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El Salvador—Where and What, and the beginnings of Why
February 19, 2007

For the next several weeks, I'll be devoting the Weekly commentary to exploring the history of America's involvement in El Salvador, the setting for my latest novel, Blood of Paradise. (You can also check out my Author's Note for more concerning the reasons I placed my story there.)



Basics: El Salvador is a country the size of Massachusetts with the population density of India, nested midway down the Central American isthmus, with (roughly) Nicaragua to the east, Honduras to the north and east, Guatemala to the north and west, and the Pacific Ocean along its southern border.

Like most Spanish colonies, it was conquered ruthlessly (though not easily, despite the fragmentation of indigenous tribes), then ruled brutally, with native Indians enslaved for plantation labor—the volcanic soil was fertile, and the major crops were cacao, indigo, cotton, and balsam. One labor arrangement imported from the Caribbean, the encomienda system, justified labor and tribute from the indigenous tribes in return for "educating" them and converting them to Christianity. Given the numbers, it would appear that the natives' education consisted of learning how to suffer and die: Seventy-five years of pitiless work conditions, undernourishment, and European diseases killed off ninety-eight percent of the indigenous population by the end of the sixteenth century (only 10,000 of an original 500,000 remained). This decimation of the work force obliged the Spaniards to get creative in their labor arrangements, and they ultimately settled on the hacienda system, where native workers quickly grew indebted to large landowners—but the lack of workers created a century-long depression in the country that did not lift until cacao was replaced by indigo as the country's major crop at the beginning of the 1700s.

Race and Rebellion: Colonial society was stratified racially, with Spanish peninsulares at the top, locally-born whites called criollos (creoles) just beneath them, Spanish-Indian mestizos below them (they were permitted some authority and freedom, but were denied ownership rights to land, horses, or guns, out of fear of insurrection), with Indians, black-Indian zambos, and a relative few African slaves at the bottom. Despite its Christianizing fervor, the Catholic Church was also perhaps the only institution that in any way defended the poor and indigenous peoples. Father Bartolomé de las Casas once remarked that he'd rather leave someone unbaptized than have them converted and killed, a relatively enlightened view for the time—and a minority one. By and large, the Church saw its role as defending the country's rulers, and preparing the wretched for the afterlife, but this contrarian element within the clergy, which saw itself as a voice for the dispossessed, would not die out, continuing into modernity, as it did elsewhere in Latin America—El Salvador's first revolution, as well as Mexico's first two, all of which took place in the early nineteenth century, were led by priests. All were unsuccessful, as well, since the fighting accentuated racial divisions, with white criollos joining the peninsulares to defeat the indigenous elements within the rebellions. The split with Spain, motivated less by a longing for independence than by the desire of local elites to trade freely with Britain, would only come once the mestizos were purged from the insurgent forces, guaranteeing that racial stratification and privilege would continue. This led to peasant uprisings throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, the most famous of which was led by Anastasio Aquino, whose army of campesinos managed to take both Zacatecoluca and San Vicente before being crushed by government forces. Aquino's head was nailed to a tree outside San Vicente as a warning to other would-be peasant leaders.

Coffee and Class: Nationhood came gradually as El Salvador split first from Mexico then from its neighbors, with wars and coups defining the political landscape through the nineteenth century. Meanwhile, synthetic dyes from Europe crushed the indigo market, but coffee fortuitously arrived, and quickly became the new chief export. (This succession of one-export emphasis, first cacao then indigo now coffee, has trapped El Salvador in boom-and-bust economic cycles to this day, with only nominal progress in widening the manufacturing base or creating other economic sectors that might help distribute wealth more evenly among the middle and lower classes.) Unfortunately, the turn to coffee meant even worse conditions for the indigenous peoples, for coffee had to be grown on the cooler hillsides and the central highlands where the country's few indigenous people still happened to live and own land. In 1882, the government passed a law abolishing the last communal landholdings (ejidos), driving the indigenous people off their land for good, forcing them to work on the coffee plantations (fincas) for misery wages, or migrate elsewhere. Coffee increasingly edged out other food production, to where it comprised three-fourths of El Salvador's exports by the turn of the twentieth century. Although coffee exports generated great wealth for the cafetaleros, that wealth was not taxed, and it was principally either reinvested in the coffee industry or spent abroad, not redistributed for the benefit of other sectors of the national economy—except that import duties on goods from Europe purchased by wealthy families did manage to expand the public treasury. Peasant unrest resulted in an ever-increasing national police force, including the creation of the National Guard, whose sole purpose was to provide security for the coffee plantations, and the unequal income distribution grew to where one half of one percent of the country's population controlled over ninety percent of the country's wealth.

The Massacre: Elections throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century favored a so-called liberal element in local politics, though what made these leaders liberal was a devotion to free market principles (as opposed to protectionist measures preferred by the Conservatives), a relative indifference to the Catholic church (as opposed to devout support), and a fondness for foreign ideas and peoples (as opposed to xenophobia). The liberals were just as oligarchic, repressive, and devoted to the coffee industry as their more right-wing political opponents.

In 1931, El Salvador enjoyed its freest election up to that point, though radical parties, which were increasingly popular among the campesinos, were still excluded. Arturo Araujo, who enjoyed a mildly reformist reputation despite his oligarchic background, was elected. The worldwide depression, however, suppressed coffee prices by almost half, creating privation throughout the country, especially for the poor. Food supplies, dependent on imports due to the emphasis on coffee growing, grew scarce.

In this environment, an avowedly Marxist labor leader from a wealthy landowning family, Augustin Farabundo Marti, rose to prominence. For a time he joined the Nicaraguan rebellion of Augusto César Sandino, but the two men parted ways when Sandino refused to define his guerrilla war against the occupying army from the United States in distinctly Marxist terms. Arrested and exiled several times by Salvadoran authorities, Marti continued to organize a popular rebellion in El Salvador, hoping to replace the oligarchy with a Marxist system. Araujo responded with force, but when demonstrations persisted, he tried reconciliation, scheduling municipal elections and even allowing the Communist Party to take part. This prompted a coup, the first time the military took direct action to prevent a political drift to the left. It proved to be a watershed event, as the Salvadoran military would remain the power in national politics for the next sixty years.

The rebellious military officers installed General Maximiliano Hernández Martinez as the country's leader. Though initially assuming the mantle of reformer—he permitted the municipal elections to go forward, even with the Communist Party in the field—he subsequently refused to let any of the Communist candidates who won election take office. This spurred an insurrection that had been in the planning stages for some time, though the government learned of the rebels' plans before the fact and arrested Marti and other leaders, who were subsequently executed. The insurrection still went forward, however, and though the insurgents managed to take several cities, government forces broke the back of the rebellion within seventy-two hours.

Then the real killing began.

Estimates vary, with some saying as few as ten thousand were murdered, others fifty thousand; historian Alastair White has estimated that between fifteen thousand and twenty thousand died, while the number most other sources use is thirty thousand. Regardless, La Matanza—The Massacre, as the slaughter came to be known—was out of all proportion to the damage caused by the insurrection, in which no more than thirty civilians died. Anyone with Indian features, dressed like a campesino, or carried a machete was killed on the spot. One rebel leader was hanged in front of his village's schoolchildren. In the town of Juayúa, the center of the uprising, government troops killed all the men, women, children, and dogs. Elsewhere, regardless of guilt, peasants were forced to dig their own graves in their hometown plaza, lined up with their thumbs tied behind their backs, then mowed down with machine guns mounted on the backs of trucks. Nearly an entire rural generation was wiped out, and indigenous people stopped using their native languages, or dressing in traditional garb, for fear of government reprisal. The military clearly meant to send the signal that it was now in charge, and no challenge to its authority, the oligarchy's hegemony, or the economic system would be tolerated. This ruthless act of repressive violence would color Salvadoran politics for decades, stifling dissent, enforcing a chill of conformity, and it would have echoes in the military's strategy of "Drain the Sea" during the early days of the civil war.

