At about 5500 B.C. some different tribes lived in what is todays El Salvador. Descendantes of a mongolian race, who came to Northern America from Siberia via a then existing landbridge at Alaska. Being hunters and gatherers they advanced further south and from about 3500 B.C. started to till the soil.
When the Spanish first ventured into Central America from the colony of New Spain (Mexico) in the early sixteenth century, the area that would become El Salvador was populated primarily by Indians of the Pipil tribe. The Pipil were a subgroup of a nomadic people known as the Nahua, who had migrated into Central America about 3000 B.C. The Nahua eventually fell under the sway of the Maya Empire, which dominated the Mesoamerican region until its decline in the ninth century A.D. Pipil culture did not reach the advanced level achieved by the Maya; it has been compared, albeit on a smaller scale, to that of the
Aztecs in Mexico. The Pipil nation, believed to have been founded in the eleventh century, was organized into two major federated states subdivided into smaller principalities. Although primarily an agricultural people, the Pipil built a number of large urban centers, some of which developed into present-day cities, such as Sonsonate and Ahuachapan.
The Pipil were a determined people who stoutly resisted Spanish efforts to extend their dominion southward. The first such effort by Spanish forces was led by Pedro de Alvarado, a lieutenant of Hernan Cortes in the conquest of Mexico. It met with stiff resistance from the indigenous population. Alvarado’s expeditionary force entered El Salvador–or Cuscatlan, as it was known by the Pipil–in June 1524. The Spaniards were defeated in a major engagement shortly thereafter and were forced to withdraw to Guatemala. Two subsequent expeditions were required–in 1525 and 1528–to bring the Pipil under Spanish control. Alvarado found San Salvador in 1525. It is noteworthy that the name of the supposed leader of the Indian resistance, Atlacatl, has been perpetuated and honored among the Salvadorans to the relative exclusion of that of Alvarado. In this sense, the Salvadoran ambivalence toward the conquest bears a resemblance to the prevailing opinion in Mexico, where Cortes is more reviled than celebrated.
The Spanish had come to Central America seeking, at least in part, to add to the store of precious metals that constituted the most immediate spoils of the Mexican conquest. In the small colony that they dubbed El Salvador ("the saviour"), they were severely disappointed in this regard. What little gold was available was accessible only through the laborious and timeconsuming method of panning, a process that consumed the effort of numerous impressed Indian laborers for a number of years. Denied the opportunity for quick riches, the conquistadors and later the Spanish settlers eventually came to realize that the sole exploitable resource of El Salvador was the land.
El Salvador thus was relegated to the status of a backwater of the Spanish Empire. In this state of neglect and isolation, the seeds of the country’s politico-economic structure were planted. Large tracts of land were granted by the crown, initially under the terms of the encomienda system, whereby the grantee was invested with the right to collect tribute from the native inhabitants of a designated area. The manifest abuse of the Indian population that resulted from the encomienda system contributed to its replacement in the mid-sixteenth century by the repartimiento system. Under repartimiento, representatives of the crown were empowered to regulate the work allotment and treatment of Indian laborers. Although more humane in theory, it was a system that was extremely vulnerable to abuse. The colony’s distance from the mother country, the ease with which royal officials could be corrupted, and the prevailing disregard among the elite–made up of peninsulares, born in Spain, and criollos born in the New World of Spanish parentage–for the plight of the Indians militated against any substantive improvement in living conditions for the indigenous population.
Although landholders in El Salvador exercised nearly absolute power within their fiefdoms, they did not begin to realize the full economic potential of their holdings until they instituted the system of widespread cultivation of a single lucrative export commodity. The first of these commodities was cacao, which flourished during the latter half of the sixteenth century. Cultivation of indigo followed and produced tremendous profits during the eighteenth century. Largely as a result of the importance of the indigo trade, the colonial capital of San Salvador eventually came to be considered the second city of the Captaincy General of Guatemala, the Spanish administrative unit that encompassed most of Central America during the colonial period. The indigo boom effectively played itself out by the midnineteenth century, however, after the discovery in Germany of a synthetic dye that could be produced much more economically.
The fortunes of the Spanish Empire waned throughout the eighteenth century and were dashed completely by the Napoleonic conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in 1808. As the Salvadorans moved toward independence, the legacies of their progenitors, both Indian and Spanish, were firmly fixed. The predominance of agriculture was a fact of life well before the Conquest; the Spanish contributed to this basic system by emphasizing production for export versus cultivation for subsistence. Individual loyalties under the pre-Conquest civilization were given primarily to one’s family and to one’s village; Spanish
rule did little or nothing to change this attitude or to build any substantial sense of national identity among the common people.
The colonies comprising the Captaincy General of Guatemala declared their independence from Spain on September 15, 1821. It was not long before the new states, particularly El Salvador, had to contend with attempted annexation by another large power in the form of an independent Mexico under self-proclaimed Emperor Agustin de Iturbide. A Mexican force dispatched by Iturbide succeeded in bringing to heel the uncooperative Salvadorans, but only briefly. When the emperor himself fell from power in 1823, his dream of a Central American empire died with him. The five states of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica went on to establish themselves as the United Provinces of Central America on July 1, 1823. The United Provinces, unworkable though they proved to be, constituted the only successful political union of the Central American states in the postcolonial era. Many optimistic residents of the region no doubt held high hopes for this new nation at its inception. Their sentiments were expressed elegantly, though ironically–given the subsequent course of events–by the liberator of South America, Simon Bolivar, who expounded in 1815 on the prospects for such a federation:
Split by the dichotomy between liberals and conservatives, the United Provinces never functioned as the unified national unit envisioned by its founders. Control of the federal government passed from liberal to conservative hands in 1826, only to be restored to the liberal faction under the leadership of the Honduran Francisco Morazan in 1829. Neither faction, however,
was able to assert federal control over all five Central American states. Therefore, although the liberal governments enacted political, economic, and social reforms, they were never able to implement them effectively. The period of the United Provinces was thus one of Central American polarization impelled by deep divisions among the populace, not the unification originally anticipated
Aquino was a laborer on an indigo hacienda in the region of Los Nonualcos in the central part of the country. He led a brief but violent uprising in 1833. The Indian participants aimed to end their impressment into the army and effect the return of tribute paid to the government under false pretenses after 1811, when tribute requirements were discontinued by the Spanish parliament (but payments were still collected by the local authorities). In the initial uprising, several thousand rebels, mainly Indians, successfully captured several army posts between Santiago Nonualco and San Vicente, where Aquino’s forces won a battle against government troops only to be defeated the next day by reinforcements mustered during the rebels’ march. Had Aquino chosen to proceed directly to San Salvador after his early victories, the capital would have been largely undefended. As it was, the defeat at San Vicente effectively ended the rebellion, reestablished governmental control over the rural areas, led to Aquino’s capture and execution some months later, and deterred any comparable act of violent dissent for approximately 100 years.
