History of El Salvador (1931–79)

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Economic crisis and repression[edit]

Araujo assumed the presidency at a time of severe economic crisis. Between 1928 and 1931, the coffee export price had dropped by 54 percent. The wages paid agricultural workers were cut by an equal or greater extent. Food supplies, dependent on imports because of the crowding out of subsistence cultivation by coffee production, likewise fell sharply. Privation among the rural labor force, long a tolerated fact of life, sank to previously unknown depths. Desperate campesinos began to listen more attentively to the exhortations of radicals such as Agustín Farabundo Martí.

Martí came from a relatively well-to-do landowning family. He was educated at the University of El Salvador (commonly referred to as the National University), where his political attitudes were influenced by the writings of Karl Marx and other communist theorists. He was an original member of the Central American Socialist Party (founded in Guatemala in 1925) and a propagandist for the Regional Federation of Salvadoran Workers. He also spent a few months in Nicaragua with that country's noted guerrilla leader, Augusto César Sandino. Marti and Sandino parted ways over the Nicaraguan's refusal to add Marxist flourishes to his nationalistic battle against a United States occupation force.

Jailed or expelled several times by Salvadoran authorities, Martí kept up his efforts to organize popular rebellion against the government with the goal of establishing a communist system in its place. The widespread discontent provoked by the coffee crisis brought ever-increasing numbers of Salvadorans under the banner of such Marxist organizations as the Communist Party of El Salvador (Partido Comunista de El Salvador—PCES), the Anti Imperialist League, and the Red Aid International (Socorro Rojo Internacional—SRI). Martí was the Salvadoran representative of the SRI, which was closely associated with the other two groups.

Most dissatisfied Salvadorans were driven more by hunger and frustration than by ideology. Araujo, a product of the economic elite, was burdened by loyalty to his class, by the unyielding opposition of that class to political reform, by the increasing polarization between the elite and the masses, and by the suspicions of the military. Araujo's initial response to popular unrest, perhaps a conditioned one, was to quell disturbances by force. When demonstrations persisted, the president decided to offer a concession instead of a club. He scheduled municipal elections for December 1931; furthermore, he offered the unprecedented gesture of allowing the PCES to participate in those elections.

In the tense political atmosphere of the time, this last concession aroused both the landholding elite and, more important, the military. A December coup staged against Araujo drew support from a large number of military officers, who cited Araujo's ineptitude to justify their action. This rationalization did not match the portentous significance of the event, however. The 1931 coup represented the first instance when the Salvadoran military took direct action as an institution to curtail a potential political drift to the left. This watershed event ushered in a period of direct and indirect military rule that would last for fifty years.

The rebellious officers shortly installed as the country's leader General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez (known in El Salvador by his matronymic, Martínez), who had been Araujo's vice president and minister of war. Surprisingly, Martínez allowed the promised elections to take place only a month later than originally scheduled, and with the participation of the PCES. The general's motivations in this regard, however, seem to have run more toward drawing his enemy into the open than toward the furthering of democratic government, for the communist candidates who won municipal offices in the western part of the country subsequently were barred from assuming those offices.

The denial of the municipal posts has been cited as the catalyst for the launching of a rural insurrection that had been in the planning stages for some time. Unfortunately for the rebels, the military obtained advance warning of their intentions. Martí and other rebel leaders were arrested on January 18, 1932. Confusion and poor communications led the insurgents to go ahead with their action as planned four days later. The rebels succeeded in capturing government buildings in the towns of Izalco, Sonzacate, Nahuizalco, Juayúa, and Tacuba. They were repulsed by the local garrisons in Sonsonate, Santa Tecla, and Ahuachapán. Even the small successes of the insurgents were short lived, however, as GN and army units were dispatched to relieve local forces or to retake areas held by the rebels. Less than seventy-two hours after the initial uprising, the government was again firmly in control. It was then that reprisals began.

The military's action would come to be known as la matanza. Some estimates of the total number of campesinos killed run as high as 30,000. Although the true number never will be known, historian Alastair White has cited 15,000 to 20,000 as the best approximation. No matter what figure one accepts, the reprisals were highly disproportionate to the effects of the communist-inspired insurgency, which produced no more than thirty civilian fatalities. The widespread executions of campesinos, mainly Indians, apparently were intended to demonstrate to the rural population that the military was now in control in El Salvador and that it would brook no challenges to its rule or to the prevailing system. That blunt message was received, much as it had been after the failure of Aquino's rebellion a century earlier. The memory of la matanza would linger over Salvadoran political life for decades, deterring dissent and maintaining a sort of coerced conformity.

