Advocacy, El Salvador Government, Elections 2012, Uncategorized

Salvadoran Political Institutions, Part One: New Voters and Local Voting Locations

Before the rain started falling two weeks ago, dumping over 50 inches of rain on El Salvador and causing extreme flooding around the country, we began working on a series of articles regarding recent reforms to the Electoral Code. We will continue to report on the flooding and cleanup efforts, but we don’t want to do so at the cost of discussing other important issues in El Salvador – of which there are many.

“To guarantee Salvadoran society the autonomous and effective administration of democratic electoral processes; a reliable electoral register; prompt execution of the judicial aspects of the electoral process; full exercise of political rights and the promotion of a democratic civic culture.”

The “Mission” of El Salvador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE)

“The Electoral Register that we have audited is, in general terms, a reliable instrument. This consideration is accompanied, as is often the case in the international experience, with some challenges to improve upon.”

-Pablo Gutiérrez, Director of the Department for Electoral Cooperation and Observation at the Organization of America States (OEA), in a 2007 audit of El Salvador’s Electoral Register, quoted in the TSE 2009 annual report

On March 11, 2012, Salvadorans will cast votes for all 84 seats in the Legislative Assembly, and mayor in each of the 262 municipalities. As the parliamentary and municipal elections approach, Voices will be considering a variety of topics relating to Salvadoran political institutions and the pursuit of democracy.

Today’s installment examines new voter registration and attempts to bring voting centers closer to homes. In both areas, we look at recent attempts to improve voter participation.

New Voters – More than 75 percent of potential new voters ineligible to vote

On the 2012 election calendar, voter registration was set to close on September 12, 2011 180 days before the March elections. However, the Electoral Code says that any Salvadoran turning 18 years old after registration closes and before the election takes place will be included in the Electoral Register and eligible to vote provided that they register for a national identification card, or DUI, before the September 12 deadline.

While more than 58,000 Salvadorans will turn 18 during that window of time, fewer than 14,000, or 23.8 percent of these potential new voters registered for a DUI and will be eligible to participate, according to the National Citizens Registry (RNPN). The other 76.2 percent did not register for a DUI before a modified September 19 deadline, despite a registration campaign by the TSE.

The TSE praised the registration in a recent statement. “We are very satisfied with this campaign,” said TSE President Eugenio Chicas, referring to a three-week-long effort to register prospective voters. RNPN President Fernando Arturo Batlle Portillo similarly called the registration “successful,” even though 44,000 Salvadorans that could be participating in the March elections will not be.

This year’s campaign is better than some in the past. According to the TSE, the 2008 campaign leading up to 2009 national elections lasted four months and only registered 6,000 new voters out of 50,000 potential voters. In that light, the campaign can be seen as an improvement. However, as TuCanalLocal points out, the official 2009 TSE report lists 14,695 new voters under the age of 18, significantly more than the 6,000 claimed by TSE.

Nonetheless, Chicas said that more could be done to incorporate new voters who should be able to participate in elections. “The challenge remains significant and we should continue our efforts. I believe that we still lack work on a community level, we need more time and resources.”

The June-July 2011 constitutional standoff between the judicial and legislative branches is one problem with registration this year. The campaign to register new voters was scheduled to begin on August 12 and end 31 days later on September 12. However, the Legislative Assembly took longer to approve the budget for the General Election Plan (PLAGEL) than expected, pushing the start of the campaign back to August 29.

To compensate for the delay, the Assembly granted a one-week extension for voter registration, but the campaign still lost 10 days, lasting 21 days instead of the 31 days planned. Many of the new voters registered during this extension period – 7,000 new voters registered by September 12, according to the RNPN. Between September 12 and September 19, an additional 7,000 registered, with almost 5,000 registering on September 19th alone.

While 44,000 eligible youth will be sitting out the March 2012 elections, El Salvador now has 14,000 new names on the voter registry.

Local Voting Locations, or El Voto Residencial

“The current electoral model in El Salvador … concentrates voting locations in urban centers … without considering the distance that the voter will have to travel.” (TSE, “Concepts of residential voting”)

El Salvador is one of the last Latin American countries without a “residential voting” electoral model. For some citizens, the nearest voting location is 70-kilometers away. For many, the trek can be expensive, difficult, and a disincentive to vote.

