El Salvador: Popular Movement Gains

Against the Current, No. 9, May/June 1987

David Finkel

HAND-PAINTED BANNERS of trade unions, farmworker and cooperative associations, students, relatives of the disappeared, and the indigenous [Indian] peoples of El Salvador filled the streets of Santa Ana, the largest city of the western zone, on May 1.

About 6,000 marchers took part, with several thousand more watching from the sidewalks.

Among the marchers were North American activists from the solidarity movement and from several churches. Those of us from the U.S. Midwest and East Coast took part in the Santa Ana march. A little late in arriving because of delays passing through a military roadblock, we received an enthusiastic welcome as we joined the march.

At a rally in the city center where the march concluded, speakers from the popular organizations, who were taking public leadership roles at considerable personal risk, all referred to the political significance of North Americans’ presence.

Our own speaker received one of the loudest ovations. The importance which Salvadoran militants attach to the work of the North American anti-intervention struggle cannot be overstated.

Economics & Politics

For the re-emerging trade union and, popular movement in El Salvador, the demonstrations of May 1 marked a significant advance. In the past two years, this new labor movement, the National Unity of Salvadoran Workers (UNTS), has demonstrated openly its grievances against the U.S.-Duarte administration in the capital city, San Salvador.

This year, UNTS May 1 marches were staged at two points in San Salvador, with tens of thousands of participants. For the first time, UNTS also marched in Santa Ana, San Miguel in the eastern region, and Usulatan in the south.

The marches in the regional centers reflected the movement’s growing capacity, and meant the government could not stop people from participating simply by blocking the highways into the capital.

The marchers’ demands brought together economic and political issues:

• Down with the Duarte government’s economic austerity package.

• No to the war-stop forced recruitment to the armed forces.

• Down with Duarte and “Yanqui” intervention.

• Free the political prisoners and the disappeared.

• Resume the “dialogue,” i.e. the peace talks with the FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation army) and FDR (Revolutionary Democratic Front), which were sabotaged when Duarte militarized the town of Sesori just before a scheduled negotiating session there last year.

The UNTS marches were not the only actions claiming to speak for Salvadoran labor. UNOC, a labor and farmer federation connected to the Christian Democratic Party and the government, sponsored its own march in Santa Ana the following day. We were told that workers and campesinos were being offered 25 colones ($5) to march, just over a day’s wage for an urban worker and three times the rate for agricultural labor.

I didn’t attend that march, but pictures of it appeared in the right-wing daily press. The signs saying “UNOC” looked printed, exactly like the mass-produced signs passed out to participants at AFL­ CIO demonstrations. This is not surprising, since the AFL-CIO and AIFLD (American Institute for Free Labor Development) support and finance UNOC.

The struggle in El Salvador today is as much a political and propaganda war as a military one. For the Duarte government and its backers, the stakes are more than the allegiance of Salvadoran workers and campesinos. Public opinion in the United States is the real prize.

* * * *

“IN THE AREA OF human rights,” says Barbro Owens, a political officer at the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, “there has been significant progress in both quantitative and qualitative ways. Our figures indicate that in 1980 the number of civilians killed for political reasons was about 800 people per month. Our statistics for 1986 indicated a drop to about 22-23 per month. Much of the violence has shifted dramatically from ultra-right death squad murders to guerilla killings carried out by the extreme left.

“Qualitatively we see a gradual move away from death and torture, to a much lesser form of abuse, psychological in nature, which involves verbal abuse and the like instead of direct physical abuse.”

El Salvador is a place where you can get a one-day crash course in human rights. Ms. Owens’ briefing took place in the morning. At mid-day, just before we were to meet with leaders of FENACOA and UNC (respectively federations of agricultural cooperatives and campesino unions), we heard that several activists from these organizations had just been arrested by the National Guard while hanging a banner over a highway advertising the upcoming May 1 march.

Alarmed that they might be detained (which means interrogated and tortured for fifteen days, then imprisoned) or even disappeared if their whereabouts were not immediately determined, our group of North Americans raced off to find them.


We caught up with them shortly after they were, in fact, released unharmed. What had happened was this: when a truckload of heavily-armed National Guard troops approached, unionists who were watching from a pickup truck while their colleagues hung the banner managed to create a momentary diversion.