El Salvador was a stronghold of liberal sentiment. Most Salvadorans, therefore, supported the rule of Morazan, who served as president of the federation from 1829 to 1840 when he was not leading forces in the field against the conservative followers of Rafael Carrera of Guatemala. In the waning days of liberal rule, San Salvador served as Morazan’s last bastion. Unable to stem the tide of conservative backlash, the liberal forces fell to those of Carrera in March 1840. Morazan died before a firing squad in September 1842. The almost unceasing violence that attended the effort to unite Central America into one federated nation led the leaders of the five states to abandon that effort and declare their independence as separate political entities. El Salvador did so in January 1841. Although their destinies would remain intertwined and they would intervene in each other’s affairs
routinely in the years to come, the countries of Central America would from that time function as fragmented and competitive ministates readily exploitable by foreign powers. Despite the continued participation of conservatives, however, the period of the establishment of the coffee republic (roughly 1871 to 1927) is described commonly as the era of the liberal state in El Salvador. The church was not as powerful in El Salvador as in other Latin American states at the time; therefore, the economic aspects of liberalism–an adherence to the principles of free-market capitalism–dominated the conduct of the state. Anticlericalism was a distinctly secondary theme, expressed primarily through social legislation (such as the establishment of secular marriage and education) rather than though the kind of direct action, e.g., repression and expropriation, taken against the church in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Mexico.
The men who served as presidents of the liberal state in El Salvador came to power through a limited array of means. Santiago Gonzalez, who assumed the office in 1871, apparently sought to establish a personalist dictatorship. He never successfully consolidated his rule, however, and was defeated by Andres Valle in the elections of 1876. Valle fell victim to one of
the chronic afflictions of Salvadoran political history–intervention from Guatemala. He was replaced less than a year after his election by Rafael Zaldivar, who was more to the liking of the Guatemalan dictator Justo Rufino Barrios. Zaldivar proved exceptionally durable; he was twice elected president after his initial violent installation, serving as the country’s leader from
1876 until his overthrow in 1885 by forces led by Francisco Menendez, who was ousted and executed by his army commander, General Carlos Erzeta, in 1890. Erzeta is the only president during the period of the liberal state who is reputed to have made some effort to improve the lot of the lower classes by attempting to enforce an agricultural minimum wage, though the evidence for even this small gesture is sketchy.
The coffee industry grew inexorably in El Salvador, after a somewhat tentative start in the mid-1800s. Between 1880 and 1914, the value of coffee exports rose by more than 1,100 percent. Although the coffee industry itself was not taxed by the government, tremendous revenue was raised indirectly through import duties on goods imported with the foreign currencies that coffee sales earned (goods intended for the consumption of the small coffee-producing elite). From 1870 to 1914, an average of 58.7 percent of government revenue derived from this source. Even if the coffee elite did not run the government directly (and many scholars argue that they did), the elite certainly provided the bulk of the government’s financial support. This support, coupled with the humbler and more mundane mechanisms of corruption, ensured the coffee growers of overwhelming influence within the government and the military.
Another process worthy of note during this period despite its lack of tangible results was the ongoing series of unification efforts by the Central American states. El Salvador was a prime mover in most of these attempts to reestablish an isthmian federation. In 1872 El Salvador signed a pact of union with Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica, but the union was never
implemented. In 1876 a congress of all five Central American states failed to achieve agreement on federation. A provisional pact signed by the five states in 1889 technically created the "Republic of Central America"; that effort too never was realized. Undaunted, the governments of El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua formed the "Greater Republic of Central America" (República Mayor de Centroamerica) via the Pact of Amapala (1895). Although Guatemala and Costa Rica considered joining the Greater Republic (which was rechristened "the United States of Central America" when its constitution went into effect in 1898), neither country joined. This union, which had planned to establish its capital city at Amapala on the Golfo de Fonseca, did not survive Regalado’s seizure of power in El Salvador in 1898. Although the Central American spirit seemed
willing, the commitment was weak. The notion of unification was another manifestation of the idealistic liberal ethos, and it proved durable and quite resistant to political realities.
Another confrontation with Guatemala contributed to the downfall of Erzeta, who was ousted in 1894 by Rafael Gutierrez; he, in turn, was replaced four years later in a bloodless coup led by General Tomas Regalado. His term took El Salvador rather uneventfully into the twentieth century. Regalado’s peaceful transfer of power in 1903 to his handpicked successor, Pedro Jose Escalon, ushered in a period of comparative stability that extended until the depression-provoked upheaval of 1931-32. The only exception to this pattern of peaceful succession was the assassination of President Manuel Enrique Araujo in 1913. Araujo was reputed to have held somewhat reformist views toward some of the policies of the liberal state, in particular the notion of financing development through foreign loans. His assassination may have sprung from this sort of policy dispute, although the full motive has never been established satisfactorily.
