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A Barren Hope: The Reformist Coup of October 1979
March 5, 2007

This week's entry continues my recounting of the history of the conflict in El Salvador, with the intent of understanding America's involvement in it.

Inspiration, Violence, Intransigence: Throughout the late 1970s the cycle of resistance and repression escalated. Urban workers and students joined rural campesinos and church workers in demanding better wages, land redistribution, and an end to the violence from the government. Many of the campesinos had finally broken from generations of fatalism, instilled by the elites and the traditional Church, that had convinced them their lives required unrelenting deprivation. For the first time, they were no longer cattle or slaves, they were free human beings with dignity and rights.
It was not the will of God that things continue unchanged. In effect, the mission's preaching had lowered God from the clouds and presented him as Yahweh, God of history.

(This and the other quotes that follow are from Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador by Elisabeth Jean Wood.)

The faithful increasingly saw Christ as "Jesús Rebelde" (Rebel Jesus) who inspired them to reject the ideology of injustice and misery here on earth, happiness only in the hereafter.

Liberation Theology dovetailed with revolutionary ideology, in that both emphasized structural injustice and the need for a new social order, with reliance on a central faith and a passionate commitment to a shared creed. This, of course, allowed the oligarchy and the military to dismiss the religious elements of the rebellion as mere window dressing, accusing all those who defied the system of oppression as Communists, even heretics, or "useful fools." One well-to-do woman, terrified of the new spirit of defiance, said: "They (the priests and catechists) spoke of injustice, of class struggle. They were influencing people of little schooling with such things." A rural landlord said the priests were teaching a theology of two Gods, one for the rich, one for the poor: "I know only one God." Poverty had nothing to do with the unrest; it was all the work of agitators exploiting the ignorant. The elites pined for a more tranquil past: "How beautiful it (Tenancingo) was, a town of commerce."

Priests and catechists and the parishioners who embraced their teachings increasingly became the targets of state violence, with family members targeted the same as their insurgent relations. They were typically betrayed by members of ORDEN, the network of government informers who received farming supplies, health care, educations, jobs, and protection from the National Guard in exchange for naming names.
We hadn't committed any crime—we had only tried to participate in the movement of Jesus Christ and Monseñor Romero. The Armed Forces came to the house, asked questions, and threatened Papa with a pistol to the head and a machine gun to the neck, wounding him four times. They took him and my three brothers prisoner and held him in Cojutepeque for a year.

They forced me to point out people and then shot them. We left when my father returned from prison.

The army would arrive so infuriated, so bitter, that before they even knew who you were, they would shoot. They did not respect either color or size. We were so fearful at nightfall that we would not sleep. Miraculously we survived, but many did not.

They burned the houses and the fields, they poisoned the water and killed whomever they saw. They took people out at night and disappeared them. Perhaps a majority of the people died—pregnant mothers, kids, all and everyone. It was a time of great hunger and we hid in the mountains.

It was not possible to denounce the killings. The local judge was himself killed by unknown men.

They [the local landlords and civil authorities] painted a false hell for us; even as they exploited us, they taught us that it was the poor who were thieves and the rich who were the good people. And it was the poor who were sent to jail.

One particularly chilling example of the repression occurred in the department of Usulután. Héctor Antonio Regalado, a local landlord and dentist, recruited young men into what resembled at first a Boy Scout troop, complete with uniformed marches through the town of Santiago de María. Except the boys were killers. They targeted activists, teachers, unionists, cooperativists, students, murdering dozens and leaving trophies of their work—dead bodies, severed heads—in plain view. They acted with the cooperation of the military, sometimes traveling from place to place in army helicopters. Regalado had close ties with Roberto D'Aubuisson, the founder of the White Warriors Union, and when D'Aubuisson was arrested for plotting an abortive coup in May, 1980, Regalado fled to Guatemala and ordered the killing of his former protégés, apparently fearing they knew too much. On one day alone, ten boys previously attached to Regalado's youth corps were murdered in Santiago de Maria.

The insurgents responded with violence of their own, assassinating ORDEN informers and government officials, kidnapping businessmen (foreign as well as domestic) for ransom, bombing government and military buildings, and extorting "war taxes" (protection money) from store owners or other vulnerable businesses. Not that the resistance was unified—a particularly fierce rift arose when members of the ERP, one of the armed revolutionary groups with a particularly militaristic stance, assassinated the renowned poet Roque Dalton, accusing him of being a CIA spy, a charge that was ultimately proven false. But even with such missteps, the relentless attacks by the government on religious people and their communities inspired not just fear but a deeper understanding of the history of Christian martyrdom, and drove the Christian Base Communities closer to the mass organizations and armed groups defying the government. Ultimately, as the center offered increasingly little refuge from the government's brutal repression, those seeking reform were driven to armed resistance as the only way to protect themselves and to build a just government.

Pressure from Washington and from within: The escalating violence and repression, and the polarization it created, alarmed those who realized that the existing system was no longer viable, but who feared a successful Communist uprising. The Sandinista victory in neighboring Nicaragua in September, 1979 put such fears into high relief.

Meanwhile, the Carter Administration had placed new restrictions on military and economic aid, premised on human rights improvements. El Salvador, like Guatemala, Brazil and Argentina, rejected such conditions. Aid in the pipeline continued, but military assistance would stop by 1979, and economic aid was halved (from $20 million to $10 million).

The Carter Administration had stepped forward when, in 1997, the notorious leaflets appeared, courtesy of Roberto D'Aubuisson's White Warriors Union, which read: "Be a patriot! Kill a priest!" (See my Weekly commentary for last week, February 26th, below.) Pressure was applied, and a wholesale slaughter of the Jesuits was averted—but the sudden abatement of death squad activity only made plain the connection of such elements to the government. (And though a vast killing spree did not occur, the American effort did not prevent the murder of approximately a half dozen priests over the next two years.)

The State Department joined Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists, and the Organization of American States in a unanimous condemnation of General Romero's state sponsorship of abduction, torture, and murder. Washington, realizing it had remained supportive of the dictator Somoza in Nicaragua far too long, ruining its chances of championing the center-left elements within the Sandinista revolt and helping steer it away from a blatantly Marxist tack, tried to avoid a similar result in El Salvador by confronting General Romero and demanding he end the repression—but the general wouldn't, or couldn't, do so.

Inside El Salvador, a loose coalition formed, comprised of young military officers, Christian democratic and social democratic politicians, and "progressive" Salvadoran businessmen. The groups, without the private sector representatives, established a political pressure group called the Foro Popular (Popular Forum). This group demanded an end to official and unofficial repression, the establishment of political pluralism, short-and-long-term economic reforms (including agrarian reform), and the incorporation of the mass organizations into the government. This last demand, given the likelihood of far left elements linked to the insurgency gaining access to power, proved a poison pill for some young reformist military officers, who also feared a Nicaragua-style dissolution of the armed forces.

The Reformist Coup: Once again, as so often in Salvadoran history, a group of young military officers rose up and wrested control of the government away from their superiors, deposing General Romero in a bloodless coup with the hope of restoring order and addressing popular disaffection, issuing a proclamation denouncing the violent, corrupt, and exclusionist nature of the regime, which had denied the people "the minimal conditions necessary to survive as human beings." In this regard, it resembled similar coups in 1948 and 1960; the difference this time was the realization that radical (by Salvadoran standards) reforms would need to be instituted even at the risk of alienating the economic elite. That said, the reformists rejected inclusion of the mass organizations into the political system, a move intended to mollify the hard right.

These young officers—sometimes called the Military Youth, other times called the Majanistas, after their leader, Colonel Adolfo Majano—were motivated by a desire to stabilize the political situation and the economy to stem the capital flight from the country, and to prevent the dissolution of the military.

The officers formed a junta of military and civilian leaders, and promptly enacted decrees to freeze landholdings of over ninety-eight hectares and to nationalize the coffee export industry. It did not immediately enact agrarian reform, but promised such a reform would soon be forthcoming. Another decree officially disbanded ORDEN. This final decree, however, like all the others, ran into serious roadblocks in the form of senior military officers who refused to obey the commands of the junior officers aligned with the coup. In fact, the level of violence against the mass organizations actually increased after the installation of the junta, demonstrating concretely the limits of its authority and the vehemence of the resistance not just from conservative military officers but from economic elites opposed to the reform measures. And at the forefront of the repression was, once again, Roberto D'Aubuisson, with the tacit approval of defense minister Colonel Guillermo García (who would subsequently be both criminally and civilly prosecuted in the United States for overseeing the torture of dissidents).

