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History, Military Rule, 1931-1979

Almost immediately, Marti led a revolt of farm workers, Native Americans, and other rural Salvadorans, armed mostly with machetes. Hernandez Martinez directed the army to put down this insurrection, which was defeated within days. The military then executed between 10,000 and 30,000 rural Salvadorans. This event, known as La Matanza (the massacre), became a turning point in El Salvador’s history. Before the uprising, the governing elite had tolerated some dissent and allowed labor organizations to form. But after the rebellion, the terrified elite turned to the military to maintain their power. The 1932 revolt also destroyed indigenous culture in most parts of El Salvador, for Native Americans had been especially targeted during the massacre. To survive, the remaining native people adopted mestizo dress and customs.

Hernandez Martinez ruled El Salvador as a military dictator, suppressing dissent, until he was overthrown in 1944 by students, workers, and progressive military officers. In the years that followed, military officers continued to control the government, but new political parties and labor unions were allowed to form, giving the urban middle class an opportunity to participate in politics.

After World War II ended in 1945, the economy became more diversified as new crops were grown for export, which helped increase the size of both the elite and the middle class. But poverty grew more widespread among the lower classes, especially rural Salvadorans who were forced off their land by the expansion of export agriculture. More export crops meant less land available for growing food, and Salvadorans became among the most malnourished people in the world.

The Central American Common Market (CACM), established in 1960, increased trade among the Central American states and helped Salvadoran industry to expand. Much of the industrial development resulted from investments by the same powerful families who had developed the agricultural exports, but for the first time foreign investment also became important to the Salvadoran economy.

The Liberal Party that had dominated Salvadoran politics since the 1860s disappeared during this period, but new parties that were also controlled by the coffee-growing upper class and the military continued to hold power. The Party of Democratic Revolutionary Unification (PRUD) governed until 1961, when it was replaced by the similar Party of National Conciliation (PCN). Led by General Julio Rivera, PCN ruled until 1979. However, other parties became important, drawing support from a wider segment of the population. The most effective were the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR), led by Guillermo Ungo, and the Christian Democratic Party (PDC), headed by Jose Napoleon Duarte. Backed by students, workers, and many Catholic clergy, Duarte was elected mayor of San Salvador in 1964.

In 1969 El Salvador’s economic and social problems contributed to the outbreak of war with neighboring Honduras. The so-called Soccer War began as rioting among fans during World Cup soccer playoff matches between teams from the two nations. But the fundamental underlying cause was the condition of the poor in overpopulated El Salvador. About 300,000 Salvadorans had migrated into more sparsely populated Honduras, taking over land and jobs. Large Honduran landowners and workers who felt threatened by the Salvadorans campaigned to have them expelled, and in 1968 the Honduran government enacted an agrarian reform law that forced thousands of Salvadorans back to their country.

These tensions, along with long-standing border disputes between the two nations and conflicts over trade, flared into military action after riots at the June 1969 soccer match. On July 14 Salvadoran troops launched an invasion, driving about 120 km (about 75 mi) into Honduras. Honduras responded by launching damaging air strikes against Salvadoran ports. The Organization of American States quickly negotiated a cease-fire, and Salvadoran troops withdrew on August 3. (A peace treaty was not signed until 1980, however, and it took until 1992 for the International Court Of Justice to resolve most of the border disputes between the two countries. The final border questions were settled in 1999.)

El Salvador’s troubled economy worsened as refugees from Honduras poured back into the country, where land and food were already scarce. Opposition to the military-led government increased, while Duarte’s popularity rose. In 1972 Duarte ran for president at the head of a coalition of the PDC and MNR, with Ungo as his vice-presidential candidate. Duarte’s coalition appeared to win the election, but the government declared its candidate, Colonel Arturo Molina, the winner. Duarte and Ungo were arrested, then exiled. During the next seven years, the repressive military government clung to power against rising public defiance, and El Salvador became known for human-rights abuses. Protests by students, workers, and peasants were often met with violence by the police or army. Government security forces and right-wing terrorist groups known as death squads were held responsible for the disappearance of union activists, priests, and others who opposed the government. Left-wing guerrilla movements formed, aiming to overthrow the government.

The nation’s serious social and economic inequities continued to worsen, as rapid population growth exceeded economic growth. Even as San Salvador became a modern, urban center, poverty and malnutrition continued to rise.

 

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