|The Rev. Kevin Dixon talks to local media (bottom left) after the prison visit
Theologians and sociologists talk about how we are living in a liminal time -they mean we are on the threshold of something new or different. If that is true, then there is no better example than what the people of El Salvador are experiencing right now.
Nine of us from St. Mary's Kerrisdale joined a team of 2,800 foreign official election observers for the presidential election that was held March 15. Many people who had never done so before mustered the courage to vote to achieve this threshold of change.
St. Mary's team was led by the Rev. Kevin Dixon. It included two youth. We came at the invitation of the Episcopal (Anglican) Church of El Salvador and its bishop, the Most Rev. Martin de Jesus Barahona.
Our role was to observe and report problems with the process. We found that, although there were some heated incidents mostly dealing with proper identification, generally the election process was peaceful and well run. Observers were seen as important to the process, especially by those hoping for change: one older woman, after voting, said to us in Spanish, "With you, we will win".
|In rural El Salvador the ox cart is a common sight, and life hasn't changed much for many people who struggle to have clean water, electricity, proper sanitation, education and medical services. (Glen Mitchell photos)
Nearly twice as many people voted as had ever before (62% turned out). With 51.3 per cent of the vote, they elected a new president, Mauricio Funes. He is a moderate leftist in a country that has never seen a candidate with that political orientation gain office.
Funes' political party is the FMLN or Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional. Before the peace accords were signed in1992, FMLN was the main guerilla force that waged civil war against various right wing governments and the oligarchy of 40 families that own nearly everything in the country.
If you read the political history of El Salvador since the 1930s, it is a litany of military juntas, elections, more juntas, more elections-you get the idea. These were nearly always conservative right wing governments that regularly sponsored state violence and campaigns of terror against the people. When reforms were attempted, the oligarchy acted to protect its interests.
One of the worst weeks in the country's history was in 1932, when nearly 30,000 people were murdered for demanding land reform. This atrocious government action directly led to the creation of the resistance movement and today's FMLN. Will it be different this time?
The time of waiting, between the election and Inauguration Day on June 1 truly has been a threshold: liminal time for El Salvadorians.
|Bishop Martin Barahona (Colin Mills photo)
The desire for change in the country is palpable. President-elect Funes, in accepting the victory, thanked everyone who had chosen the path of hope and change. What is it they are so determined to change?
In the rural areas land reform is needed. Many lack clean water and electricity. The outdoor toilet is commonplace. Few receive education beyond elementary levels or have access to regular medical services. Better roads and bridges are needed. Community development and medical teams of the Anglican Church in El Salvador keep working hard on these problems.
Nearly 40 percent of the population is unemployed and this leads to high rates of gang crime and violence - 15 people are murdered every day. Those that are lucky enough to work are often employed in a maquila - factories in duty free zones - that import materials and assemble them and then re-export them. There are many types of maquilas but many are clothing factories. The basic wage in a maquila is $180 per month in a country where the poverty level is set at $700 per month.
To escape the poverty and violence, literally millions of El Salvadorians have abandoned their homeland to work in the United States and Canada. More than one million live in Los Angeles alone. There are more than 200,000 in Canada. They work here and make remittances - sending home money - so that families left behind can survive.
|Anne Kessler shares with two women a photo she took in the prison in San Miguel that the St. Mary's group visited after the election
The gulf between the wealthy and the poor in this patriarchal society is vast and has worsened since the peace of 1992. In the morning you can visit a community no more than an hour's drive from the capital, San Salvador, where the women still pack water from the stream and cook on dirt floors. And in the evening, dine at Pizza Hut, to use a modest example, at Metro Centro - the largest shopping mall in Central America.
The St. Mary's group remained in El Salvador for a week after the election. We toured several historical sites, made a pilgrimage to Archbishop Oscar Romero's tomb in the Roman Catholic cathedral in San Salvador, went inside the prison at San Miguel where Kevin presided at a Eucharist in the prison chapel, and visited several communities where the Anglican Church of El Salvador plays a central role in their development.
So will the election bring positive change? Will El Salvadorians actually cross this liminal threshold? Will the outcome be different this time? I hope you will join in prayer with many millions of people who truly have hope that it will.
Pray for the people, and the leader of our church in El Salvador, Bishop Martin. Pray that this time it will be different, that peace will prevail and that the needs of the people will be met. Pray that the hopes of the martyr, sometimes referred to as the Saint of the Americas, Archbishop Romero, will be realized.