getting to the election

Things gallop along so quickly here at times like this. A longer version of the Guarjila story will have to wait — it´s 3 am the day of the elections, and in an hour and a half someone will be coming to take me to a San Salvador polling station, where I´ll be observing the voting as an official elections monitor for the rest of the day, and into the night. The polls are open from 7 am to 5 pm only, but as I learned yesterday at half-day long training by the grassroots development organization sponsoring me as a monitor, there´s an incredibly labyrinthine series of bureaucratic procedures and formalities that accompanies the vote and the tallying, and any step along the way there can be violations that would impugn the results.

There are supposedly over 4,000 elections observers in the country now, I sat in a room with about 40 of us and listened to a description of a process that sounds like a toxic mixture of medieval Spanish bureaucratism and malevolent Kafkaism.  Basically the whole infrastructure around voting in El Salvador is managed by the political parties themselves, and heavily weighted towards the party in power.  People don´t vote close to where they live, necessarily, they’re assigned by last name to a polling place in their city or town; there are 460 polling places in 262 municipalities.  It´s entirely possible to show up at a place where you´ve voted all your life and not appear on the rolls, and there is no immediate redress for this. At each polling place there are officials who represent the political parties who actually process the votes as they come in, and some macaroni-like mathematical formula for ensuring that all the parties in a given election have equal representation at each table where ballots are issued and cast, instead of having some sort of independent body, no matter how nominal to oversee the vote. The party representatives at those tables are the ultimate arbiters of who gets to vote and who doesn’t.

This is the first time ever that Salvadoran nationals have been allowed to be elections monitors, and this is a great advantage, for by the end of the training I was depressed at the number of procedures I´d be poorly able to assess from simple unfamiliarity with the whole complex system.

After the training, we were greeted with the news that the electoral council that oversees elections nationally had simply decided arbitrarily during the day that enough monitors had been registered, and said: no more, even though inscription was supposed to continue until 8 pm, and there were many of us who had been authorized to receive accreditation days or weeks ago who hadn´t yet gotten our badges.  As with all such situations in El Salvador, the only way to address an arbitrary decision by the authorities is to confront it head on and stare it down. So we went barreling off to the Radisson Hotel, where the official accreditation had been taking place. Talk about your medieval castle of privilege, whose iron gates were initially closed to us — the place was crawling with cops and other not so easily identified authorities, who seemed to have no problem waving through a line of gargantuan  SUVs sporting the red, white and blue ARENA flag.

While most of my attempts to be well-equipped and organized have been defeated by my chaotic circumstances, as I knew they would be (I forgot to bring a watch, and since my phone doesn´t work, this is turning into a major inconvenience. And yesterday my glasses broke; this has never happened in the five years I´ve had them) I did happen to have a photocopy of the email I received before I left the US with the full list of officially approved monitors sponsored by this organization in which my name was included.  It was commandeered by one of the grassroots organization´s people — I never saw it again, but a few minutes later I was called inside the gate with the other woman who´d been in the same car with me, a Salvadoran exile who turned out to be from Daly City.

We hustled into the gleaming, be-fountained, commodious lobby full of dye jobs sporting shiny facials and little black dresses and another much more eclectic crew of internationals with laminated badges strung around their necks, and then to a long line of nervously waiting people outside the ballroom.

I don´t know what happened to them, but we were told to go a different room it took us another series of wrong turns to find, and when we found it, there were only a couple of bored-looking functionaries there and no line at all, and that was our victory –having got there, to that room, I mean.

After some back and forth in which we simply repeated what we were told by the grassroots reps to say, which was that we had been on the official list for more than a week already (which in my case at least was true) the miraculous badges at last appeared.

I left my Daly City friend to find her son-in-law and ride on out of there, jubilantly (as she, in true Salvadoran form, had left everything till the last minute and even forgotten to bring her passport with her earlier in the week, when she could easily have gotten her accreditation) and I was seen into a cab at the main entrance by a smiling young man who spoke earnest English to one of the sleek entering guests, and then I took the long ride down the mountain from the castle to Sandra´s house, now full of far-flung friends (Mexico, Chile, England) from the solidarity days in town for the show, eating pupusas, drinking rum and gossiping like old college classmates.

Dawn’s approaching. So now we´ll see what today will bring.