Voters go to the polls in El Salvador on Feb. 2, and Washington’s large Salvadoran community will be watching closely. This is the first election in which emigres can vote by absentee ballot. But it’s also a contest for the direction of a nation with a tepid economy that relies heavily on remittances from Salvadorans in the U.S. Kojo examines the challenges facing El Salvador and asks how the election will affect the Washington region’s largest immigrant community.


  • Geoff Thale Program Director, Washington Office on Latin America
  • Abel Núñez Executive Director, Central American Resource Center
  • Luis Reyes Co-owner, Lauriol Plaza Restaurant and Cactus Cantina


  • 13:06:39

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Today it's all about where the local meets the global. Later in the broadcast where the local and the global come into conflict in Virginia. What's in a name?

  • 13:07:07

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first, on Sunday night restaurateur and political activist Luis Reyes will be at his Lauriol Plaza Restaurant in D.C. watching election returns from El Salvador. The Central American nation is choosing a new president. And for the first time Salvadorans outside the country can vote by absentee ballot.

  • 13:07:26

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIA quarter of a million Salvadorans call the Washington region home. And whether they're voting or sending money home or influencing politics from afar, the Diaspora community plays an important role in El Salvador's future. The country relies heavily on remittances from expats, many of them living here. At the same time it's struggling to overcome a weak economy and a surge of drug violence and poverty.

  • 13:07:51

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThis week, three-way presidential race -- it's a three-way presidential race this week that's pitting an old timer from El Salvador's former guerilla party against the conservative party candidate who is also mayor of San Salvador and a former president representing a coalition of small parties. Joining me to look at what's at stake for both El Salvador and the U.S. is Geoff Thale. He is program director with the Washington Office on Latin America. Ola, Geoff Thale. Good to see you again.

  • 13:08:21

    MR. GEOFF THALEThank you.

  • 13:08:23

    NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Luis Reyes. He is co-owner of Lauriol Plaza Restaurant and Cactus Cantina. He's active locally in Salvadoran politics. Luis Reyes, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:36

    MR. LUIS REYESThank you for inviting me. Thank you.

  • 13:08:38

    NNAMDIAnd joining us by phone from El Salvador is Abel Nunez, executive director of the Central American Resource Center. Abel Nunez, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:50

    MR. ABEL NUNEZThank you, thank you. And warm wishes to everyone in the D.C. area.

  • 13:08:54

    NNAMDIYeah, we're warming up here just a little bit, but as you know, it's been quite cold here lately, Abel. We envy the temperatures that you are in. But I'll start with you, Geoff Thale. Give us a quick election primer. Who are the three candidates here and which parties do they represent in the presidential race?

  • 13:09:13

    THALESure. So quickly, there's Salvador Sanchez Ceren, the candidate of the FMLN, the former rebels of El Salvador. Sanchez Ceren, as you said, is sort of from the -- he's one of the founders of the party. He fought in the guerrilla war. He's a candidate for president today. The second party, the party -- the traditional right, the Arena Party is -- the candidate's the mayor of San Salvador, Norman Quijano. Arena's a conservative party that's ruled the country for 16 of the last 20 years.

  • 13:09:45

    THALEAnd the third candidate representing the small coalition , former conservative split with his party now running as a third party candidate, Tony Saca.

  • 13:09:55

    NNAMDIHe was a former president...

  • 13:09:57

    THALEHe was a former president, right, from 2000...

  • 13:09:58

    NNAMDI...when he was with the Arena Party.

  • 13:10:00

    THALERight. When he was with Arena 2004 to 2009 he was president. He's now split with them and running as an independent.

  • 13:10:06

    NNAMDIWe remind listeners that you can call in, you can join the conversation at 800-433-8850. Are you Salvadoran? Did you cast a ballot in the presidential election? What do you feel is the biggest issue facing El Salvador today, 800-433-8850? Geoff, beyond the individual candidates, how does this election represent a decision about the future direction of El Salvador? Is it really a choice between left and right?

  • 13:10:32

    THALEWell, it's a little too simple to describe it as sort of -- it's a mistake to think of this in the kind of Cold War left and right terms. Nonetheless, I think it's clear that there are different visions of the future of the country. Arena and the people, it's connected with this sort of traditional business elite have dominated El Salvador not just for the last 20 years but the last 100. And in the last election for the first time a candidate connected with the FMLN won. And the question in this race really is, is the country going to continue sort of following the vision it selected in the last elections or is it going to move back to the vision it's had for the last number of years?