Repression and reform under military rule[edit]

The assumption of power by Martínez initiated an extended period of rule by a military institution that continued to struggle with its own conception of its role as director of the country's political process. Older, more conservative officers were pushed by their younger subordinates to loosen up the system and institute at least some limited reforms in order to minimize the likelihood of another violent disruption like that of 1932. The notion of guided reform, instituted and controlled from above, generally came to be accepted as the best course for the military to steer between the twin shoals of heavy-handed repression and radical revolution. That is not to say, however, that repression was abandoned as a tool of political control. In fact, it alternated with guided reform depending on the prevailing socioeconomic pressures of the time. This process of limited liberalization combined with firm control characterized the political order of El Salvador for some five decades.

The first of many military presidents to come, Martínez was an autocrat who enjoyed the longest tenure in office of any Salvadoran president. His anticommunist fervor, so amply demonstrated by la matanza, has made him an enduring hero of the political right (a right-wing death squad of the 1970s would bear his name). His personal quirks are also legendary. A believer in spiritualism and other mystic creeds, he is most frequently remembered for having strung colored lights throughout San Salvador in an effort to ward off a smallpox epidemic.

Martínez was confirmed as president by the legislature in 1932. He was elected to a four-year term of office in 1935 and a six-year term in 1939. Although it was marked by institutionalized repression of dissent, Martínez's tenure was not altogether a negative period for the country. It provided a stability and continuity that contributed to a general improvement in the national economy. Like other Salvadoran presidents before him, Martínez did not interfere greatly with the elite-dominated economic system. He did, however, make some minor concessions to the poor, establishing a government welfare institution known as Social Improvement (Mejoramiento Social), continuing a very limited land redistribution program begun under Araujo, and attempting to protect the domestic handicraft industry. Although he was personally drawn to the fascist movements in Mussolini's Italy and Nazi Germany, Martinez committed El Salvador to the Allied effort during World War II. This pragmatic move apparently bought El Salvador a fair amount of goodwill in Washington. Despite the length of his rule, relations between the general and the oligarchy were uneasy, in part because of Martínez's humble origins, but also because of his personal eccentricities and the unpredictability that they seemed to reflect. This vague distrust of Martínez was transformed into active elite opposition by his decision in 1943 to raise more revenue through an increase in the export tax.

The last straw for the general's detractors was his effort to extend his term beyond 1944 by means of legislative fiat rather than direct election. The coalition that united in support of his overthrow was a somewhat eclectic one: civilian politicians, pro-Axis military officers, businessmen and bankers (who objected to the government's limited economic restrictions), and irate coffee producers. An initial attempt to oust Martínez by force was unsuccessful, but subsequent unrest in the capital, including a general strike, moved him to resign his office in May 1944. His successor, General Andrés Ignacio Menéndez, called for political liberalization and free elections; the sincerity of his appeal was never tested, however, as he was turned out of office by the military in October.

Menendez's replacement was Colonel Osmín Aguirre y Salinas, the director of the PN and a former follower of the deposed Martínez. The Aguirre regime went ahead with elections scheduled for January 1945 but manipulated the results to ensure the victory of its candidate, General Salvador Castaneda Castro.

Castaneda's rule was unremarkable. The events of 1944 had left the country in an unresolved state of political uncertainty. Fearing some action against him and his conservative followers, Castaneda sought to weed out young reform-minded officers by dispatching them abroad for training. This sector of the officer corps, however, was substantial, and its members could not be excluded indefinitely from the political process. They made their influence felt in 1948, when Castaneda made his own attempt to extend his term in office by way of legislative maneuvering without recourse to the ballot box. The movement that ousted him from power on December 14, 1948, referred to itself as the Military Youth (Juventud Militar). For as long as its members exerted control in El Salvador, they would refer to their action as the Revolution of 1948.

The coup leaders established a junta, which was referred to as the Revolutionary Council; it included three mid-level officers and two civilian professionals. The council ruled for some twenty-one months and guided the country toward comparatively open elections in March 1950. During this period, it became clear that Major Óscar Osorio was the dominant force within the junta and among the officer corps. Osorio was so sure of his support that he resigned from the junta in order to run in the elections as the candidate of the Revolutionary Party of Democratic Unification (Partido Revolucionario de Unificacion Democratica—PRUD).

Osorio eked out a victory over Colonel José Asencio Menéndez of the Renovating Action Party (Partido Accion Renovadora—PAR) and went on to establish the PRUD as a quasi-official party modeled roughly on the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional—PRI) of Mexico. Although the PRUD enjoyed some measure of support, it was never able to replicate the broad base of the PRI, mainly because the process that produced the PRUD—the so-called Revolution of 1948—was not itself a mass movement.