The four men hanging the banner walked a few yards away and when the Guard grabbed them, claimed that they were simply reading it.

Because the Guard had not detected them actually putting the banner up, they were subjected only to a half hour of menacing and physically humiliating questioning, then let go.

Late in the afternoon we were meeting with representatives of the cooperative and campesino associations, including some of the leaders and activists involved in the banner-hanging incident.

They informed us that their friend and colleague, Manuel de Jesus Hernandez, secretary general of ANTA (National Agricultural Workers Association, part of UNTS) in the department of San Miguel, who had been missing for a week, had been found.

His body, riddled with bullets, was lying on a roadside in the vicinity of San Juan Velasquez. He was killed in the custody of the ‘Leon Battalion” of the Army Third Brigade. The unionists had not been able to recover their friend’s body to return to his family for burial, and they requested that North Americans accompany them to do so.

Manuel de Jesus Hernandez was one of the two dozen victims of political murders per month which represent so dramatic an improvement in human rights. It is worth citing in this connection how Barbro Owens of the U.S. Embassy described the UNTS.

“UNTS is the left-wing umbrella organization which has demonstrated ties to the FMLN. The other side, UNOC, is in our view a more democratically-oriented labor organization. UNTS gets plenty of money from other sources. They are constantly on trips to Europe recruiting support, using the political arm of the FMLN for this purpose.”

In the Salvadoran context, alleging “ties to the FMLN” is not a matter of simple political mudslinging. It is a death sentence-which in the case of Manuel de Jesus Hernandez has been carried out, and still hangs over the heads of every UNTS organizer and officer.

That is one day’s personal investigation of human rights in El Salvador.

* * * *

AT A SMALL agricultural branch bank in the town of San Juan Opico, bank officials explain why the cooperative “Reencarnacion” can’t get any more credit. In the course of a lengthy dialogue, conflicting explanations emerge:

• One official blames the agrarian reform institute, IRA, a marketing agency which buys crops from cooperatives and is supposed to deposit the sale price in the co-op’s account at the bank to cancel its debt.

IRA is very late making the deposits. The bank cannot cover the debt and interest during this gap, because “it decapitalizes us to do this.”

The bank is sympathetic to the co-op’s plight, but decisions rest with the central bank president, who is a government appointee.

• Under questioning from an activist of FENACOA, another official raises a different issue. Cooperatives applying for credit must have documentation for their needs and plans.

Besides a general assembly meeting of the co-op, three separate councils (administrative, advisory and oversight) must submit documentation. It shouldn’t take more than fifteen days, but some cooperatives fail to collect the necessary materials.

What documentation is this co-op lacking? asks the man from FENACOA.

Still another bank officer intervenes: this co-op has the necessary documents. However, a technician from the bank has visited its lands and finds its request for capital funding unjustified.

• The real problem with this co-op and others like it, he says, is poor management of finances. They sell part of their crop to the IRA, but they dispose of the rest on the free market and don’t handle their money properly. They are spending it on consumer goods for the co-op members, rather than saving money to retire their debt.

What the cooperatives really need is a sound education in how to handle their resources and plan ahead.

The Debt Trap

But to understand properly co-op “Reencarnacion” and its problems, you have to visit the place. Doing this puts you right in the center of the much-heralded agrarian reform policies of the Salvadoran government and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

To begin with, this co-op falls into the traditional or “non-reform” sector, meaning that it did not get its land under Phase 1 of the official Land Reform, which was aimed only at the largest estates. (Phase 2, which would have affected a much larger number of medium-sized estates, including coffee plantations, was cancelled due to the pressure of extreme rightists in the parliament backed by the oligarchy.)

If the co-op were part of the “reform” sector, it would receive some benefits from the Christian Democratic patronage system. A “reform” sector co-op might have tractors, better housing or school teachers paid by the government. But the government stopped paying the teacher who services “Reencarnacion.” That money is needed for the war.

The co-op has “provisional title” to land which was lost by a former landowner who couldn’t make his payments. And what land! The fields are hillsides, some quite steep, littered with giant rocks.

The campesinos use heavy sticks to poke the ground, looking for soil deep enough to plant each individual seed.

