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Essay: U.S. Foreign Policy: El Salvador

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Sierra Club

by Nicholas Klar

In countries such as El Salvador history has an unfortunate way of repeating itself. This is particularly so when comparing the situations of the 1930's and 1970's/80's. Poor economic conditions give rise to popular organizations which are in turn repressed and massacres occur. At the same time there are intra-class struggles amongst the oligarchy for political hegemony. In the Oliver Stone movie 'Salvador' an old lady talks of the unrest, draws on her cigar, and states dryly, "It's just like 1932 all over again."

The 1929 stock market crash brought about a subsequent collapse in the price of coffee beans, El Salvador’s main export. Crops were left unharvested, and thousands of sharecroppers and peasants starved.[1] The formation of the Communist Party in 1930 gave hope for change. In 1931 Arturo Araujo and his broad coalition won El Salvador's first 'free' election, displacing the long ruling oligarchy. Although a wealthy landowner, Araujo ran on a platform of reform and redistribution of wealth. However he could not fulfill his promises to the poor, and was continually attacked by an oligarchy opposed to his reforms.[2]

His reign lasted less than a year before he was overthrown by defense minister General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez, a man who considered it worse to kill an ant than a person. A peasant uprising quickly followed on the heels of the coup, led by Augustin Farabundo Marti, leader of the communist party. Marti, later to lend his name to the liberation movement of the 70's and 80's (F.M.L.N.), was former secretary to Augusto C. Sandino in Nicaragua. The uprising was shortlived, Martinez and his troops prevailed within a few days. Later, in an act of bloody revenge, Martinez unleashed the matanza. Between 10,000 and 30,000 peasants were killed, around 4% of the population.[3]

While the opposition was crushed, the military established a rule that was not seriously challenged for 50 years. The US, eager to override communist influence, gave the Martinez government its approval. This legacy would legitimize military dictatorships in Central America, particularly those associated with US interests.[4] The oligarchy wielded its power, repressing the slightest sign of nonconformity. Martinez was finally ousted in 1944 but the basic structures remained the same. This and other coups that followed were only redistributions of power amongst the elite, composed of the 'fourteen families'. For over 50 years,

'...the Presidents have been nothing more than representatives of the ruling class, a mediation of the army in the form of domination.'[5]

Even in today’s Peace Accord the legacies of 1932 run deep. Around 80,000 killed during the 1980's reflects the ugly days of the matanza. [6] The divisions in El Salvador have burnt so deep over 60 years that it is almost impossible for one side to trust the other, no matter how sincere the intent. Moderate forces are distrusted by both sides, just as Araujo was. After initial agreement on a peace accord, both sides are vacillating over agreed demands.[7] The negotiations are at a delicate stage but it can only be hoped that the 'specter of 1932' will finally be laid to rest.


[1] Bissio p.303

[2] Menjivar p.21

[3] Diskin and Sharpe p.51

[4] Menjivar p.22

[5] Ibid p.27

[6] Bissio p.304

[7] 'San Francisco Chronicle' p.A16


R.Bissio (Ed.) 'Third World Guide 91/92' Instituto del Tercer Mundo:Uruguay

M.Diskin and K.Sharpe 'El Salvador' in R.Blachman, et al (Ed.) 'Confronting Revolution' Pantheon:NY 1986

R.Menjivar 'El Salvador:The Smallest Link' in Contemporary Marxism #1 "Strategies for the Class Struggle in Latin America" San Francisco, 1980

'San Francisco Chronicle' October 29, 1992

© 1993-2008, Nicholas Klar, PO Box 280, Brighton SA 5048, AUSTRALIA 

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REF: Nicholas Klar, 1993, "U.S. Foreign Policy - El Salvador " - + date accessed

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