The policies of Osorio and his successor, Lieutenant Colonel José María Lemus, were distinctly different from those of previous Salvadoran leaders. They emphasized economic development, public works, the diversification of agriculture, the establishment of such programs as social security (including medical and hospital care), and improvements in sanitation and housing. Union organization was encouraged, and collective bargaining was instituted. All this was accomplished within the boundaries of guided reform; no measures were taken that might have threatened the elite-dominated system (agrarian reform, for example, was never attempted), and radical elements were discouraged or eliminated through repressive means.

The election of Lemus in 1956 did much to discourage the notion of possible political pluralism in El Salvador. As the candidate of the PRUD, Lemus initially was challenged by the standard-bearers of three other ad hoc parties. The most popular of the three appeared to be Roberto Canessa, a civilian who had served as Osorio's foreign minister. A month before the election, however, Canessa was disqualified by the government-controlled Central Electoral Council on a technicality. Another opposition candidate was barred from the race because of allegations of fiscal impropriety during his tenure as ambassador to Guatemala. Although the opposition attempted to unite behind the remaining candidate, Lemus topped the official election returns with an improbable 93 percent of the vote.

Perhaps in an effort to make amends for the means by which he came to office, Lemus initially took some conciliatory steps, such as declaring a general amnesty for political prisoners and exiles, voiding a number of repressive laws left over from previous regimes, and selecting men of recognized probity and ability for his cabinet. The course of his administration, however, was dominated by economic events. A decline in the export prices of coffee and cotton and the resultant drop in income and revenue exposed the weakness of the PRUD's limited reforms. Heavy-handed political manipulations by the government and the party, in particular the approval of a new electoral law that all but precluded an effective opposition, exacerbated widespread dissatisfaction with the Lemus government. After 1959 the influence of what then appeared to be a popular, nationalistic revolutionary movement in Cuba was felt in El Salvador as it was throughout Latin America. Student groups were particularly inspired by the example of Fidel Castro Ruz and his revolutionaries. Public demonstrations in San Salvador called for Lemus's removal and the imposition of a truly democratic system. The president responded by abandoning his earlier efforts at reform in favor of heightened repression. Free expression and assembly were banned, and political dissidents were detained arbitrarily.

This instability provoked concern among important political actors in El Salvador. For the elite, the government's emphasis on economic development was pointless under such a climate; the emerging middle class likewise felt a threat to its gains from the specter of revolution; and the military reacted almost reflexively to the spectacle of a president who had lost control. Lemus was deposed in a bloodless coup on October 26, 1960.

Governmental authority again passed into the hands of a military-civilian junta. The ranking military representative was Lieutenant Colonel Julio Adalberto Rivera. Aside from Rivera, the junta member who drew the most attention was Fabio Castillo, a university professor and known sympathizer with the Cuban Revolution. Castillo's presence, along with the renewed reformist policies of the junta, convinced the elite and the conservative military officers that the government was influenced by communism. Again, it was the military that acted to head off this perceived threat to stability. A coup by young officers overthrew the junta on January 25, 1961. The officers affirmed their anticommunist and anti-Castro convictions, retained Rivera as part of a new junta, and promised elections.

The Christian Democrats: a centrist alternative?[edit]

The electoral preparations that had begun under the 1960 junta stimulated the mobilization of political parties of moderate and leftist inclinations. These opposition parties were unable to establish their organizations and followings sufficiently to present any effective challenge to the 1962 election of Rivera to the presidency. Rivera ran as the candidate of the National Conciliation Party (Partido de Conciliacion Nacional—PCN), which would succeed the PRUD as the official party in El Salvador. The PCN began as a splinter group from the Christian Democratic Party (Partido Democrata Cristiano—PDC), which eventually became the leading opponent of the PCN and a major force for peaceful change in the Salvadoran system.

The PDC had been founded in November 1960. The party grew out of informal meetings among middle- and upper-class activists who sought to devise a vehicle to represent their interests in the political arena. The concerns of the Salvadoran middle class by and large revolved around economic progress and political stability. It saw the prospects for both concerns threatened from the political right and from the left. The Salvadoran right stifled popular aspirations through its adamant opposition to reform and its support for the elite-dominated economic system. The left promised to abandon the capitalist model that had created the middle class in favor of a communistic system. Fidel Castro's communist leanings were confirmed in 1961 when he declared that he was, and had been since his student days, a MarxistLeninist. From the perspective of the PDC's founders, the only way to protect their gains and ensure their future and that of the middle-class sectors as a whole was to achieve representation within the governmental system. To reach this goal, they saw the need to follow a centrist path that would incorporate more Salvadorans into the political process without exerting undue pressure on the prevailing economic order.