The priorities of the coffee industry dictated a shift in the mission of the embryonic Salvadoran armed forces from external defense of the national territory to the maintenance of internal order. The creation of the National Guard (Guardia Nacional–GN) was in the town of Suchitoto in 1912. El Salvador was plagued with bandit gangs. The National Police (Policia Nacional–PN) and military forces at the time were not prepared to handle these bandits and so a rural police force was established.
The presidency of Pio Romero Bosque (1927-31) was a transitional period in Salvadoran history that ended the relatively stable functioning of the coffee republic and the liberal economic system that sustained it. The world depression of the 1930s, which precipitated a sharp fall in world coffee prices, hit hard in El Salvador. The loss of income reverberated throughout the society; as always, those on the lower end of the economic scale felt the deprivation most keenly, as wages were reduced and employment levels cut back. The government first responded with limited reform to ease this situation and the popular unrest it produced. The subsequent response was brutal repression. President Romero was the designated successor of President Quinonez, who apparently expected Don Pio, as he came to be known, to carry on the noninterventionist political tradition of his predecessors. Romero, however, for reasons of his own, decided to open up the Salvadoran system to a limited but still significant degree. He turned on Quinonez, exiling him from the country, and sought to exclude other members of the elite from the government. He is best remembered for allowing the presidential and municipal elections of 1931, the freest held in El Salvador up to that time. These elections still excluded any radical party that might have sought to overturn the existing governmental system; nevertheless, they resulted in the election of Arturo Araujo, who enjoyed a mildly reformist reputation despite his oligarchic family background.
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 Agustin Farabundo Marti.
Marti 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 Cesar 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, Marti 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 AntiImperialist League, and the Red Aid International (Socorro Rojo Internacional–SRI). Marti was the Salvadoran representative of the SRI, which
was closely associated with the other two groups.
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 Hernandez Martinez (known in El Salvador by his matronymic, Martinez), who had been Araujo’s vice president and minister of war. Surprisingly, Martinez 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. Marti 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 Ahuachapan. 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.
The assumption of power by Martinez 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. The first of many military presidents to come, Martinez 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).
Martinez 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, Martinez’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, Martinez 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.
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 Martinez 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 Andres Ignacio Menendez, 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 Osmin Aguirre y Salinas, the director of the PN and a former follower of the deposed Martinez. 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 Oscar 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 Jose Asencio Menendez 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 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. 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 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.
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. 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.
Like many other conflicts in Salvadoran history, the 1969 war with Honduras, sometimes referred to as the Soccer 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 Lopez Arellano (1963-71) invoked a dormant agrarian reform law as a pretext to evict Salvadoran squatters and expel them from the country. The Lopez 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 Soccer 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. 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".
The PDC opted to participate in the elections as the leading party of a coalition designated the United National Opposition (Union Nacional Opositora–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 Jose Antonio Rodriguez 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, Usulutan, Sonsonate, La Union, 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. 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).
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 Eclesiasticas 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 Usulutan 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.
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.
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 Jose 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."
The tenure of President Romero was characterized by the abandonment of any official pretense of reform and a precipitous rise in politically motivated violence. The leftist guerrilla groups stepped up their operations–assassinations, kidnappings, and bombings–as a form of self-defense, as retaliation against government forces, and as part of a larger strategy of impelling the country further toward political anarchy, a state perceived by the left as one of the "objective conditions" necessary for a broad-based antigovernment insurrection. This process of extreme polarization alarmed those political actors who saw the old system of domination by the military and the elite as no longer workable, but who feared the consequences of a successful communist-led revolt. This loose coalition included young military officers, Christian democratic and social democratic politicians, and more progressive Salvadoran industrialists.
Many of these groups, with the exception of private sector representatives, came together in August 1979 to establish a political pressure group known as the Popular Forum (Foro Popular). The Popular Forum issued a call for an end to official and unofficial repression, the establishment of political pluralism, short-term and long-term economic reforms (including agrarian reform), and the incorporation of the mass organizations into the government. This last demand, coupled with the participation in the Popular Forum of the 28 of February Popular Leagues (Ligas Populares 28 febrero–LP-28), the most radical of the mass organizations (it was affiliated with the ERP), convinced many young military officers that some action was necessary to head off a leftist political victory in El Salvador. The government of Anastasio Somoza Debayle in Nicaragua had fallen only the month before, and, from the point of view of the Salvadoran military, the Popular Forum bore a suspicious resemblance to the Broad Opposition Front that had brought the FSLN to power in that country. Although the final form and nature of the new Nicaraguan government was not yet in evidence, the dissolution of Somoza’s National Guard was seen in El Salvador as a precedent and a direct threat to the military institution.
Thus, in a climate of extreme violence, sharp political polarization, and potential revolution, yet another generation of young officers staged a coup in an effort to restore order and address popular frustrations. This new Military Youth deposed President Romero on October 15, 1979, issuing a proclamation decrying the violent, corrupt, and exclusionary nature of the
regime. Beyond their concern with preventing "another Nicaragua," the young officers also were motivated by a desire to address the country’s critical economic situation. Their vague aspirations in this regard apparently revolved around the achievement of an acceptable level of political stability that would staunch the flight of capital out of the country and restore to some degree the smooth functioning of the economy. In this regard, the 1979 coup resembled those of 1948 and 1960. Where it differed, however, was in the realization that effective and radical (by Salvadoran standards) reforms would have to be included in their program even at the risk of alienating the economic elite.
The first junta established by the coup leaders included the officer who headed the reformist faction within the officer corps, Colonel Adolfo Arnoldo Majano Ramos, along with another officer of more uncertain political inclinations, Colonel Jaime Abdul Gutierrez. The other junta members were Ungo from the MNR, Roman Mayorga (a former president of the Jesuit-run Central American University Jose Simeon Canas), and Mario Andino, a representative of the private sector. This junta wasted little time in
announcing and attempting to implement a reformist program. It enacted decrees to freeze landholdings over ninety- eight hectares and to nationalize the coffee export trade. It did not move immediately to effect agrarian reform, but it promised that such a reform would be forthcoming. Another decree officially disbanded Orden. The implementation of that decree, like that of many others during the period of the reformist juntas, was hampered seriously by the limited influence of the reformist faction over the more conservative security force apparatus. Perhaps the best indication of this limitation was the fact that the level of violence carried out by the security forces against members of the mass organizations increased after the installation of the junta.
