RPCVs Assist 13,500 Peruvian Voters at Expatriate Polling Place
By Guest Contributor on Friday, June 10th, 2011
Some two dozen Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) – 12 of whom had served in Peru or were RPCVs who also worked there, albeit with other agencies — answered the call from the Peruvian Consulate to assist at its Mid-Atlantic Regional polling place during Peru’s Presidential run-off election on Sunday, June 5th.
RPCV Mike Wolfson (Arequipa, Peru, 1964-66) headed the contingent, participating in all pre-election orientations at the Peruvian Consulate and, throughout election day itself, making and readjusting assignments. Mike even walked the rounds several times to the six polling locations spread out over the sprawling campuses of a high school and adjacent middle school, distributing water bottles to volunteers who assisted voters while standing under a noonday sun. Most RPCVs were stationed outside the buildings helping over 13,500 voters find their correct building, room, and voting table.
Partnering with a Peruvian national, Tino Calabia (Chiclayo, Peru, 1963-65) helped to captain the volunteers staffing the main entrance to the campuses, greeting waves of thousands of voters who arrived by Metrorail or had traveled from as far north as Delaware or as far west as Kentucky. Gladdened by the huge turnout, Calabia felt sympathy each time he had to turn away discouraged Peruvians whose voter IDs showed they were not registered with a Consulate in the U.S. and were, therefore, eligible to vote only in Peru.
Bill Eilerman (Trujillo, Peru, 1965-67) was happy to escort those in wheelchairs trying to arrive at their building before polls closed promptly at 4 p.m. As the day wore on, Eilerman grew increasingly awed by the civic commitment of Peruvians residing in the U.S. who brought along babies, toddlers, and elderly parents for this once every five years event. In their native country, Peruvians are fined for not voting, but this coercive rule was suspended for U.S. residents in 2008. And yet the crowds kept coming.
A few of the most fluent RPCV Spanish-language speakers, such as Sarah Stewart (Guatemala, 2004-6; Honduras, 2006-7; Panama Response 2009-10; plus with an NGO in Peru, 1998-2000), worked inside buildings. In coordination with Peruvian volunteers from the diplomatic corps, Stewart managed the complicated task of supporting the activities at the voting tables, each staffed by three Peruvians pre-selected by lottery. In some cases, lines of voters were forced to wait for hours because the pre-selected staff arrived late or never arrived at all. The no-shows will be fined for their absences, as their positions had to be filled by drafting sometimes very unwilling volunteers from among the voters.
Stewart also assisted staff during the closing of voting tables, the counting and recording of ballots, and the delivery of results to the supervising diplomatic staff. During the occasional down-time, she spoke with Peruvians about the Peace Corps and its work abroad. In this casual way, she acted on the second of Peace Corps’ Three Goals: helping to promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served by continuing to inform, for example, the Peruvian voters, about America’s tradition of service to others. In turn, through learning more about the Peruvian voters and their election processes, Sarah can fulfill the third goal: subsequently helping Americans to gain a better understanding of other peoples.
As to the election’s outcome, early on, a slim margin separated the two run-off candidates, but Congresswoman Keiko Fujimori eventually acknowledged that former army colonel Ollanta Humala had won. Many voters had feared that Fujimori would be prone to continue the policies of her father, former President Alberto Fujimori who sits in prison convicted of corruption and human rights abuses. (Like most voters in the capital of Lima and in Peru’s north coast provinces, those who cast ballots in the Washington metro area as well as many other Peruvians living outside of Peru voted predominantly for Fujimori.)
Of the four candidates previously leading before the April 10th first-round election, two of the losing moderates chose opposing sides in the polarized run-off. Former President Alejandro Toledo, who as a youth had been mentored by two PCVs, supported Humala, despite the fact that in 2005, Humala publicly backed an armed uprising staged by his brother against Toledo; and Humala’s brother, like Alberto Fujimori, sits in prison. Meanwhile, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, though Toledo’s finance minister and later Toledo’s prime minister, backed Fujimori. (Three of the four previously leading candidates, Keiko Fujimori, Toledo, and Kuczynski earned graduate degrees from U.S. universities.)
However the history of Peru’s next five years may develop, Calabia believes that many Washington-area RPCVs will once more happily respond to the Peruvian Consulate’s call for assistance with the Peruvian elections in 2016. “Those of us whom the Peace Corps sent to Peru worked for Peruvians there. It seems only natural to help out again, when asked to help Peruvians living here.” Besides, regardless of how metro-DC Peruvian residents voted and the election’s final outcome, U.S. and Peruvian citizens working together and their social interaction at events, such as Sunday’s, can further strengthen bilateral relations and global understanding.
Thanks to RPCVs Sarah Stewart and Tino Calabia for contributing this article.