The ideologists of this new party, principally lawyers Abraham Rodriguez and Roberto Lara Velado, saw Christian democracy as the path they were seeking. The roots of Christian democratic ideology extended back as far as Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), which called on Christians to work for social and economic reform. Its more immediate influences, however, were found in the works of Pope John XXIII and the French philosopher Jacques Maritain. The Christian democratic movements in Chile and Venezuela also served as role models. The founders of the PDC, including the civil engineer José Napoleón Duarte Fuentes, emphasized the ideological basis of the party—its support for reform, its call for the application of moral principles to political and economic life, and its rejection of extremist solutions such as those advocated by Marxism—as a new development in Salvadoran politics. This was true, but only to the extent that party members accepted that ideology and acted upon it. Duarte himself came to the PDC without a strong ideological grounding, but his belief in the possibility of peaceful democratic change, as well as his personal magnetism, made up for that initial shortcoming.

Duarte's practical political skills eventually made him the PDC's leading figure. He was elected to the post of secretary general at the party's first convention in May 1961. At the time, his selection was a victory for those party members who referred to themselves as "purists", eschewing collaboration with nonelected governments. In order to legitimize its rule, the ruling junta had approached the PDC membership about participation in the government, and some early PDC adherents responded favorably to this idea. After Duarte's election to party leadership, this collaborationist faction split off to form the PCN. Tied into the system, the PCN went on to sweep all the available seats in the December 1961 Constituent Assembly elections and to serve as the vehicle for Rivera's election to the presidency in April 1962.

Rivera was a proponent of the sort of guided reforms initiated by the military's revolution of 1948. His developmentalist economic policies received a boost from the United States in the form of generous aid allocations under the banner of United States president John F. Kennedy's Alliance for Progress. Although he discussed publicly the need for economic reforms, including agrarian reform, Rivera did nothing to further them. Perhaps his major contribution to Salvadoran political life was the decision to allow the participation of opposition parties through a liberalized electoral system that called for proportional representation in the country's Legislative Assembly. Previously, the party that won the most votes in each department (the equivalent of states under the Salvadoran system) was awarded all the legislative seats allocated to that department. The proportional allocation of seats based on each party's departmental electoral showing represented a significant step forward for the opposition, which obtained some voice in government even if it was still denied any real power.

In March 1964, the first elections were held under the new system. Although the PCN retained an unchallenged majority in the Legislative Assembly, the PDC won fourteen seats in that body, along with thirty-seven mayoralties. Perhaps the most significant victory was Duarte's election as mayor of San Salvador. He built a strong base of popular support in this post through improvements in municipal services and the organization of local self-help groups to promote small-scale civic improvements such as school renovations, establishment and maintenance of parks, and adult education programs. He was reelected in 1966 and 1968. Leadership of the populous capital city heightened Duarte's political profile and made him a national figure.

Strong economic growth in the early 1960s solidified the position of the PCN as the official party. The leadership of the party was drawn mainly from the ranks of middle-class professionals. It cannot be said to have represented the interests of that class, however. The most important constituency of the PCN was the military; without its support and cooperation, the party could not have governed. PCN governments protected the political power and social and economic perquisites that the officer corps had long enjoyed. They also preserved, at least for a time, the domestic stability required for economic growth within the prevailing elite-dominated system. Like many other Latin American militaries, the Salvadoran armed forces saw the maintenance of the societal status quo as serving their best interests. The PCN shared this conservative viewpoint and worked closely with the military leadership, seeking its advice and support on policy initiatives and political issues. In essence, under the PCN the military continued to rule El Salvador from behind the scenes. The electoral base of the PCN was found among the peasantry. Latin American peasants are on the whole a politically conservative group; in rural El Salvador, this natural tendency was reinforced by the ubiquitous presence of the armed forces.

The political perceptions of certain Salvadoran sectors, particularly agricultural and business interests, led them to oppose the PDC and favor the PCN. Although it was a moderate party by Latin American standards, the PDC was seen by the Salvadoran right as a dangerously left-wing organization. The Christian Democrats' occasional use of the words revolution or revolutionary to describe their vision of social reform invoked in the minds of large landowners and businessmen images of Castro's Cuba, a prospect they would go to any lengths to avoid in El Salvador.

The leading contenders in the elections of 1967 were the PCN, the PDC, and the PAR. The PCN's candidate was Rivera's interior minister, Colonel Fidel Sanchez Hernandez. The PDC nominated Abraham Rodriguez, who proved to be a lackluster campaigner. The PAR had undergone an internal dispute that led its more conservative members to bolt and form a new party, the Salvadoran Popular Party (Partido Popular Salvadoreno—PPS). The PPS chose as its candidate a retired army major, Alvaro Martinez. The remaining leftist members of the PAR nominated Fabio Castillo, who had served on the 1960 junta. By the standards of the Salvadoran right, Castillo was a communist.