Reform, Repression and Rebellion: In the years immediately following La Matanza, with the pressure of the worldwide depression still stifling the economy, Martinez declared a national state of siege, revoking virtually all political freedoms it had granted in the previous two decades. Union organizing and opposition political activity were outlawed, and dissidents were condemned as Communists. The government instituted a national ID system, shut down the independent press and permitted the National Guard to conduct warrantless searches. As coffee prices continued to plunge, many campesinos fled to the northern provinces or across the border into Honduras.

As the depression began to lift, younger military officers were able to institute some reforms, arguing that such gradualist efforts were preferable to another armed outbreak as in 1932. A form of welfare was instituted, very minor land distributions programs were approved, and the local handicraft industry was protected, all while severe repression continued.

Although Martinez felt an affinity for the fascist movements in Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany, he sided with the Allies in World War II. (He was also an occultist who held séances in the presidential palace and believed the earth emitted beneficial "emanations"—thus it was wise to let children go barefoot—and he was remembered for covering the streetlights in San Salvador with red cellophane during a smallpox epidemic, believing the colored light would ward off the disease.) Increasingly mistrusted by the oligarchy because of his eccentric behavior and lower class origins, his decision to raise export taxes in 1943 and his attempt to have his rule extended not by election but by legislative fiat brought his demise at the hands of a coalition of pro-Axis military officers, enraged coffee producers, civilian politicians, bankers, and businessmen (who objected to the government's minor economic regulatory efforts).

A number of military rulers and principally cosmetic elections ensued, with increasing economic reforms (such as gradual encouragement of union organizing, public works, infrastructure improvements, a social security system, and enhancements in sanitation and housing), and some amnesty for political prisoners and repeal of some repressive laws, though none of these reforms threatened in any way the control of the economy by vested elites (agrarian reform, for example, was off the table), and the distribution of income remained skewed toward the very wealthy. Also, the introduction of sugar and cotton into the economy pushed the last of the small farmers off their land to accommodate the required plantations.

In 1960, the conspicuously corrupt regime of Lieutenant Colonel José María Lemus became challenged by student demonstrations inspired by Castro's victory in Cuba, though what the students demanded was a true democracy, not a Marxist regime. Even so, Lemus forsook his previously reforming inclinations and responded with heightened repression. Free expression and assembly were banned, and dissidents were arrested arbitrarily. A coup displaced Lemus, only to be replaced by a countercoup when conservative officers decided that a Castro sympathizer among the junta members caused too great a threat of Communist influence. The countercoup leaders promised elections.

The Christian Democrats: The prospect of free elections prompted the formation of several moderate and leftist parties, the most important of these being the Christian Democrats, a collection of middle class reformers who wanted economic progress and political stability, and saw this threatened by the repressive oligarchy on the right, and Marxist revolutionaries on the left. The party based it ideology on the call for all Christians to work for economic and political reform as originally outlined in Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum, and reiterated by the writings of Pope John XXIII and the French philosopher Jacques Maritain. Similar movements in Chile and Venezuela served as models. A change for the better in economic conditions, however, sealed the prospects of the Christian Democrats' opposition, the accomodationist Party of National Reconciliation (PCN)—led by middle class business leaders but controlled by the military—which also got a boost from President John F. Kennedy's Alliance for Progress, which showered funds on the Salvadoran government. The PCN also enjoyed strong rural support, as many in the Salvadoran peasantry exhibited a distinctly conservative political slant, like many peasant communities in Latin America; some of this was due, however, to the strong military presence in the countryside. Even so, the Christian Democrats continued gaining strength, and in 1963 José Napolean Duarte, the party's charismatic leader, was elected mayor of San Salvador.