The military’s reaction in general to the junta’s reformism was mixed. The reformists sought to incorporate new sectors into the political system but stopped short of including the mass organizations in that effort because of the radical ties of those organizations. Conservative officers, led by the defense minister, Colonel Guillermo Garcia, saw the reformists as playing into the hands of the left, weakening the military institution, and increasing the likelihood of a seizure of power by "extremist" elements. Garcia, abetted by Gutierrez, worked to undermine the reformists by excluding Majano’s followers from key commands and positions through transfer or denial of promotion. The majority of Salvadoran officers seemed to fall into neither the reformist nor the conservative camp. Although they shared a generalized anticommunism and a strong commitment to the military institution, they were not sufficiently convinced that the kind of radical reform advocated by the junta was necessary. They opted for a sort of concerned neutrality and inaction that ultimately worked in favor of the aggressive conservative faction.
The first reformist junta eventually failed because of its inability to curb the increasing violence against the left. It was replaced on January 10, 1980, by a second junta. Majano and Gutierrez remained as the military representatives, but the civilian members now included two prominent Christian Democrats– the party’s 1977 vice presidential candidate, Morales, and
Hector Dada. Jose Avalos was the third civilian, replacing Andino, whose departure left the government without significant ties to the private sector. Direct participation in the government by the Christian Democrats was by no means universally accepted among the party membership. It was viewed as a bad precedent by those who still clung idealistically to their commitment to the democratic process.
The second junta was dogged by the human rights issue no less than its predecessor. The continued high level of political violence was attributable not only to the actions of the death squads and the security forces but also to the decision by the left to shun cooperation with the junta in favor of a call for armed insurrection. The three major mass organizations, along with the UDN, issued such a call on January 11, 1980. They established an umbrella front designated the National Coordinator, subsequently amended to Revolutionary Coordinator of the Masses (Coordinadora Revolucionaria de las Masas–CRM), to advance "the struggle." The MNR endorsed the manifesto of the CRM, further undermining the legitimacy of the junta government. The heightened militancy of the CRM was manifested in stepped-up demonstrations, occupations of churches and buildings, and strikes. On January 22, a mass rally held in San Salvador was fired on by the police, and twenty-four demonstrators were killed. On February 25, PDC activist Mario Zamora and others were murdered, apparently because they had been denounced publicly as subversives by now ex-Major D’Aubuisson. Zamora’s killing led directly to the resignation of his brother, Ruben, from the government. Ruben Zamora established his own political party, the Popular Social Christian Movement (Movimiento Popular Social Cristiano–MPSC), taking a number of other disillusioned Christian Democrats with him. Reflecting the intense renewed debate within the PDC over participation in the government, Dada resigned from the junta. His place was taken in a third junta by Duarte, who finally decided to take a direct role in the process that he had supported previously from behind the scenes.
That violence reached a dramatic apex in March 1980 with the murder of the archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdamez, on March 24, 1980. Romero, who had been selected as archbishop in part because of his moderate political views, was influenced strongly by the liberation theology movement, and he was appalled by the brutality employed with increasing
frequency by government forces against the populace and particularly against the clergy. In his weekly radio homilies, he related statistics on political assassination and excesses committed by the military. He frequently urged soldiers to refuse to carry out what he characterized as immoral orders. His high profile made him an important political figure, and he had used his influence to urge the PDC to pull out of the junta and to argue against United States military aid to El Salvador. Despite his stature as the country’s Catholic primate, he was targeted for assassination; all indications are that the killing was carried out by the right wing. Romero’s funeral on March 30 produced a dramatic clash between demonstrators and security forces. The BPR, seeking to capitalize politically on the archbishop’s assassination, organized an antigovernment rally in San Salvador’s Plaza of the Cathedral. What had been billed as a peaceful protest, however, turned violent. Responsibility for the melee that followed never has been firmly placed. Shooting erupted, apparently from both sides, and the police opened fire on the crowd. The resultant news footage of unarmed demonstrators being gunned down on the steps of the National Cathedral had a strong impact abroad, especially in the United States. El Salvador became almost overnight a focus of international debate and scrutiny.
Another high-impact incident was the murder of four churchwomen from the United States in December 1980. The murders themselves drew the ire of the United States government and public and prompted the administration of Jimmy Carter to suspend a program of limited military aid it had granted to the junta government (United States military aid had been rejected by the Romero government in 1977 when the Carter administration sought to link disbursement to human rights compliance). The subsequent investigation frustrated United States officials, angered the American public, and enhanced the suspicion that high-ranking officers in the security forces were orchestrating a cover-up of the affair.
The violent incidents that drew foreign attention to the chaotic situation in El Salvador were played out against a backdrop of a continuing power struggle within the military. While Garcia continued to undermine the position of the reformist faction led by Majano from within the institution, other conservative commanders were plotting to stage a coup to force out the Majanistas once and for all. What at first appeared to be a preemptive strike against these conspirators on May 7, 1980, later proved to be the last nail in Majano’s political coffin. A number of plotters, including D’Aubuisson, were captured by Majano loyalists during a planning session; incriminating documents also were seized at the site. The Majanistas, backed by the PDC members of the junta, demanded that D’Aubuisson and the others be tried for treason. The ex-major’s release on May 13 and the subsequent failure of efforts to bring him to trial demonstrated the power shift within the military and the almost complete lack of PDC influence outside the reformist faction.
Majano’s personal fall from power began with the announcement by Colonel Garcia on May 10 that Colonel Gutierrez was to function as sole commander in chief of the armed forces, a responsibility previously shared with Majano. The reassignment of Majanist officers, usually to foreign diplomatic positions, continued until September, when almost all remaining reformist officers were removed from their posts. Colonel Majano himself survived an assassination attempt by right-wing gunmen in November, only to be ousted from the junta on December 6 while on a visit to Panama. Majano returned in a vain effort to shore up his support among the ranks. By this time, however, he was practically bereft of support within the officer corps, the focus of real power in El Salvador at the time. Majano eventually fled into foreign exile rather than risk further attempts on his life. Many observers believed at the time that he took with him the last hopes of averting a major civil conflict through effective social and economic reform.
Foreign influences on these Salvadoran guerrilla groups served in large part to convince their leadership of the need to sublimate old ideological quarrels in favor of a coordinated and cooperative effort to arouse the Salvadoran masses. The example of the Nicaraguan revolution served as both an inspiration and a loose blueprint for the Salvadorans. Nicaragua demonstrated the importance of incorporating as many sectors of society as possible into a revolutionary movement while still ensuring the predominance of a Marxist-Leninist "vanguard" group within the coalition. In Nicaragua the vanguard role was played by the FSLN, a group that had represented singlehandedly the pro-Cuban insurrectionist left in that country since the
early 1960s. In El Salvador, the situation was more complicated. Clearly, several ideologically diverse (Maoist, pro-Soviet, and pro-Cuban) guerrilla groups could not fulfill simultaneously the role of revolutionary vanguard. Salvadorans recognized a need for unity that was not achieved until Cuba’s Fidel Castro took a direct hand in the matter. The negotiating process began in Havana in December 1979, some two months after the reformist coup in El Salvador, and was concluded by May 1980, when the major guerrilla groups announced their unity under the banner of the Unified Revolutionary Directorate (Direccion Revolucionario Unificada– DRU). Despite some continued infighting, the DRU succeeded in coordinating the groups’ efforts to organize and equip their forces.
While the military strategy of the left was proceeding along one path, some opposition parties and the mass organizations were following a similar and eventually convergent course. On April 1, 1980, the Revolutionary Democratic Front (Frente Democratico Revolucionario–FDR) was established by the CRM, the umbrella group of the mass organizations. It brought together all five of the mass organizations associated with the DRU guerrilla groups as well as Ungo’s MNR, Zamora’s MPSC, another party known as the Popular Liberation Movement (Movimiento de Liberacion Popular– MLP), forty-nine labor unions, and several student groups. FDR political leaders such as Ungo and Zamora began to travel abroad, where they found political and moral support, particularly in Mexico and among the social democratic parties of Western Europe. Meanwhile, the mass organizations began a campaign of general strikes in an effort to pave the way for a full or partial leftist assumption of power, either through insurrection or through negotiations.
In November 1980, the FDR was struck a traumatic blow when one of its leaders, Enrique Alvarez, was killed along with five other members of the front by a right-wing death squad. This incident underscored the danger of the FDR’s strategy of open organization and opposition and contributed to its formal unification with the DRU. Although the leadership of the mass organizations had long been cooperating with the guerrilla groups, the politicians of the MNR and MPSC had sought to steer a slightly more independent path. After the Alvarez murder, however, they felt compelled to make common cause with the DRU; they took this action not only for their own protection but also because they believed that the prevailing level of violence in the country legitimized a violent response. By 1981 the FDR had been united formally with the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Marti de Liberacion Nacional–FMLN), the successor organization to the DRU. The first public announcement of the FMLN-FDR was made in Mexico City in January 1981, some four days after the FMLN guerrollas initiated an operation that they dubbed, prematurely and inaccurately, the "final offensive."
The guerrilla offensive began on January 10, 1981. From the perspective of the FMLN, its timing proved to be premature in a number of respects. The guerrillas’ logistics network was not prepared to support an operation on an almost countrywide level; the rebels generally were not well armed and clearly were not well trained. The Salvadoran armed forces, although initially taken by surprise, were sufficiently cohesive to rally and beat back the guerrilla attacks. The FMLN hoped to establish operational control over Morazan Department and to declare it a "liberated territory." This major objective never was achieved. On a basic level, the final offensive demonstrated the limited extent of the guerrillas’ support among the Salvadoran population. The anticipated countrywide insurrection on which the FMLN had staked so much of its hopes for victory never materialized.
The final offensive was not a total loss for the FMLN, however. It retained military strongholds, especially in Chalatenango Department, where its forces settled in for a protracted guerrilla conflict. The offensive focused further international attention on El Salvador and established the FMLNFDR as a formidable force both politically and militarily; in August 1981, the governments of France and Mexico recognized the front as a "representative political force" and called for a negotiated settlement between the rebels and the government. Seeking to capitalize on such support, FDR representatives carried on a "political offensive" abroad while the FMLN forces dug in, resupplied, and continued their organizational and operational efforts in the field. On the down side for the guerrillas, however, the armed forces continued to repulse their assaults with relative ease, even without the benefit of United States military aid. The timing of the final offensive had in large part reflected the desire of the FMLN to take power before the inauguration of United States president Ronald Reagan. Although it failed militarily, the offensive still drew considerable attention from observers and policymakers in Washington.
The Carter administration had lost considerable leverage in El Salvador when the Romero government renounced United States aid in 1977. The United States therefore welcomed the October 1979 coup and backed up its approval with an economic aid package that by 1980 had become the largest among Western Hemisphere recipients. A small amount of military aid also was provided. United States advisers contributed to the third junta’s agrarian reform program, particularly Phase III, of the reform, the socalled Land to the Tiller decree of April 28, 1980, granting title to smallholders. Phase II, expropriating holdings between 100 and 500 hectares, was decreed in March 1980, but implementation was postponed. The government cited lack of administrative and financial resources for its inaction; many observers believed that political considerations were equally influential. United States policy and influence in El Salvador, however, was fitful and inconsistent from 1979 through 1981. It was driven by two conflicting motivations in the complex and shifting political prism of El Salvador. The first motivation was the prevention of a leftist takeover. Both economic and military aid for the junta governments seemed to be intended to promote a centrist alternative to either a Marxist-led revolution or a conservative military regime. The assumption of power by the FSLN in Nicaragua increased the pressure on the United States to prevent a similar result in El Salvador; this pressure grew by 1981 as the Sandinistas consolidated their dominant role in the Nicaraguan government.
