The Washington Post
Thursday, March 18, 2004; Page B01

Acting Locally, Voting Globally

Immigrants Bolster Salvadoran Election

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer

There is chicken on the stove and a politician on Lita Trejo's wall. She sits in her Washington home, a political junkie in a city of political junkies, anxiously waiting for guests to come to her campaign event -- for an election 1,900 miles away.

"Yes, for change," reads the picture on her wall, of Schafik Handal, the bearded candidate of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, which is hoping to win the presidency of El Salvador on Sunday.

"FMLN -- Schafik Presidente," reads a cherry-red banner on another wall.

"FMLN," say her tiny red earrings.

"I think people are getting tired now," frets Trejo, 44, who has put together a feast of chicken, rice and beer for this, the seventh fundraiser she has attended in the Washington area for the Salvadoran presidential race.

This has been as enervating and exhausting a campaign as many Salvadorans here can remember -- at least for an election in another country. With some polls showing the FMLN with its best chance of winning the presidency since the former guerrilla group laid down its arms in 1992, Washington's largest immigrant group has feverishly thrown itself into the political process in its homeland.

Salvadorans aren't allowed to cast absentee ballots. But the more than 100,000 Salvadoran immigrants in this area belong to a diaspora that sends back $2 billion a year to the Central American country. That makes them an increasingly important political force in their homeland.

"They have a lot of power to convince" their families and friends, says Sonia Umanzor, an FMLN activist who works at a medical clinic in Adams Morgan. "They are financing them economically."

So this presidential campaign has been fought not just in Chirilagua or San Salvador, but in Langley Park, where a caravan of FMLN supporters recently stopped to explain the party's platform to immigrants.

It has been fought in Crystal City, where the candidate for the governing ARENA party, Tony Saca, drew hundreds of cheering fans to a rally at the Hilton last month.

It is being fought at Trejo's house in the District neighborhood of Takoma on a sunny Saturday, where she and Karla Ramos, an FMLN organizer, are waiting for friends to turn up and dance to live guitar music and drink beer and stuff bills into the shiny red box marked "Comite FMLN-DC Donacion."

"We started in September of last year. When the campaign started in El Salvador, we started here, too," says Ramos, 31, who lives a few blocks away.

Salvadorans aren't the only group in the Washington area to harness the power of immigrants for an election in their native land. Taiwanese, Colombians and others have run mini-campaigns, hosting presidential candidates and urging residents to call friends and relatives back home. Many Taiwanese are flying back to vote in their country's presidential election on Saturday.

But the Salvadorans, with their numbers and network of community organizations, have run an especially energetic campaign. They have handed out leaflets at Washington churches, sold tamales to raise funds and talked up their candidates on Spanish-language radio. Three of the four presidential candidates have campaigned in the area.

The D.C. committee of the FMLN has raised about $10,000, Ramos says. That money, and funds raised by the FMLN in the suburbs, has helped pay for visits by Handal and his vice presidential candidate, Guillermo Matta, to the Washington area. The fundraisers also paid for an ad in a major Salvadoran daily featuring the names of 50 Washington area residents who support the FMLN, Ramos says.

The immigrants' influence goes beyond their money. They return to their country armed with knowledge of the U.S. political system. That is important because U.S.-Salvadoran ties have become a hot campaign issue. U.S. officials have expressed concern about Handal, a former Marxist rebel leader who has said he will review El Salvador's pro-U.S. policies and improve ties with Cuba.

In El Salvador, rumors have spread that a Handal victory could result in mass deportations of Salvadorans from the United States and a drop in remittances. Scores of immigrants from Washington and other areas have traveled to El Salvador to assure voters that there will be no such result.

But other immigrants are returning to El Salvador because they are concerned that a Handal government could endanger the country's future.

"We've all been trying to get together and go down there and see what we can do," says Carlos Lizama, a construction superintendent from Bethesda who supports the governing party, the Nationalist Republican Alliance, known as ARENA. "We're all going as Salvadoran citizens concerned with our democracy over there."

While Lizama plans to vote, many of the immigrants returning home cannot cast ballots because they did not sign up in time for voter identification in El Salvador. Some plan to act as election observers; others hope to participate in the last days of the campaign.

For many immigrants, the election has evoked bitter memories from the country's war between Marxist guerrillas and U.S.-backed government in the 1980s, in which about 75,000 people were killed. ARENA was linked to right-wing death squads during the war.

Sonia Moreno, 36, a businesswoman from Alexandria, has lived in the United States for 20 years and owns four stores in the District and Virginia. But she keenly remembers the terror caused by the guerrillas around her hometown, Chirilagua.

"Every day they threatened us with death," says Moreno, who plans to fly back for the election and vote for ARENA.

For her part, Trejo cannot forget those who died at the hands of the Salvadoran army.

"My brother-in-law was killed," she says. "Many of my teachers were killed."

It's been 25 years since Trejo moved to the United States from Usulutan, where there were no jobs and growing bloodshed. She is now a U.S. citizen who works as a counselor in a D.C. school. She and her husband live in a cozy house with four children who are mad about video games and Harry Potter.

Still, the memories of El Salvador burn.

At last, a few guests turn up at Trejo's party, to dance to the guitar music and dip into the big aluminum-foil tray of chicken stew on the stove. Those who couldn't come press bills into her hands later at work. She raised about $300.

Today, Trejo is off to El Salvador, where she plans to vote.

"It's time for a change," she says.

© 2004