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COLLECTIONPublished articles
TITLEThe Making of Central America: Intervention, Dictatorship, and Revolution
AUTHOR 1Phillip Berryman
TITLE_PARENTdialogue magazine
CITY_THISLos Angeles
ABSTRACTHistory of Western and Christian involvement in Latin America. (No mention of the Bahá'í Faith.)
NOTES See also "Ita and the Sandinista Revolution," and "Exile from El Salvador: A Conversation with Antonio."

See also list of dialogue articles or image scans.

TAGSCentral America; History (general)
CONTENT Central America was born in an act of violence: the conquest of its indigenous people. In the 1520s Spaniards arrived from both north and south and, taking advantage of rivalries among native Indian groups in Guatemala, defeated them and gradually extended that conquest throughout the isthmus. By 1540 the Indians had been largely defeated, although the conquest was not completed in Costa Rica until 1561. As Europeans did elsewhere, the Spaniards inflicted death by weapons and disease. Some of the decimated native peoples were pushed into remote areas, while others became assimilated through marriage. In Guatemala, the Indians retained their identity and still form over half of the population.

Because it soon became clear that there was little gold or silver in the region, the conquerors set up plantations to grow cacao for export markets. Indians were subjugated economically, first by being obliged to pay tribute to Spain, and then by repartimiento, a legal requirement stipulating that each week a quarter of the men of a village had to work for the Spaniards. When production in other regions such as Venezuela made cacao unprofitable, the colonists moved to exporting indigo dyes. This required a great deal of Indian labor. From the conquest to the present, small elites have prospered by controlling the land and commanding a ready supply of very cheap labor.

Because it had no precious metals, Central America remained a backwater during the colonial period. Central Americans did not play an important role in the struggle for independence from Spain. When independence was achieved in 1821, the region briefly came under Mexican control; but in 1823 it became autonomous under the name of the United Provinces of Central America. For almost fifteen years, the United provinces existed as a political unit, despite sharp Liberal-Conservative battles. Then, in 1837-1838, a series of revolts swept through the isthmus from Guatemala to Costa Rica; and the present five countries became independent nations.

More important than the political seesaw between Liberals and Conservatives was the introduction of coffee. Production began in Costa Rica in the 1830s. Since colonial times, Costa Rican society had been somewhat less exploitative than that of its neighbors. There was no class of Indians condemned to forced labor. Hence, coffee was produced largely on small and medium-sized landholdings. By contrast, in the 1870s, when the elites of Guatemala and El Salvador recognized that European industrial growth was creating a rapidly spreading taste for coffee, they enacted decrees making the Indians’ communal lands and the Catholic religious orders’ lands illegal, so that they could then expropriate them for their own profit.

Around the turn of the century, American entrepreneurs began the banana export operations that soon became the United Fruit and Standard Fruit companies. While coffee production remained in the hands of national elites, the banana companies were foreign enclaves. From the north coast of Honduras, for example, they shipped directly to U.S. ports, from which they also imported what they required. the banana companies acquired vast areas of land (nearly a million acres in 1914, for example), and made sure that the various Honduran governments were accommodating, but they contributed nothing to the internal development of the country.


It should not be surprising that in order to maintain an agroexport system that benefitted themselves, the elites systematically applied coercion. In Central America, dictatorship has been the normal method of rule despite the formal apparatus of representative government. During colonial times, Indians sometimes rose up against the elites, but these rebellions were local and could be suppressed. That there were further revolts after independence testifies to an enduring sense among Indians and peasants that the social order was unjust.

United States intervention has also played a major role in shaping (or misshaping) Central America. In the 1850s an American adventurer named William Walker and a contingent of “filibusters” (private American citizens who during the nineteenth century fomented revolution in Latin American countries for their own gain) fought on the Liberal side in a Nicaraguan civil war. Walker became head of an army and, in an astounding move, had himself elected president in 1856. The following year he was defeated by an army from neighboring countries. Many in the United States considered Walker to be a hero, and he persisted in his adventures until he was captured and executed in Honduras in 1860.

