Economic Crisis and Repression

El Salvador Table of Contents

The presidency of Pio Romero Bosque (1927-31) was a transitional period in Salvadoran history that ended the relatively stable functioning of the coffee republic and the liberal economic system that sustained it. The world depression of the 1930s, which precipitated a sharp fall in world coffee prices, hit hard in El Salvador. The loss of income reverberated throughout the society; as always, those on the lower end of the economic scale felt the deprivation most keenly, as wages were reduced and employment levels cut back. The government first responded with limited reform to ease this situation and the popular unrest it produced. The subsequent response was brutal repression.

President Romero was the designated successor of President Quinonez, who apparently expected Don Pio, as he came to be known, to carry on the noninterventionist political tradition of his predecessors. Romero, however, for reasons of his own, decided to open up the Salvadoran system to a limited but still significant degree. He turned on Quinonez, exiling him from the country, and sought to exclude other members of the elite from the government. He is best remembered for allowing the presidential and municipal elections of 1931, the freest held in El Salvador up to that time. These elections still excluded any radical party that might have sought to overturn the existing governmental system; nevertheless, they resulted in the election of Arturo Araujo, who enjoyed a mildly reformist reputation despite his oligarchic family background.

Araujo assumed the presidency at a time of severe economic crisis. Between 1928 and 1931, the coffee export price had dropped by 54 percent. The wages paid agricultural workers were cut by an equal or greater extent. Food supplies, dependent on imports because of the crowding out of subsistence cultivation by coffee production, likewise fell sharply. Privation among the rural labor force, long a tolerated fact of life, sank to previously unknown depths. Desperate campesinos began to listen more attentively to the exhortations of radicals such as Agustin Farabundo Marti.

Marti came from a relatively well-to-do landowning family. He was educated at the University of El Salvador (commonly referred to as the National University), where his political attitudes were influenced by the writings of Karl Marx and other communist theorists. He was an original member of the Central American Socialist Party (founded in Guatemala in 1925) and a propagandist for the Regional Federation of Salvadoran Workers. He also spent a few months in Nicaragua with that country's noted guerrilla leader, Augusto Cesar Sandino. Marti and Sandino parted ways over the Nicaraguan's refusal to add Marxist flourishes to his nationalistic battle against a United States occupation force. Jailed or expelled several times by Salvadoran authorities, Marti kept up his efforts to organize popular rebellion against the government with the goal of establishing a communist system in its place. The widespread discontent provoked by the coffee crisis brought ever-increasing numbers of Salvadorans under the banner of such Marxist organizations as the Communist Party of El Salvador (Partido Comunista de El Salvador--PCES), the AntiImperialist League, and the Red Aid International (Socorro Rojo Internacional--SRI). Marti was the Salvadoran representative of the SRI, which was closely associated with the other two groups.

Most dissatisfied Salvadorans were driven more by hunger and frustration than by ideology. Araujo, a product of the economic elite, was burdened by loyalty to his class, by the unyielding opposition of that class to political reform, by the increasing polarization between the elite and the masses, and by the suspicions of the military. Araujo's initial response to popular unrest, perhaps a conditioned one, was to quell disturbances by force. When demonstrations persisted, the president decided to offer a concession instead of a club. He scheduled municipal elections for December 1931; furthermore, he offered the unprecedented gesture of allowing the PCES to participate in those elections.

In the tense political atmosphere of the time, this last concession aroused both the landholding elite and, more important, the military. A December coup staged against Araujo drew support from a large number of military officers, who cited Araujo's ineptitude to justify their action. This rationalization did not match the portentous significance of the event, however. The 1931 coup represented the first instance when the Salvadoran military took direct action as an institution to curtail a potential political drift to the left. This watershed event ushered in a period of direct and indirect military rule that would last for fifty years.

The rebellious officers shortly installed as the country's leader General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez (known in El Salvador by his matronymic, Martinez), who had been Araujo's vice president and minister of war. Surprisingly, Martinez allowed the promised elections to take place only a month later than originally scheduled, and with the participation of the PCES. The general's motivations in this regard, however, seem to have run more toward drawing his enemy into the open than toward the furthering of democratic government, for the communist candidates who won municipal offices in the western part of the country subsequently were barred from assuming those offices.

The denial of the municipal posts has been cited as the catalyst for the launching of a rural insurrection that had been in the planning stages for some time. Unfortunately for the rebels, the military obtained advance warning of their intentions. Marti and other rebel leaders were arrested on January 18, 1932. Confusion and poor communications led the insurgents to go ahead with their action as planned four days later. The rebels succeeded in capturing government buildings in the towns of Izalco, Sonzacate, Nahuizalco, Juay˙a, and Tacuba. They were repulsed by the local garrisons in Sonsonate, Santa Tecla, and Ahuachapan. Even the small successes of the insurgents were short lived, however, as GN and army units were dispatched to relieve local forces or to retake areas held by the rebels. Less than seventy-two hours after the initial uprising, the government was again firmly in control. It was then that reprisals began.

The military's action would come to be known as la matanza. Some estimates of the total number of campesinos killed run as high as 30,000. Although the true number never will be known, historian Alastair White has cited 15,000 to 20,000 as the best approximation. No matter what figure one accepts, the reprisals were highly disproportionate to the effects of the communist-inspired insurgency, which produced no more than thirty civilian fatalities. The widespread executions of campesinos, mainly Indians, apparently were intended to demonstrate to the rural population that the military was now in control in El Salvador and that it would brook no challenges to its rule or to the prevailing system. That blunt message was received, much as it had been after the failure of Aquino's rebellion a century earlier. The memory of la matanza would linger over Salvadoran political life for decades, deterring dissent and maintaining a sort of coerced conformity.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress