Repression and Reform Under Military Rule

Repression and Reform Under Military Rule

The assumption of power by Martinez initiated an extended period of rule by a military institution that continued to struggle with its own conception of its role as director of the country's political process. Older, more conservative officers were pushed by their younger subordinates to loosen up the system and institute at least some limited reforms in order to minimize the likelihood of another violent disruption like that of 1932. The notion of guided reform, instituted and controlled from above, generally came to be accepted as the best course for the military to steer between the twin shoals of heavy-handed repression and radical revolution. That is not to say, however, that repression was abandoned as a tool of political control. In fact, it alternated with guided reform depending on the prevailing socioeconomic pressures of the time. This process of limited liberalization combined with firm control characterized the political order of El Salvador for some five decades.

The first of many military presidents to come, Martinez was an autocrat who enjoyed the longest tenure in office of any Salvadoran president. His anticommunist fervor, so amply demonstrated by la matanza, has made him an enduring hero of the political right (a right-wing death squad of the 1970s would bear his name). His personal quirks are also legendary. A believer in spiritualism and other mystic creeds, he is most frequently remembered for having strung colored lights throughout San Salvador in an effort to ward off a smallpox epidemic.

Martinez was confirmed as president by the legislature in 1932. He was elected to a four-year term of office in 1935 and a six-year term in 1939. Although it was marked by institutionalized repression of dissent, Martinez's tenure was not altogether a negative period for the country. It provided a stability and continuity that contributed to a general improvement in the national economy. Like other Salvadoran presidents before him, Martinez did not interfere greatly with the elite-dominated economic system. He did, however, make some minor concessions to the poor, establishing a government welfare institution known as Social Improvement (Mejoramiento Social), continuing a very limited land redistribution program begun under Araujo, and attempting to protect the domestic handicraft industry. Although he was personally drawn to the fascist movements in Mussolini's Italy and Nazi Germany, Martinez committed El Salvador to the Allied effort during World War II. This pragmatic move apparently bought El Salvador a fair amount of goodwill in Washington. Despite the length of his rule, relations between the general and the oligarchy were uneasy, in part because of Martinez's humble origins, but also because of his personal eccentricities and the unpredictability that they seemed to reflect. This vague distrust of Martinez was transformed into active elite opposition by his decision in 1943 to raise more revenue through an increase in the export tax.

The last straw for the general's detractors was his effort to extend his term beyond 1944 by means of legislative fiat rather than direct election. The coalition that united in support of his overthrow was a somewhat eclectic one: civilian politicians, pro- Axis military officers, businessmen and bankers (who objected to the government's limited economic restrictions), and irate coffee producers. An initial attempt to oust Martinez by force was unsuccessful, but subsequent unrest in the capital, including a general strike, moved him to resign his office in May 1944. His successor, General Andres Ignacio Menendez, called for political liberalization and free elections; the sincerity of his appeal was never tested, however, as he was turned out of office by the military in October.

Menendez's replacement was Colonel Osmin Aguirre y Salinas, the director of the PN and a former follower of the deposed Martinez. The Aguirre regime went ahead with elections scheduled for January 1945 but manipulated the results to ensure the victory of its candidate, General Salvador Castaneda Castro.

Castaneda's rule was unremarkable. The events of 1944 had left the country in an unresolved state of political uncertainty. Fearing some action against him and his conservative followers, Castaneda sought to weed out young reform-minded officers by dispatching them abroad for training. This sector of the officer corps, however, was substantial, and its members could not be excluded indefinitely from the political process. They made their influence felt in 1948, when Castaneda made his own attempt to extend his term in office by way of legislative maneuvering without recourse to the ballot box. The movement that ousted him from power on December 14, 1948, referred to itself as the Military Youth (Juventud Militar). For as long as its members exerted control in El Salvador, they would refer to their action as the Revolution of 1948.