The second motivation was human rights. The Carter administration had established the promotion of human rights as a cornerstone of its foreign policy, particularly in Latin America. Like many Salvadorans, United States officials were frustrated by the inability of the junta governments to contain political violence. Nevertheless, Carter’s policy was sufficiently
flexible to allow increased aid levels despite a generalized upswing in human rights violations in El Salvador, as long as the government there appeared to be making good faith efforts at reform. It was not merely the general level of violence, however, but the specific murders of United States citizens that most affected dealings with El Salvador. As previously mentioned, the December 1980 murder of the four churchwomen produced a complete cutoff of aid pending an investigation of the case. On January 4, 1981, two American land reform advisers from the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) were gunned down along with a Salvadoran in the Sheraton Hotel in San Salvador. This action alarmed not only the White House but also the United States Congress, and it added fuel to the effort to disburse aid based on improvements in the Salvadoran human rights situation.
The Reagan administration initially appeared to stress the need to shore up El Salvador as a barrier against communist expansion in Central America. The United States Department of State issued a special report on February 23, 1981, entitled Communist Interference in El Salvador, which emphasized Nicaraguan, Cuban, and Soviet support for the FMLN. The report was widely criticized in the American media and the United States Congress. Nevertheless, the administration succeeded in increasing substantially the levels of United States military and economic aid to El Salvador, first by executive order, then by legislative appropriation. Although Reagan downplayed the importance of human rights considerations, Congress voted in January 1982 to require certification by the executive every six months of Salvadoran progress in such areas as the curbing of abuses by the armed forces, the implementation of economic and political reforms (particularly agrarian reform), and the demonstration of a commitment to hold free elections with the participation of all political factions (all those that would renounce further military or paramilitary activity). The administration accepted the certification requirement, albeit reluctantly, and proceeded with a policy that emphasized economic maintenance in the face of guerrilla attacks on the country’s infrastructure, military buildup to contain the insurgency, and low-key efforts in the human rights area.
As the FMLN guerrillas settled in for a protracted conflict marked by economic sabotage, the seizure of lightly defended towns and other targets, and the establishment of rural zones of influence, events in El Salvador increasingly began to be driven by decisions made in Washington. One area in which a consensus was reached among the Reagan administration, Congress, and Salvadoran moderates (mainly the PDC) was the desirability of establishing a legitimate government through a process of free elections. The Salvadoran right reluctantly joined this process after it became clear that the administration did not favor a conservative military coup. Duarte, who had been named provisional president on December 13, 1980, under a fourth junta government,
announced on September 15, 1981, that elections for a Constituent Assembly would be held in March 1982. The Constituent Assembly would draft a constitution that would lay the groundwork for a presidential election. It also was hoped that the assembly would incorporate all or most of the reforms decreed by the junta governments into the new document.
The Constituent Assembly elections were participated in by six parties, but only three were of major significance. Two of these were familiar actors in El Salvador, the PDC and PCN. The third was a new party–the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista–Arena)–led by D’Aubuisson, which represented the interests of the right. The FDR refused to participate in the elections, citing fears for the safety of possible candidates, the lack of proper political conditions, and the inordinate influence of the United States. It maintained that negotiations between the FMLN-FDR and the government should precede the holding of elections. Despite a clear preference for Duarte and the PDC in Washington, the Christian Democrats captured only a plurality (35.5 percent, equating to twenty-four seats) of the balloting for the sixty-member Constituent Assembly. Although this was the largest total of any single party, it left the PDC facing a conservative majority in that body as Arena garnered nineteen seats and 25.8 percent of the vote and the PCN won fourteen seats with its 16.8 percent of the total ballots. This result took policymakers in Washington somewhat by surprise. Advocates of reform suddenly were faced with the prospect of a new constitution drafted by a conservative, and presumably antireform, Constituent Assembly. An even more worrisome eventuality for the United States was the possible election of D’Aubuisson as the country’s provisional president. D’Aubuisson had been elected speaker of the Constituent Assembly, and many observers expected him to win the provisional presidency as well. The fact that he was passed over for this post in favor of the moderate independent Alvaro Magana Borja reportedly reflected pressure both from the United States government, which did not wish to be put in the position of requesting increased levels of aid for a D’Aubuisson-led government, and the Salvadoran armed forces, which shared the Reagan administration’s interest in raising the level of military aid.
In the 1984-88 period, the military largely adhered to its new constitutional obligations to remain apolitical and obedient to civilian rule. It made no effort to influence the outcome of the elections that brought Duarte and the Legislative Assembly into office. The elected leadership determined the country’s domestic and foreign policy, generally without discernible interference by the military. President Duarte normally made the basic decisions on how to deal with the guerrillas, and he set the rules of engagement, which the military obeyed. Military leaders spurned attempts by antidemocratic right-wing extremists to incite coups, and by late 1988 no military coup attempt had been made. Nevertheless, there were occasions when civil-military relations were seriously strained. For example, in October 1985 a group of army officers accused Duarte of endangering the national security by allowing 123 rebels to go free in exchange for the release of his kidnapped daughter. Although the officers asked the High Command to consider replacing the president, a day-long debate in that body defused the dissent. The military reportedly also still set its own rules of conduct much of the time, despite Duarte’s efforts to strengthen civilian control. For example, the military resisted civilian efforts to force it to make a public accounting of the involvement of some officers in a multimillion-dollar kidnapping ring, a corrupt arms deal, and the murder of several United States citizens. In addition, some army officers with records of human rights abuses continued to be promoted. Moreover, with the exceptions of Vides and Blandon, who became identified with Duarte and his administration, the military kept its distance from the PDC government and cultivated its own ties with political parties, the Roman Catholic Church, and business and labor groups.
Although the armed forces remained a powerful institution, exerting a strong, behind-the-scenes influence on national security affairs during the Duarte administration, usually through the High Command, the military’s direct political involvement decreased. Observers cited three reasons why a consensus toward a professional, apolitical military institution gradually developed. First and foremost, the military understood that its submission to civilian authority was essential for obtaining United States support to carry out its primary national security mission, namely counterinsurgency. Second, a more apolitical stance by the military was necessary if the country wished to end its international isolation and improve economic, diplomatic, and perhaps even military cooperation with West European and Latin American democracies. And third, most military leaders understood that the political appeal of the insurgency could best be neutralized by setting up representative civilian
institutions and the infrastructure of a democratic society, even though these were historically alien to the country. Thus, the military’s role in Salvadoran political life changed dramatically during the Duarte administration. The military publicly supported the democratic process and remained neutral in it; military leaders stated repeatedly that civilian officials were responsible for
determining El Salvador’s political, economic, social, and foreign policies.
In 1987 the Duarte administration’s relations with the military were strained, however, by the government’s long-range plans to build up a police force independent of the army, by the release of guerrilla prisoners, and by a brief unilateral ceasefire declared by the president in order to comply with the Central American Peace Agreement that Duarte signed on behalf of El Salvador on August 7, 1987. Although the High Command approved peace talks with the guerrillas in September 1987, the military’s public support for the dialogue seemed less than enthusiastic. Two events in late November 1987 further strained civil military relations. One was the temporary return from exile of two leaders of the political front of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Marti de Liberacion Nacional–FMLN), the Revolutionary Democratic Front (Frente Democratico Revolucionario–FDR). Another was Duarte’s release of new evidence purportedly linking Roberto D’Aubuisson Arrieta, the Arena leader, with the 1980 murder of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdamez. In response to these two events, Salvadoran right-wing political leaders, including D’Aubuisson and Ochoa, began appealing for "patriotic action" by their traditional ally, the army. Ochoa stressed the duty of the military commanders in the field to defend El Salvador from both the "terrorists" and the Christian democratic government. These rightist leaders also attempted to appeal to the nationalism of army officers who resented the United States embassy’s influence over their actions. One target of the rightists was Colonel Carlos Reynaldo Lopez Nuila, a senior army officer and the PN director general. Lopez Nuila had strongly supported Duarte, had tried to loosen the army’s control over police forces in San Salvador, and had actively investigated human rights abuses and other crimes by some senior army officers.
The High Command held a series of meetings to define its position and also met with politicians to discuss the electoral dispute that delayed the convening of the Legislative Assembly elected in March 1988. Defense Minister Vides publicly dismissed the possibility that a coup would result from the political crisis that had developed by June 1988, when Duarte left the
country to receive medical treatment for what was reported to be terminal cancer. Meanwhile, members of the military academy’s class of 1966 (the so-called tandona, or big class), led by Colonel Ponce, were beginning to move into positions of power. By mid-1988, after five years on the job, General Vides and General Blandon appeared to be losing influence as younger, more aggressive officers, some of whose attitudes toward the democratic process were unclear, anticipated the generals’ approaching retirement.
In mid-1988 the military, like the government, appeared to be in a transitional period. Reportedly disenchanted with the Christian democratic government over its handling of the economy and its efforts at dialogue with the guerrillas, and uneasy over the potential investigation of military officers accused of crimes, the military appeared receptive to the assumption of power by the right and by Arena. The military was particularly worried that after the 1989 presidential election the country would still have a weak civilian government. By mid-1988 Lieutenant Colonel Rene Emilio Ponce Torres, commander of the army’s First Infantry Brigade in eastern San Miguel Department, had become publicly critical of civilians, saying bureaucratic infighting and the political parties’ inability to resolve their differences were weakening the war effort. Ponce’s renewed efforts to win over citizens in zones of conflict worried some in the civilian government, who felt that the powerful, more cohesive military was usurping their functions.
Elections were held in October 1989; these were boycotted by some of the guerrillas, but civilian sectors of the FDR (members of the social democratic and Social Christian parties) participated, with Guillermo Ungo as their presidential candidate. Alfredo Cristiani, the ARENA (right-wing) party’s candidate, won the election. In November 1989, the FMLN launched an offensive occupying several areas of the capital and surrounding regions. The Government responded by bombing several densely populated areas of the capital. Six Jesuits, including the rector of the University of Central America, Ignacio Ellacuria, were tortured and killed by heavily armed soldiers. This provoked a world-wide outcry, especially from the Catholic Church, and American economic aid was threatened. According to the El Salvador Human Rights Commission, women, students and members of labor unions were the people who suffered most from repression. During those years, the human rights movement was led by mothers, wives, daughters and relatives of the thousands of victims of repression, and by the National Union of Salvadoran Workers (UNTS).
On March 10 1991, the legislative and local elections reflected a new spirit of negotiation. For the first time in 10 years the FMLN did not call for the boycott of the elections, instead they decreed a 3-day unilateral truce. Abstention was still above 50 per cent, and there were acts of paramilitary violence immediately prior to the polls. The voters narrowly elected the ruling party with 43 out of 84 seats. In Mexico on April 4 1991 delegates of the Cristiani Government and the FMLN started negotiations for a cease fire agreement. On April 19, 10,000 demonstrators, from 70 social organizations, gathered in the Permanent Committee for National Debate (CPDN), demanding that the Constitution be reformed. On April 27, after several attempts, representatives of the Government and the Farabundo Marti Front signed the "Mexico Agreements" restricting the function of the Armed Forces to the defence of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The formation of paramilitary groups was banned, and it was agreed to reform article 83 of the constitution to say that sovereignty "resides in the people, and that it is from the people that public power emerges". In New York another agreement was reached in June. The Salvadoran Government committed itself to dismantling the National Guard and the Rural Police (Policia de Hacienda), replacing it with Civilian Police including FMLN-members.
