Syracusan Ursula Rozum, 28, who first learned about Central America
while watching a film in high school religion class, sees herself as
carrying on that legacy of activism. Rozum has spent the last week in El
Salvador as on official observer of that Central American country’s
municipal and legislative elections and plans
to be back home on Sunday, March 18, to report on what she learns during her time there.
The 2002 graduate of Bishop Ludden High School is a staff member at the Syracuse Peace Council. She traveled to El Salvador on March 4 with a delegation from the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES). Their objective was to observe the fairness of the final week of the campaign and then to post themselves at polling stations throughout the country to observe as 4.5 million registered voters select 84 members of the National Legislature and elect mayors in 262 different municipalities. Rozum is fluent in Spanish and has traveled widely in Latin America, although this is her first visit to El Salvador.
Voting has become more or less routine in the past two decades in El Salvador, a country long ruled by its repressive military. A 1992 peace agreement ended a bloody war between the government armed forces and a rebel group known as the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). The FMLN, long vilified as Communist by successive U.S. governments, remade itself into a political party and won presidential elections in 2009. The guerrillas-turned-politicians are hoping to garner a legislative majority in this week’s voting. Their major opponent, the conservative party known as ARENA (The National Republican Alliance), linked to some of the most heinous human rights abuses of the 1980s, has held the presidency for most of the post-war period.
Shirley Novak is a bilingual special education preschool teacher working on the West Side of Syracuse. For the past 20 years she has visited a remote community in northern El Salvador, frequently bringing delegations of people from Syracuse along with trunks loaded with medical supplies. Her work has sustained a long-lasting sister-community relationship between Syracuse and the remote rural region known as La Estancia.
Novak was an observer at El Salvador’s first post-war election in 1994, and applauds the work that Rozum and others are doing. With the FMLN in power Novak is more hopeful about the country’s future, but still feels that the process needs to be carefully monitored. In past years she says she has documented abuses such as people’s names being omitted from voter lists, and votes being bought by ARENA politicians, sometimes with bribes as minimal as roofing tiles.
Novak just returned from El Salvador two weeks ago. One of the community leaders in La Estancia, Syracuse’s sister community, is running for mayor of his municipality under the flag of the FMLN party. She sees positive changes since the FMLN took charge in 2009. “For the first time,” says Novak, “the community has electricity. That’s huge. There’s been an improvement in the roads, so people can get their goods to market more easily, and sick patients can get to the clinic.”
For her part Rozum clearly shares sympathies with the FMLN, but she will be meeting with all political parties in the run-up to the voting, and swears to be a neutral observer on Election Day. This even applies to her musical choices. Rozum, who sings and plays guitar, will be carrying a travel guitar loaned to her by local folk songstress Colleen Kattau. While her repertoire includes a fair number of protest songs, she has been advised to steer clear of politics while serving as an observer. “I think while I’m in El Salvador,” she says, “in public I’ll play mostly Shakira.”
Rozum raised most of the funds for her trip through a fundraising event at ArtRage Gallery, and was given a grant by the Caribbean and Latin America Coalition of Central New York. She returns to Syracuse on Sunday, March 18; for details on where she will be presenting her findings, call the Syracuse Peace Council at 472-5478.