Saturday, April 18, 2009

A Long, Dark Journey to Joyous Night in El Salvador

A Long, Dark Journey to Joyous Night in El Salvador

The minister had endured torture and exile during El Salvador's brutal civil war. Last month, journalist-turned-elections-observer Steve Kelley was at his side as thousands celebrated a new era.

by Steve Kelley

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador - Late at night, into the early hours of a Monday morning in mid-March, joyous throngs of people, as many as 600,000, paraded down Avenida Escalón, through the heart of some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in this capital city.

[As hundreds of thousands rally in celebration on Avenida Escalón in San Salvador , a supporter holds a poster of El Salvador's President-elect Maurício Funes, whose victory at the polls last month completed a historic journey for his party of former rebels. (Jose Cabezas/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)]As hundreds of thousands rally in celebration on Avenida Escalón in San Salvador , a supporter holds a poster of El Salvador's President-elect Maurício Funes, whose victory at the polls last month completed a historic journey for his party of former rebels. (Jose Cabezas/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Three generations of Salvadorans wore red T-shirts, red bandannas and red caps. For them, it was the color of victory. The color of change. FMLN red.

They walked past grim-faced, helmeted police who, we were told, were mobilized to protect the real estate of the rich. And they walked past portable razor-wire fences that were wheeled into place as soon as the polls closed.

The avenue was a season of red, and the celebration reminded me of Lincoln on a fall Saturday night after a Nebraska football win over Oklahoma.

Many of those celebrating around me had fled north during the 12-year civil war that ended in 1992. While in exile, they told their stories again and again, from Ottawa to Seattle, from California to British Columbia. They talked about their archbishop and their teachers, their parents, brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors who had disappeared or were murdered during the war.

On this evening, they cheered the first leftist presidential victory in Salvadoran history. After decades of oppression, their candidate, Maurício Funes of the FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front), had defeated Rodrigo Ávila of ARENA (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista), 51.3 percent to 48.7 percent.

Their exuberance was unquenchable.

I walked that Sunday night, March 15, with my friend, Pastor Miguel Tomás Castro of Emmanuel Baptist Church, whose older brother and hero, Gabriel, was murdered while fighting in the civil war.

Miguel was abducted during that war, tortured for being a pastor and exiled to Canada. He returned to his congregation and his country in 1989 because he believed that he one day would witness this profound change, and he strolled through the sultry election night with a smile as wide as the avenue.

Support from Seattle

More than two decades ago, in 1986, he had told his story in a living room in Seattle. Like so many others who were living in exile, he bore witness to the seemingly unbearable suffering of his people. Few in the United States listened then, but there were those in Seattle, Portland, Eugene and others cities who did.

"Know the truth," Miguel said that night, "and the truth shall set you free."

Those words came to life on Avenida Escalón. They were revealed on the faces and in the tears of those who celebrated. Families were reunited on this street. These people had returned home to reclaim the promises and the reality of the hope that had sustained them for more than 20 years.

It felt on this night as if fear had been defeated.

Miguel grabbed my arm and pointed to the homes and office buildings of the wealthy. "This is where they planned the massacres," he said. "This is where they planned the election fraud. This is where they planned the murders."

We listened as Funes spoke to hundreds of thousands in front of him. The scene was reminiscent of President Obama's election-night speech in Chicago's Grant Park.

Miguel translated for me as Funes forgave "the lies" that Ávila told about him during the election. Funes promised "safe change," and the crowd's roar rolled down the avenue.

Fireworks crackled. Teenagers climbed five-story billboards to get a better view of the president-elect, and kicked the metal panels, cheering his every word. Strangers hugged and cried in each other's arms.

"We were not sure that this could happen," Miguel told me. "There were too many periods of loss. We all lost so much, but we believed that if we kept on fighting, this day would come. We have to thank all the people who died in this journey. This day is for them."

I was wearing a light-blue jacket and hat that identified me as one of 4,000 international observers who presided over the election process. And, as I walked, people came up to me and my colleagues and thanked us, in both English and Spanish, for "coming to be with us at this time."