On November 16 1991, new talks began in the UN headquarters. This time, the FMLN declared an indefinite unilateral truce until a new, definite, cease-fire was signed. A Spanish parliamentary delegation wrote a report on the murders of the six Spanish Jesuits from the Central American University (UCA). The report, submitted to the Spanish, European, Salvadoran, and American parliaments, accused the Salvadoran government and the army of concealing evidence which could help to clarify the facts. On January 1 1992, after 21 weeks of negotiation and 12 years of civil war, both parties met in New York to sign agreements and covenants establishing peace in El Salvador. The war left 75,000 people dead, 8,000 missing, and nearly one million in exile.
The final agreements were signed in the Mexican city of Chapultepec on January 16 1992. They included substantial modifications to the Constitution and to the structure, organization, regulation, and form of the Armed Forces. They guaranteed to change rural land tenure and to alter the terms of employee participation in the privatization of State companies; they established the creation of bodies for the protection of human rights, and guaranteed the legal status of the FMLN. According to the peace accords the Government was to reduce its troops by half by 1994, bringing the number down to 30,000; in addition, it was to disband its intelligence service. As of March 3, a new civilian police was to be created, made up in part by former members of the FMLN. In January 1992, according to the terms of the Law of National Reconciliation, amnesty was granted to all political prisoners. In addition, the Government pledged to turn over lands to the combatants and provide assistance to campesinos belonging to both bands. The FMLN became a political party as of April 30 1991, and held its first public meeting on February 1 1992. After years of being underground, it was presided over by guerrilla commanders Shafick Handal, Joaquin Villalobos, Fernan Cienfuegos, Francisco Jovel and Leonel Gonzalez.
In early March 1992, the first implementation difficulties began to be seen. Several leaders of the National Union of Salvadoran Workers accused the Government of violating the accords, and launching a propaganda campaign against grassroots organizations. On February 15 1993, the last 1,700 armed rebels turned over their weapons in a ceremony which was attended by several Central American heads of State and by UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. The National Civil Police was created, as well as a Human Rights Defense Commission and a Supreme Electoral Court.
The result of the investigation of human rights violations, carried out by the Truth Commission created by the UN, led to the resignation of Defence Minister General Rene Emilio Ponce, singled out in that investigation as being the one who ordered the assassination of six Jesuits at the University of San Salvador in 1989. According to the Commission’s final document, the military, the death squads linked to these and the State were responsible for 85 per cent of the civil rights violations committed during the war. The Truth Commission recommended the dismissal of 102 military leaders and that some former guerrilla leaders be deprived of their political rights. President Cristiani proposed a general amnesty for cases where excesses had been
committed; this proposal was approved on March 20 1993, only 5 days after the document drawn up by the Truth Commission had been made public. With this measure, the most serious crimes committed during the war met with total impunity.
A year later on March 20 1994, the first elections since the civil war were held. The candidate of the left coalition, Democratic Convergence – made up of the FMLN and other groups – won 25.5 per cent in the first round of voting, against 49.2 per cent for the right-wing candidate, Armando Calderón Sol, from the ARENA party. After the elections, the FMLN faced an internal crisis triggered by discrepancies between the groups that make up the alliance. According to ONUSAL, the peace accords did not bring an end to the violence. In addition to the existence of intelligence activities within the Armed Forces, members of the military were linked to organized crime. Likewise, the fact that nothing was done to create viable employment opportunities for discharged troops (from both bands) led to an increase in petty crime. The long-promised award of land to demobilized fighters was slow and inefficient. By mid-1994, only one-third of the potential beneficiaries -12,000 of a total 37,000 former members of the army or the guerrillas – had obtained their plots. The rest remained inactive, living in substandard temporary housing and often drifting into organized crime.
An agreement concluded on May 1995 between ARENA and the Democratic Party – split from the FMLN – enabled a 3 per cent rise of the valued added tax from 10 to 13 per cent. This raise was explained on the need to collect funds to finance land reform, infrastructure works and reconstruction of the country’s electoral and judicial apparatus. In August 1996 demonstrators who
considered themselves affected by the slowness of the process, which included the transfer of plots of land and payment of retribution to war veterans, occupied streets and government buildings in downtown San Salvador. In May, the Democratic Party withdrew from its deal with ARENA, which left the Government without a parliamentary majority. In March 1997, the opposition’s FMLN obtained an important victory in municipal elections, after winning in the capital and dozens of provincial cities. In Parliament, ARENA, with 33.3 per cent of the vote, won 28 seats while FMLN with 32.1 per cent ended up with 27 deputies. Electoral turnout was just 40 per cent of those eligible to vote.
The March 1999 elections ratified ARENA’s dominance. At the age of 39 Francisco Flores, a philosophy and political science graduate, became the youngest president in South America, providing an image of rejuvenation. The day after Flores was sworn in as president, peasant farmers and environmental leaders marched through the main streets of San Salvador, calling for a plan to overcome the disasters caused by hurricane Mitch. Flores’s government program, "The New Alliance", had four priorities: work, social investment, citizen security and sustainable development. However the opposition, led by Schaffic
Handal, thought the president would continue the policy of favoring the country’s financial and business sectors. In March 2000, however, the FMLN won the greatest number of seats in the National Assembly, although not enough to control the legislature. In January 2002 the FMLN was split, as 6 members (renovadores) left the party, because they were accused of working with the government. They built an allianz with the Centro Democrático Unido (CDU), which in turn made the ARENA the strongest party with 29 seats in parliament.
- Library of Congress / Area Handbook Series / El Salvador
- Columbus World Travel Guide – Central America – El Salvador