  • 13:11:13

    NNAMDILuis Reyes, this is the first time Salvadorans outside the country can cast absentee ballots to vote in the presidential election. Until now the only way to vote was to show up in person. Why is this change important to Salvadorans in the United States and in this region?

  • 13:11:31

    REYESWell yes, it's right had been denied for the Salvadoran who living in -- outside El Salvador. And this was a commitment Mr. Funes made to the community outside of Salvador.

  • 13:11:48

    NNAMDIHe's the outgoing president.

  • 13:11:49

    REYESYes. So it's a commitment he did for the Salvadoran community that too had the right to vote. But since we are the community who sends -- maintains the economy (unintelligible) it's important to us to participate in the political matters in our country.

  • 13:12:14

    NNAMDIYou know, one of the things we heard about the Haitian elections is that Haiti has so many people in the Diaspora who send remittances to Haiti, Geoff. But when the election time comes around, they're not allowed to vote. This is the first time for Salvadorans who have a similar relationship with their country. And so it's very important. Luis, it's my understanding that you are a big supporter of the FMLN. By the way, have you voted?

  • 13:12:39

    REYESNo. I didn't get my package on time. I was waiting and waiting. I was very excited about to vote in this election since I never vote in my country. I was about to take four of my ballot and, you know, happy to provide my vote, but I never get the ballot.

  • 13:13:04

    NNAMDIYou were going to make a big deal of it.

  • 13:13:06

    REYESYes, yes. But a lot of my friends got so excited, you know, because that was a big deal for us to get to vote -- to get to choose our president.

  • 13:13:18

    NNAMDIWell, alas it didn't happen for you but I'm sure a lot of other people are voting from the Washington area. You are a big supporter, it is my understanding, of the FMLN candidate Salvador Sanchez Ceren. But some people are not comfortable with him because he was one, as described by Geoff and others, of the party's old guard in the '80s. One of the founders of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. Why are people nervous about voting for him and why do you support him?

  • 13:13:47

    REYESThis is how our culture, you know. We've been told about being this part of it because come from the guerrilla (unintelligible). But this is new time. This is the future. Whatever, you know, they had a reason to go to war and I've seen very powerful reason to go to war. But now you have to go with -- no need to go -- to sit back but forward.

  • 13:14:18

    REYESAnd that happened -- it's culture, you know. We've been told about the left had been bad and, you know, in the '60s, say, if you vote for the -- even for the other party who was moderate, say if you vote this, your kid will be sent to Soviet Union, your kid will be sent to Cuba. And, you know, if you had two cows, one cow would be for the government, you know. It's a fear. Even I seen the United States help to maintain that fear about, but this is a new times for...

  • 13:14:58

    NNAMDIBecause we remember El Salvador going back to the early '80s when the FMNL (sic) was still -- FMLN was still a guerrilla organization. And what Louis is saying is that some people still think of it in those terms. But this has been a party that has been participating in elections since 1994 and the party that won the last presidential election and now has a president in office. So it is, he argues, a different kind of party.

  • 13:15:22

    NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, Luis Reyes is co-owner of Lauriol Plaza Restaurant and Cactus Cantina, active locally in Salvadoran politics, the election this weekend. Geoff Thale is program director with the Washington Office on Latin America. And joining us by phone from El Salvador is Abel Nunez, executive director of the Central American Resource Center. Abel, you are in El Salvador as an election monitor. Tell us where you are and what you're seeing. How are people feeling about this election coming up this weekend?

  • 13:15:53

    NUNEZYes. Well, you know, I'm here as part of, you know, (unintelligible) has a long history of ensuring the integration of Salvadoran and Latino immigrants in the D.C. area. You know, part of our work is to also support, you know, the country of origin. And a lot of our effort here is to -- not here to come support a party but support a process and strengthen the democratic institutions that allow the peaceful transition of power. And we've seen that over the last 10 years when it was dominated by a right wing party. You know, the last election, it turned into the left wing party.

  • 13:16:30

    NUNEZAnd I think that this is the first time where you're having a candidate that's from the inner circle of the left wing party that has an opportunity to win election. And I think there is a nervousness of what can happen because of its history. But I think that there's an excitement that, you know, El Salvador has turned a corner and the democratic institutions are holding and that they're going to be able to continue to provide elections that are fair institutions, democratic institutions that are stronger that will allow for the continual transition of power. So I think it's a nervousness here but there's some excitement as well.

  • 13:17:14

    NNAMDIAbel, what kind of turnout is expected?