The first junta fails—dead letters: Colonel García undermined the reformists by transferring Majano supporters away from key commands, or deferring promotions. The majority of officers remained neutral, strengthening the hand of the conservatives. This underscored the culture of the officer corps, which was trained to bestow loyalty on its own first and foremost, secondarily on the oligarchy it served, and only after that on the government, the constitution, or the populace. This is why three decades of military reformers had routinely failed to effect meaningful change—they had refused to challenge senior officers and rupture the internal loyalty so prized by the military. Instead the progressives caved in on every important issue to their conservative superiors.

Reaction to the junta was mixed. Moderate parties joined the government immediately, but the left refused to legitimize the junta, and two guerilla groups called for armed insurrection—a call to arms that the right used as an excuse to widen its repression. Even Archbishop Romero was skeptical, acknowledging the junta's goodwill, but warning that it would never muster popular support if its calls for reform proved to be "dead letters." Even so, the junta's reform program and its avowed intention to seek inclusion of the left in the political process convinced the mass organizations and guerilla groups to sustain attacks on the government, giving it time to act on its promises.

The junta failed to use the time well. Investigations into human rights abuses led to no arrests. Pledges to reorganize the military resulted in mere shuffling of positions. Agrarian reform went nowhere. A promise to find the whereabouts of three hundred disappeared dissidents resulted in the location of not a single one—the government could not afford to look too deeply into this, for fear of rupturing the solidarity of the military, which the reformist officers refused to risk. This proved to be the critical flaw—the junta could not rein in its own security forces as the repressive violence of the police and National Guard only escalated. Had the reformers been willing to take complete control of the military and oust the conservative elements behind the repression, perhaps the junta could have overcome this paralysis, but they refused to do so out of institutional loyalty, and the United States, even under Jimmy Carter, refused to back such an effort. (The Carter Administration also balked at the junta's willingness to reach out to the mass organizations—it wanted to isolate the far left, not allow it to share power.)

Divisions among the Christian Democrats—the Second Junta: The first reformist junta failed, and was replaced by a second junta in January, 1980 that retained its military members, but now included two prominent Christian Democrats.

The Christian Democrats were torn over inclusion in the junta: Many saw it as potentially damaging to its already tarnished reputation, and a repudiation of the democratic process they had championed since the party's formation. Others, including José Napoleon Duarte (who had returned from exile in Venezuela by this time—see last week's Weekly commentary), believed the junta offered the best chance for the reforms they had been proposing. And since the Carter Administration clung to its program of supporting the junta as a centrist government under attack from extremists on both the right and the left, the Christian Democrats under Duarte saw an opportunity to finally take the reins of power with support from Washington. With the United States behind it, the new government was able to finally get the military to accept a set of reforms—including nationalization of the banking system and agrarian reform—that went far beyond anything the first junta was able to achieve.

Unfortunately, the second junta was dogged by the human rights issue even more than the first. In contrast to the first junta, the government now retracted all overtures to the left for dialogue and participation and instead sought to appease the right by abandoning reconciliation and continuing the repression. On January 22, 1980, police fired upon a mass rally in San Salvador, killing twenty-four, and on February 25, Christian Democrat Mario Zamora and other party leaders were murdered after being denounced by Roberto D'Aubuisson (who by this time had left the military). Zamora's death led his brother, Rubén, to resign from the government and form a new political party of disaffected Christian Democrats. This led to the failure of the second junta, and Duarte himself joined a third junta, trying to retain the Christian Democrats' thin chances of holding onto power to affect some measure of reform.

The third and final junta—the murder of Archbishop Romero: In an attempt to demonstrate resolve in the face of the disintegrating political situation, the third junta followed the same path as its predecessor, proposing even more extensive reforms, at the same time declaring a state of siege against the insurrection. This paradoxical attempt at compromise only served to undermine the government, however. The state of siege enhanced the power of General García and other rightwing officers, and undermined Colonel Majano's attempts to reach out to non-Marxist popular organizations, who remained targets of repression. It also sabotaged the agrarian reform by facilitating reprisals against the recipients of expropriated acreage.

In general, the third junta failed to expand its popular base or enhance its legitimacy because of its inability to rein in political violence on either end of the political spectrum, the vast majority of which came from the right, and thus implicated the government itself in the terror. The violence reached it apex on March 24, 1980, when the much revered Archbishop Oscar Romero was murdered the day after a nationwide broadcast in which he had beseeched the country's soldiers to defy orders to kill civilians, and to end the repression. I'll discuss Archbishop Romero, and the impact of his death, in greater detail next week.

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