El Salvador: The Consolidation and Collapse of Military Domination
- William D. StanleyWilliam D. StanleyDepartment of Political Science, University of New Mexico
El Salvador experienced five decades of direct military rule from 1931 through 1982, followed by a semi-authoritarian phase from 1982 to 1992 during which elected civilians ostensibly governed while the military retained veto power and impunity. Twelve years of civil war produced significant political change, and a 1992 peace settlement finally brought constitutional and institutional reforms that curbed the military’s political power.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the armed forces had a somewhat informal structure, and while coups d’état occurred periodically, the military was more the tool of powerful individuals than the source of their power. An uncompetitive electoral system in the early 20th century broke down in 1931 after a combination of political reforms and financial crisis undermined civilian authority, and a coup enabled the minister of defense to seize power. Shortly thereafter, the fledgling military government suppressed a peasant uprising with extreme violence, thereby consolidating its own position and discouraging challenges from oligarchic elites. Initially military rule was personalistic, with power vested in General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, but in the 1940s this transitioned to a more institutional system in which the officer corps collectively shaped the broad outlines of how the country would be governed and prevented any one leader from dominating. For over 30 years the institutional military government sought to achieve a degree of legitimacy through controlled elections, repressed opposition when it grew too strong, promoted economic growth, and implemented mild social reforms that always stopped short of challenging oligarchic interests.
The military’s strategy failed to resolve severe social and political tensions that arose from the country’s highly unequal distribution of land and income. The military faced popular demands for access to land and adequate wages, while the agrarian elite resisted any reform. Factional strife broke out regularly within the military over whether to rely mainly on repression to contain social and political demands, or to break with the oligarchy and deliver deeper reforms. The result was an inconsistent policy that occasionally created political space for opposition and then violently closed it. By the late 1970s there were massive protests and the beginnings of armed insurgency. Outright civil war began in 1980, and the country began a partial transition to civilian rule in 1982. Despite ample help from the United States, the military failed to defeat the insurgents. In 1990, the conservative elected civilian government began negotiating with the insurgents, leading to accords that definitively excluded the military from political power. After 1992 the country struggled with a sluggish economy and pervasive crime, and questions remained about past human rights crimes. The political system was genuinely democratic, featuring unrestricted debate and a wide range of political ideologies. The military remained largely subordinate to civil authority under governments of both the right and the left. Yet legacies of authoritarianism persisted, and in 2020 a populist elected civilian president called on the military for political support and used it to detain people unlawfully during the COVID-19 pandemic.