The issue of the supposed communist nature of the PAR came to dominate the 1967 campaign. By election day, the PAR had been denied media access by broadcasters who either disagreed with the party's political line or feared some retaliation from the government if they granted air time to the PAR. The PDC condemned the red-baiting engaged in by Sanchez and the PCN, even though many Christian Democrats differed with some of the proposals made by Castillo, such as establishing relations with Cuba and broadening ties with other communist countries. In the balloting on March 5, the PAR actually garnered more votes in San Salvador than did the PDC, although the Christian Democrats had a better showing in rural areas than they had anticipated. All of this was academic in terms of the presidential race, however, since Sanchez won an absolute majority. In general terms, though, the 1967 elections demonstrated increased voter participation and a growing acceptance of the political process as a legitimate means of popular expression.

The 1969 war with Honduras[edit]

Like many other conflicts in Salvadoran history, the 1969 war with Honduras, sometimes referred to as the Football War, was rooted in economic disparity. El Salvador is a small country with a large and rapidly growing population and a severely limited amount of available land. Honduras is a larger country with a smaller population and a less-developed economy. By 1969 some 300,000 Salvadorans had drifted over the border and taken up residence in more sparsely populated Honduras. The vast majority of these Salvadorans were squatters, technically illegal immigrants whose sole claim to the land they worked was their physical presence on it. For Hondurans, the land itself was not so much the issue. What rankled them was the image of being pushed and potentially enveloped by the Salvadorans. Throughout the 1960s, the mechanisms of the Central American Common Market worked to the advantage of the more developed economies of the region, particularly those of Guatemala and El Salvador. The growth of Salvadoran-owned businesses in Honduras—shoe stores were the most visible of these enterprises—underscored for Hondurans the relative economic disparity between the two countries. The issue of the Salvadoran squatters, despite its lack of real economic significance, became a nationalistic sore point for Honduras, a question of adding territorial insult to perceived economic injury.

The border situation became increasingly tense during the two years preceding the outbreak of hostilities. In early 1969, the regime of Honduran president Oswaldo López Arellano (1963–71) invoked a dormant agrarian reform law as a pretext to evict Salvadoran squatters and expel them from the country. The López government was experiencing economic and political difficulties and saw the Salvadorans as convenient scapegoats. Stories and images of displaced refugees filled the Salvadoran press and the airwaves. Tales of violent displacement by the Honduran military began to circulate throughout El Salvador. Tension between the two countries continued to build. The incident that provoked active hostilities—and lent the conflict its popular designation as the Football War—took place in San Salvador in June 1969. During and after a soccer match between the Honduran and Salvadoran national teams, the Honduran team members were vilified and harassed by Salvadoran fans. The reportage of this incident brought matters to a fever pitch.

Beyond national pride and jingoism—which was expressed by Duarte and the PDC with a fervor equal to that of Sanchez and the PCN—the Salvadorans had other motivations for launching a military strike against Honduras on July 14, 1969. The influx of displaced Salvadoran squatters was placing a burden on services and threatening to provoke widespread social unrest. The situation was undermining the political support of the Sanchez government; action against Honduras became the most expedient option to turn this situation around. Although war with Honduras almost certainly would lead to the breakdown of the CACM, the Salvadorans were willing to pay that price. In their estimation, the CACM was already close to a breakdown over the issues of comparative advantage; war with Honduras would only hasten that outcome.

The actual fighting was brief. Despite early Salvadoran air strikes, the Hondurans eventually dominated in that area, destroying most of the Salvadoran Air Force. The Salvadoran Army, however, clearly bested the Hondurans on the ground. The Salvadorans pushed rapidly into Honduran territory before fuel and ammunition shortages and diplomatic efforts by representatives of the Organization of American States (OAS) curtailed their progress. As many as 2,000 people, mainly civilians, were killed in the action.

The war had a number of immediate repercussions. The Salvadorans had expended large quantities of ordnance, necessitating heavy military expenditures to replenish depleted stocks. Trade between the two countries was disrupted completely, and the CACM ceased to function as anything more than a paper entity. El Salvador lost the economic "safety valve" formerly provided by illegal emigration to Honduras; land-based pressures again began to build. Although the vast majority of Salvadorans, including all the legal political parties, had united in support of the war, this unity did not last long.