Although he was a private citizen, many Central Americans saw in Walker a symbol of U.S. expansionism. During the Civil War and the industrial buildup that followed it, there was relatively little U.S. interest in Latin America. But by the turn of the century Americans had become expansionistic. Between 1898 and 1920 the United States sent troops to the Caribbean or Central America 20 times.

In 1912 U.S. Marines landed in Nicaragua to protect a president whom the U.S. government had helped install. From that time until 1933 (with one short absence), the Marines remained in Nicaragua. Although their numbers were small, they effectively controlled national policy. In 1927, when Augusto Cesar Sandino refused to accept a U.S.-imposed election formula, he found himself involved in a guerrilla war with the Marines. Sandino, the son of a landholder and peasant woman, had worked for American mining and fruit companies in Central America and in Mexico during the revolution there. Although they pursued him until 1933, the Marines did not defeat Sandino. He agreed to a truce when the U.S. forces were withdrawn. In the meantime, the Marines had trained the National Guard and put the first Anastasio Somoza in charge. On the night of February 11, 1934, Sandino and two of his aides were picked up by National Guardsmen, taken out to a field and shot down. They were later buried under the airport runway. Hundreds of Sandino’s followers were then murdered. Anastasio Somoza went on to establish a dictatorship that was to last 45 years.

As the Great Depression brought plummeting coffee prices and widespread unemployment, the Central American oligarchies responded to growing unrest with repression. Dictators ruled everywhere but Costa Rica. In El Salvador, growing conflict led to a peasant (largely Indian) uprising in January 1932. The uprising was put down easily and its leaders, including Augustin Farabundo Marti, a communist, were captured and killed. However, for good measure, the dictator, Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez, ordered troops to keep killing peasants. The resulting slaughter of 30,000 peasants was seared into the memories of Salvadorans. Hernandez Martinez represented the coffee growers and resisted efforts at modernization. In 1944 he was overthrown by a civilian movement, but the coffee oligarchy and the conservative military soon reasserted control.

That same year in Guatemala a largely middle-class revolt threw out dictator Jorge Ubico. For the next ten years Guatemala experienced democracy and underwent a series of reforms. However, the Eisenhower administration regarded the government of Jacobo Arbenz as communist controlled. Moreover, in 1953 the government began a land reform program in which over a thousand estates were expropriated and land distributed to over 100,000 families in a year a half. The Arbenz government applied the reform to the United Fruit Company, the largest landholder in the country, offering to pay for the land at the value the company had been declaring for tax purposes (which was a fraction of its real worth). Cold War ideology and economic interests went hand in hand, since John Foster Dulles, the U.S. Secretary of State, was also a member of the law firm that served United Fruit.

The United States sought to isolate Guatemala diplomatically, and the CIA undermined the government with such covert actions as flying over Indian villages and dropping copies of an anticommunist pastoral letter written by Archbishop Rossell of Guatemala City. When the CIA bombed Guatemala City and the Guatemala Army, already undermined by the CIA, refused to support him, Arbenz resigned. The new president, Carlos Castillo Armas, was flown in on a U.S. embassy plane. The wealthy were given back their land, union leaders and others were killed or jailed (the “liberating force” used lists supplied by the U.S. embassy), and Guatemalans began to experience the long night of murder and repression under army domination that continues to this day.

For Central Americans these developments—the Somoza dictatorship, the 1932 massacre in El Salvador, and the CIA overthrow of the Arbenz government—were severe traumas. Real power remained concentrated in the hands of small rich landholding elites, backed up by the military, who were willing to imprison, torture, and murder opponents. Governments may have fluctuated between electoral democracy and military dictatorship, but no political movement was able to seriously threaten the power of the elites. Moreover, those elites could count on the support of the United States. Hence, for decades they could afford to ignore the needs of the majority and suppress occasional protest.


In the conventional view, the “crisis” in Central America reputed in the late 1970s was the result either of an economic decline brought about by the world recession (according to liberals) or of the Marxist subversion (according to conservatives). In the experience of Central Americans, both the crisis and people’s struggle to deal with it occurred much earlier. The crisis was primarily a result of the way the development of the last few decades has affected ordinary people.

