS infected prostitutes and pregnant women than any city on the planet. US soldiers also often carry other contagious diseases.

Some sectors, including the Bar Association, are more concerned about the unconstitutionality of this military presence. The Constitution allows foreign troops to pass through, but not remain on, national territory. Nonetheless, the Cristiani government so legalistic in constitutional questions says the presence of US military forces does not conflict with the letter of the Constitution.

Why Did They Really Come?

The constitutional reforms spelled out in El Salvador's peace accords leave today's armed forces with only two functions: to safeguard the integrity of national territory and to protect the nation's sovereignty. They have been stripped of eleven other constitutional functions that allowed them to get involved in every aspect of national life. The army is thus now trying to figure out what to do with its 30,000 men, and how to regain the civilian population's confidence. Twelve years of war dealt a tremendous blow to the army's prestige; it is on the population's "black list" for its systematic human rights violations.

The army's "dissuasive" patrols, which now roam through the country on the pretext of combating crime are part of this effort to wipe out its negative image. So far, however, the army has been unable to reduce the murders and other crimes carried out daily, particularly in San Salvador.

At the bottom of the less than welcome arrival of US troops, then, is the Salvadoran armed forces' desperate search for an excuse to allow them continued contact with and influence over the civilian population. The US troops' "civic action" is a particularly attractive justification, since it allows the armed forces to employ their own troops in activities that directly benefit the poorest of the population, and are thus hard for people to criticize.

Yesterday US soldiers taught their Salvadoran counterparts how to destroy and intimidate, according to counterinsurgency tactics. Today they are back to teach them how to build and relate to people in "civic action" programs, to support and legitimize them in this delicate pre electoral period.
The armed forces' new doctrine considers civic action as a fundamental component. Through it the army will try to win over the civilian population, especially in those areas it has not entered for a decade and to which it will now return accompanied by US soldiers.

The army's marginalization from political life as a result of the peace accords will become more acute as Central American integration proceeds. The military understands this perfectly well and is greatly concerned by it. It is thus looking for things to do, for any justification to keep existing.

Land: Still a Dream

One of the key agreements in the peace accords is that lands in the formerly conflictive zones will be transferred to their tenants during the armed conflict as well as to ex combatants of both the armed forces and the FMLN. But that dream, shared by so many thousands of Salvadorans and denied for so many years, seems no closer to becoming reality.

The land transfer program was designed in three phases. The first was to have been finalized in February 1993, but a series of obstacles have made that still impossible. The government has engaged in an ongoing publicity campaign blaming FMLN "irresponsibility". It holds that the FMLN has not yet presented its definitive lists of direct beneficiaries and that even the lands already transferred have not been occupied by members of the former guerrilla movement. In its "radical irrationality," argues the government, the FMLN demanded more than it can actually administer, was too inefficient to hand over the lists, and is not occupying the land because it never had the number of supporters it claimed.

The FMLN, on the other hand, claims that the main obstacles have been imposed by the government. While it acknowledges some delay in presenting its definitive lists, it states that the government is not accepting them and does not really want to cede on the land issue. The government's objective? To create insecurity and uncertainty among the demobilized FMLN combatants.

Of the 7,500 ex combatants mentioned by the UN as direct beneficiaries of the Land Transference Program, only 3,076 have received land. Of those, scarcely 1,024 hold title to their plot, and without one they are ineligible for medium term agricultural credits.

The government demands that the FMLN take responsibility for holding up the land transfers. But it has not made the necessary technical equipment available or offered the material resources needed to collect and process information on the beneficiaries, which would really facilitate the transfer and titling processes.

No lands whatever have been transferred so far in Chalatenango and Morazán, the two departments where the war was fought the hardest and where the majority of demobilized FMLN troops are to be found. In addition to the lack of fluid mechanisms, the government has established an "impossible" series of conditions for someone to benefit from the land transfers, much less obtain access to credit. The other benefits agreed to for the demobilized combatants, such as technical assistance, housing and scholarships, also have yet to appear on the horizon.

Another Estelí?

The FMLN held a march on August 26 demanding that the government comply with its promises to the international community. More than 20,000 Salvadorans came out to join the demobilized as they took to the streets of San Salvador, thus providing clear proof to the government that the FMLN's lack is land, not supporters.

The ex combatants, setting aside the usual stereotyped slogans, shouted an unsettling warning: "We don't want another Estelí, but it could happen here!" With the old dream of a piece of land to work is so close to becoming reality, the government's continued denial of it could lead to even greater discontent and desperation than is currently seen in Nicaragua. The demands of the armed recompa group that took over the northern city of Estelí in late July stemmed from government non compliance with agreements to provide land, credits and social services to demobilizing combatants on both sides of Nicaragua's own war.