  • 13:17:17

    NUNEZYou know, it's yet to be seen. I mean, all the -- I think because of the candidacy -- the candidate Saca, the third party, the ex-president that is running again, there has been some excitement. And so every election there's been some controversy within, you know, the parties. And actually today -- I'm sorry, yesterday was the last day that campaign is allowed in the country. Technically campaigning must stop by all sides. And so there's a sort of cooling off period before the actual election happens. And I think that they're expecting a pretty high turnout. And I think that all parties realize that they need to put their -- you know, the turnout machinery out in full force in order to ensure victory.

  • 13:18:02

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. Geoff Thale?

  • 13:18:06

    THALEYeah, just one addition to that. I really want to reinforce what Abel said, which is that if on the one side there's still -- there are still people who are nervous about the FMLN and their image from the past. On the other side, it's this huge change in El Salvador that people who were once a guerrilla force fighting a civil war are now part of the electoral system, that the electoral system is surviving and moving ahead, that their guy has a decent chance of winning the elections.

  • 13:18:30

    THALEAnd somebody was saying to me yesterday, this is the first presidential election in 24 years in El Salvador in which no one has been killed in the electoral process. And that's a big step forward.

  • 13:18:41

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Oscar in Centerville, Va. Oscar, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:18:48

    OSCARHi, Kojo. First time caller. I love your show.

  • 13:18:50

    NNAMDIThank you.

  • 13:18:51

    OSCARAnd I just wanted to ask, well, my parents are immigrants from El Salvador and I was recently talking to my mom about the upcoming election. And she said that the Arena Party has really come out, you know, against MS13 and the gangs. Whereas FMLN I guess -- I don't know, I guess there's a perception that they still do have the ties to, you know, the guerrilla mentality and that maybe they're not as against gangsters. Because we have family over there and, you know, some of them do have to pay rent, you know, to the gangs. And it's really unfortunate. So I guess I was just wondering about those ties between the FMLN and the gangsters.

  • 13:19:26

    NNAMDIYou raise an interesting question between El Salvador then and El Salvador now. It's a question I'm going to ask you, Abel Nunez and Luis Reyes, to address because what Oscar's saying is that his mother thinks that FMNL (sic) is related somehow maybe to gangs like MS13, and that Arena is opposed to them. Take us back, if you will, starting with you Abel, to the 1980s when people were coming here from El Salvador because there was a guerilla war going on. And bring us up to date when people are coming now because of poverty and because of a different kind of violence associated with drugs and gang activity.

  • 13:20:09

    NUNEZExactly. Well, I think that one thing that we must highlight, that the gang problem in this country, it is a direct result of the 12-year conflict that existed in this country. People during that time were fleeing -- a lot of them were ex either soldiers that were fleeing the army and the violence, or they were from the guerilla side. They come into the U.S. They will recruit, especially in the west coast, by the existing gang culture there. And they learn that and then they began to be deported back to Salvador. And then they recreated those -- that culture again. And it has sort of ballooned, given the conditions.

  • 13:20:51

    NUNEZNow currently people are not leaving because of the political oppression that the conflict set up, but there is significant violence and yes, there is significant still poverty. So there's a different flow but the reality is for more Salvadorians that, you know, currently for young people the Salvadorian dream is to, you know, get your high school diploma and move to the U.S. Because that's their perception of how they will move ahead.

  • 13:21:14

    NUNEZI think that both parties, you know, throw accusations at each other. There is a controversy right now where the Arena Party is accusing the FMLN party of orchestrating the peace truce that existed between the gangs. They think that to a certain extent they want to create that perception that they're aligning themselves with the gang. But the reality is that the gangs here have -- they are a force. They are a social force. And whether -- they're a negative social force but they are a force on the left and that the government is trying to mitigate the existing government.

  • 13:21:48

    NUNEZBut after the truce did happen, one of the -- the good results was that there was a decrease in homicides in the country. So -- but, you know, it's politics at the end. And it's not something that we're not unfamiliar with, even in the U.S. as Republicans and Democrats accuse each other of the lack of functioning of our current congress.

  • 13:22:08

    NNAMDIBut what you have seen living in the U.S. since the early 1980s, Luis, is a difference in the Salvadoran population that has been immigrating to the U.S. since the 1980s. At first they were getting away from the violence associated with war. Now they're coming -- getting away from the violence associated with drugs and gang activity. But the opportunities here are also different between then and now. Talk about that.

  • 13:22:37

    REYESYeah, that's right. It's a different type of wave of immigrants. Like you said, in the '80s was running away from the war and now it's running away from poverty and violence. And plus, you know, in the United States is more opportunities so that, you know, young people saw a easy way out come to the United States since over there, there is still not opportunity for the people there.

  • 13:23:19

    NNAMDIGeoff, can you talk a little bit about what the conditions of life are like for people in El Salvador today?

