The 1972 Elections

El Salvador Table of Contents

In the wake of the Football War, the PDC sought to turn the issue of unequal land distribution to its political advantage. The war had not only highlighted this issue, it had exacerbated it. Returning refugees were unable to resume the kind of farming they had practiced in Honduras; their employment opportunities as coffee laborers, always limited and seasonal in nature, were restricted still further by the scale of the war-induced influx. Pressure intensified for some kind of land reform.

The PDC was the first political party to drop out of the so- called National Unity Front that had been formed to support the war effort against Honduras. Party spokesmen began to push the issue of full agrarian reform, including credit and technical assistance, as a major platform plank for the 1972 presidential elections. The thinking of the Christian Democrats on this question was as much practical as idealistic. Agrarian reform was not just a popular rallying point for them; it was also seen as a way to establish a new class of small- to medium-sized landholders who would presumably demonstrate some loyalty to the party and government that granted them that status. This was a common strategy for Latin American Christian democratic parties, in keeping with their advocacy of free-enterprise reformism.

The Legislative Assembly provided a tangible demonstration of the appeal of agrarian reform in January 1970 when it convened the National Agrarian Reform Congress in San Salvador. The congress included representatives from the government, the opposition, labor, and business groups. Its convocation was an unprecedented event in Salvadoran history, even though it was charged only with making recommendations, not policy. Moreover, those recommendations turned out to be, by Salvadoran standards, revolutionary. They included a call for massive land expropriation by the government in order to achieve a more equitable and productive distribution of national resources. The delegates judged that landholdings above a certain size could be characterized as fulfilling no legitimate "social function" and were thus legally liable to expropriation under the constitution. This call for expropriation actually exceeded what had been called for in the PDC's reform program. By agreeing to the resolutions of the congress, however, the PDC effectively incorporated expropriation into its political agenda. By so doing, it provoked further misgivings among the elite and conservative sectors of the military with regard to the party's intentions should it achieve power.

The legislative and municipal elections of March 1970 were discouraging for the PDC, as it dropped three seats in the Legislative Assembly and lost control of seventy municipalities. Electoral fraud was alleged against the PCN by the PDC and other opposition parties, but fraud never was proved. Nevertheless, the Christian Democrats confidently looked toward the 1972 presidential balloting. Duarte, the party's most popular figure, had agreed to resign the mayoralty of San Salvador and head the national ticket. Despite the 1970 results, there were signs of weakening popular support for the PCN stemming from economic decline. Agrarian reform provided a strong issue for a national campaign. One problem that confronted the PDC was internal in nature and concerned a dispute over tactics. One faction of the party advocated a direct organizational challenge to the PCN in its rural strongholds, whereas another faction stressed the need to radicalize PDC doctrine and programs in an effort to draw a sharper contrast between it and the ruling party. Duarte, not wishing to become embroiled in this potentially divisive debate, resigned as party secretary general and generally sought to remain above the fray.

The 1972 elections took place in an uneasy political atmosphere. The 1970 election of socialist Salvador Allende Gossens as president of Chile had resurrected anxieties over communist gains in Latin America. This concern was shared not only by the political right and the military but also by the majority of Christian Democrats. In El Salvador, organizational efforts by leftist parties such as the PCES and by activist Roman Catholic clergy were viewed with alarm by conservative sectors. The fears of the economic elite in particular were provoked by the 1971 kidnapping and murder of Ernesto Regalado Duenas, the son of a prominent family, by a leftist terrorist organization calling itself "the Group". A protracted teachers' strike in 1971 only added to the unsettled climate prevailing in the country.

The PDC opted to participate in the elections as the leading party of a coalition designated the United National Opposition (Union Nacional Opositora--UNO). The other members of the coalition were smaller and more radical than the PDC. The National Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Nacional Revolucionario--MNR) was originally a social democratic party. The MNR was pushed further to the left, however, as former PAR supporters joined its ranks after their party was legally proscribed in 1967. The National Democratic Union (Union Democratica Nacional--UDN) was an even smaller grouping that had once described itself as the party of the noncommunist left in El Salvador. By this time, however, the UDN had been infiltrated by the PCES and was functioning as a communist front group. Despite the leftist leanings of the MNR and UDN and the lingering effect of the agrarian reform congress, the UNO platform was moderate in tone, calling for measured reform, respect for private property, and the protection of private investment. As expected, Duarte was tapped as the presidential candidate. He in turn chose the MNR's Guillermo Manuel Ungo Revelo as his running mate.

President Sanchez chose Colonel Arturo Armando Molina as the PCN candidate. The PPS also entered the contest, led by Jose Antonio Rodriguez Porth. A small PCN splinter party calling itself the United Democratic Independent Front, funded by some leading oligarchic families, rounded out the field. The campaign was a violent and dangerous one for the opposition. UNO's leaders decried numerous incidents of harassment, kidnapping, and assault against their activists. The leading perpetrators of these actions, according to the opposition, were troops of the GN. Further roadblocks were thrown in the way of UNO by the PCN- controlled Central Electoral Council, which disqualified the opposition coalition's candidate slates for the Legislative Assembly in the departments of San Salvador, San Miguel, Usulutan, Sonsonate, La Union, and San Vicente.

The actual vote count in the presidential balloting of February 20, 1972, probably will never be known. As expected, Duarte ran strongly in San Salvador, offsetting the traditional PCN advantage in the countryside. Poll watchers for UNO claimed that the final tally nationwide was 327,000 for Duarte and 318,000 for Molina. Tabulations were suspended by the government, however, and a recount was initiated. The official results of that count placed Molina ahead of Duarte by 10,000 votes. The selection of the president thus was relegated to the assembly, where the PCN majority affirmed Molina's tainted victory after a walkout by opposition deputies. An appeal by Duarte and Ungo for new balloting was denied by the Central Electoral Council.

The blatancy of the fraud employed to maintain the PCN in power outraged and disillusioned many Salvadorans, including members of the armed forces. One faction of the officer corps, a new Military Youth, attempted to take direct action to redress the official exploitation of a system that had until that point shown some promise of evolving in a genuinely democratic direction. This group of young army officers, led by Colonel Benjamin Mejia, launched a coup on March 25, 1972. Their immediate goal was the establishment of a "revolutionary junta." It seemed clear, however, that the officers favored the installation of Duarte as president.

Mejia and his followers initiated their action by seizing the presidential residence and taking Sanchez and some of his family members hostage. From that point on, however, events ran against the insurgents. The thunder of aerial bombing over the capital soon announced the loyalty of the air force to the government. The coup attempt never gained the support of more than a minority within the officer corps, and that only in the army. Some residents of the capital took to the streets in support of the young officers, but they were no match for the loyalist military forces. In desperation, Mejia turned to Duarte, urging him to deliver a radio address in support of the rebels. Despite some misgivings, Duarte agreed. His address was broadcast shortly after noon and may have saved some lives by warning civilians to evacuate areas targeted for rebel artillery strikes. Its overall impact, however, was insufficient to reverse the tide of action in the streets. Loyalist forces regained effective control of San Salvador by early that evening.

Like many other government opponents, Duarte sought refuge within the foreign diplomatic community. He was taken in by the first secretary of the Venezuelan embassy but was soon tracked down by government security forces, who broke into the diplomat's house and dragged Duarte away amidst kicks and blows from rifle butts. The Christian democratic leader was detained briefly, beaten, and interrogated, then dispatched to Guatemala. From there, he flew to exile in Venezuela. He left behind a country where aspirations for change had been dashed and where repression was once again the official antidote to dissent.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress