Opinions on the Street

Arena Campaigners, San Salvador
Arena Campaigners, San Salvador

What is it the guidebooks always say? Travelers are strongly advised to avoid all political discussions, demonstrations, and events? Do they specifically advise to steer clear of capital cities during elections? Something about the dangers of discussing subjects (which are often seen as trivial in the US) in a country where politics has literally been a life and bloody-death issue for generations?

Good thing I don’t have a guidebook.

As my plane was touching down in San Salvador, I was wondering what would be acceptable to talk about with my election delegation hosts. Could I ask them who they thought would win, or would that threaten their neutrality?

The answer was obvious when we reached the car, with its pair of red FMLN flags waving proudly above the doors. SANA is here at the FMLN’s invitation to monitor the election for fairness and legality, and will scrupulously obey all laws, but they make no secret as to who they hope will win.

Would everyone be so forthcoming? The preponderance of banners, bumper stickers, and slogan-bearing T-shirts on the streets of San Salvador suggested they were, and I set out to conduct my own opinion polling.

The taxi driver reached forward to show me his ARENA sticker, the right-wing party that promises economic reform.

“Under the FMLN, there has been too much crime, too much delinquency,” he began, before adding high gas prices (he asserted the government has a monopoly and raised the price), a lack of government investment in small businesses, and that the FMLN doesn’t help the working class.

The FMLN has answers to each of these, but with gas prices astonishingly high for a developing country, and many small businesses closed over recent years, his complaints clearly resonate with much of the electorate.

The stout woman who made my papaya juice said she will vote for the FMLN, but she thinks ARENA will win. At the end of the day, she didn’t see much difference between the parties. This surprised me, but I wasn’t the only one feeling surprised. “I can’t believe I’m talking about politics with a gringo!” she said with a belly laugh. “I don’t even talk about it with my friends!”

The young bus attendant said he thinks ARENA will win, so that is who he will vote for. More unexpected reasoning.

But the biggest surprise for me is always indecision. A woman waiting for a friend outside the pharmacy told me “I don’t know who I will vote for, though I think the Frente (FMLN) will win.” She shrugged her shoulders.

I asked her about the FMLN’s voting reforms, specifically the creation of absentee balloting for Salvadorans abroad, and assigning people to the polling place closest to their homes, versus the previous alphabetical system that forced some to travel long distances.

“Those are good. My brothers are in the US and Spain, and three of my cousins work in Australia, so now they can vote from there. And now I don’t have to take the bus to vote here.” We watched as a van got tired of waiting for traffic and drove up on the sidewalk, squeezing past a stand selling bananas and potato chips.

“I don’t want ARENA, though. They did a lot of harm to the country and to me.” Her eyes reflected past pain as she said it, Me hicieron mucho daño. “But…I don’t know who I will vote for.”

Her indecision might confuse, even frustrate me, but right then I just wanted to give her a great big hug.

I wonder if such uncertainty, in the face of two parties with legitimately different visions, is a direct consequence of the modern style of campaigning, which doesn’t respect (or fears?) voters’ intellects enough to openly state their agenda. Instead, voters get interchangeable inanities like “You in first place”, “Vote for security/progress/the future”, and billboards with pictures of smiling children saying “With X, we will play peacefully in the street.”

Voters are left with scar tissue from past grievances, empty words, and a potential unawareness that Candidate X wants to open more Walmarts, while Candidate Y wants to give uniforms and computers to schoolkids. Those are legitimate criteria to make a decision; which candidate can find the picture of the cutest kids? Not so much.

Standing around the fountain in a nearby roundabout, a few young people were waving ARENA flags, with bags of pens and stickers to hand out, though traffic never slowed below NASCAR speed. When I asked them why they favored ARENA they said “Liberty!” I refrained from asking what party does NOT espouse that concept, and instead asked what they thought of the FMLN.

They looked at each other, unsure, called over two others but no one wanted to answer. Maybe not wanting to “go on the record”? “We don’t want to talk bad about anyone,” was their final answer.

“Ha, now they want to play it clean for the press,” was the response of an FMLN organizer. “But we are the party of honesty and transparency. We are the ones who want real democracy for the people of El Salvador, a government that works to serve and help The People, not just the wealthy.” That sentiment is easier said than done, and she later acknowledged “We are not all perfect angels either,” and the most convincing ad I saw from ARENA listed several high level FMLN scandals.

But there is one other big issue on everyone’s minds here. Crime. Security. The gangs.

As I mentioned in the previous dispatch, this country has suffered severe crime rates, and sometimes it seems that the gangs are more in control of the country than the government. The “truce” in March 2012 reduced the homicide rate precipitously, but Salvadorans are skeptical of the real effect.

“There is no truce,” the taxi driver said with no doubt in his voice. “Things are the same, but the government hides the facts from us. Things are so bad here. A father cannot let his children go outside to play on Saturday, they all have to stay locked up in the house because you never know who might be outside. You can’t tell who is a gangster, and they do whatever they want.”

His face was reddening, his voice getting louder, and our trajectory in the lane more erratic, when we were forced to stop for a previous accident. The truck in front of us didn’t feel like waiting, and drove around it, falling into the deep drainage ditch at the side of the road.

My taxista stepped out, and within a few minutes a half dozen men and a surge of gasoline had pushed the truck back onto the road.

When he got back in, he looked tired, and not just from pushing the car.

“My sons both graduated, but they cannot find jobs. I work all day but do not earn enough to support my family. Things must change. So I will vote for ARENA.”

ARENA had twenty years in office, and I asked him if things had changed for the better in that time. “Yes, there were some good things they did,” but he could not think of any specifics.

I asked him who he voted for in 2009. “The FMLN,” he said. “But things have not gotten better. I think they were not ready to govern. I hope things will be better again under ARENA.”

From what I can tell, the people of El Salvador, all of them, are voting for progress, voting for safety and work, they are voting for change.

They just disagree on which slogan-shouters will provide it.

Tim Tendick is a blogger, photographer, and traveler. He currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with two neurotic dogs and a porch-cat. He’s working on his first book.
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