The Rise and Fall of the Center

September 25, 2007

Our ministers accredited to the five little repub- lics.., have been advisers whose advice has been
accepted virtually as law... We do control the destinies of Central America and we do so for the simple reason that the national interest absolutely dictates such a course ... Until now Central
America has always understood that governments which we recognize and support stay in power, while those we do not recognize and support fall.
U.S. State Department memorandum, 1927'
6JulylAugust 1980
The State Department still holds to these
assumptions, more tenaciously than ever since
the Sandinistas proved them wrong. To fore-
stall a popular victory in El Salvador, the U.S.
government has tried a number of options
since the fall of 1979. In the process, it has
abandoned all pretense of concern for human
rights when the stakes involve what it
perceives as "the national interest. "
The U.S. government has painted a por-
trait for the American people of a struggle
between equally noxious extremes: the right-
wing oligarchy of El Salvador, opposed to any
mention of reform, embarrassing in its pen-
chant for terror; and the Marxist left, irra-
tional and desperate, provoking martyrdom
to win sympathy from the masses. And in the
middle, a team of military officers and
civilians who single-handedly would change
the course of Salvadorean history.
We shall paint a different portrait.
7NACLA Report
In September 1979, William Bowdler flew
to El Salvador to urge President Romero to
resign for the good of his country. Bowdler*
- then special envoy, now Assistant Secretary
of State for Inter-American Affairs -had
been sent a few months earlier to save
Nicaragua from the Sandinistas. He hoped
for better luck in El Salvador.
On October 15, 1979, Romero was over-
thrown in a coup d'etat that surprised no one.
With lightning and almost embarrassing
speed, the U.S. government announced its
support for the new junta: Colonels Adolfo
Majano and Jaime Abdul Gutierrez.
Three separate coups had been in the works
within the Army. One was led by the young
officers, committed to structural reform; an-
other by forces close to the U.S. Pentagon;
and a third by the fascists. The young officers
won the race by a nose and chose Majano as
their candidate. But to secure support, mean-
ing U.S. approval, they enlisted the pro-
Pentagon faction in their conspiracy. Gutie-
rrez would hold the key to the junta's future
Each faction of the military had its own
allies and patrons, and the power struggle
among them consumed the energies of the
first junta. The young officers flirted with the
opposition parties, dominated by the tiny
middle class. The pro-Pentagon faction was
content to link the country's development to
the United States. They were modernizers;
anti-communists but not fanatics. And they
were supported by the "enlightened"
bourgeoisie and, of course, the United States.
The fascists, temporarily on the sidelines,
enjoyed the powerful backing of the agrarian
bourgeoisie. They admired Hitler and Musso-
lini, read Mein Kampf and specialized in
repression. On off-duty hours, they staffed
the para-military gangs and composed death
*Bowdler, active in counterinsurgency operations in LA since 1956 was in charge of the Cuba desk at the State Dept. from 1961 to 1964. Transferred to the National
Security Council, in 1965 supervised the invasion of the Dominican Republic. A key planner in the operation which captured and murdered Che Guevara, Bowdler was rewarded, in 1968, with the ambassadorship to El Salvador and then, in 1971, to Guatemala. In 1975, as part of the efforts to defeat the MPLA in Angola, Bowdler was sent as ambassador to South Africa.
Colonel Adolfo Majano, reform-minded member
of the junta.
lists and slogans: "El Salvador is the tomb of
the Communists. Prepare to end that race."
Except for two brief periods, in 1960 and
1961, no civilian had occupied the highest of-
fice since 1931. But now it was obvious that
the military could not rule alone. They were
simply too despised.
The new junta looked for respectable
civilians to share the seat of power. The young
officers looked to the progressive faculty at
the Central American University, while the
Pentagon faction looked to their patrons
among business sectors with ties to U.S.
The three civilians chosen to fill out the
five-man junta were Guillermo Ungo, leader
of the small social democratic party (MNR);
Roman Mayorga, rector of the Central Amer-
ican University; and Mario Andino, manager
of the local subsidiary of the Phelps-Dodge
Corporation. The cabinet included represent-
atives of the opposition parties, independents
8JulylAugust 1980
and the "enlightened" bourgeoisie.
The absence of Christian Democrats on the
junta was striking. The party was caught off
guard by the coup. Its leadership was in a
period of transition. The old guard-- Napole-
on Duarte, Morales Erlich and others--
were still in exile or were out of touch with ac-
tive party life. A new generation of leaders
was trying to make the party more responsive
to the political climate created by the mass
organizations. Many of them, generally asso-
ciated with the party's left wing, accepted
posts in the new cabinet.
The new government was impressive. Its
civilian members were well educated, honest
and committed to reforms. But they also har-
bored serious doubts as to the viability of the
government they had agreed to join. They
wanted to believe in the young officers, yet
doubted their ability to withstand the
pressures of the pro-Pentagon and fascist sec-
tors. And most of all, they were unconvinced
that the oligarchy would stand by and allow
their interests to be touched.
