The Writing on the Wall

September 25, 2007

Tiny El Salvador caught the world's atten- tion in 1977, when two priests were assassinated and the entire Jesuit order was threatened with extinction by right-wing death squads. The Carter Administration, a few weeks in office, saw in El Salvador the op- portunity to demonstrate its alleged commit- ment to human rights. El Salvador posed no threat to vital security interests. It was considered a safe place to push for overdue reforms. So the United States attacked the Romero regime for its abuse of human rights and encouraged an alliance between "enlightened" business sectors and the Christian Democratic Party, to prepare for a changing of the guard. The crisis should have come as no surprise. As early as 1932, Salvadorean peasants, ar- tisans and workers, armed only with machetes and stones, rebelled against their misery and joined an uprising led by the Communist Par- ty. Within a month of the rebellion, 30,000 had been killed. After the massacre, El Salvador's "Fourteen Families" returned to their ledgers, leaving generals and colonels to rule on their behalf for the next 50 years. More and more peasants were pushed off the land to make room for coffee, cane and cotton. Farmworker unions were prohibited by law, but the rural pro- letariat was growing into a latent social force. By 1973, they would be earning only $1.10 per day. By 1975, they would be organized in- to militant, extra-legal unions and mass The United States could afford to be self- righteous until July, 1979-the victory of the Sandinista Liberation Front in Nicaragua. A link had fallen out of the chain. Central America-the backyard-was no longer a place to grandstand about human rights. From that time on, the primary goal of U.S. foreign policy in the region would be to avoid "another Nicaragua." Today, three inter-agency task forces exist within the Carter Administration to monitor crisis situations 24 hours a day. Iran and Afghanistan are the obvious two. El Salvador--ignored by the media, unknown to the public-is now the third. organizations. They would be demanding more than higher wages. By the 1950s, a sector of the ruling class had branched out from agriculture into marketing and finance. Now they were pushing for industrialization, but recognized that certain structural changes had to occur. Wealth, generated and concentrated in the agrarian sector, had to be more evenly distributed to create a market for industrial goods. Taxes had to be levied to finance the required infrastructure. Political unrest had to be quelled by superficial reforms. A small schism developed within the ruling class. The more "enlightened," modernizing elements managed to gain control of the state (behind a military curtain, of course), but were powerless to carry out reforms that 2would affect even minimally the interests of ducts of their own labor, markets would be more traditional sectors. A compromise was found abroad. struck: industrialization would proceed, with El Salvador did industrialize in the 1960s support from the U.S. government and and 70s, first within the framework of the foreign investors. But nothing would be done Central American Common Market and, to affect the basic distribution of resources after its collapse, by seducing foreign capital and wealth: 60% of the land would stay in the with tax incentives, free-trade zones and hands of 2% of the population. If cheap labor. The average wage in the Salvadoreans could not afford to buy the pro- manufacturing and service sectors, in 1973,NACLA Report was $1.64 per day. Economic expansion, and the growth of a state bureaucracy, created its own contradic- tions. Migrants from the countryside swelled the slum communities, or tugurios, that cir- cled the capital city. The urban working class, growing in size and organization, tasted the repression that guaranteed stability to in- vestors. And a new middle class, caught be- tween the poles of poverty and wealth, was demanding a political voice and economic reforms. In the early 1960s, professionals, bureaucrats and small businessmen formed the Christian Democratic Party (PDC), sup- porting a platform of moderate reforms. In- tellectuals and middle sectors formed a social democratic party, the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR). And more radical sectors sought to forge a mass party of the left in alliance with the industrial working class. By 1972, this electoral opposition was ready to challenge 40 years of military rule. Chris- tian Democrats, social democrats and the Na- tionalist Democratic Union (UDN), the legal arm of the outlawed Communist Party, form- ed a united front, the National Opposition Union (UNO, meaning one). Most observers agree that the UNO can- didate for president, Napoleon Duarte, won the 1972 elections by a clear margin. But El Salvador's elite, like its counterparts throughout Latin America, refused to accept the people's verdict. The ballot-box was in- tended to legitimize military rule, not to end it. So the ballot-box was stuffed overnight, and by morning the victory had vanished. Still, the ruling class refused to acknowledge its own vulnerability. The new Molina government tried to add a small dose of reform to the standard formula of heavy repression. It proposed a timid "Agrarian Transformation" that was supported by a small, more visionary sector of the ruling class, and applauded by the United States. The old agrarian interests immediately cried treasonn" and mobilized to halt the reform and take control of the state. In 1977, General Carlos Romero, representing the most retrograde sectors of the bourgeoisie, became president by fraud and ruled by ter- ror alone. END OF THE ELECTORAL ROAD After 1972, the electoral opposition, with