  • 13:23:25

    THALESure. I mean, just to reinforce this point, I visited a village about 15 miles outside of San Salvador during the war. And people were leaving like crazy because of bombings, political violence, death squads, etcetera. I visited the same village maybe seven or eight years ago, so long after the war was over. And I said to people, so is everyone staying? And the answer was, no, exactly as many people are leaving. But they're leaving not because of political violence, but because of lack of economic opportunity and because of the dangers of crime and gang violence.

  • 13:23:57

    THALEAnd the truth is, you know, El Salvador's economy is growing only slowly. There aren't a lot of job opportunities, especially for young people. Gang violence -- you know, El Salvador has a terrible problem with homicide. The terrible problem is -- Oscar mentioned on the phone -- with people paying extortion. And a lot of incentives therefore for young people to look elsewhere for opportunities.

  • 13:24:20

    NNAMDILuis, we mentioned earlier that you are a supporter of the current President Mauricio Funes. How do Salvadorans such as yourself in the U.S. influence politics at home? And what role, if any, are you playing in this election?

  • 13:24:34

    REYESWell, I been support not because the party I guess. Because I saw in Mauricio Funes, you know, a better plan for our country. And, you know, I've been -- what would I say? I've been progressive somehow. And this is, for us, for the community we're very excited about this election. And we hope it's the best for our country. And I think the Sanchez Arena Party had the more promised future for our country.

  • 13:25:27

    NNAMDIThe FMNL (sic) party. Geoff, what's the official U.S. position on this election after our long history of involvement in El Salvador? Are we backing a candidate this time?

  • 13:25:38

    THALENo. Actually, this is one of the positive things I think. The U.S. does have a long and kind of sad history, I think, of intervening in Salvadoran politics, expressing preferences for one candidate or another. I mean, obviously we funded one side to the tune of about $6 billion over the course of the 1980s and the civil war. So it's not the best history there. In 2009, in the election that brought Funes to office, the United States very clearly and publicly did not take a position. And I think that was the right thing to do and a really good thing to do.

  • 13:26:11

    THALETo date, despite efforts by some people on the political right here in the U.S., to get our government to take a position or get members of congress to take a position, the U.S. ambassador said twice, including once in the last week, we will work with whoever the Salvadorian people elect. So that's a good sign.

  • 13:26:28

    NNAMDIAbel, what's your prediction for who will be El Salvador's next president. And what is that person's biggest challenge likely to be?

  • 13:26:36

    NUNEZI think that it's going to be a tight election. I think the -- you know, all different kinds of polls are coming out but the reality is, who has the best machinery to get the voters out on election day? I mean, for us it's very important to do this work of accompaniment and solidarity to ensure that the -- you know, that the infrastructure -- political infrastructure gets stronger. And so that, you know, democracy can really flourish. And then that the elected officials make the right decisions so there's economic development, that there's a reduction in violence.

  • 13:27:13

    NUNEZYou know, I think that those are the biggest challenges. How can you create a culture, you know, and a society where people can live dignified and don't feel the need to migrate to, you know, sustain their families. And I think that's the biggest challenge just moving forward. I think, you know, (unintelligible) is making the right steps. But it still needs an incredible support from the international community to ensure that the democratic principles really, really take root. And then it can then, you know, move forward.

  • 13:27:47

    NNAMDILuis, you have invited people to watch the election returns at your restaurant. Does it matter who they're rooting for?

  • 13:27:54

    REYESNo, it doesn't matter. Everybody's welcome.

  • 13:27:56

    NNAMDIEverybody's welcome even though he himself is supporting the Salvador Sanchez Ceren. Anybody is welcome. And I suspect a lot of people are going to show up.

  • 13:28:05

    REYESI hope so, yes, yes. We are very excited and everybody's welcome. This is democracy so we excited about...

  • 13:28:15

    NNAMDIYou can show up and be watching the returns at Lauriol Plaza Restaurant with Luis Reyes. He is the co-owner of that restaurant and of Cactus Cantina. Luis Reyes, thank you very much for joining us.

  • 13:28:25

    REYESVery nice. Thank you for inviting me. Very nice. Thank you.

  • 13:28:28

    NNAMDIGeoff Thale is program director with the Washington Office on Latin America. Geoff Thale, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:28:34

    THALEA pleasure, thanks.

  • 13:28:35

    NNAMDIAbel Nunez is executive director of the Central American resource center. Abel, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:28:41

    NUNEZThank you. Thank you for having me today.

  • 13:28:43

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, where the local and the global come into conflict in Virginia. What's in a name? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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