The Silenced Majority

September 25, 2007

THE FORCES ARRAYED AGAINST EACH other in the civil war are sharply defined; the op- posing blocs illustrate clearly that this is a class conflict.
On one side, forces that revolve around big private
enterprise; they largely control the state apparatus
through the political parties that represent their inter-
ests. Above all they control the armed forces, by means of corruption. On the other side, the worker and peas-
ant-based forces organized in the FMLN. Neither bloc
is monolithic; they both depend upon alliances which
have shifted with the rhythm of the war.
But there is more to Salvadorean society than these
two blocs. A fairly broad spectrum declines to declare
its loyalties. Though this sector may feel greater sym-
pathy for one side or another, neither is the ideal vehicle
for its political aspirations.
This is not a silent majority, passively "caught in the
crossfire," but a silenced majority, as it always has been
in El Salvador. Nor is it a potential political center, the
standard-bearer of a "third way." The effects of war
and repression on this non-combatant population has
been more one of breaking apart than of cementing
These are more or less organized sectors of society,
with a wide range of interests and differing political
agendas. Moving on the outer fringes of the leftist and
rightist blocs, they may drift in or out of alliance with
them at different junctures of the war. From the govern-
ment's point of view, these are potential voters, or-if
discontented-the possible catalysts of an insurrection
or general strike. For the FMLN-FDR, they are poten-
tial allies in a Government of Broad Participation or
candidates to support a mass uprising. We are talking of
several sectors:
* the Catholic Church, both hierarchy and Chris-
tian base communities;
* the trade unions, some traditionally associated
with the Left and some with the burgeoning
"reformist" labor movement organized in the Popular
Democratic Union (UPD);
* the professional classes who cannot express their
interests through the political parties or find a way to
make their contribution through the present political
* small and medium-scale private enterprises, aban-
doned by government, hardest hit by the militarization
of the economy, but mistrustful of the FMLN-FDR;
* some large businessmen with progressive views.
While their integrity recoils from the prevailing injustice
and barbarity, and admits the need for profound
changes, they have not yet heard a proposal from the
FMLN-FDR about the role and safeguards they would be granted.
It is impossible to understand the Salvadorean con- flict without recognizing the range of actors involved.
The non-combatant sectors, though perhaps unable to
shape the course of the war on their own, represent a
"critical mass" which the main contenders need to win
over. The far Right has acknowledged the threat they
pose-the labor unions as potential insurrectionary
forces, the Church as a facilitator of dialogue-and has
persecuted both without mercy. The FMLN too has
grasped their importance, reducing its sabotage cam-
paign greatly in late 1983 to reduce the economic burden
on the middle sectors.
Who make up these non-combatant groups? Why
have they remained uncommitted to Left or Right?
Who wants to enlist them, and why? What is their
political future?
y a very broad cross-section of Salvadorean soci-
ety. Only the oligarchy showed real hostility to the first
junta. But at the same time, the popular organizations
reached their zenith: on January 22, 1980, the unity
march of the Revolutionary Coordinating Committee
of the Masses (CRM) brought 150,000 people on to the
streets of San Salvador. They had the support or tacit
approval of many professionals, small business people,
public sector employees and many Church groups. The
CRM's opposition to the coup reflected their fear that
the new junta would take advantage of the groundswell
of enthusiasm for social change and channel it into tepid
reforms under the thumb of the United States.
Support for change was quite vague in political
terms: more justice, more mass participation, greater
respect for human rights. No clear political direction
was defined. The platform of the unified popular
organizations (CRM), issued in February 1980, though
a first step, was poorly thought through. It failed to fill
the political vacuum.
1980 was a year of growing polarization. The ruling
class responded to the peaceful mobilization of the
popular organizations with a wave of brutal repression, which worsened after the first junta resigned and con-
servatives returned to key positions of influence. The
January 22 march was machine-gunned, leaving 30
dead and more than 200 injured. A second massacre
came on March 30, at the funeral of Archbishop
Romero, when the crowd outside the Metropolitan
Cathedral was fired on. In the ensuing panic, at least 35
REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 36Mass Tunerals were a ioual polut UIst usciuiterI Ie na [monlns TOllowing ine ucioDer It coup.