There are no tractors. During the last electoral campaign tractors and drivers from the government suddenly turned up. But they didn’t finish the work before the election. Afterward they were never seen again. The co-op cannot pay the costs of fuel and the wages of a driver in order to rent a tractor for plowing.

The marketing agency IRA promises to purchase 50% of the crop. It actually buys only 20 % and is not heard from again. IRA’s delay in depositing the sale in the bank makes it hard for the co-op to get credit for fertilizer for the next planting season, so some land lies fallow.

Crops that are not sold to IRA must be sold to intermediaries at knock-down prices. The campesinos believe that some of these are working for government officials, who channel the food to Honduras for sale at higher prices on the black market.

The co-op sells its own crop of high-quality corn and beans. It buys inferior substitutes to eat. (Co-op members are spending their money on “consumer goods,” the bank official said.)

It is still a better life than that of landless agricultural laborers, who may work one estate for fifteen days or so before moving on to the next, for a wage of eight colones ($1.60) a day. But the former landowner is claiming he still has title to the land and the co-op may face losing it.

Is there some kind of pattern to this petty cheating and debt trap that threatens this co-op’s existence and has forced others to dissolve?

I suspect there is. USAID money for the agrarian reform, supposedly to help finance cooperatives to lease land, is instead artificially inflating land values for purposes of speculation. This would explain why a private landowner who could not make a profit from these dreadful rocky hillsides now wants them back.

IRA is probably cash-starved because resources are diverted to feed the army and pay military salaries. So it cheats by buying less of the crop than it promised, then holds back for months on the payments.

The landowners who rely on cheap, unorganized rural labor would naturally hate the cooperatives and seek to destroy them.

Are peasant cooperatives truly a subversive force? Apparently so: in March and April thirty-five cooperativists in various places were captured-detained by the military, tortured and imprisoned without charge, sentence or trial.

The law known as Decree 50 which allowed detention without trial has lapsed, but the military simply issued its own regulation under which the same practices continue.

At San Carlos de la Flores, armed men attacked a co-op, forced the men into a barn, threw in a grenade that killed four, then they raped a number of the women. We tried to get permission to visit there, but could not get passes from the military to enter the area.

A Few Conclusions

Every solidarity activist who visits El Salvador can expect to be asked on returning: Who is winning? How long will Duarte survive? How long before the revolution succeeds?

I do not think it is possible to give definite positive answers, but some partial and negative answers are possible-that is, one can point out things that are not happening.

What is most assuredly not happening is what the U.S. propaganda line hails as the “consolidation of the fragile Salvadoran democracy” and the “weakening of the FMLN.”

A pro-business biweekly in San Salvador, the El Salvador News-Gazette, gives the Salvadoran government budget deficit as one billion colones ($200 million). This means that 40% of U.S. aid to El Salvador in effect goes simply to cover that deficit. Barbro Owens, the U.S. Embassy political officer, denies that U.S. money covers Salvadoran government deficits. She concedes, however, that the economy is a shambles with no upturn in sight.

Declining world prices in cotton, sugar and coffee, plus U.S. import quotas and the ability of other countries to produce cotton more cheaply than El Salvador, have devastated the agroexport sector.

Owens describes the FMLN’s shift to smaller guerilla units, following massive government bombing of the Salvadoran countryside, as “a type of terrorist warfare, instead of taking on the armed forces.” She did not mention the FMLN’s destruction of the El Paraiso military base, where a U.S. military advisor and somewhere between sixty and several hundred Salvadoran government troops died while their officers hid throughout the battle in a secure bunker.

Owens concedes that FMLN operations against economic infrastructure have caused damage equal to “the total value of U.S. aid to El Salvador over the past five years.”

Most telling, perhaps, is Owens’ admission that the “democratically elected” Duarte administration has no capacity whatever for economic reform. “Sound economic policy,” she maintains, would dictate (i) that the wealthy pay some taxes to bring in revenue to the government, and (ii) that food and utilities should cost more.

To implement either of these would cause revolt by the oligarchy and big business on one side, by workers and the poor on the other, or both. Owens concludes: “U.S. policy is very clear-the democratic process is absolutely vital. We don’t want to jeopardize the democratic process for the sake of some economic reforms.” (On February 20, the Salvadoran Supreme Court declared income and property taxes unconstitutional.)

For the U.S., “the democratic process” in El Salvador has no social content. If, in reading Ms. Owens’ statement, you substitute for “the democratic process” the phrase “keeping Duarte in power at all costs until 1989, when a more right-wing alternative may emerge in the presidential election,” you have the essence of U.S. political strategy.

While U.S. policy on the ground is visibly failing, it is much more difficult to assess when and how the revolutionary forces and popular movement might win. The victory of the Salvadoran revolution seemed on the agenda in the early 1980s. It was turned back by the ability of the U.S.-backed military and death squads to apply crushing force against the urban movement, as well as wholesale massacres of peasant villages.

Salvadoran unionists today expect an increase in repression responding to the growth of the UNTS, whether or not there is a return to the tens of thousands of death squad murders and disappearances of five and six years ago.

A successful urban insurrection or “Tet Offensive” (as in Vietnam in 1968) seems out of the question so long as the military remains intact. Any such attempt could destroy the popular movement and its organizations for years or decades.

It is conceivable that a violent split between Duarte and the oligarchy could create a civil war within the government camp, leading to the disintegration of the army or forcing massive direct U.S. intervention to save it. No strategy, however, can be predicated on such a speculative scenario.

Besides, with enough money to finance a patronage machine and bribe the various contending factions, the U.S. could succeed in holding together the tenuous unity of the military command with Duarte’s ramshackle government.

Thus, while the FMLN’s proven staying power and its ability to operate in practically every part of the country clearly affect the army’s morale, and help keep open the small political space within which grassroots organizations and unions can organize, the present and immediately foreseeable balance of forces, political and military, does not suggest a successful all-out revolutionary offensive in the short run.

* * * *

THIS IS NOT to suggest that the political-military situation in El Salvador is “stalemated” in some frozen sense, or that the only prospect is an endless Lebanon-like cycle of escalating bloodshed without result.

Rather, the conclusion to be drawn is that activists in solidarity with the Salvadoran people’s freedom struggle need to prepare for a number of years’ more hard work; and that the broad anti-intervention movement, in building the struggle to stop the terrorist contra war against Nicaragua, must put U.S. intervention in El Salvador high on its agenda of concerns.

We cannot tolerate a tradeoff where a hundred million dollars of contra aid is replaced by several hundred millions of additional financing of the Salvadoran military, through U.S. military and war-related “economic” grants to the Duarte regime.

The unions, the cooperative and farmworker organizations, the committees of the displaced and relatives of the disappeared, of the political prisoners, students and indigenous Salvadorans-this network makes up the movement with the capacity to rebuild their country. The whole purpose of U.S. intervention is to make sure they never get the chance.

The rebirth of the open popular movement is the new hope, the challenge to the regime’s empty “reconstruction” rhetoric and the U.S. campaign to create tame, apolitical and corrupt trade union structures.

While this was my first visit to El Salvador, activists who had been there before felt that the comparison with two years ago was between night and day: the slogans on the walls, including magnificent spray-painted anti-imperialist graffiti all over the outer walls of the heavily guarded U.S. Embassy, the unions’ ability to organize among the earthquake victims, the public activity of organizations despite the continuing detentions and disappearances of leading activists.

No one believes, of course, that spray paint cans will defeat a military machine. They express, however, a growing spirit of confidence and defiance. That spirit is a tremor predicting the social earthquake to come.


Suggested further reading: an excellent overview of the present situation in El Salvador and the failure of U.S. policy appears in the April 1987 issue of Monthly Review: “The War in El Salvador: A Reassessment,” by Tom Barry and Deb Preusch of the Resource Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. For an account of efforts by AIFLD to wreck the UNTS, see “Duarte’s Secret Friends,” by Frank Smyth, in The Nation, March 14, 1987, 317-18. The newspaper of the National Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), the Alert, will be carrying articles on the capture and detention of agricultural cooperativists. For subscription information write to CISPES, P.O. Box 12056, Washington, D.C. 20005.

May-June 1987, ATC 9

Leave a comment

ATC welcomes online comments on stories that are posted on its website. Comments are intended to be a forum for open and respectful discussion.
Comments may be denied publication for the use of threatening, discriminatory, libelous or harassing language, ad hominem attacks, off-topic comments, or disclosure of information that is confidential by law or regulation.
Anonymous comments are not permitted. Your email address will not be published.
Required fields are marked *