The coup leaders established a junta, which was referred to as the Revolutionary Council; it included three mid-level officers and two civilian professionals. The council ruled for some twenty-one months and guided the country toward comparatively open elections in March 1950. During this period, it became clear that Major Oscar Osorio was the dominant force within the junta and among the officer corps. Osorio was so sure of his support that he resigned from the junta in order to run in the elections as the candidate of the Revolutionary Party of Democratic Unification (Partido Revolucionario de Unificacion Democratica--PRUD).

Osorio eked out a victory over Colonel Jose Asencio Menendez of the Renovating Action Party (Partido Accion Renovadora--PAR) and went on to establish the PRUD as a quasi-official party modeled roughly on the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional--PRI) of Mexico. Although the PRUD enjoyed some measure of support, it was never able to replicate the broad base of the PRI, mainly because the process that produced the PRUD--the so-called Revolution of 1948--was not itself a mass movement.

The policies of Osorio and his successor, Lieutenant Colonel Jose Maria Lemus, were distinctly different from those of previous Salvadoran leaders. They emphasized economic development, public works, the diversification of agriculture, the establishment of such programs as social security (including medical and hospital care), and improvements in sanitation and housing. Union organization was encouraged, and collective bargaining was instituted. All this was accomplished within the boundaries of guided reform; no measures were taken that might have threatened the elite-dominated system (agrarian reform, for example, was never attempted), and radical elements were discouraged or eliminated through repressive means.

The election of Lemus in 1956 did much to discourage the notion of possible political pluralism in El Salvador. As the candidate of the PRUD, Lemus initially was challenged by the standard-bearers of three other ad hoc parties. The most popular of the three appeared to be Roberto Canessa, a civilian who had served as Osorio's foreign minister. A month before the election, however, Canessa was disqualified by the government-controlled Central Electoral Council on a technicality. Another opposition candidate was barred from the race because of allegations of fiscal impropriety during his tenure as ambassador to Guatemala. Although the opposition attempted to unite behind the remaining candidate, Lemus topped the official election returns with an improbable 93 percent of the vote.

Perhaps in an effort to make amends for the means by which he came to office, Lemus initially took some conciliatory steps, such as declaring a general amnesty for political prisoners and exiles, voiding a number of repressive laws left over from previous regimes, and selecting men of recognized probity and ability for his cabinet. The course of his administration, however, was dominated by economic events. A decline in the export prices of coffee and cotton and the resultant drop in income and revenue exposed the weakness of the PRUD's limited reforms. Heavy-handed political manipulations by the government and the party, in particular the approval of a new electoral law that all but precluded an effective opposition, exacerbated widespread dissatisfaction with the Lemus government. After 1959 the influence of what then appeared to be a popular, nationalistic revolutionary movement in Cuba was felt in El Salvador as it was throughout Latin America. Student groups were particularly inspired by the example of Fidel Castro Ruz and his revolutionaries. Public demonstrations in San Salvador called for Lemus's removal and the imposition of a truly democratic system. The president responded by abandoning his earlier efforts at reform in favor of heightened repression. Free expression and assembly were banned, and political dissidents were detained arbitrarily.

This instability provoked concern among important political actors in El Salvador. For the elite, the government's emphasis on economic development was pointless under such a climate; the emerging middle class likewise felt a threat to its gains from the specter of revolution; and the military reacted almost reflexively to the spectacle of a president who had lost control. Lemus was deposed in a bloodless coup on October 26, 1960.

Governmental authority again passed into the hands of a military-civilian junta. The ranking military representative was Lieutenant Colonel Julio Adalberto Rivera. Aside from Rivera, the junta member who drew the most attention was Fabio Castillo, a university professor and known sympathizer with the Cuban Revolution. Castillo's presence, along with the renewed reformist policies of the junta, convinced the elite and the conservative military officers that the government was influenced by communism. Again, it was the military that acted to head off this perceived threat to stability. A coup by young officers overthrew the junta on January 25, 1961. The officers affirmed their anticommunist and anti-Castro convictions, retained Rivera as part of a new junta, and promised elections.

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