When reading about El Salvador, one comes across the usual array of leftist guerrilla fighters, a brutal dozen-year-long civil war and military coups. It is the prototypical Central American state. For School of Foreign Service students, El Salvador is only really important when it comes to the Gulf of Fonseca sea rights dispute and the Map of the Modern World exam.

But at 18 years old, having arrived on the Hilltop only months ago, all Sarah Stodder (COL ’12) wants to do today is return to San Salvador, the war-torn nation’s capital. Stodder worked as an electoral observer in El Salvador over spring break on a trip organized by Campus Ministry’s International Immersion and Faith Experience. To hear her talk about the buildup to and successful completion of the election is to learn how, with a promise of liberty and responsible governance, a state previously under the thumb of 20-year single-party domination can achieve a democratic transition. More remains to be done – Mauricio Funes, the president-elect is yet to be inaugurated – but the incumbent party’s acceptance of defeat is promising for the peaceful transition of power.

When describing the lack of political activity from the Nationalist Republican Alliance, a Salvadoran conservative party, Stodder shudders; in place of broadcasts or phone calls to voters, the party had painted every lamp post and street sign with its colors. In this eerie manner, the party again made known its omnipresence to Salvadorans. In contrast, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front was out in style, chanting and singing, some wearing old communist symbols, others toting campaign posters of their President-elect Funes with Obama-esque graphics and images of the American president.

As the election carried on and officials completed a successful, fair and free election, observers like Stodder scrutinized the proceedings, fully aware of the tension and unease felt by all who were invested in the realization of fair elections.

Earlier on Election Day, a coordinator had half-joked that ARENA’s cooperation was not to be taken for granted and that the “American kids” may find themselves stuck in El Salvador indefinitely. When she visited a city police station, Stodder was uneasy: She recalls hearing stories of police brutality and disappearances, and the visibility of police officers’ machine guns didn’t ease the tension. In a state where the ruling party had a militia and the opposition had guerrilla fighters, her concerns were legitimate.

What struck Stodder most was the enthusiasm people had about Funes’ candidacy; it was notable because FMLN had never fielded a successful presidential candidate. The United States maintains a demure stance on the situation in El Salvador, but our new administration is likely to engage cautiously with the new government. Considering Funes’ background as a contributor to CNN en Español and his campaign proclamation that business is not afraid of an FMLN government, it seems his administration will be more in line with the United States than regional player Venezuela or, more globally, Russia or China.

On Funes’ posters, in boldface was stamped: “Sí, se puede.” With his aim to bring change to the country with Latin America’s highest murder rate and an economy in chaos, Funes’ victory is another in what has been dubbed the “pink tide” sweeping Latin America. With a spectrum ranging from the pro-globalization, liberal left to the populist, nationalistic left, not all pink countries are the same.

Describing FMLN celebration after the election, Stodder speaks of the same coordinators who joked about Americans’ entrapment on the continent: She remembers how they rushed into offices and celebrated, taking down flags and posters from the campaign and offering them to the visiting observers.

While FMLN officials stayed at polling stations to help dismantle the electoral infrastructure, ARENA officials left, defeated, when the polls closed to go home. Stodder wisely acknowledges the domestic and international pressures that will henceforth weigh upon the FMLN. While Obama’s government has been warmer than the Bush administration was, one barrier remains in the way of FMLN ascendancy to the presidency: ARENA has to let it happen.

Udayan Tripathi is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service. He can be reached at tripathithehoya.com. History Never Repeats Itself appears every other Friday.

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