US pledges to respect neutrality in Salvador elections —despite GOP bluster

On March 11—just four days before El Salvador’s historic election for president and vice-president—five Republican Congressmen gave speeches on the floor of the House of Representatives threatening that Salvadorans living in the US would lose their immigration status and be outlawed from sending money home to their families if voters in El Salvador elect the opposition FMLN party’s candidate. “Those monies that are coming from here to there I am confident will be cut, and I hope the people of El Salvador are aware of that because it will have a tremendous impact on individuals and their economy,” stated Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN). Similar threats by US officials were made during the 2004 Salvadoran presidential campaign.

The Republicans’ statements were on the front pages of the widest circulating daily newspapers in El Salvador on the morning of March 12, the day after the presidential and vice-presidential campaigns legally closed—leaving the FMLN unable to respond to the threats. The Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) mobilized its activists in the US to demand public statements of neutrality from the State Department in Washington and the US Embassy in San Salvador.

After receiving what it referred to as an “inundation” of phone calls from citizens around the US on March 12, the State Department released a statement of neutrality, saying “The US government reiterates its official position that it does not support either candidate in the upcoming presidential election in El Salvador on March 15th… The separation of powers and freedoms in the United States allows the debate in which members of the US Legislature have expressed their opinions, which do not necessarily reflect the official position of the United States.” Later that day, the US Embassy in El Salvador also released a statement saying, “The US Government will respect the will of the Salvadoran people and will seek to work constructively with whoever wins that election.”

Then the next morning, March 13, Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) stated, “As Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, I am confident that neither TPS [temporary immigration status granted to Salvadorans in the US] nor the right to receive remittances from family in the United States will be affected by the outcome of the election, despite what some of my colleagues in Congress have said.”

At a press briefing later that day, Thomas Shannon, the State Department’s top diplomat for Latin America stated, “We are committed to free and fair elections in El Salvador. And we’ve also made it very clear that we will work with whomever the Salvadoran people elect.” All these statements of neutrality were covered in the Salvadoran media, as did a March 5 letter signed by 33 members of Congress calling for the Obama administration to take just such a position. That letter was published in its entirety in El Salvador’s highest-circulation newspaper, La Prensa Gráfica, on March 14.

ARENA denounces CISPES
A March 6 article by the EFE wire service reports that a party representative from El Salvador’s ruling Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) in Miami, Fla, José Alfredo Ávila, criticized CISPES for its support of US Rep. Raúl Grijalva’s March 5 letter in support of free and fair elections in El Salvador, signed by 33 lawmakers. Ávila dismissed the lawmakers’ call for US neutrality, saying “they [CISPES] were the ones who came up with this idea for the letter and asked the members of Congress for their support.” Calling the letter “an insult,” the ARENA spokesman said that the relationship between the United States and El Salvador has “never” produced any intervention in the internal affairs of either country.

However, the Congressional letter was accompanied by extensive documentation of interventionist statements and threats made by high-ranking US officials during El Salvador’s 2004 presidential campaign.

FMLN holds carnival, warns of fraud
On March 7, the FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) held a massive carnival to celebrate the closing of the presidential campaign. Over 300,000 supporters converged on the Alameda Juan Pablo II in a sea of red to listen to speakers, enjoy music, and fill the area with chants vocalizing their support for FMLN presidential candidate Mauricio Funes and vice-presidential candidate Salvador Sanchez Cerén.

Caravans of people arrived from all over the country to join in the celebration. As the sun set, fireworks lit up the sky as the crowd raised their fists and sang “El Pueblo Unido Jamas Será Vencido” (The People United Will Never Be Defeated). The carnival concluded with a speech by Funes, in which the candidate called for a massive turnout—and for everyone to take responsibility to defend the victory. He expressed concern about the potential for fraud on March 15 and urged those present to be vigilant.

The governing ARENA closed its campaign the next day at the Estadio Cuscatlán, gathering 70,000 people and encouraging them to protect El Salvador from “the reds.”

In the weeks and months leading-up to the March 15 election, international observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) and independent non-governmental organizations have expressed concern over the potential for irregularities. The OAS report on January’s municipal and legislative elections stressed the failure of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) to make the Electoral Registry available in its entirety to all political parties. To date, the FMLN has not had access to this list of all eligible voters, which has prevented investigation into numerous reports of irregularities in the Registry.

ARENA buses in Nicaraguans and Hondurans?
On March 9, residents of Antiguo Cuscatlán in the department of San Salvador reported the presence of buses filled with Nicaraguans and Hondurans who were being given Salvadoran ID cards (DUIs), presumably to vote in the March 15th presidential election. International observers affiliated with the Salvadoran Foundation for Local Development and Democracy (FUNDASPAD) responded to the citizen claims and found two buses parked in front of the City Hall that were full of people who hid when the observers approached. The observers noted that the bus passengers spoke with Honduran and Nicaraguan accents. Local business owners reported that there were many other buses that had come and gone during the day.

The citizen complaints asserted that the foreigners were being taken to the fourth floor of the City Hall parking garage and given false DUIs. An individual wearing an ARENA shirt who spoke on condition of anonymity told journalists that buses had been arriving all day and the passengers were being taken to the parking garage for a meeting about the election. The FUNDASPAD observers say they saw a line of individuals leaving the City Hall parking garage and rapidly returning to the buses.

In the days before the Jan. 18 municipal and legislative elections, Nicaraguan and Honduran individuals with Salvadoran DUIs were detained in route to voting centers in Morazán, La Unión, and San Miguel. An audit of the Electoral Registry conducted by the Organization of American States (OAS) in December of 2007 found numerous irregularities, including the apparent presence of deceased people and people who had migrated to the United States. The OAS provided instructions for purging the Electoral Registry that the TSE never completed. This, along with the reports of foreigners with DUIs, has raised the concern of many international observers about the potential for fraud in the March 15th presidential election. (CISPES, March 14)

See our last posts on El Salvador, Central America and the politics of immigration.

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