An elderly woman kissed me on the cheek. "She's thanking you for your part in assuring the election's fairness," Miguel told me.

A day of change

"This day means we have taken more steps from a very long march, seeking an opportunity for real democracy," he said. "We can look forward to taking the difficult steps to start a process to build a different country. A very different country where everybody has an opportunity for a life with dignity."

These people, who walked along the avenue, had lived in fear of Salvadoran death squads, many of which were military- and police-trained at the American War College at Fort Benning, Ga. These death squads had terrorized the country for more than a decade.

All day I felt the energy of this moment. I felt something I'd never felt during a U.S. presidential election.

On Election Day in El Salvador, the capital's streets were choked with cars and pilgrims. Voters and their families marched to their polling places. It felt like the excitement that builds during the morning of a big sporting event.

People wore the colors of the parties they supported: blue for ARENA, red for FMLN. They flew party flags from their cars and chanted party slogans. Vendors sold food and souvenirs on the sidewalks.

Entire families came. Parents shared their experience with their children, holding hands as they signed in at the voting tables and as they leaned into the official cardboard boxes to cast their votes.

It was Sunday, a day off, and the election was a shared, family experience. It made me think that this is the way we should do it in the United States. Everyone should have a visceral sense of the meaning of democracy.

Sanctuary support here

When I told friends I was going to be one of 4,000 election observers, the typical response was, "Why you?"

In truth, I was invited by Miguel to be part of an ecumenical group, one of several international teams asked to oversee the election process. By our presence at polling sites, we hoped to limit coercion and election fraud. I was invited because of my association with people who had been part of Seattle's sanctuary movement in the 1980s.

Twenty-five years ago, it was the unambiguous convictions of refugees in Seattle, and of those who assisted them, that captured my attention and won my respect.

With the help of people like then-Mayor Charles Royer, Seattle became one of the most supportive cities in the United States, advocating on behalf of Central American refugees whose immigration petitions for political asylum were summarily denied by State Department officials, who said there was no just cause for their petitions.

Providing protection for former teachers, labor organizers and Roman Catholic lay leaders, and offering shelter and assistance to Salvadoran refugees so they might document their political asylum claims in Seattle's immigration court, were deemed violations of U.S. law.

But the city's archbishop, Raymond Hunthausen, stood with the refugees and alongside the people who sought to defend them. His courage and the strength of the people with whom he stood were justified on this election night.

During the weeklong observation period leading up to the election, I made visits to memorials of those who had died. I visited the small chapel in a hospice center where Archbishop Oscar Romero, a revered supporter of the Salvadoran poor, was murdered. The assassin killed him at the moment Romero lifted a chalice while officiating at a Mass for hospice staff and those dying of cancer.

I saw the bloodstained garments he wore at that service, part of a memorial for him on the hospice grounds. I saw the bullet hole in the vestment, located directly over his heart.

I went to the University of Central America, where in November 1989, five priests, their housekeeper and the woman's young daughter were murdered by members of the military's elite guard, Atlacatl. The premeditated killings on the Jesuit campus occurred at the height of the FMLN's attack against government forces in the capital.

The bodies of the priests were dragged into the yard outside their shared dwellings. Today, rose bushes planted in memory of each priest and the two women grow and bloom as a memorial to their courage.

These memorials crystallized for me the importance of this election to the future of this country.

On the eve of the election, I spoke with Josue Cruz, a law student at El Salvador University. A tall, thoughtful young man, he said to me, "Most people in an election ask, 'What is in it for me?' But I don't want anything for me. Not one penny. All I want is for the people to be given some hope. And for the poor to be given respect."

On that Sunday night in mid-March, Josue walked in this sea of red, in the neighborhoods of the wealthy, and celebrated what he believed was a newly delivered hope and respect for the poor.

He walked with memories of those who had died to make this night possible. He walked with Miguel and the hundreds of thousands who never gave up, never quit on the idea of a democratic future.

It was a privilege to be among them.

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