Guillermo Ungo expressed these doubts in
a recent NACLA interview: "The first junta
was a risk--but we had to take it. It was the
last possibility for peaceful change."2
The new junta had another, more fatal
flaw. Its civilian members did not represent a
significant social base. Years of repression
and fraud had depleted the ranks of electoral
parties, leaving the field open to the more
militant and radical left: BPR, FAPU,
LP-28. These popular organizations, with
memberships in the tens of thousands, were
not represented in the newly formed govern-
Their response to the October coup was im-
mediate and negative. They denounced the
coup as a maneuver from Washington to
isolate the left and preempt the creation of a
truly popular regime. They argued it was
wishful thinking to believe that change would
be passively accepted by the bourgeoisie. And
too many of their militants had been killed to
believe that the armed forces could have a
change of heart.
When the junta announced a platform of
reforms--originally proposed by the Popular
Forum* in the final days of Romero's re-
gime- sectors of the left adopted different at-
titudes toward the new government. The
UDN, legal arm of the Communist Party, ac-
cepted several cabinet positions. The LP-28,
which had called for an insurrection im-
mediately after the coup, now said that it
would give the junta time. FAPU and the
BPR maintained a position of staunch opposi-
tion to what they viewed as a U.S. maneuver
to put the "enlightened" bourgeoisie in power
and eliminate the popular organizations. The
BPR strategy was to press the new govern-
ment to keep its promises--knowing that it
was powerless to do so.
Events in El Salvador quickly pushed the
left toward a unified position. The death toll
in the first two weeks of the junta exceeded
the rate of deaths for the first 91 months of
the year under Romero.s One demonstration
on October 29th left 21 dead at the hands of
the National Guard and led the LP-28 to join
in condemning the junta.
Daily, the mass organizations filled the
streets with demonstrators, demanding a full
accounting of the whereabouts of the "disap-
peared" and political prisoners of the Romero
regime, demanding that the torturers be
punished. The military quivered: pointing a
finger at one of them would tangle hundreds
in a web of murder and corruption.
The mass organizations used civil disobe-
dience-occupying churches, ministries and
markets-to press their demands for higher
wages, lower rents, agrarian reform and an
end to repression. They held public meetings
in movie theaters. Ten years of slow but
steady organizing, under the most difficult
and brutal conditions, were bearing fruit: the
junta had opened a small democratic space
for the first time in 50 years; the mass
organizations were filling that space and mov-
ing beyond its bounds.
The civilians in the government allowed the
demonstrations to continue. They set up a
commission to investigate the fate of prison-
*The Popular Forum was a broad-based coalition formed
in September, 1979 to formulate and press for a program
of reforms. It included members of the Christian
Democratic Party, the MNR, the Communist Party, the
LP-28 and a FAPU-related labor federation. Of the mass
organizations, only the BPR did not join.
9NACLA Report
ers-and discovered clandestine cemeteries
that solved the mystery of the "disappeared."
ORDEN, the para-military forces used to
spy upon and control the opposition, was
abolished by decree. And after long nego-
ciations in early November to end an oc-
cupation of the Ministry of Labor, the junta
promised the BPR to end the repression and
to implement reforms. The BPR gave the jun-
ta 30 days to prove its sincerity, and called a
moratorium on all occupations.
At the end of 30 days, the junta had ac-
complished very little. Power struggles within
the military--reflecting larger struggles
within the bourgeoisie-had paralyzed all
reforms. The bourgeoisie was outraged at the
junta's "permissiveness" toward agitation in
the streets. And the fine line between the
"enlightened" sector and the old agrarian in-
terests began to fade. All could agree that
repression was the only effective response to
the growing strength of the left.
Day by day, the civilians on the junta could
feel their influence waning. The pro-
Pentagon faction of the military was in clear
control of the junta, the fascist sectors were
operating with impunity through the para-
military bands, and' the bourgeoisie was
financing the death squads and controlling
the economic program of the junta. Guiller-
mo Ungo and Roman Mayorga, two civilians
on the junta, recognized that they were being
used as window-dressing for international
consumption -and nothing more. 4
The U.S. government embraced the new
junta as the answer to its prayers for a centrist
solution. U.S. Ambassador Frank Devine met
privately with the business sector, urging
them to cooperate, to sacrifice a part in order
to preserve the whole. The United States was
confident that a small dose of reform could
woo the masses away from the left. But it
grossly underestimated the loyalty of the
masses to their own organizations and goals,
and therefore the desperate belligerenGy of
the right. As the terror intensified, U.S. of-
ficials continued to insist that the left was to
As for the so-called center, the United
States distrusted the civilian members of the
junta--except for Andino. They couldn't be
sold to the bourgeoisie, since the reforms they
envisioned were more than cosmetic. So
behind the smokescreen of even-handedness,
the United States threw its weight to the col-
onels. In November, when Carter sent a
Defense Survey Team to El Salvador to assess
the situation, neither the U.S. embassy nor
the colonels thought to inform Ungo or
Mayorga of the delegation's visit.s
In case the reforms didn't work against the
left, the United States resumed military aid to
El Salvador to carry out what officials private-
ly referred to as "clean counter-insurgency."