Between 1977 and October 1979, political repression
had caused around 750 deaths in El Salvador, bringing
the government universal condemnation as one of the
world's worst human rights violators. But in January
and February of 1980 alone, the Legal Aid Office of the
Archbishopric of San Salvador (Socorro Juridico)
reported 504 deaths at the hands of the security forces
and paramilitary squads. By the end of June, the figure
had soared to 3,111; by the end of the year, to 8,398. In
addition, the regime created legal cover for the
slaughter. Decree 155 established a nationwide State of
Siege; Decrees 264 and 265 made civil disobedience a
terrorist act; Decree 296 banned strikes and labor stop-
pages; Decree 544 outlawed all labor union activity;
Decree 43 militarized major public services; and-by
way of a footnote-Decree 507 gave the security forces
a free hand in the fight against "subversion."
Faced with this systematic repression, the popular
organizations had no alternative but to go underground
and arm themselves. The abduction and killing of six
FDR leaders at the end of November 1980 only served to
confirm the logic of that decision. But the militarization
of the conflict, accompanied by a hardening of atti-
tudes, burned many of the bridges that might have helped to attract more timid, less politicized sectors. The regime's propaganda conjured up the demons of
"totalitarianism" and "fanatical extremism"--what
Church takeover by a mass organization in 1979.
the U.S. Embassy called "the Pol Pot Left"-to scare
off potential supporters. The revolutionary movement
added its own quota of mistakes, which alienated the
middle sectors.
In devoting all their energies to military concerns
after 1980, the popular organizations deprived them-
selves of the means to attract and absorb political sym-
pathizers. By the time of the FMLN's general offensive
in January 1981--the formal outbreak of the civil war-
the consequences were evident. The revolutionary
forces had no direct or open support from many of their
sympathizers among the general population. It has
taken them years to recover from those setbacks.
ism was the Catholic Church. According to a
report from Socorro Juridico, between January 5, 1980
and February 17, 1981, the repression took the lives of
an archbishop, four North American churchwomen,
three priests, one seminarian, 21 catechists and eight
other Church workers. The educational work of the
Church, based on the Second Vatican Council and the
Latin American Bishops' Conference at Medellin, had
certainly led many Christians to find ways of organizing
that would protect their basic rights as human beings
and children of God. The regime reacted first by insult-
Four years after his murder, a woman weeps at Archbishop
ing and harassing "Third Worldist priests," and later
by persecuting and murdering members of base com-
munities which were identified-correctly enough-as
seedbeds of rebellion.
The polarized and militarized course of the war and
the intensity of official terror presented many Chris-
tians with a painful dilemma: to join the revolutionary
struggle or to opt out of all forms of organization. Some
chose the first option, but many others-either judging
violence to be un-Christian or simply terrified-chose
the second. After the death of Monsignor Romero, a
sizeable chunk of the clergy adopted a more conserva-
tive line, encouraged by the personal affinity that many
priests had to the ruling Christian Democrats.
ing class was desperate. With the peasantry, they
were the worst hit by the repression, the economic
slump and the state of emergency, the most seriously
demobilized by official propaganda. This is not to say
that the labor movement was dead, but its impact had
been restricted to levels that the regime could handle.
The call for elections in early 1982 and the narrow
political opening that the regime was obliged to grant in
the pre-election period, together with the insistent prop-
aganda that the voting was a first step on the road to
peace, aroused certain hopes among sectors of the
population exhausted by the war and economic col-
lapse. Many people saw nothing to lose in voting as a
possible say out of the crisis-one reason perhaps for
the high turn-out in March 1982.
