In the hard light of a March afternoon, the dusty TransNica tour bus pulls into a tiny village on the border of El Salvador. The 14-hour trip from Managua, Nicaragua, has had a numbing effect—the constant hum of the road; the endless dying vegetation of Central America’s dry season; the breakdown of the bus and the wait in the morning heat for its replacement. And now it comes down to this dingy little town littered with refuse, populated by squat buildings, shotgun-toting border guards, locals on bicycles, a few ramshackle food booths and the occasional stray goat.
Irene Hodgson, assistant Dan Marschner and a weary delegation made up of nine Xavier students and University photographer Greg Rust are heading into El Salvador to serve as observers in the country’s upcoming national elections. But here in no-man’s-land, there are problems. Certain elements in El Salvador’s political structure are trying to keep out the observers. Hodgson, a professor of modern languages, begins negotiations. The students wait, sitting in whatever shade is available, some napping on their backpacks. The air hangs heavy with the smell of exhaust from idling buses. Four hours later, after numerous phone calls and some bartering with another bus company, the group is finally allowed to continue its journey.
Nicaraguan service learning semesters have been part of the University’s educational fabric since 1995. But in 1999 and again this year, the students have taken a brief detour to monitor the Salvadoran elections, which are on a five-year schedule. Hodgson has led both trips, which are aimed both at helping create a climate favorable for fair elections and providing students with a valuable learning experience.
“There’s a lot of participation for my students when there are U.S. elections,” she says. “But I think you learn by looking at the process in another country, you learn a lot of things about your own system that you might never see if you didn’t do something like that.”
The students arrive in El Salvador’s capital city, San Salvador, four days before the elections to get acclimated to the country and its culture. They are met by Matt Eisen, a 1995 graduate who lives in the country and works among some of the poorest, most troubled elements of Salvadoran society. During the group’s 10-day stay, Eisen serves as a guide and provides social and historical insight.
Like all Central American countries, El Salvador is poor—60 percent of the population earns just $2 a day; more than half of the money coming into the country is sent by Salvadorans living abroad. Yet San Salvador offers the students a visible contrast to their two months in Managua.
“El Salvador’s a lot hipper than Nicaragua,” says David Cicerchi, a sophomore political science major. “It’s a lot more developed. They have a new highway system, and a lot more Burger Kings and McDonald’s and all that stuff.” They also have a Radisson Inn where the group meets to collect their election credentials—badges carrying the logo “Tribunal Supremo Electoral.”
Although four parties are on the ballot, the elections are billed as a showdown between the incumbent ARENA, a right-wing party favoring free trade and privatization of national industry, and FMLN, a left-wing, anti-free-trade group focusing more on education and housing issues. Some suggest violence is a likelihood by the losing party, so Hodgson makes arrangements for the group to leave before dawn on the morning after the elections and spend a day and a half camping, swimming and visiting sites in the mountains four hours away.
It’s election day, and sophomore Kevin Fitzgerald rises at 4:00 a.m. to the dark heat of the Salvadoran morning. The philosophy, politics and the public major hurries to get ready, then heads to one of two polling places staffed by the delegation. The polls are basic—a series of tables and cardboard voting booths set up at a local school. Outside, walls are covered with placards bearing the names, photos and identification numbers of those eligible to vote. When the doors open at 7:00 a.m., hundreds of people pour in. It’s chaotic at first, people rushing around. It takes a few minutes, but Fitzgerald finds himself relaxing into his role. “To watch over 35-, 40-year-old men and women doing their own electoral process is a little intimidating at first,” he says. “But then when you think about the millions of people who are hoping for fair elections and relying on you, it gives you a little bit more energy—the idea that the one voice the people can have is strengthened by you being there.”
Three times during the day, the students fill out sheets detailing their observances. El Salvador has a semi-literate population, so the ballot is simply four pictures—the flags of the parties. Voters use a black crayon and place an “X” on the flag of their choice. After voting, they dip a finger in a dish of indelible ink to show they cast their ballot.
“It is really amazing to see how many people are out there to vote,” Fitzgerald says. “There are 36 or so tables, and at the end of the day almost every table had an 80-percent turnout vote. In the United States, we get 30 to 40 percent.” The elections run smoothly, although a number of students note the lack of voting privacy. “People can pass behind the person voting and easily see who they’re voting for,” says Joe Hall, a sophomore honors major.
At 5:00 p.m., the polls close. Chaos reigns again. The students are instructed to be the most vigilant now because a lot can happen. They stand in front of a table and watch as the box is opened and every vote counted, slowly and cautiously. People dressed in red, white and blue for ARENA, and red and white for FMLN mingle nearby. Tensions are high.
Ultimately, the elections end with a fizzle instead of the predicted bang. The final tally isn’t close at all: 60 percent for ARENA, 35 percent for FMLN. The other two parties each fail to get 3 percent of the vote, and thus are excluded from future elections, leaving El Salvador with a two-party system. And while some people blare car horns and shoot off fireworks, violence is minor—the students see none.
The following night is calm and clear, the sky blanketed with stars—perfect for camping in the mountains. The elections are past, and the delegation aims to spend another five days absorbing the culture and history of the country. By March 28, the group is back in Managua, ready to resume the final month of service learning.
But the impressions that remain are both powerful and thought provoking. Julia Matson, a junior psychology and art major, says the election process itself appeared fair. But she is troubled by reports that some voters were coerced into voting for ARENA under the threat of losing their jobs.
Fitzgerald says the experience energized him to become involved in the American voting process. “Being 20 years old, I haven’t been able to vote in a presidential election yet,” he says. “And walking away, it really made me feel a little proud of democracy and the fact that my vote does matter. It’s really given me a lot more courage and energy to go and vote in the upcoming election. I’m pretty excited about that.”
That excitement , Hodgson says, is important. “The trip really gives the students an insight into the political process, both in our own country and in other countries,” she says. “This time, it was interesting to me to find out that several of the students had never voted. And I think they will now.”