Hundreds of Salvadoran activists from across the United States wrapped up a three-day meeting yesterday with a vow to press for the right to cast absentee ballots in presidential elections in their homeland.
The issue was one of the hottest topics at the second annual International Convention of Salvadorans in the World. The gathering at George Washington University brought together Salvadoran immigrants in the United States and politicians from the Central American nation to discuss how to improve the lives of their fellow citizens.
About 2 million Salvadorans, a quarter of the population, live outside their native land, with most in this country, according to the Salvadoran Embassy. Salvadorans are the largest immigrant group in the Washington area, with 104,000 counted in the 2000 Census. The embassy says the actual number is much higher.
Francisco Rivera, a spokesman for the convention, said one of the resolutions that emerged from the discussions calls on the Salvadoran government to set up a committee to work out the details of absentee voting.
"Salvadorans living outside the country demand that the right to vote be ready for the next presidential election in 2009," said Rivera, an activist from Los Angeles.
El Salvador's new president, Tony Saca, has promised to "pave the way" for absentee balloting but has said the new system probably won't be ready by 2009. Currently, Salvadorans living abroad must return home to vote and hold a special identity document issued in recent years in that country.
Margarita Escobar, a deputy Salvadoran foreign minister whose job is to address the needs of the Salvadoran diaspora, said yesterday that extending the vote to so many people abroad would be complicated.
"We have to see the legal framework for doing this outside the borders. We have to see the financial aspect, the operational aspect. The proper institutions should make the decision," she said, mentioning in particular the country's Supreme Electoral Tribunal.
She added that the government had begun studying how to provide Salvadorans abroad with the national identity cards required to vote. "We're working on concrete things," she said.
Salvadoran activists hope that national conventions such as this weekend's will allow them to transform their community's economic clout into political influence back home. Immigrants send El Salvador more than $2 billion a year in remittances, making them a pillar of the poor nation's economy.
"If we unite, the government will pay more attention to us," said Hugo Salinas, a Salvadoran activist from Arlington. He noted as evidence that the Salvadoran president had come to inaugurate the convention Friday night.
In a series of panel discussions, Salvadoran immigrants discussed everything from their homeland's environment to its education system to its elderly. They heatedly debated judicial issues, particularly those surrounding the 1980 killing of Bishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero. No one was convicted in El Salvador for that slaying. Some Salvadorans have called for reopening the case after a federal judge in California recently found a retired Salvadoran air force captain liable for the killing.
The Salvadoran activists also talked about ways to turn the flow of remittances into productive investments that would produce jobs in El Salvador, rather than simply provide for the basic needs of families there.
Saul Solorzano, executive director of Carecen, a social services agency in the District's Columbia Heights neighborhood, said that remittances were vital to many poor families in El Salvador but that they had negative aspects, such as cutting into the limited spending power of immigrants here.
"There's a cost in the United States of sending the money. We're a community with low salaries," he said.
Organizers said that the convention would probably not produce major results in the short term but that it would enable the 5,000 Salvadoran organizations in this country to work together on common goals.
"The good thing is it serves as a platform, so the principal actors in El Salvador give us their ideas, but we also bring our ideas," Solorzano said.