In November, tear gas, gas masks and bullet-
proof vests were sent along with a six-man
Mobile Training Team to teach "riot control"
to Salvadorean troops. In December, Carter
re-programmed $300,000 to El Salvador, to
purchase training for Salvadorean troops in
U.S. military schools. 6
The rationale for U.S. military aid went
something like this: the growing strength of
the left provokes harsh repression from the
right; this in turn sets the human rights
organizations--so influential in Romero's
downfall--into motion. So while the left had
to be cowed into submission, it had to be done
with finesse.
The Salvadorean Army, with 30 years of
U.S. training behind it, was said to be more
"professional" than the security forces-
meaning less prone to "excess" in controlling
the opposition. New equipment would be
channelled to the Army, while the National
Guard and Police would be trained to use less
barbaric methods. "The idea is that if a guy is
standing with a protest sign, you don't have to
cut him down with a machine gun," a U.S. of-
ficial explained. "You just gas 'em."'
By December, the autumn lull in the
repression had ended. Demonstrators were
fired upon by the National Guard. ORDEN,
reconstituted as the Broad National Front
(FAN), began to terrorize the countryside and
eliminate key leaders of the popular organiza-
tions. And still there were no reforms.
Then, to everyone's astonishment, during
the first three days of January, virtually the
entire cabinet resigned in protest. Ungo and
Mayorga resigned from the junta. The
civilian presence was gone. The center had
10JulylAugust 1980
The junta's remnants and the U.S. govern-
ment tried to downplay these events as a
"cabinet crisis." But in the eyes of Guillermo
Ungo, it was much more: "It was the crisis of
a model imposed by the U.S. government that
had failed and would continue to fail." 8
As the junta disintegrated, the left began to
coalesce. Long-standing debates over strategy
and tactics were being decided by the test of
practice, and certain common conclusions
were being reached.
The question of armed vs. electoral strug-
gle- which had divided the Communist Party
from all the mass organizations--was settled
by the fall of the first junta. The last chance
for peaceful change had been lost; the CP ad-
mitted its errors and began military prepara-
tions. A people's army was taking shape.
The question of alliances with reformist
sectors was settled by the preponderant
strength of the popular organizations. The
FPL had argued consistently- against the
CP, FAPU and others-that alliances with
the petty bourgeoisie had to be contingent
upon the ability of the working class, allied
with the peasantry, to lead a broader front.
ByJanuary 1980, proletarian hegemony was a
The question of divisions within the
bourgeoisie--and the possibility of alliances
with the "enlightened" sector-was settled by
the bourgeoisie itself, as it closed ranks
against reform and financed the growing ter-
ror. The CP notion of a "national
bourgeoisie" had long been rejected by the
FPL, which saw this sector as too compro-
mised by its ties to U.S. capital and to the old
agrarian forces.
Other questions remained to be settled. But
on January 10, the FPL, the RN and the
Communist Party announced the formation
of a coordinating council of the political-
military organizations.* One day later, the
BPR, FAPU, LP-28 and the UDN established
the Coordinating Council of the Masses
The country was unquestionably polarized
into two camps: the popular and political-
military organizations, now attracting the
support of moderate sectors after the first jun-
ta's failure to implement reforms; and the in-
transigent oligarchy, with its private and
public armies, intent on eliminating the left.
The United States would continue to insist
that a middle ground existed, and would find
willing accomplices to this farce in the Chris-
tian Democratic Party--waiting in the wings
to fill the seats on the junta left empty by men
of conscience.
*The People's Revolutonary Army (ERP) did not par- ticipate in the Political-Military Coordinating Council because of unresolved differences, esecially with the RN.
Unity march, January 22, 1980.
1. Under Secretary of State Robert Olds, State
Department Memorandum, 1927, quoted in Richard
Millet, "Central American Paralysis," Foreign Policy,
Summer 1980, p. 101.
2. NACLA interview with Guillermo Manuel Ungo,
New York City, July 28, 1980.
3. Tommy Sue Montgomery, "Politica estadounidese
y el proceso revolucionario: el caso de El Salvador,"
Estudios Centroamericanos, Nos. 377-378, March-April
1980, pp. 241-252.
4. NACLA interview, Ungo.
5. Cynthia Arnson and Delia Miller, "Background
Information on El Salvador and U.S. Military Assistance
to Central America." Institute for Policy Studies,
resource paper, June, 1980, p. 7. Also, NACLA interview
with Guillermo Manuel Ungo, July 30, 1980.

Tags: El Salvador, US intervention, military coup, junta, cabinet resigns

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