Central America was slow to modernize, even by Latin American standards. The coffee elites had little incentive to innovate, since the profits enabled them to import expensive automobiles and other luxury goods, to send their children abroad for study, and to travel themselves. Nevertheless, by the 1940s there was a growing sentiment for “modernization.” Modernizers believed that their countries should both move away from an almost total dependence on coffee and export other crops and begin to industrialize in order to manufacture the products that were being imported. The civilian movements that overthrew the personal dictatorships in El Salvador and Guatemala in 1944 were motivated partly by a sense that Hernandez Martinez and Ubico stood in the way of modernization. In Nicaragua the Somozas themselves took up modernization.

This internal impulse for modernization was reinforced by two international trends. The first push toward development began in the 1950s and was manifested in the World Bank and in United Nations programs around the world. The second occurred in the 1960s with the Alliance for Progress, which the United States launched in response to the shock of the Cuban Revolution. Various approaches to development were taken: loans for large infrastructure projects (roads, dams, or ports), aid for institution building (for example, U.S. experts working within a Central American government to develop health or educational systems), and technical assistance (such as introducing new agricultural methods). In the later phases there was more stress, at least in rhetoric, on grassroots development at the village level.

From the 1940s onward, the landholding elites moved into sugar, cotton, and beef. Such enterprises require large tracts of low, flat land, which wealthy landowners often took directly from the peasants who were farming it. The land available to peasants for the production of basic goods such as corn and beans declined.

During the 1960s, private, government, and international development agencies sought to aid peasants through cooperatives, new farming techniques, and the introduction of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. For a time, the increased yields offset the impact of the dwindling amount of available land. However, these developments were only improvements. They did not bring basic change. Those who had more land, benefited proportionately. Those with no land saw no gain.

Indeed, there were growing numbers of “landless peasants.” In El Salvador, the landless portion of the rural population increased from 11 percent in 1961 to 40 percent by 1975. As the landless peasants grew, and in the absence of any unionization (rural unions are illegal in El Salvador), they had less bargaining power with the plantation managers. In short, while agricultural modernization brought a diversification and expansion of agro-exports and profits for the elites, it brought a decline in the amount of peasant-owned land and in basic food production. Modernization actually worsened conditions for rural people.

Modernization did not threaten the oligarchies. In fact, they were the ones who shaped it and benefitted from it. They became associates of the U.S. companies that arrived to take advantage of the Central American Common Market (launched in 1960), and at the same time they effectively vetoed U.S. proposals for land reform.

This is a crucial point for understanding the present crisis. In the conventional view, modernization brought impressive growth—which, admittedly, was not shared equitably; but the economic crisis is attributable primarily to petroleum price increases and the world recession that brought declining prices for the region’s exports. Closer examination reveals that the crisis is largely a product of the development model that was used to achieve modernization. It was no accident that the people’s real living conditions declined while growth remained high—the same kind of development produced both results.

Defining the economic origin of the crisis is not just a scholarly quibble. The Kissinger Commission, for example, reflecting the conventional view, recommended programs that would amount to a rerun of the Alliance for Progress. There is no reason to believe that the kind of economic development pursued in the 1960s, which produced the crisis, can help resolve it in the 1980s. What is required is a new model of development.


During the 1970s the crisis in Central America generated broad, organized opposition movements. These movements were rooted in a long history of struggle. During colonial times and throughout the last century, there were periodic peasant and Indian uprisings. In the 1920s and 1930s Augusto Cesar Sandino resisted the U.S. Marine occupation of Nicaragua, and Agustin Farabundo Marti’s labor organizing in El Salvador led to the uprising in 1932 and the disastrous massacre. Dictatorships in El Salvador and Guatemala were overthrown in 1944 by movements that were largely nonviolent and led by the emerging middle classes. In 1954 Honduran workers carried out a successful strike against American banana companies that was a watershed in Honduran history: it signaled the rise of organized peasant movements and labor unions and convinced the banana companies they could no longer operate with their accustomed high-handedness in Honduras.

