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El Salvador oppression persists

Column/Barry Klinger

After several years off the front pages of newspapers, El Salvador is once again returning to the headlines. The government that the United States helped create is politically bankrupt and expected to lose the presidential election in March. The civil war for which US taxpayers have paid $3 billion is escalating in intensity. And the death squads that Ronald Reagan assured us were declining are now killing more people again. Meanwhile the guerrilla umbrella organization, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), has made a controversial peace proposal.

Tiny shifts in policy here in the United States can mean life or death for thousands in Central America, so it's important that we remember El Salvador, remote and tiny as it may seem. But if we are to have any say in United States policy, we must understand how El Salvador got to where it is today.

The civil war that has already killed seventy thousand (out of a population of five million) has its roots in the explosion of participation in politics that began in the late 1960s. For generations, El Salvador has been ruled by military dictatorships protecting the interests of a few rich, landowning families. The previous serious challenge to the dictatorship was a peasant uprising in 1932. The military easily crushed the uprising and retaliated with the "Matanza," or massacre. In the Matanza, the military killed at least ten thousand in retaliation for a failed peasant uprising that killed about one hundred people. But a number of factors converged by the 1972 election to make the dictatorship totter.

During the 1960s the dictatorship allowed greater political space for opposition. For instance, it stopped fixing the elections. The Catholic Church, which had formerly encouraged the peasants to accept their misery passively, now called for "far-reaching, daring, urgent, and profoundly innovating change" in order to end "a situation of injustice that must be recognized as institutionalized violence." The economic problems were distressingly similar to the one that had caused the uprising of 1932. True, El Salvador was industrializing and its GNP was growing, but precious little new wealth trickled down to the desperately poor majority. And just as coffee growers stole lands from thousands in the early years of this century, so the number of landless peasants increased throughout the 1960s.

In response, tens of thousands of peasants and workers joined unions, political organizations, and Church groups that clamored for an end to repression and the implementation of economic reforms that would break the tight grip the wealthy minority had on the country. Such was their growing power that despite repression, a coalition of the centrist and center-left parties headed by Jos'e Napoleon Duarte and Guillermo Ungo actually won the election. Then the army stepped back in, voided the election, and clamped down on the movement. For the next four years, despite murder and torture, despite the government-sponsored network of informers and killers known as ORDEN, the movement grew.

After the 1977 elections, again marked by fraud, repression increased. Now the army fired with machine guns on peaceful demonstrations. Yet the government grew evermore vulnerable. In 1979, a group of reformist military officers, with US approval, launched a coup and invited opposition leaders into the government. The United States hoped that in this way some reforms would be instituted before the country was so polarized that a radical, possibly anti-US regime came to power.

Land reform, nationalization of the banks, and other measures were drawn up. But the army was still in control. Working hand in hand with paramilitary "death squads" similar to ORDEN, it increased killings to one thousand a month.

In 1980, as the army butchered tens of thousands, tiny guerrilla groups swelled with new recruits and united to form the FMLN. Most of the civilians resigned from the government to protest the massacre -- and fled the country. Duarte stayed in the government, attempting to bring extremely limited reform to a regime still controlled by the army. Ungo went into exile to continue the struggle for more fundamental change.

Thus was born El Salvador the "fledgling democracy," where reform and repression go hand in hand. Electoral fraud was minimized -- but opposition politicians were murdered. Some large farms were carved up to form cooperatives -- and those who were elected to be leaders of the co-ops were "disappeared." In the United States, "violence on both sides" is bemoaned, but in fact the overwhelming majority of the forty thousand civilians murdered since 1979 were opponents of the government. The military and the wealthy are made to share a little power with reformers, but they are given massive military and financial aid with which to carry on the killing.

Duarte's supporters said the he represented the only hope for change in El Salvador. But he served as the perfect public relations ploy for a military establishment that badly needed a better image if it was to get United States aid it needed to survive.

Despite this sad status quo, by 1984 the consensus in Washington supported this policy in El Salvador. Congress expected that Duarte would be able to satisfy the population's desire for change while the US-supplied army would destroy the guerrillas.

Neither happened.


Barry Klinger G is a member of the MIT Committee on Central America and has followed events in El Salvador for eight years. This is his first in a series of columns on El Salvador.