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Released November 01, 2004

By David Tisdale

HATTIESBURG - As millions of Americans head to the polls to vote in Tuesday's election, Melvyn Barquero returns to his native Nicaragua to witness the same democratic function, one he considered improbable in this Central American country not many years ago.

Earlier last month, Barquero, who works as a food services manager for Aramark at The University of Southern Mississippi, was asked by the Nicaraguan election council to be an international observer for elections to be held Nov. 7 for mayors and provincial governors.

"To be asked to participate (as an international observer) is an honor," said Barquero, a familiar face to many Southern Miss faculty, staff and students for the last 25 years. During that time, Barquero has managed food service operations in the plaza between Cook and McCain libraries and now at the Liberal Arts Building. "My job as an observer will be to make sure that the election is clean and there are no irregularities," he said.

His long absence from Nicaragua likely helped him qualify as an impartial election observer, Barquero said.

"At first I was in shock (when asked to be an election observer), because I never expected to be asked," he said. "I remember not knowing what to say, except that I needed to talk to my boss to see if I could get permission to go."

Barquero's visit to his homeland will be the first in 42 years, after he left at age 18 in 1962 to study law in Spain. He will take a few days while in Nicaragua to become re-acquainted with some cousins and uncles whom he hasn't seen in decades. "I expect it to be a very different country," he said.

"I think it's a great idea," said Southern Miss Dining Services director Bob Lowe of Barquero's selection by the Nicaraguan government. "I think he's a great choice. He's just a great guy, someone who's very dependable."

Barquero came to Southern Miss in 1978 with his family to study English at the Southern Miss English Language Institute and intended to pursue a master's degree in library science at the University of Michigan after completing his studies at Southern Miss.

In 1979 the Somoza family dictatorship, which ruled Nicaragua for the better part of the 20th century, was deposed. Following five years of coalition government, Daniel Ortega, backed by the Sandinista rebel group that for years was the main opposition to the Somozas, was elected president in a disputed election in 1984. His rule was opposed by the U.S. government, which accused Ortega and the Sandinistas of corruption and influence by communists and instead backed the opposition Contra rebels.

Barquero's career goal was to work as a librarian at Nicaragua's Central Bank after finishing his master's degree at Michigan. The Central Bank library, he said, was noted for having an extensive collection of material and considered an invaluable source for research.

"I was supposed to be in Hattiesburg for six months, and then go to Michigan," he said. "I was in my second course of English, and then the political situation (in Nicaragua) changed."

He considered the environment in Nicaragua following the 1979 overthrow too unstable and dangerous for him and his family, so he decided to settle in Hattiesburg and go to work full time for the university.

"I decided that the most important thing was the education of my children," said Barquero. He solicited assistance from his ELI professors to help him find a job at the university, which would allow him to receive the benefit of reduced tuition for children of university employees. "It was no personal sacrifice. It was my obligation to my family. They come first in my life."

Southern Miss history professor Dr. Douglas Chambers praised Barquero's commitment to his family and willingness to give his time to his native country for the upcoming election. "Mr. Barquero has spent much of his adult life at (Southern Miss), working for Dining Services," Chambers said. "His story should be an inspiration to all."

Barquero considers his fellow food service employees and the entire university community as an extended family--a feeling that was cemented when his son Julio was killed in a car accident three years ago. Barquero said the outpouring of support during the tragedy was "something I will never forget."

The Sandinistas lost power in Nicaragua after the 1990 election, and multiparty elections have been held since then, although the Sandinistas continue to have strong political influence.

"Barquero's return to Nicaragua as an election observer is a testament to the great strides that his native country is making toward full democracy, and he is to be commended for his part in helping push the process forward" said Southern Miss assistant professor of history and international studies director Dr. Brian O'Neil. "The decades-long Somoza dictatorship, followed by the 10-year civil war between the Sandinista government and the Contras during the 1980s left Nicaragua a shattered, broken land. While the country's economy is slowly recovering, its relatively peaceful transition to a democratic system has been nothing short of remarkable."

Barquero hopes his involvement will help support that transition so his native country will continue to have the same freedoms he enjoys as an American. "I've prayed for this (democracy in Nicaragua) a long time," he said.


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November 23, 2004 9:23 AM