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Washington, D.C. is thousands of miles away from El Salvador—1,887 miles, to be exact. But in May, that’s how far Salvadoran presidential candidate Norman Quijano found himself from the country he one day hopes to govern.
Quijano was speaking to supporters from D.C., Maryland and Virginia, hoping to turn their support into victory in the presidential election scheduled for Feb. 2, 2014. The conservative candidate isn’t alone: his left-leaning challenger, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, has made similar trips north, hitting D.C., Los Angeles and other U.S. cities.
That’s because this is the first year U.S.-based Salvadorans are being given the chance to fully exercise their democratic rights by casting ballots from abroad, a right enjoyed by Mexicans, Dominicans, Venezuelans and a few other Latin Americans residing in the U.S. For El Salvador, That change adds up to a lot of potential new voters.
Close to two million Salvadorans currently call the U.S. home; six million reside in El Salvador proper. Locally, there are nearly a quarter-million Salvadorans, and they make up the highest proportion of foreign-born residents in D.C., Maryland and Virginia. In D.C., it's 16.3 percent, while in Maryland it's 11.5 percent and in Virginia 10.8 percent.
“After L.A., the Washington, D.C. area is the second-largest in the United States, and so you’ll see that presidential candidates are going to come here, if not only for the vote, but also for donations and for the support. What they want to be able to say is that they support the Salvadoran living abroad,” says Ana Sol Gutierrez, who was born in El Salvador. Since 2003, she has represented a portion of Montgomery County in the Maryland House of Delegates.
For her, it’s not just the number of potential voters that attracts hopeful candidates to our region, but also what they’re worth to their home country’s economy.
“Remittances—remesas—are a huge part of our gross national product,” says Gutierrez.
How huge a part? According to the Inter-American Development Bank, in 2012 Salvadorans abroad sent back just shy of $4 billion—or fully 10 percent of the country’s economy.
That money adds weight to personal—and political—relationships that span the two countries.
Ruben Zamora is El Salvador’s ambassador to the U.S. In 1994, he ran for president as a candidate of the leftist FMLN party, though he didn’t win. Zamora says economic ties between Salvadoran towns and the diaspora abroad are so closely intertwined that when U.S.-based immigrants offer political insight, their friends and family in El Salvador listen.
“Since they’re always in touch, using everything from letters to Skype, those here that recommend a candidate carry weight, because underneath that advice is the remittance," he says.
Zamora also points out that the country’s biggest political parties—FMLN and ARENA—have satellite offices in various U.S. cities. They organize events for candidates and provide money and resources to struggling campaigns. He recalls that during one of his runs for office, U.S.-based supporters wanted to offer his run some American flair, so they tried to send him a campaign bus. Zamora admits that while he was excited about the prospects, the taxes alone made the bus not worth the expense.
And yet despite those sorts of close political ties, Zamora expects very few Salvadorans will actually cast ballots in the presidential election, a reality that he blames on the complexities of registering to vote outside of El Salvador.
“The complications [of registering], along with a relatively short window to do so, have made it so that while Salvadorans can for the first time cast ballots from abroad, the number that will is relatively low,” he says.
How low? He says only 10,000 U.S.-based Salvadorans will be able to cast ballots—less than one percent.
The low turnout isn't just a Salvadoran thing, though. According to Mike Paarlberg, a PhD candidate at Georgetown University who is studying how Latin American diasporas participate in politics at home, Mexican participation in the U.S. was also low when it was first legalized in 2005.
"The last two elections that they've been able to vote, less than one percent of Mexicans in the U.S. who actually qualified to vote actually voted," he says.
Ana Sol Gutierrez, for her part, will fall into the camp for the upcoming elections in El Salvador. Instead of voting here, she’ll do what she’s always done to vote—go home.
“My only way to vote, which is the way I have always voted, is to go to El Salvador to cast my vote," she says.
Zamora hopes more Salvadorans will register to vote in upcoming elections. But even if they don’t, presidential candidates like Norman Quijano will keep coming to the area to campaign. Paarlberg thinks they will, because at the end of the day, the Salvadoran community in the U.S. still has influence, vote or not.
"The reason diaspora communities matter in elections isn't primarily because of their votes. Maybe in some cases it's because of their money, but I don't think that's really it in the case of El Salvador. I think it's the idea that Salvadoran-Americans are relatively more prosperous, they're relatively more successful, and their voice matters—people respect them back home," he says.
The local Salvadoran community may be far from home, but members aren’t missing a chance to have their voices heard.
[Music: "El Salvador" by Athlete from Singles 01-10]