Nicaraguans periodically fought to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship. In 1961 a small group formed the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). For 15 years, the FSLN remained a small band, suffering many serious defeats and often seemingly on the edge of extinction.

During the 1960s there arose in Guatemala a complex, largely Marxist, guerrilla movement. Its military operations were confined to one area and it never numbered more than 300 combatants; but from 1966 to 1968 the Guatemalan army—with U.S. aid, training, and advisors—killed an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 people in order to stamp it out. U.S. military aid and training was a key element in shaping the Guatemalan army.

Although the guerrillas had been defeated in 1970, the Guatemalan army and right-wing political parties judged that subversion was still a threat and therefore extended death-squad activities to Guatemala City. Every year during the 1970s, several hundred civilians—peasants, union leaders, and others perceived as organizers—were murdered.

Guerrilla movements were formed in El Salvador in 1970, but they engaged in very few actions until much later in the decade.

The guerrilla movements in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador had much in common. Although they were Marxist, they were not led by communist parties—that is, parties linked to Moscow. There were splits and factions among the guerillas in each country. In no case were they a major threat to regimes until the late 1970s. What made them a threat was the rise of “popular organizations,” which were broad-based and militant, but nonviolent in their methods.

For the sake of clarity, I will consider in some detail how these organizations developed in El Salvador, and then draw brief parallels to Nicaragua and Guatemala.

For a time the 1960s seemed promising to Salvadoran peasants. With help from the church, private aid agencies, the Peace Corps, and the Christian Democratic party, they formed cooperatives and learned new farming techniques. In their organizations they acquired leadership skills and gained confidence in dealing with government authorities. The Christian Democratic party seemed to embody a new ideology that promised change, and its leaders seemed to be honest. The United States itself appeared to be on the side of significant reform.

As already noted, these efforts brought little real improvement in living standards. In fact, repression actually increased. The Alliance for Progress, conceived as a response to the Cuban Revolution, had a counter-insurgency component. General Jose Medrano, then a senior officer in the Salvadoran National Guard and the army general staff, in close collaboration with the United States, was the major founder of the paramilitary organization ORDEN (Democratic Nationalist Organization), and ANSESAL (National Security Agency). Labor and peasant leaders, school teachers, and church people came under extensive surveillance and occasionally suffered violence. ORDEN and ANSESAL were the seedbeds of the death squads that emerged later.

Yet many people still hoped that electoral politics could provide a channel for peaceful but real change. In the 1972 election, a reform coalition made up of the Christian Democrats and two other parties ran against the official party. The reform presidential candidate was Jose Napolean Duarte, who had served two terms as mayor of San Salvador. Guillermo Ungo was his running mate. All commentators agree that the reform coalition received a majority of the votes but was defrauded of the election by the government and the army. A month later, a group of officers attempted a coup in order to recognize the Duarte victory. The coup was suppressed (with the help of bombing from Guatemala and Nicaragua). At that point, many people began to believe that popular elections in El Salvador were irrelevant in the face of oligarchical and military power.

A major catalyst for change was, surprisingly, the Catholic church, traditionally one of the props of the status quo. At Vatican Council II (1962-1965), the Catholic hierarchy had endorsed major changes in church practice, such as replacing the Latin Mass with worship in the people’s own language. Whereas previously the church’s business had seemed to be primarily a matter of saving souls, it now became common to regard social justice and human development as related to the Kingdom of God.

The ferment of the 1960s was already affecting the church in Latin America when the Catholic bishops met at Medellin, Columbia in 1968 to apply Vatican II to their continent. The resulting Medellin documents were a kind of Magna Carta that stimulated church people to examine critically their societies and their own pastoral work. Many priests and sisters sought to draw closer to ordinary people, often leaving relative comfort to live among the poor. They became convinced that they must enter into dialogue with the people—not only to teach and catechize, but to learn from them, even to be “evangelized by the poor.” Out of this experience there developed a new model of church pastoral work called comunidades eclesiales de base, or “grassroots Christian communities.” These were small groups of people at the village or barrio level who met under their own lay leadership for Bible reading and study, worship, and self-help. Gradually, the focus of pastoral work shifted from the parish church to these local communities.