Any hopes raised by the elections were quickly
dashed. Peace did not ensue, party infighting in the
"National Unity" government worsened, economic
decline continued and mass living conditions
But the Salvadorean economy has done more than
just decline: over the last two years its basic character
has changed, in a way that has grave political implica-
tions. From being an economy at war-in which
economic performance is directly and indirectly im-
paired by the fighting-it has become an economy of
war, in which the regime's economic policies and a size-
able proportion of available resources have been dedi-
cated to the goal of a military and political victory over
The war itself is still the main factor in the decline of
the economy. It affects production and trade, under-
mines investor confidence and aggravates the flight of
During 1982, the gross domestic product (GDP) fell
by almost 6%, and we estimate that it has fallen by a fur-
ther 8% in 1983. Agricultural production, especially
vital to the Salvadorean economy, declined by 7.4% in
1982 and 8.7% in 1983. The main reasons seem to be the
armed forces' loss of control over vast stretches of ter-
ritory, a production boycott by landowners and the in-
competent administration of the agrarian reform. The
reluctance to plant, coupled with poor crop yields, are
REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 38Families wait to visit political prisoners in Mariona jail.
perhaps the most eloquent testimony to farmers' lack of
confidence in the military and economic policies of the
The contraction of the economy has had a dramatic
impact on the living standards of the poor. And since
1982, it has begun to have adverse effects on the middle
class as well. Consumption levels fell by 27% between
1979 and 1981, and by a further 20% since then; the
overall consumer price index has risen by 97.7% in the
last four years, though clothing has risen 153% and
foodstuffs 122%. (Sixty-three percent of all Salva-
dorean families spend between 62% and 65% of their
income on those items.)
As a result of Decree 544, outlawing all labor union
activity, real minimum wages in both the public and pri-
vate sectors declined by 65% between 1979 and early
1983. Official figures show 38% without work in early
1983; unemployment and under-employment together
afflict almost 80% of the population.
The erosion of living standards reflects more than
just the natural economic decline one would expect in
wartime. Those affected seem increasingly aware of the
link between their predicament and the economic poli-
cies of the regime, which has enacted a series of mea-
sures to boost its war economy:
* new tax laws, including increased stamp duty, a
3% rise in indirect taxes on goods and services and pro-
posals for a value added tax;
* a stringent credit squeeze;
"* a restrictive incomes policy, based on Decree 544;
"* reduced private and public investment in all pro-
jects not related to the war effort;
* direct government controls of commodity dis-
tribution such as basic grains, foodstuffs and medi-
cines. Artificial shortages of basic grains, cooking oil
and other essential staples have also been created;
* foreign aid for goods and services that can be re-
directed to the war effort, leading to a corresponding
rise in the external debt. In 1982-1983 alone, El Salva-
dor received 2.3 billion colones ($920 million) in foreign
1 of these policies were held in check for a long time
by the lack of organized channels for dissent and the
suffocating weight of the repression. But despite the
violence that has awaited economic demands and pro-
tests, there have been renewed stirrings of discontent
since mid-1982, reaching a peak late in 1983. Some
unions have tried to revive traditional labor union ac-
tivity; others have attempted to evolve strategies inde-
pendent of the two main contending parties in the war;
none has yet succeeded in making its influence strongly
The case of the Popular Democratic Union (UPD) is
a good illustration. The UPD is a labor organization
formed at the beginning of 1980 by a core of peasant
groups (UCS and ACOPAI) and two urban labor feder-
ations (CTS and FESINCONSTRANS). Some of its
members-notably the Salvadorean Communal Union
(UCS)-had been connected to the AFL-CIO and sup-
ported by money from AID. The UCS's political pos-
ture and its ties to the United States led to its being shun-
ned by the more left-wing unions and the popular
When the agrarian reform program was launched in
March 1980, UCS members were the principal-almost
the sole-beneficiaries, and became the nucleus of peas-
ant support for the ruling Christian Democratic Party.
Nevertheless, following the March 1982 elections, the
UPD understood the imminent threat of the reforms be-
ing overturned. Its vigorous mobilization in support of
them not only placed the UPD in outright opposition to
the bloc of rightist parties headed by ARENA, but
brought it momentarily into line with the demands of
other, more militant labor unions.
Help from the Christian Democrats and the U.S.
