El Salvador

September 25, 2007

Against a backdrop of increasing political crisis, Salvadorean President Carlos Humberto Romero announced late last year his intention to heighten surveillance throughout the country and to dismantle all "subversive" organizations. So far, only the first of his ambitions has been fulfilled. The frequency and intensity of government attacks on the Left have increased, but there is no sign that the popular resistance movement has been weakened. The bold actions carried out by MarchlApril 1979 armed leftist groups in the first two months of this year have underscored the military government's inability to quell the opposition. During Romero's January trip to Mexico-intended as much to clean up his tarnished international image as to negotiate for Mexican oil-armed leftists occupied the Mexican embassy in the capital city of San Salvador, demanding the release of more than 72 political prisoners being held in military jails, and an account of the hundreds of "disappeared." On February 1, guerrillas bombed the headquarters of the National Guard and police in San Salvador and the city of San Miguel, killing 18 policemen and soldiers. The bombings took place in retaliation for the deaths of a priest and four others in a government raid on a church. These actions are only the most recent in the upsurge of guerrilla activity that began in late 1977 in the wake of Romero's fraudulent election. (See also "El Salvador: Uprising," NACLA Report on the Americas, May-June 1978, pgs. 43-45.) Since then, at least 20 political kidnappings of prominent business executives have taken place, as well as numerous bombings and other actions. The three guerrilla groups claiming responsibility for most of these actions-the Popular Liberation Forces (FPL), the Armed Forces of National Resistance (FARN), and the People's Revolutionary Army (ERP)-are high on the military's list of subversive organizations. But even more threatening to the Romero government is the growing strength and unity of mass organizations which have developed in the last several years under leftist leadership. The largest and most active of the popular organizations is the People's Revolutionary Bloc (Bloque), a broad grouping of working class, peasant, teacher, student and slum dweller associations. Since its founding in 1975, the Bloque has taken a leading role in organizing mass protests against government repression, as well as actively organizing for better living and working conditions for the masses. Although the Bloque's largest base lies among peasants and rural workers, the organization sees the working class in the forefront of a worker-peasant alliance and the key to its long- range strategy of building a "mass revolutionary front." At its second Congress last year, the Bloque established a Revolutionary Trade Union Council to build its base in the trade unions. (Thirty percent of Salvadorean workers are organized.) Another leading organization on the left is the Unified Popular Action Front (FAPU), which began in 1974 in a similar effort to unify popular sectors. Little known outside of El Salvador up until now, the FAPU claimed responsibility for the recent takeover of the Mexican embassy. MILITARY REPRESSION To counter the growing strength of these popularly-based forces, the Romero government has beefed up its repressive apparatus. The Law of Defense and Guarantee of Public Order, passed in November of 1977, gives the government free rein to arrest and imprison for up to seven years any person suspected of illegal activities, which include membership in unions or participation in demonstrations.* Though primarily aimed at the Bloque, the law has been widely used to clamp down on all anti-government activists. According to church sources, over 700 arrests occurred in the eight months following enactment of the law. The government's principal paramilitary force, ORDEN, has also stepped up its activities. Nominally a civic organization, ORDEN is in fact the government's most effective and insidious instrument of control in the countryside. Boasting a membership of between 50-100,000 (mainly in rural areas), ORDEN's presence in the villages allows constant government surveillance and a quick response to rural agitation. ORDEN has attempted to terrorize the rural population into submission, invading and looting the homes of suspected opposition sympathizers and breaking up union meetings. While the popular organizations are the leading force in resisting this ferocious repression, even the conservative Catholic Church has begun to strongly criticize government repression and human rights violations. Led by Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Romero (who is not related to the president), this progressive wing of the church has increasingly supported the Bloque. Because of their participation in the peasant and farmworker unions which belong to the Bloque-the Christian Federation of Salvadorean Peasants (FECCAS) and the Union of Field Workers (UTC)-militant priests have been singled out as targets by the right- wing paramilitary groups. One leaflet distributed by the White Warriors Union instructs: "Be a patriot-kill a priest." Their campaign has had some success-- several priests have been murdered in the last year and dozens more forced into exile. REBELLION IN THE COUNTRYSIDE Conditions in the countryside lie at the heart of the intensifying class conflict in El Salvador. The capitalist transformation of agriculture has led to a situation of crisis proportions for the 60% of Salvadoreans who live in rural areas. With the spread of export crop production in the post-war period, tens of thousands of peasants were displaced from their lands. Today, three major export crops-coffee, cotton, and sugar-dominate the lands formerly tilled by subsistence farmers, and 60% of the land is owned by only 2% of the population. Roughly three quarters of rural families currently work as wage laborers. But underemployment and unemployment affect almost half the rural work force. For those who can find jobs, wages amount to only one or two dollars a day. During the four to six month harvest season, workers migrate from plantation to plantation, MarchlApril 1979 harvesting the export crops which provide El Salvador with over half its foreign exchange. They are exposed to the highest rate of insecticide poisoning in Central America. Particularly in the cotton- growing areas, crop dusters indiscriminately spray the fields with insecticides, contaminating the lands and local drinking water. Increased militancy and participation in organized struggle has been the response of agricultural workers and peasants to these deplorable conditions. The two unions, UTC and FECCAS, though illegal, have an estimated membership of over 7,000 and a much broader base of support. The unions' success in carrying out land invasions and demanding better wages and working conditions has made them the focus of government and right-wing repression in the countryside. The bloodiest incident to date occurred in March of last year when ORDEN members clashed with union members in San Pedro Perulapan just outside the capital. Army troops entered the village, massacred over 50 people and ar- rested hundreds more. According to church sources, "at least 162 families have not dared to return to the areas because some who have gone back have been killed." Such incidents, however, have not quelled the resistance of the Salvadorean people. In fact, the most brutal repression the country has known in over 40 years of military rule has only increased the strength and breadth of the opposition. As the Secretary General of the Bloque described the growing spirit of rebellion in a recent interview: "At this point to say 'I am hungry' is a crime in our country; it is a crime to organize in demand of a twenty-five-cent raise in salary. What alternative is left for the people? Confronting the enemy, through a strategy of combat: the prolonged people's war."

Tags: El Salvador, guerrillas, mass organizations, repression, rebellion

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