Here I am in Santa Cruz del Quiché, in the departmental headquarters of Winaq, with about 35 volunteers and sympathizers of the party watching the local TV channel on a large-screen plasma TV. I spent most of the day with Matilde and Fermina and Matilde's younger son, Juan, driving around to several municipalities in the department, to check in on how things were going.
Some weeks back I had started to think about what I would do on election day. What I definitely did NOT want to do was sit in my house. I live across the street from the municipal headquarters of the Partido Patriota which is very active here in town. I couldn't imagine anything more disagreeable than sitting around listening to their festivities. So I determined to find something useful to do.
Originally I had thought about being an international observer. After all, I was already in country. But I decided to ask my friends in the party what they thought would be most useful and the response was that I should stick with Matilde and Fermina. But a few days ago they told me that they thought they were not going to do anything much on election day. Matilde said people had warned her to stay home. So I decided that I would call my friend Benjamin, who is on the national executive committee of Winaq and ask if he had an alternate assignment. Within a few minutes he called me back and put me in touch with the person who was coordinating election day efforts in Quiché, Gregorio (who happens to be Rigoberta Menchú's brother in law). I called Gregorio; it took him a moment to identify me (Benjamin had said he had spoken to Gregorio about me but there didn't seem to be any instant name recognition, but mentioning Benjamin's name seemed to do the trick), and he asked me to be part of a team for election day. We met on Saturday to figure out plans; he asked me to work with Matilde and Fermina to do monitoring of polling sites in 7 municipalities, and he would cover other municipalities with Hector, a young man from Santa Cruz.
Matilde and Fermina had to vote first, and the voting sites in Santa Cruz were very crowded and the election officials had not, apparently, allowed enough time to set up, so the voting got started late. When I went to the school where Fermina was voting, to see if I could find her (and also just to stretch my legs since the internet cafe was not open and I didn't have much to do, so walking around seemed to make sense), I entered a large courtyard that was thronged with people. There seemed to be a certain amount of confusion. Whole families were there. Some people had brought newspapers to read; others had food; others just stood or sat, mostly quite patiently.
I tried calling both Matilde and Fermina; each thought she would be tied up for quite some time. Matilde had thought it would take her another two hours to get to vote.
We got a late start, and the most distant municipality, Pachalum, was ruled out because there were no contacts there who would be able to give us any information. We arrived in Joyabaj around 11:15 and tried to find the party headquarters; eventually we found the locale (we had passed it and had to backtrack). The streets were thronged with people. The compañero there told us of some anomalies; the main one was that one of the election officials at the central polling station was a sister of the current mayor who is also running for re-election. Her duty was to tell people which table they were supposed to vote at. Since they had not distributed this information beforehand everyone had to go to her office and find out where they had to vote and apparently she was telling them to vote for the official party as she gave them the information they needed.
We went to the polling place just to get a sense of the lay of the land, and then moved on to Zacualpa, where we talked with the compañeros from the URNG. This was the same home of Don Felix, which Fermina and I had visited about a month earlier. He was standing out side when we arrived, greeted us warmly and ushered us in. Up the street we could see pick up trucks loaded with people and a lot of folks walking; one of the polling stations was up that way.
They told us of many anomalies, such as people from other municipalities being bussed in to vote in Zacualpa. We listened, explained they should file a complaint, and then I made a call to a contact at Radio Sonora (one of the main news stations) so that the compañero could report directly (keeping a lot of airtime on my phone and making calls for people or lending my phone is one of the small things I do to try and be helpful, since many of my friends are rarely able to purchase much airtime).
Then Felix told us that they were making lunch, so we followed one of the comrades up the street and off into a little side street, and into a courtyard, where some women crouched tending pieces of meat over a grill. They found us chairs and a table and heaped our plates with grilled meat and handed us stacks of tortillas; this, to my thinking, is a true "comedor solidario" (there is a government program, established by the current regime, to provide food for needy people, called "comedores solidarios").
Then we quickly went through Chinique and Chiché but didn't stop, and finally headed to Chichicastenango, where we sat down with people at the party headquarters. It was just around 4 when we got there, and on the way in we passed a few polling stations that didn't seem to have anyone there. We talked with the folks there -- the two men who had had their candidacies for mayor and council disqualified seemed a little down. It was more to show support and share experiences than to do anything concrete.
And then we headed back to Santa Cruz to wait for the results.