Even being 5,000 miles from home, it has been impossible to escape all the coverage on the presidential elections (especially the plethora of facebook posts about it… I think we are all ready for that to be over!). I continue to be surprised at how connected Chileans are to the world beyond their borders- they stay informed on politics and current events in many other countries, and probably know more about Romney and Obama than many Americans do, myself included. My immersion into Chilean life has led me to change my political views. Not only is my personal ideology different now than it was before I arrived in February, but I have also become more conscious of events taking place in other countries because being globally aware is much more important to me than it was before. The two following recent events really highlighted this.
I followed the recent Venezuelan presidential elections pretty closely, I dare say more closely than I have paid attention to the coverage on the US elections. I have a Venezuelan friend who is now living in Santiago because he no longer feels safe in Venezuela, and says it is no longer the country he considered “home,” and many of his friends feel the same way and have also emigrated. He was ferociously attentive to the situation there, and had many comments on changes he would like to see take place so that Venezuela can progress and develop, rather than continue on a path of violence and disorder (one of his high school classmates disappeared a few weeks earlier and is presumed dead, and he tells me this is not the first of his friends to whom such a thing has happened). He watched and read anything he could find about the election, following the news religiously. He had his family mail him a t-shirt, a hat, and stickers in support of his candidate, filled out his absentee ballot as soon as possible, and spent Election Day in Mass with a group of other Venezuelans living in Chile so they could pray together for the future of their country. His dedication and extreme interest and concern was inspiring; I was hitting the refresh button every two minutes to see how the results were looking even though I am not Venezuelan nor have I ever been there.
Then, last weekend were the local elections for Santiago, where los santiagüinos voted for candidates to be the alcaldes (sort of like a mayor, only with a higher level of autonomy and control) of each comuna or district of the city, as well as other local government positions. They may seem less-than-newsworthy, especially given that they fell between the re-election of Chavez in Venezuela and the incredibly close US presidential elections being processed as I write this, but they actually were taken very seriously! Voting tends to occur on Sundays here, since people are likely to be home with very flexible plans. On Saturday, the government implemented ley seca, or “dry law,” thereby prohibiting the sale of alcohol from 5pm Saturday until Monday. No clubs or bars were allowed to be open on Saturday night, and as it turns out, many restaurants, department stores, and supermarkets closed early on Saturday (and next to nothing was open on Sunday). I was amazed at how many young people voted… and at what a difference it made. These elections were, in fact, important because many of the incumbent alcaldes had held their positions for about 20 years even though they were known associates of Pinochet, who was the dictator of Chile from 1973 until 1990. It was on record that a few of them had even tortured citizens during the dictatorship, yet they continued holding positions of authority and respect in their local government. Young people took up this issue to spur a change and “start with new people so that we can really have democracy” as a friend of mine explained. In my comuna, Ñuñoa, the incumbent alcalde was ousted in favor of a leftist woman by a mere 92 votes. It seemed like everyone was glued to the television, watching the news and latest election headlines as they broke. After a tumultuous period of counting the votes where it was nail-bitingly close, it was finally announced that nearly all of the incumbents had lost. Ñuñoa was particularly ecstatic, and many people headed out to the main plaza and celebrated until 4am (I went to bed as I had to wake up early, but I heard the excitement from my house).
Witnessing these election processes made me realize that 1) one vote can make a difference, 2) local government is important albeit small, 3) voting is an important privilege, and 4) it is so so so important to be informed. We can only make government work for us if we put in the effort to support the candidates we want. I am sorry now that I was too lazy to make a decision on which candidate I preferred and do the paperwork for my absentee ballot, much less register to vote, after seeing the effects of these other two elections on the people around me. (*Side note: not voting ended up being a handy excuse today when a 60-some year old man tried to forcibly take me on a coffee date so he could “get to know me” and discuss American politics and “the views of my heart of hearts”…no thank you, Señor Creepy!) Going forward, I will fulfill my civic duty and vote when possible and stop being a statistic of people my age having low political efficacy. I am currently monitoring the results as they come in, and I hope that the outcome will be for the best and help the US move forward as it needs to.