many of its leaders in exile, began to disintegrate. Serious questions were raised about the viability of an electoral strategy. What would ensure a different outcome the next time around, if votes were not enough? An obvious answer was arms. A split in the Communist Party led to the formation of the Popular Liberation Forces- Farabundo Mar- ti (FPL), named after the leader of the 1932 rebellion. A dissident group within the Chris- tian Democrats, joined by other leftists, form- ed the People's Revolutionary Army (ERP). (See political map, p. 34). These groups took a two-sided approach to their work-focused primarily on the country-side where 60% of the people reside. One side was military: small scattered actions against the security forces, retaliation against government spys and torturers, and kidnap- pings for ransom. But the FPL in particular sought to avoid the fate of guerrilla groups in Latin America in the 1960s--their isolation from the masses and ultimate destruction. So it began a slow process of building roots among peasants and farmworkers--slow because the rural population was still traumatized by the massacre of 1932. Organizers helped peasants build wells and roads to inaccessible villages. Their work con- cided with the efforts of progressive clergy-imbued with the message of Medellin*--to organize rural cooperatives and teach that injustice was sin. Similar forms of work began in the cities- among students, slumdwellers and factory workers. Between 1975 and 1977, three new organizations emerged, linked to the underground groups but carrying out open, mass work among all the oppressed sectors of the society. These were the People's Revolu- tionary Bloc (BPR), the Front for United Popular Action (FAPU) and the People's Leagues (LP-28). Each represented a broad spectrum of constituencies, united in a non- electoral coalition. *The Conference of Latin American Bishops, held in Medellin, Colombia in 1968, urged the Catholic Church actively to take up the struggle of the poor against the social and political systems which oppress them. 4factories ana starvation wages. In rural areas, peasant and farmworker unions were organized despite the official ban. In the cities, trade unions were dominated by the government, aided by the AFL-CIO, or the Communist Party. The popular organizations urged militant disregard of the elaborate web of laws de- signed to stifle the workers' movement. They said to hell with the procedures and organized defacto strikes and sit-ins. Very soon, existing locals were in the hands of BPR and FAPU workers. New unions were being formed by the BPR. And in the fall of 1979, FAPU won control of one of the largest federations, in- cluding unions controlling electrical power, water supplies and railroads. Political education was an integral part of the experience. Each action was analyzed: why it won or lost, why victory did not solve the basic problem, and why revolutionary to De a necessity. i ne popular organizations focused on demands that were rooted in the daily lives of the peo- ple. But organizers never hid their ultimate goal-socialism-and never ceased to draw the connections between poverty and depen- dent capitalism. Government troops accelerated the educa- tion process. Demonstrators were machine- gunned by the Molina and Romero regimes, while para-military squads, the largest being ORDEN, roamed the countryside. But the political-military organizations of the left - FPL, ERP and the RN* - struck back, eliminating an ORDEN member, kidnapping a factory owner who used goons against strik- ing workers, harassing the National Guard. *The National Resistance (RN). one of the political- military organizations, was formed after a split in the ERP in 1975 (See El Salvador. Part I).NACLA Report Through kidnappings and bank expropria- tions, the revolutionary forces were able to finance the revolution without involving out- side interests. At the beginning of 1980, they were thought to have a war chest of $70 million. By 1979, the popular organizations had eclipsed the electoral opposition; had mobil- ized tens of thousands of people, including new sectors such as market vendors, public employees and white collar workers; had brought the brutality of the Romero regime to international attention. They did so by achieving a set of goals that had proved elusive to the Latin American left since the 1960s: 1. The insularity of each oppressed sector was broken down to achieve a basic alliance between peasants and workers, and a broader alliance with marginal and middle class sectors. 2. The isolation of the left was dissolved by developing a firm base within the working class and peasantry, through long years of steady organizing and political education. 3. Immediate economic demands, relevant to the daily lives of the masses, were pressed, within the context of struggling for fun- damental change in the political and economic spheres. 4. Open mass work--vulnerable to extreme repression--was combined with military actions that served to demonstrate the vulnerability of the oppressors themselves, to deter potential collaborators with the regime, and to prepare for the larger battle ahead. 5. While maintaining different analyses and conceptions of the strugggle, the popular organizations were able to complement each other's efforts and move consistently toward greater unity. 6. The building of large, popular organiza- tions, that permeated every sector of the oppressed and encouraged their active par- ticipation in decisions, planted the political and organizational seeds for a system of popular democracy--before and after the victory.

Tags: El Salvador, civil war, Jose Napoleon Duarte, popular organizations

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