Campaign Lines

With the electoral campaign only a few months away from its official kick off, the key positions of two major contenders ARENA and the FMLN CD coalition are beginning to emerge.

The United Nations considers the FMLN to be a legally established political party now that it has surrendered all weapons in its possession and declared that no more are stashed away in El Salvador, Honduras or Nicaragua. "Any arms cache that appears in the future is not the FMLN's responsibility," said the former guerrilla leaders in August, as they formally turned over the last weapons.

ARENA, however, has kept up a constant campaign to undermine the FMLN's prestige. The buried arsenal discovered in the Santa Rosa neighborhood of Managua in May gave ARENA the perfect opening to blame the FMLN for any and all violent activity. Common crime has soared to alarming levels in El Salvador, and a number of gangs use military weapons to assault and intimidate the population throughout the country. Each time any armed group commits a violent crime, ARENA jumps on the opportunity to publicly "consider the possibility" that the group belongs to the FMLN. Even President Cristiani has voiced "suspicion" that the delinquent gangs have some relation with the FMLN.

ARENA is presenting itself as the "party of change," the one that brought peace to the country and the only one capable of bringing about the country's integral development.

The FMLN CD is aware that it can not compete with ARENA's spending on publicity, so it is concentrating on the key point of today's national agenda: compliance with what was established in the peace accords.
In the massive August 26 march which got not a line of coverage in the mainstream newspapers the demands were compliance with all measures to ease the ex combatants' reinsertion into civilian life and the transfer of lands to the peasant population in the areas that had been conflict zones.

In contrast to ARENA, the FMLN CD candidates do not attack their main opponent, but rather emphasize that they speak for the population's key need. This position opens up many hopeful possibilities for the Salvadoran left.


More than 20 people trying to eke out a living met death instead on a garbage dump in Santa Tecla, a few kilometers outside of San Salvador. They were picking out recyclable materials to sell for a few cents when a landslide buried them alive. The tragedy occurred just days after President Cristiani claimed a significant improvement in the country's economy. The following translation of a June 18 editorial from Diario Latino, tells the story.

The burial of 25 people under a mountain of garbage showed the fragility of the government data heralding the Cristiani administration's economic successes. The rains of recent days have brought to visibility thousands of people who were living in virtual clandestinity along the river banks, at the edge of huge garbage dumps or in marginal zones behind luxurious residences or buildings like the Hotel El Salvador and the International Fair.

In subhuman conditions, these "poorest of the poor," whom the President defines as the main object of his attention, refute by a silence mixed with supplication, impotence and challenge that the Gross Domestic Product has risen 12.2% in recent years or that "record percentages" have been obtained in the advance of the Salvadoran economy.

According to Minister of Planning Mirna Liévano de Márquez, the government is seeking to increase the population's standard of living. Nonetheless, the families of the 25 killed at the Santa Tecla garbage dump still live, and perhaps will live for many years more, in utter misery. The "poorest of the poor," pallid,
squalid, throw themselves daily into the search for scraps, competing with dozens of vultures and dogs for the rotting junk.

A sinister caricature of the efforts of thousands of Salvadorans to stay alive, these people are testimony to the negative effects of the stabilization programs. The mayor of Santa Tecla justified what happened, declaring, "I warned them." But, the hunger? The desperation to give something to their children? And the absence of alternatives? Where are they to go? "We're going on the right road," said National Communications Secretary Ernesto Altschul, in recent remarks about the economy.

The defenders of a social market economy say that industrial production has grown and nontraditional exports are up, while using textbook economic terms to slide over the galloping price increases for a basic market basket of goods.

"The increased prices are due to the cyclical element, but the trade gap is one of the things we're going to correct," says
Altschul. Mirna Liévano adds that "it is beneficial to eliminate price controls, since the market is thus strengthened to increase competition."
But in real life rising prices mean hunger. Frozen salaries mean desperation. Living near rivers or in ravines means risking one's home and household belongings, children, domestic animals, in the end, everything these people have, every rainy season. Government statistics disguise or hide the road taken
by the profits from Cristiani's successful economic plan, or simply lie, claiming that "the eradication of poverty has begun."
Surely, the people who get these profits from the economic boom do not have to face a mountain of garbage day after day just to find enough to give their children something to eat. Perhaps those who do are on the side of those who generate these mountains of trash.

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The New Transitions: Where are they Headed?

Hope in Lechecuagos

Nicaragua's Polarization is Reaching the Boiling Point

El Salvador
Elections: Will all be Able to Vote?

Ramiro de León: the Military's Dream?

Beans on the Front Burner

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