Laura and I woke up early, 0530, to get to the polling place and
begin what was to become a very long day. We had volunteered to be
observers for our particular candidate, Carlos Pesquera, in the
gubernatorial primary for Puerto Rico. It is customary to have
observers from your campaign to "assure" the election officials do
their jobs and don’t try to pull any funny business.
The funny business began right away for us. Agustín, our polling place
"head dog," tried to put us to work right away counting and initialling
ballots. I refused. "Hey we’re not election officials," I said. "Our
campaign bosses were very clear we were not to be doing your jobs."
It turned out that they had not done, nor planned to do their jobs, and
since our candidate stood to be hurt more, we acquiesced and did what
we needed to do to have the polling place open on time at 0800.
Things continued to bump along herky jerky. Agustín flashed his rural rotten toothed smile at me. "See that wasn’t so bad."
They hadn’t enough secret booths for people to vote in private, so
hoards started taking seats in the 2nd grade classroom to fill out
their ballots, twenty at a time, huddled close together. I was already
shaking my head. This was out of control. It was obvious Agustín was
this little barrio’s don. I caught him "suggesting" candidates for the
little old ladies that trusted his judgement. "Agustín, you can’t do
that. That’s fraud, you know. Do it again and I will file an
"You know, you’re not so innocent yourself. By helping people put their
ballots in the boxes you are violating the rules as well."
This is a well worn and tired tactic in Puerto Rico. So lawless and
disorderly is the conduct, so liberal are the gentry with rules and
regulations, that there is more than sufficient culpability to go
around. No one ever enforces these laws, for fear of themselves being
caught in something. Everybody is dirty here. Everybody’s got something
in their closet. So accustomed are the people to playing ball,
negotiating everything, they are beholden to no ideals, only
necessities in the constant flux of the moment. Do what you have to do
to get by. And a common game they play is whenever accused of
wrongdoing, quick turn it around on someone else or your attacker, no
matter how small. Put them on the immediate defensive.
So, Agustín’s admonishment to me for helping these same old ladies get
their ballots in the rickety cardboard slots was my "infraction."
Agustín had met his match. I don’t know why people here are flummoxed
by this sophmoric redirect, but they are.
"Okay, I won’t touch the ballots. You tell another person how to vote, and I will report you."
Then he went into the guilty conscience blither blather, where he
wouldn’t shut up trying to justify himself. The process is damaged,
he’d say, he’s just helping. Why should a "wrong" candidate get elected
just because he’s better looking. If people don’t take the time to
study the candidates, then the wrong person get’s elected by accident.
"I’m just helping to avoid an accident." And he would go on and on,
flapping his deformed, cavity ridden mouth at high velocity. I told him
if the people didn’t know the candidates, they shouldn’t vote for them.
Leave that box blank. He kept on, trying his best to persuade me, his
guilty conscience and pride going on and on. All the while giving me
more and more dirt on himself. I just listened, carefully crafting the
hammer that I would bring down upon him soon enough.
I soon caught him again with a little group of people around him. He
had been pretending to count blank ballots (we were running out),
seated in the little desk of the second grade classroom. All were
huddled around him, hunched. I stood at the front of the room, in front
of the blackboard giving directions and noting irregularities.
Children!! I almost said.
"Agustín," I said, "You can’t do that. I see you." And in a more formal
spanish that sounds like a fine afternoon spent at a nobleman’s estate,
"The gentleman shall refrain from offering advice on selecting
candidates. You, sir, are damaging the electoral process."
He stopped immediately. I flagged down Laura and told her the story.
Then I reported it to the electoral unit head. He was shaken and
surprised, but as Agustín is clearly the "go-to-guy" at this polling
place, I have my doubts about how this will be resolved. It’s kind of
like when a hotel says to you, "Yes sir, we’re really sorry about that,
you can be assured that he will fired immediately."
I figured I didn’t have much pull and myself being a newcomer, it would
have been an uphill battle. All I had at that point were threats and
pieces of paper. I started to hatch a plan.
Earlier, the director of the polling place had expressed interest in
Laura and myself to help with the general elections next November. We
are young and involved, contrary to the older folks that always seem to
run these things. I had been cagey, expressing reservation. I didn’t
want to get chummy with these people. They were after all, enemies for
How do I remove Agustín from his position as chief purveyer of fraud in
Barrio Tortugo? How do I get rid of this little latin dictator wannabe?
It would have to wait, as the day was only half over and there were
ballots to be cast. Mostly the people coming through were extremely
uneducated, lazy, borderline shouldn’t-be-allowed-to-vote. It was a
pretty depressing affair. These are the people who are deciding the
future representation of Puerto Rico. These same people who are
complicit in fraud, who haven’t taken the time to read up on the
candidates, and resort to trying to get away with cheating. Good thing
the teacher was there. It was shameful. I should have punished them to
write a thousand times on the chalkboard, "I will not cheat the
electoral process. I do not wish to live in Haiti."
After all was said and done and all the ballots were cast, it fell upon
Laura and myself to observe the counting. It is still a hand counting
system here in Puerto Rico. It works pretty well. The polling places
are divided up sufficiently that the results come in for over 1.5
million votes cast in just a few hours.
Agustín was getting no end of pleasure handing us stacks of ballots to
count and sort. He was like a grand arch-duke waving about his servants
while he dealt with important matters, such as the bloom on his roses.
Laura and I didn’t protest the counting of the ballots for our
gubernatorial candidate. We had a vested interest.
It soon became apparent that our candidate was losing by a landslide.
3-1. My heart sank. After so much effort, so much toil, is this how it
is to end? Napoleon has returned from St. Helena… even after so much
ruin, he is still a strong-man. So it is in Puerto Rico, Rosselló, like
Napoleon, conquered much in his early years only to meet his Waterloo
and seek the refuge of exile. Our Napoleon, however, has seen fit to
come back from his exile and save us. And our candidate? Carlos
Pesquera was like the honest reformer trying to put back together the
country Napoleon had destroyed. All the people can remember is the
glory of the past. The poor want heros, glory, not reform.
After "helping" Agustín count most of the rest of the election results
too, I became increasingly frustrated by his lack of graciousness,
laziness, and assumption at our servile role. I told Laura, I’d had it. We’re
out of here. Look at these people. We’re just observers and we’re doing
all the work. They’re just sitting there watching us like slavers. They
can stay up to 3am for all I care. We’re out of here.
On the way out, I told the director of the polling station, "Here’s the
deal, Marcos. You get rid of Agustín, you get both Laura and myself.
That’s the deal. Two for one."
He jotted down our number and we were on our way.