The ruling elites distrusted the Christian Democrats. Though politically moderate by Latin American standards, they seemed dangerously left wing to the oligarchy and the military. Even so, by 1967 the Christian Democrats were gaining popularity not just in the cities but in the countryside.

The Soccer War: Meanwhile, Salvadoran emigrants were crossing the border into Honduras, which was much larger and less densely populated, and squatting on open land, developing small farms. This helped reduce the population pressure in El Salvador, but Honduras (understandably) saw it as a breach of its sovereignty. After a 1969 soccer match between the two countries' national teams in San Salvador, during which the Honduran team was openly vilified by the local crowd, hostilities between the two countries broke out. The war was short-lived, but its repercussions changed the political landscape in El Salvador forever. The returning squatters couldn't farm in their homeland as they had in Honduras, and work on the coffee plantations provided a decidedly meager lifestyle, creating increasing civil unrest. The military's increased prestige for "winning" the Soccer War (the infantry had performed admirably, though the air force was virtually decimated) helped the PCN prevail in the 1970 elections, despite allegations of fraud amid ongoing torture and disappearances of dissidents.

The 1972 Elections—Duarte's Exile: The Christian Democrats embraced agrarian reform to ease the population pressures, but also with the hope of building a constituency of small-to-medium-sized landholders, in keeping with similar efforts of free market reformism by other Christian Democratic parties in Latin America. When the Legislative Assembly called a National Agrarian Reform Congress in 1970—it would be charged with making recommendations only, not policy—it provided a key moment in Salvadoran politics, calling for government expropriation of land to achieve a more equitable property distribution, something the ruling elite and conservative military officers saw as inherently unacceptable, even dangerous. When the Christian Democrats suffered their serious setbacks in the 1970 elections, with their charges of fraud against the PCN never proved, they nonetheless looked forward to the 1972 elections hopefully, because an economic downturn was beginning to damage the PCN's image.

However, events both within and without El Salvador were creating a volatile political climate. The election of the Socialist Salvador Allende in Chile provoked extreme fear of Communist gains in Latin America among the ruling elites and the military and even the Christian Democrats. Leftist parties and activist priests were also stirring right wing alarm, and the 1971 kidnapping and murder of the son of a prominent landholder by a leftist organization calling itself The Group aroused calls for a return to the repression of the past. A protracted teachers strike only exacerbated tensions.

The Christian Democrats formed a coalition with several smaller, more left-leaning parties, and nominated Duarte as their presidential candidate. The PCN nominated Colonel Arturo Armando Molina. The campaign was dangerous and violent for the moderate-left coalition, with kidnappings, assaults, and harassment against party workers by members of the National Guard. The actual ballot results will never be known, but initial results suggested a victory by Duarte—but then the government suspended the tally, and a recount was initiated, which resulted in a ten thousand vote victory for Molina. The margin threw the decision to the Legislative Assembly, dominated by the PCN, which ratified Molina's tainted election after opposition deputies walked out.

The blatant electoral fraud infuriated and disillusioned many Salvadorans, including some military officers, who had seen the progressive reform strategy employed over the decades as coming increasingly close to true democracy. A group of these young officers, led by Colonel Benjamin Mejía, staged a coup in March, 1972, announcing their plan to form a "revolutionary junta," with the tacit goal of installing Duarte as president.

Mejía and his followers stormed the presidential palace and took the president and his family hostage, but that was the end of their successes. The more conservative military officers, especially those in the air force, remained loyal to the government, and even with the support of some civilians in the streets, the reformist officers and their followers could not hold back the loyalist forces. Desperate, Mejía asked Duarte to address the country by radio, supporting the rebels. Duarte, despite misgivings, agreed, but the government forces ultimately prevailed. Duarte sought refuge in the Venezuelan embassy, but the military found him and dragged him away to prison, where he was beaten and interrogated, then dispatched to Guatemala. From there he escaped to Venezuela, where he remained in exile until the civil war broke out later that decade.

The ensuing years of the 1970s were a seesaw of rebellion and repression, which I'll discuss next week.

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