Dashed hopes: the 1972 elections[edit]

In the wake of the Football War, the PDC sought to turn the issue of unequal land distribution to its political advantage. The war had not only highlighted this issue, it had exacerbated it. Returning refugees were unable to resume the kind of farming they had practiced in Honduras; their employment opportunities as coffee laborers, always limited and seasonal in nature, were restricted still further by the scale of the war-induced influx. Pressure intensified for some kind of land reform.

The PDC was the first political party to drop out of the so- called National Unity Front that had been formed to support the war effort against Honduras. Party spokesmen began to push the issue of full agrarian reform, including credit and technical assistance, as a major platform plank for the 1972 presidential elections. The thinking of the Christian Democrats on this question was as much practical as idealistic. Agrarian reform was not just a popular rallying point for them; it was also seen as a way to establish a new class of small- to medium-sized landholders who would presumably demonstrate some loyalty to the party and government that granted them that status. This was a common strategy for Latin American Christian democratic parties, in keeping with their advocacy of free enterprise reformism.

The Legislative Assembly provided a tangible demonstration of the appeal of agrarian reform in January 1970 when it convened the National Agrarian Reform Congress in San Salvador. The congress included representatives from the government, the opposition, labor, and business groups. Its convocation was an unprecedented event in Salvadoran history, even though it was charged only with making recommendations, not policy. Moreover, those recommendations turned out to be, by Salvadoran standards, revolutionary. They included a call for massive land expropriation by the government in order to achieve a more equitable and productive distribution of national resources. The delegates judged that landholdings above a certain size could be characterized as fulfilling no legitimate "social function" and were thus legally liable to expropriation under the constitution. This call for expropriation actually exceeded what had been called for in the PDC's reform program. By agreeing to the resolutions of the congress, however, the PDC effectively incorporated expropriation into its political agenda. By so doing, it provoked further misgivings among the elite and conservative sectors of the military with regard to the party's intentions should it achieve power.

The legislative and municipal elections of March 1970 were discouraging for the PDC, as it dropped three seats in the Legislative Assembly and lost control of seventy municipalities. Electoral fraud was alleged against the PCN by the PDC and other opposition parties, but fraud never was proved. Nevertheless, the Christian Democrats confidently looked toward the 1972 presidential balloting. Duarte, the party's most popular figure, had agreed to resign the mayoralty of San Salvador and head the national ticket. Despite the 1970 results, there were signs of weakening popular support for the PCN stemming from economic decline. Agrarian reform provided a strong issue for a national campaign. One problem that confronted the PDC was internal in nature and concerned a dispute over tactics. One faction of the party advocated a direct organizational challenge to the PCN in its rural strongholds, whereas another faction stressed the need to radicalize PDC doctrine and programs in an effort to draw a sharper contrast between it and the ruling party. Duarte, not wishing to become embroiled in this potentially divisive debate, resigned as party secretary general and generally sought to remain above the fray.

The 1972 elections took place in an uneasy political atmosphere. The 1970 election of socialist Salvador Allende Gossens as president of Chile had resurrected anxieties over communist gains in Latin America. This concern was shared not only by the political right and the military but also by the majority of Christian Democrats. In El Salvador, organizational efforts by leftist parties such as the PCES and by activist Roman Catholic clergy were viewed with alarm by conservative sectors. The fears of the economic elite in particular were provoked by the 1971 kidnapping and murder of Ernesto Regalado Duenas, the son of a prominent family, by a leftist terrorist organization calling itself "the Group". A protracted teachers' strike in 1971 only added to the unsettled climate prevailing in the country.

The PDC opted to participate in the elections as the leading party of a coalition designated the United National Opposition (Union Nacional Oppositora—UNO). The other members of the coalition were smaller and more radical than the PDC. The National Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Nacional Revolucionario—MNR) was originally a social democratic party. The MNR was pushed further to the left, however, as former PAR supporters joined its ranks after their party was legally proscribed in 1967. The National Democratic Union (Union Democratica Nacional—UDN) was an even smaller grouping that had once described itself as the party of the noncommunist left in El Salvador. By this time, however, the UDN had been infiltrated by the PCES and was functioning as a communist front group. Despite the leftist leanings of the MNR and UDN and the lingering effect of the agrarian reform congress, the UNO platform was moderate in tone, calling for measured reform, respect for private property, and the protection of private investment. As expected, Duarte was tapped as the presidential candidate. He in turn chose the MNR's Guillermo Manuel Ungo Revelo as his running mate.