The TSE is planning to implement a residential voting program throughout El Salvador over the course of the 2012 and 2014 elections, fulfilling political promises made continually since 1994. Under the new system, the TSE will open voting locations based on proximity to voters to facilitate access and improve electoral participation.

The initiative began in 2006, when the TSE implemented a “Voto Residencial” (Residential Voting) pilot program in seven municipalities. In 2009, the TSE expanded the pilot program to the Department of Cuscatlán, scaling up from 7 to 23 total municipalities. In the March 2012 elections, 185 of El Salvador’s 262 municipalities in central and eastern El Salvador are expected to participate in the program, plus key urban areas of San Salvador and Santa Tecla.

Reports on the 2006 and 2009 pilot initiatives demonstrate the impact of the program on the participating municipalities. Under the program, 18 voting centers grew to 73, averaging between two and ten centers per municipality.

The program had a positive effect on voter participation. In the 2004 presidential elections, 70 percent of Salvadorans on the Electoral Register in Cuscatlán cast a vote compared a national average of 67 percent. In the 2006 parliamentary elections, Cuscatlán had 63.5 percent electoral participation compared to a national average of 54 percent. In 2009, the pilot program in Cuscatlán had 65.5 percent participation in parliamentary elections and 71.5 percent participation in presidential elections compared to 54 and 63 percent respectively on the national level. While national participation remained the same or fell, participation in Cuscatlán, already higher than the national average, rose in both presidential and parliamentary elections.

Additionally, the program is expected to facilitate voting access for many of the most vulnerable members of Salvadoran society, including the elderly, persons with disabilities, and those without the financial means to travel a longer distance.

When voting centers are closer to home, it is also more difficult for political interests to perpetrate electoral fraud by bringing in people from other communities, or as has been alleged in previous elections, from Honduras or Nicaragua. Citizens are more able to police the voting registry and identify people that are not from their community.

Poco a poco, Salvadoran institutions are working together, or in some instances forcing other branches of government, to reform the electoral system so that more people vote, and to ensure their votes are counted. The campaign to register new, young voters and expanding voting centers are only two of the most recent reforms. In the coming weeks and months we will explore reforms to the ballot that voters will use once they are in the booths, efforts to decentralize power once held by political parties, and other changes.

Advocacy, Climate Change, Disasters

Flood Update – Photos from Salinas del Potrero and Nueva Esperanza

Over the weekend Voices staff was able to visit Salinas del Potrero and Nueva Esperanza in the Lower Lempa with our friends from Cristosal. Our initial reports from Salinas were that the flooding cut off the community from the rest of the region but that the damage was minimal. Our visit tells a different story. Many in Salinas continue to live in the community shelter, standing water still obstructs the road going into the community, and many of the community’s fisheries have been flooded out and damaged.

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Our staff also visited other communities in the region – Ciudad Romero, Nueva Esperanza, and others and the news is not all bad. The majority of the people who have been living in the emergency shelters have returned home and are starting the arduous task of cleaning up. Electricity and water has been restored in most communities, and people seem to be in fairly good spirits considering the circumstances.

Jessie, voices field volunteer, and 35 youth from OSCA, a youth group in Morazan, traveled to Nueva Esperanza to help locals with the clean up. Read her report with photos here.

 

 

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Later today we will provide a more thorough update on the survey of the damage.

Thanks to all who have contributed to the recover effort! Though this has been one of the worst disasters in modern Salvadoran history, everyone has worked together to minimize the impact on our local partners. We have a lot of work to do, but the response has been inspiring.

Advocacy, U.S. Relations

18,000 deported from U.S. to El Salvador

In the past twelve months, the United States government has deported over 400,000 immigrants  back to their countries of origin, and according to a report by El Faro, 95% of the deportees were Latin American. The number of deportees has risen by 40,000 since 2008 when almost 350,000 people were deported from the U.S.

The vast majority (286,893) of the deportees were Mexican. The country with the second most deportees is Guatemala (33,324). Honduras is third (23,822) and El Salvador is fourth (18,870). Of those deported, 55% had been charged with some crime in the U.S.

President Obama ran on a platform that included immigration reform as one of his top priorities, but we have still seen no action other than a failed attempt at passing the Dream Act. Certainly much of the inaction on reform is attributable to the Tea Party Movement and the extreme positions taken by the Republican presidential candidates, who seem to stumble over each other to take the most extreme position possible on immigration enforcement.

