When the voters in El Salvador cast their votes for president on Feb. 2, Eddie Salazar was right there on the ground as an international observer helping to ensure a free and fair election. It was the third time the senior administrative assistant in the Office of Jesuit Mission and Identity has served as an observer to El Salvador.
Salazar's involvement in El Salvador began in the mid-1980s. He had just graduated with a finance degree from the University of Texas at El Paso. "Back then-and I like to joke about this-I was a Reagan Republican. The rhetoric at the time was that we were fighting Communists in our backyard, so that was the framework I used to have. I didn't know anything about El Salvador.
"But then after moving to Seattle, I started to go to St. Joseph Church (on Capitol Hill in Seattle). At that time, the church was just starting up a relationship with a sister parish in a town called Arcatao in rural northern El Salvador, and I started to hear real stories of real people who were abducted, killed or disappeared. I started to ask myself, 'What's going on here?'"
With that question reverberating in his mind, Salazar joined a group of St. Joseph parishioners who traveled to the country in the spring of 1992. (Peter Ely, S.J., vice president for Mission and Ministry, then the church's pastor, was also on the trip.)
The Salvadoran civil war ended just a few months earlier with the signing of the peace accords in January '92, and the country, as Salazar remembers, was in a state of elation.
For Salazar, it was a pivotal moment. "That trip transformed me. The Salvadorans were just wonderful people. They did a number on me. So I stopped being a Reagan Republican and became a leftist, Marxist insurgent instead," he says with a laugh.
Salazar would make several more trips to El Salvador in subsequent years, sometimes leading the group. Each time Salazar visited the country, he would ask the Salvadorans what more could be done to assist them. "They said, 'Keep coming down, we love you to come down, but what we need you to do is to advocate for us to your government, which even after the war continued to wreak havoc in El Salvador."
The request moved Salazar to get involved with CISPES (the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador), and it was through this connection that Salazar has been involved as an election observer.
Salazar, who pays for his trips with funds raised from family and friends, explains the observers' role in this way: "We can't insert ourselves into the voting process, but we do report, document and photograph what is happening. I think truly our role as observers is to be a deterrent. The fact that we're standing there watching people is a deterrent." If they do witness anything untoward, the observers report it to the press.
Even after the civil war ended "the United States continued to influence Salvadoran elections," says Salazar, adding, "They've admitted to this on the record." Some of these tactics included efforts to disenfranchise certain voters or issuing the IDs of dead Salvadorans to people brought in from other countries to vote.
But Salazar has seen vast improvements in each of the three elections he's witnessed and says the system has never been cleaner. (Since the Feb. 2 election did not result in a candidate garnering the simple majority required to be declared the winner, a run-off between the top two vote-getters will take place in March.)
While Salazar is no longer actively involved with St. Joseph, he is pleased that the Jesuit-run parish has continued its relationship with the sister parish in Arcatao. He credits the Jesuits with introducing him to what has become an enduring project and one that he treasures.
As for what keeps pulling him back to El Salvador, Salazar says it's the people. "The one thing that keeps me involved with the Salvadorans is not only are they a resilient people, but they're a people filled with a lot of joy. And what encourages me, gives me hope and inspires me is that they are very clear about where they want their society to go. They have articulated the alternative that they want to see."