The American Election: Trust

Dec 122008

By Maria Luisa Díaz de León

Trust means strong hope or certainty that a person will act or something will work as desired. This is the precise word that can summarize my experience in the U.S. elections coverage.

When I began my 17-day journey, invited by the U.S. Department of State, the Foreign Press Center, and the International Center for Journalists, I wanted to inform my newspaper readers first-hand of one of the most important elections in the past years.

But what I learned, and want to reflect on, is that the United States has a heterogeneous, sometimes daring society. There is space for mistakes, but everything works because there is trust: trust in its institutions, in its democracy, in its laws, in its media, and even trust in its politicians.

When Arturo Montaño of the U.S. Embassy in Mexico explained the program’s details, I believed it was a good opportunity to experience a complex, distant electoral process, at times so near and part of the daily life for Mexico. I felt honored for the invitation and thankful to my newspaper for having nominated me. I can certify that my perception of the United States was different before and after November 4.

The relationship between my country and the United States is one of love and hate, sweet and sour. Our nations are intimately connected by our shared border, history, customs, climate and biodiversity. Therefore, for a Mexican journalist it is always a professional challenge to approach this country without considering our long common history. Mexico is now immersed in a bloody war where many Mexican young people are massacred in a war between and against drug cartels. Our newspapers report daily on executions and killings of innocents; the criminals kill journalists and throw grenades in our newsrooms.

In this context, to have watched such a moving election as the one on November 4, 2008 was a gift. I was an eyewitness to how millions of Americans organized to say “that’s enough”, to say no more war and to open the doors to the possibility of a better future for them – and also to the rest of the world.

Miami – from hate to love

To have been assigned to Miami facilitated things for me because it is difficult to find someone who doesn’t speak Spanish, also because of the support of my new friends Audra Varch, Nancy San Martin, Frances Robles and Shelley Acoca at The Miami Herald.

From the powerful Cuban community to other Latin American immigrants, and including Anglos by necessity, they all speak Spanish. In Miami, the largest city in Florida, I had the opportunity to find all political positions. From the most moderate to the most extreme.

In the white senior community in the residential areas of Coral Gables and Coconut Grove, the majority of the people I interviewed spoke with fear about Barack Obama. They feared his youth and inexperience.

In a bus on 8th Street that took me to Little Havana where the old refugees of Cuba’s 1959 revolution live, I chatted with Doña Rafaela, 93 year old:
--- Are you going to vote?
--- Of course, now more than ever!
---And who are you voting for?

---McCain, of course. I would never vote for Obama because he is a socialist. That’s why I left Cuba, running away from Fidel Castro; and now comes this Barack Obama promising socialism; I would never vote for him!

I got off the bus in front of a barbershop. I entered and started talking with the clients: three old men exiled from Cuba.

When they started to speak, their words were loaded with hate against the Democratic candidate. They even lamented that the police had uncovered a plan to murder him in Tennessee. They accused him of being a socialist and a Muslim (as if this was a crime). “They are bunch of idiots!” said Antonio Ramos (87), regretting they were caught. “If they cut off his [Obama’s] head, it would be wonderful.”

Not all of them think this way. Outside Café Versalles there was some yelling. People accused a young man of Cuban descent as a traitor because he was wearing a button that said: Cubans for Obama. Arguing was pointless; he turned around and left.

On November 4 at 4:30 a.m., I met Lloyd Major and understood the historic transcendence of this day. In Washington, D.C., the experts and scholars had explained it to me, but it was in the voting line that I lived it.

Lloyd Major was in a line in Opaloca, a region where Miami-Dade workers live. He told me how he experienced as a college student the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, and the murder of John F. Kennedy and his brother Bobby. How he suffered because of the racial segregation, and what he felt when he entered a mixed restaurant for the first time. For this reason, he was going to vote for Obama, because it meant a lot to him, as a black man.

He stood in line with men and women, young and old, pregnant women, and people in wheelchairs. All black, all in a festive silence. There was an expectation, a suspense. They knew what was about to happen, but they couldn’t believe it. They were leaving the voting booth with a big smile; some said: Yes!

Lloyd said for the rest of the day he would be home watching the news to see the results. It would be 12 hours when at 11 p.m. CNN announced to the world that Obama had gathered the 270 electoral votes needed to be declared president-elect. From then on, there was laughing, crying, and pure history. The candidate who nobody thought could win because his middle name is Hussein, because he is black, because he is the son of a Kenyan immigrant, who studied in Asia, now was introduced, accompanied by his daughters and wife, as the president-elect of the United States. Earlier, a mature, educated and respectable John McCain had recognized the victory of his opponent in front of a sad Republican audience.

The American dream has come true. I was moved, and more so when I saw so many people crying, like Jesse Jackson and Oprah Winfrey. But why? I am not even an American, nor Black or Hawaiian!

This election and Barack Obama represent the change of a generation. The arrival of a different and fresh way of politics in the United States that will definitely influence the way politics is done in the world. What the voters in the United States did this November 4 indicates that democracy continues to be the future of societies’ coexistence; that the vote of a rich white man is the same as the vote of a poor immigrant’s son.

I recognize that the United States is many United States. That it is very conservative, although through Hollywood all we know is its liberal part; that it is black, white, Asian and Hispanic. It is rich and also very poor. It is respectful but racist and extremist. But what keeps this country together is in the application and observance of law; this social contract makes them strong as a nation and shows that, at the end of the day, differences don’t count too much. The American people have a social contract based on trust and consequences.

With these words, I leave you. Thank you for allowing me to witness this moment that changes the history of all.

The writer is deputy editorial director of Excelsior in Mexico City.