According to the online journal Infowars, immigration enforcement has been a cash cow for private prisons. There are 2 million immigrants in private prisons in the United States. The government pays these prisons $45-130 per day for their detention.

Though the political climate is not favorable to immigration reform, our politicians need to at least keep trying and we have to keep this issue on the front on the front page of the papers.

Advocacy, Climate Change, Disasters

Phase II: Rehabilitation

According to the Environmental Minister, more than 1500 millimeters (59 inches) of rain fell between October 10th and October 20th, almost double the rain accumulation of any other weather disaster in El Salvador since 1969. Now the rainfall is coming to an end, or at least diminishing, as a cold front moves in from the southwest. Rivers are expected to remain high, but gradually start to fall. The Environmental Ministry reports that the September 15 Dam is releasing 1800 cubic meters of water per second and that the water level of the Lempa river remains above river banks.

However, even the short-term problems are far from over. The ground remains supersaturated with water. Civil Defense authorities report that approximately 2,000 square kilometers, or 10 percent of the national territory is flooded. 4 bridges have collapsed and another 14 are damaged on key routes, limiting accessibility.

The Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) reports that there are 38,682 Salvadorans evacuated to shelters. Although Civil Defense authorities announced today that some evacuees might begin to return home, approximately 12 percent of evacuees will need temporary housing for 4 to 6 months, according to the PAHO.

In the Lower Lempa many families have at least gone to visit their homes, but most are not yet ready to return until there is potable water.  The shelters are urging people to stay until water is restored, especially families with young children.  The water project, the collectively owned and administered water service in the Lower Lempa, said that the tubes were damaged in three different places, and one of the ruptures is still submerged in flood water.  Two different community associations and Oxfam are working to install different water tanks throughout the communities in the mean time.

Advocacy, Climate Change, Disasters, El Salvador Government

Photos from Flooded Nueva Esperanza

We were able to visit the community of Nueva Esperanza briefly this afternoon and snapped some photos of the damage.

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The water levels were very high and most everything is covered in mud. The cleanup will be a major undertaking and community members are still in the evacuation shelters.

We are still fundraising for the relief effort, which will be a long term effort. If you haven’t contributed yet, its not too late – please click on the Donate Now button to to the right of this post.

Advocacy, Climate Change, Disasters, El Salvador Government

Public Health Concerns Following Flooding

As floodwaters continue to recede, communities throughout El Salvador are starting to consider the short and long-term impact of the 1400 milimeters (55 inches) of rain that has fallen in the past week. One of the most immediate issues is public health.

According to Eduardo Espinoza, Viceminister of Health, the most immediate public health concern in El Salvador is the 2,200 community wells contaminated by flooding, which threaten the availability of safe drinking water. The Health Ministry announced yesterday that it is distributing ‘Puriagua,’ a chlorine solution used to disinfect contaminated drinking water. Other organizations are also distributing chlorine-tablets and purified water. Although the wells pose a significant health concern, “the risk of outbreaks can be minimized” through prompt action to identify wells and provide clean drinking water, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Flooding can increase the risk of communicable diseases in a number of ways – contaminated water can cause gastrointestinal diseases; floodwater can bring disease-carrying animals such as dogs, rats or mosquitoes into closer contact with humans; direct contact with waste carried by floodwater can cause skin disease; and exposure to weather conditions can lead to respiratory ailments.

The most prevalent health concerns, so far, seem to be respiratory and skin problems, judging by the number of consultations at shelters nationwide. Out of 9,139 health consultations made by October 17th, 2,395 dealt with respiratory problems, primarily among the very young and the elderly. The Health Minister recommended that special care be taken to wrap these vulnerable groups warmly. Another 1,231 consultations dealt with skin problems. However, according to the World Health Organization, neither problem is “epidemic-prone.” 145 consultations dealt with gastrointestinal diseases and diarrhea.

Other “epidemic-prone” diseases are being monitored closely. The Panamerican Health Organization (PAHO) has donated diagnostic kits to monitor the spread of H1N1, dengue, malaria, and a disease called leptospirosis carried by rodents and dogs. Espinoza reported five cases of chicken pox in the Municipality of Cojutepeque, which have been addressed with “isolation measures and antiviral treatment to contain the spread of the disease.” Espinoza also reported six cases of the H1N1 virus under isolation. “So far, there has been no case [of H1N1] in the shelters,” says Espinoza.