Embassy is admittedly crucial in allowing the UPD to
register protests-even mount street demonstrations--
that no other group could dare attempt under the State
of Siege. But it is also true that in a critical period like
the present, the UPD's voice has become a major new
element in the situation, a moderate demand for the
most positive aspects of the reformist plan begun in
1980, and an expression of mass discontent at plummet-
ing living standards and repression. Indeed, the UPD
has incurred the wrath of the death squads: a number of
UPD affiliates, mainly members of peasant cooper-
atives, have been kidnapped and murdered.
And yet, each time the "National Unity" govern-
ment declares that the agrarian reform will continue--
even in a truncated form-the UPD reaffirms its condi-
tional support for the government. This "controlled
rebellion" could be seen repeatedly in 1983, every time
that a key component of the agrarian reform was chal-
lenged. In practice, then, the UPD's attempt to create a
new channel for mass activism has been coopted by the
Christian Democrats and the United States as a weapon
in their fight against ARENA.
If the UPD forms a potential alternative with pro-
government leanings, then MUSYGES-the Unitarian
Movement of Labor and Trade Unions-is its counter-
part in the pro-insurgent sphere. MUSYGES arose
toward the end of 1982 as a voice of growing popular
discontent, which by now on occasion has proven
stronger than the fear of terrorist reprisals. MUSYGES
brought together the remnants of El Salvador's most
important trade union federations, previously affiliated
to the FDR but decimated by repression-FSR, FEN-
FESTRAS and others. It is critical of the government,
its violations of human rights and its increasing de-
pendence on Washington, but backs an expanded ver-
sion of the current reforms; it also supports uncondi-
tional dialogue with the guerrillas and demands a
government with full working-class participation. Its
proposals, then, are very close to those of the FMLN-
FDR. Even so, MUSYGES shows signs of failing to
keep pace with the FDR, especially when it comes to the
unity of reformist and revolutionary sectors.
Although both the UPD and MUSYGES claim
more than 30,000 members on paper, their power to
mobilize people seems limited for the moment. True,
UPD demonstrations outside the Constituent Assembly
building in favor of the land reform rallied more than
3,000 people; on September 27, 1983, they assembled
almost 20,000 sympathizers. But those events were
more noteworthy for their context than for their con-
tent. The backing they received from both the Christian
Democratic Party and the U.S. Embassy can scarcely be
overlooked. As for MUSYGES, its membership is more
nominal than real, and its scope of action remains
severely limited. Nonetheless, it will represent one of the
most potentially influential organized sectors in the
coming period.
A third sector which began to revive in 1982 and 1983
was the network of Christian base communities. New
groups have arisen from the ashes of persecution, with a
clear sense of the need for autonomy and independence
from the revolutionary movement, but with sympathy
for the Left's policies and ideals. These communities are
especially active in working-class districts of the capital,
San Salvador, and some peasant areas. The Church
hierarchy too-above all Archbishop Rivera y Damas-
has again become more outspoken in its criticism of the
government, particularly since the fall of the Christian
Democrats from power.
Both the U.S. Embassy and some of the more mod-
erate currents in parties such as the Christian
Democrats, the Party of National Conciliation and
Democratic Action have tried over the course of 1983 to
build a would-be "democratic center" capable of win-
ning the backing of the middle sectors alienated by the
polarized military drift of the war, capable of embracing
groups like the UPD and able to project a more palat-
able international image. But these parties' stubborn
refusal to contemplate negotiations and their tolerance
of military corruption have blocked the effort.
It is hard to predict how these non-combatant sec-
tors of the population will develop in the period ahead.
Though most of them have put some distance between
themselves and the insurgents, their outlook has more in
common with the FMLN-FDR than with the govern-
ment. For now, their revival is stifled by permanent
repression and the lack of breathing-space for any
political opposition. But the longer U.S. policies fail,
and the more the FMLN moderates its stance and spells
out its precise goals, the more likely it is that these
groups will end up throwing their weight behind a pro-
gram that addresses the needs of the mass of the popu-
lation. The insurgents' proposal for a "Government of
Broad Participation," though it still has many rough
edges, seems better suited to embrace a future "demo-
cratic center" than any government likely to emerge
from the elections of March 25, 1984. From them, we
can expect little but continuing war.

Tags: El Salvador, Church, trade unions, repression, businessmen

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