President Sanchez chose Colonel Arturo Armando Molina as the PCN candidate. The PPS also entered the contest, led by José Antonio Rodríguez Porth. A small PCN splinter party calling itself the United Democratic Independent Front, funded by some leading oligarchic families, rounded out the field. The campaign was a violent and dangerous one for the opposition. UNO's leaders decried numerous incidents of harassment, kidnapping and assault against their activists. The leading perpetrators of these actions, according to the opposition, were troops of the GN. Further roadblocks were thrown in the way of UNO by the PCN- controlled Central Electoral Council, which disqualified the opposition coalition's candidate slates for the Legislative Assembly in the departments of San Salvador, San Miguel, Usulután, Sonsonate, La Unión, and San Vicente.

The actual vote count in the presidential balloting of February 20, 1972, probably will never be known. As expected, Duarte ran strongly in San Salvador, offsetting the traditional PCN advantage in the countryside. Poll watchers for UNO claimed that the final tally nationwide was 327,000 for Duarte and 318,000 for Molina. Tabulations were suspended by the government, however, and a recount was initiated. The official results of that count placed Molina ahead of Duarte by 10,000 votes. The selection of the president thus was relegated to the assembly, where the PCN majority affirmed Molina's tainted victory after a walkout by opposition deputies. An appeal by Duarte and Ungo for new balloting was denied by the Central Electoral Council.

The blatancy of the fraud employed to maintain the PCN in power outraged and disillusioned many Salvadorans, including members of the armed forces. One faction of the officer corps, a new Military Youth, attempted to take direct action to redress the official exploitation of a system that had until that point shown some promise of evolving in a genuinely democratic direction. This group of young army officers, led by Colonel Benjamin Mejia, launched a coup on March 25, 1972. Their immediate goal was the establishment of a "revolutionary junta." It seemed clear, however, that the officers favored the installation of Duarte as president.

Mejia and his followers initiated their action by seizing the presidential residence and taking Sanchez and some of his family members hostage. From that point on, however, events ran against the insurgents. The thunder of aerial bombing over the capital soon announced the loyalty of the air force to the government. The coup attempt never gained the support of more than a minority within the officer corps, and that only in the army. Some residents of the capital took to the streets in support of the young officers, but they were no match for the loyalist military forces. In desperation, Mejia turned to Duarte, urging him to deliver a radio address in support of the rebels. Despite some misgivings, Duarte agreed. His address was broadcast shortly after noon and may have saved some lives by warning civilians to evacuate areas targeted for rebel artillery strikes. Its overall impact, however, was insufficient to reverse the tide of action in the streets. Loyalist forces regained effective control of San Salvador by early that evening.

Like many other government opponents, Duarte sought refuge within the foreign diplomatic community. He was taken in by the first secretary of the Venezuelan embassy but was soon tracked down by government security forces, who broke into the diplomat's house and dragged Duarte away amidst kicks and blows from rifle butts. The Christian democratic leader was detained briefly, beaten, and interrogated, then dispatched to Guatemala. From there, he flew to exile in Venezuela. He left behind a country where aspirations for change had been dashed and where repression was once again the official antidote to dissent.

The 1970s: the road to revolt[edit]

The government of President Molina attempted to exert oldfashioned coercive control over the country, using a relatively new instrument, a peasant organization known as the Nationalist Democratic Organization (Organizacion Democratica Nacionalista—Orden). Orden was established partially in secret in the early 1960s by then President Rivera and General José Alberto "Chele" Medrano in association with the GN, which provided some level of counterinsurgent training to peasant cells throughout the countryside. The counterinsurgent orientation of Orden was in keeping with the anticommunist tenor of the times and the general intent of military training and assistance provided to the armed forces of the region by the United States. Orden, however, never became a military force per se but functioned as a paramilitary adjunct and an important part of the rural intelligence network for the security forces. By the late 1970s, its membership reportedly totaled 100,000.

While Orden served as the eyes and ears of the security forces in rural areas, the military was confronted with a growing new phenomenon in the urban setting, that of left-wing terrorism. Soon after the failed coup attempt of 1972, kidnappings for ransom and hit-and-run attacks on government buildings and other targets became increasingly common in San Salvador. The groups claiming credit for the majority of these actions were the People's Revolutionary Army (Ejercito Revolucionario del Pueblo—ERP) and the Farabundo Marti Popular Liberation Forces (Fuerzas Populares de Liberacion Farabundo Marti—FPL), both radical offshoots of the PCES (the ERP was the new designation of "the Group" that had killed Regalado in 1971).

In 1969 the initial split took place between the followers of party leader Salvador Cayetano Carpio ("Marcial"), a Maoist advocate of a revolutionary "prolonged popular war" strategy for achieving power, and those of Jorge Shafik Handal, who held to the prevailing Moscow-line strategy of electoral participation. By the end of the 1970s, however, political violence and instability had increased markedly, strengthening the position of those who advocated a violent path to power. The success of the 1979 Nicaraguan revolution led by the Marxist Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional—FSLN) apparently served to alter the thinking of policymakers in the Soviet Union, leading them to endorse the strategy of "armed struggle" long advocated by Cuba. By the end of the decade, no less than five Marxist guerrilla groups, including one directly affiliated with the PCES, were recruiting members for military and terrorist action against the government.