Another public health problem is that flooding has damaged 138 health establishments, according to the Health Ministry. As just one example, the PAHO reports that the infrastructure at the Kidney Health Unit in the Lower Lempa has been “completely damaged” by more than two meters of water, “losing the medical equipment vital to treat renal failure.” The organization writes, “This unit treats 350 patients with chronic renal failure, who, currently, have no other alternative.”

Dr. Anne Daul, a fellow with the the George Washington University department of Emergency Medicine, added that flood victims also need to be concerned about the psychological impact from loosing a home or even loved ones. She also warns that major catastrophes such as this can break down the social fabric, which puts women at risk of gender-based violence.

The international community, government officials and local partners must all work together in the coming weeks and months to minimize the impact of the flooding on the health of the people. It will be an issue that we at Voices will be monitoring closely.

Advocacy, Climate Change, Corruption, Disasters

Rains continue, flood waters recede in the Lower Lempa

Today community members report renewed access to San Marcos Lempa via the ‘paved’ road.  Many sections are washed out or still covered with a few inches of water, but smaller vehicles are now able to enter the communities.

Families from less directly affected communities such as Amando López and Octavio Ortiz are anxious to return to their homes, but Voices staff and other authorities are urging them to stay while the rain still falls.  It has been raining without pause throughout the country since the early hours of this morning.

ACUDESBAL (the local inter-communal association) and CESTA (an environmental NGO) published a press release denouncing the role of the September 15th hydroelectric dam in the near total devestation of many communities in the Lower Lempa.  The release says “During this climatic phenomena, the CEL again released 11,500 cubic meters per second, but unlike Hurricane Mitch, this amount of water was released for a prolonged period of time, and the river bed is more clogged [than in ’98’], which caused flooding from San Marcos Lempa all the way down to Montecristo Island”.  The release demands that CEL accept responsibility for their negligence, especially after an interview with the CEL president Irving Tochez, where he claims that CEL is in no way responsible for the devestation, but rather mitigated further disaster by ‘helping to retain water and releasing it in a controlled manner’.

They end by stating ” the road to recovery will be extremely difficult, but we know we can count on the support and solidarity among the organized communities, here and abroad”.

Climate Change, Disasters, El Salvador Government

Video Footage of the Rescue from the Lower Lempa

As we have been reporting, the flooding in the communities of Nueva Esperanza, Ciudad Romero, Zamorano, Nueva Amanecer, and other communities in the Lower Lempa have been extreme. Last night we posted some photos from Zamorano and elsewhere in the region. Last night Channel 12 in El Salvador showed footage from Nueva Esperanza and the dramatic evacuations from Sunday night and Monday. The video begins with footage from Mata de Piña, which was about where main road through the region became to dangerous. Later in the video, there is footage from the rescue yesterday in Nueva Esperanza, after the floodwater had begun to recede.

Those readers who have traveled with us to the region on delegations have been to these places, though you may not recognize them. You may also recognize some of the people being rescued and even some of the people doing the rescuing.

As we mentioned yesterday, Michael Terry and Laura Turiano are matching the next $2000 in donations that we receive for flood relief. If you contribute now, your donations will be doubled. Please click on the Donate Now button above and help us respond this crisis. Though the water is receding, the recovery challenges are daunting, and the communities in the Lower Lempa need your help!

Advocacy, Climate Change, Disasters, Food Security, Hydro Electric Dams

Pictures of Evacuations and Shelters in Jiquilisco, Monday & Tuesday

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Climate Change, Disasters, El Salvador Government, Food Security, Hydro Electric Dams

Matching Grant – Donate Now!

Michael Terry and Laura Turiano just pledged to match the next $2000 donated to Voices for flood relief. So if you click on the donate now button, we can match your contribution. If you donate $100, it will become $200!

The water is receding somewhat, but the need for food, water, clothing, and medical supplies is only increasing. Many communities in the Lower Lempa lost everything, and they need our assistance right now.

So click on the Donate Now Button to the right of this page, your contribution will be doubled!

Thanks to Michael and Laura, and all others who have contributed to this effort.