Popular support for radical leftist groups appeared to expand rapidly in El Salvador in the mid-1970s, although the ideological uniformity of that support was suspect. The vehicles for the mobilization of the "masses" behind a revolutionary program of radical reform were the so-called mass organizations (also known as popular organizations). Established and run clandestinely by the guerrilla groups, these organizations drew much of their leadership from radical Roman Catholic groups known as Christian base communities (Comunidades Ecclesiasticas de Base—CEBs) that had been established by activist clergy throughout the country. The largest of the mass organizations was the FPL-affiliated Revolutionary Popular Bloc (Bloque Popular Revolucionario—BPR), with nine constituent peasant groups and an estimated 60,000 members. Other mass organizations included urban trade unions among their ranks. Through public demonstrations, strikes, seizures of buildings, and propaganda campaigns, these organizations sought to undermine the government and create conditions conducive to a revolutionary assumption of power by the left.

Right-wing reaction to the rise of the radical left took several forms. The Molina government made a belated and feeble attempt to appease rural demands for land by passing a law in 1974 calling for the forced rental or possible expropriation of unexploited or inefficiently used land, but the law was not enforced. The government, however, took another step toward reform in 1976, when it declared an agrarian transformation zone of some 60,000 hectares in San Miguel and Usulután departments that was to be divided among 12,000 peasant families. Large landowners, incensed by this prospect, sent a delegation to meet with the president, who subsequently agreed to exempt from redistribution all lands fulfilling a "social function." This euphemism effectively encompassed all the land in question, and the redistribution never was effected.

Although efforts at small-scale reform were unsuccessful in the 1970s, the other side of the reform-repression coin was much in evidence. A new development was the rise in nonofficial repression from the shadowy right-wing bands that came to be known as the "death squads". Apparently bankrolled by the oligarchy and drawing on active-duty and former military personnel for their members, the squads assassinated "subversives" in an effort to discourage further antigovernment activities and to deter potential expansion of the ranks of the mass organizations and other protest groups. From the perspective of the Salvadoran right, the most urgent threat emanated from the CEBs, which by the mid-1970s had incorporated large numbers of people into politicized Bible study and self-help groups. The death squads targeted both religious and lay members of these groups.

The first of the squads to make itself known publicly was the Wars of Elimination Anti-Communist Liberation Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Anti-comunista de Guerras de Eliminacion—FALANGE), a title obviously concocted more for its acronym than for its coherence. Others, such as the White Warriors Union (Union de Guerreros Blancos—UGB), would follow. These organizations found their inspiration in the severe anticommunist tactics of the military regimes in Guatemala (many Salvadoran death squad members had direct ties to the Guatemalan right) and Brazil. The example of extreme military reprisals against the left in Chile after the 1973 coup against Allende also was influential.

Official repression also prevailed during the 1970s. Crowds of antigovernment demonstrators that had assembled in the capital were fired on by the military in July 1975 and February 1977. The passage of the Law for the Defense and Guarantee of Public Order in November 1977 eliminated almost all legal restrictions on violence against civilians. Political scientist Enrique A. Baloyra has compiled statistics for the 1972-79 period showing a tenfold increase in political assassinations, a tripling in the prosecution of "subversives", and a doubling in the number of "disappeared."

The government's record in the electoral arena was equally discouraging for the opposition. The UNO coalition participated in the Legislative Assembly and municipal elections of 1974. Duarte even managed to slip back into the country to campaign briefly on behalf of coalition candidates. His efforts were wasted, though, as the balloting was manipulated even more flagrantly than that of 1972. In 1976 the opposition parties decided that electoral participation was pointless and declined to run candidates. Presidential elections in 1977 were too important to pass up, however. The atmosphere was too volatile to allow another run by Duarte, so UNO nominated retired Colonel Ernesto Claramount Rozeville to head its ticket.

He was opposed by the official PCN candidate, General Carlos Humberto Romero Mena. Once again, electoral fraud was clumsy and poorly disguised. Claramount, his running mate José Antonio Morales Ehrlich, and a crowd of thousands gathered in the Plaza Libertad in San Salvador to protest Romero's election. Their assembly was the occasion for the February 1977 attack that left as many as fifty protesters dead. As he was taken from the scene in a Red Cross ambulance, Claramount declared, "This is not the end. It is only the beginning."

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