There people learned a new way of reading the Bible and understanding their faith, by relating it to what was happening around them. This new approach to the Bible and Christian faith became the foundation of what has come to be called “liberation theology,” a way of understanding Christian belief, Christian life, and the mission of the church from the side of the poor and their demand for justice.

In El Salvador the new ideas began to be implemented in 1969. Grassroots Christian communities quickly became the predominant model of church pastoral work in a large part of rural El Salvador, in areas that have been battle sites in recent years.

The grassroots Christian communities served primarily to raise consciousness. Within them, people developed both a critical view of the status quo and a motivation to work together. Sooner or later, they would conclude that they needed to be organized.

What kind of organization did they need? Experiences such as the election fraud of 1972 had convinced many that political parties, even when they were not instruments of the military or oligarchy, simply had no power to propose and effect fundamental change. Hence, those who worked at organizing the new popular organizations envisioned them not as vehicles for electoral politics but rather as instruments through which the broad masses of the people, especially peasants, could bring direct pressure to bear in the power structure.

During the early 1970s FECCAS (Federation of Christian Peasants of El Salvador) began to spread rapidly in the rural area north of San Salvador. In fact, FECCAS was an existing organization that had been started by the Christian Democrats in the 1960s. Organizers helped the peasants turn it into a militant means whereby they could pressure for their rights.

In November 1974 an event occurred in the center of the country—in the village of La Cayetana, San Vicente province—that was to become a landmark for many. A Christian community occupied a parcel of idle land, hoping to persuade the owner to rent it out. Instead, government troops attacked the peasants, killing six and arresting 26. Thirteen of the arrested were never seen again—they were among the first of the “disappeared.” In response, peasants in the area formed another organization, the UTC (Union of Rural Workers), which then spread through many areas. FECCAS and UTC subsequently joined forces.

During this same period, peasant leaders, church workers, university people, labor leaders, and others met several times, eventually forming a coalition called FAPU (United Popular Action Front).

The pace of events quickened in 1975. In July, government troops opened fire on a protest demonstration in San Salvador organized by university students. The troops trapped the demonstrators on a bridge. Some were killed in the cross fire and some jumped off the bridge to their death. Others were carried away in ambulances and were never seem again. With the cooperation of some priests and sisters, the demonstrators organized a funeral celebration and them occupied a cathedral for several days.

Although they were united in their opposition to the military and the government, the new organizations began to feud among themselves even in the cathedral. Ideological differences led one large group, including FECCAS, to split from FAPU and form the Revolutionary People’s Bloc. Their own tensions notwithstanding, the popular organizations were now a part of the national political scene.

Up to this point, the guerrilla organizations—the ERP (People’s Revolutionary Army) and the FPL (Popular Liberation Forces—that had been started in 1970 had scarcely carried out any actions. They were also feuding.

What was the relationship between the guerrilla groups and the popular organizations? It seems quite probable that from an early point, some of the organizers may have been connected to the guerrilla groups, and that guerrilla groups did political work with these organizations as part of a larger strategy. However, the popular organizations were a genuine expression of the peasants’ and other people’s desire for political and social change. Their leaders were peasants, and their means of struggle—demonstrations and strikes—were nonviolent.

In 1976, the government, headed by General Arturo Molina, proposed a very mild land reform that was scheduled to begin in two of the country’s fourteen provinces. It was really a kind of pilot project for 12,000 peasant families in a country in which 112,000 families had no land and another 236,000 families had very small holdings. Plantation owners were to be reimbursed partly with bonds that could be reinvested in industry. A few farsighted military officers and politicians hoped that such a pilot project could lead to a “Taiwan model” of development. Peasants would acquire land while plantation owners would evolve into industrialists. These proponents claimed the pilot project would be an “insurance policy for our grandchildren” (presumably against another 1932-style peasant uprising). However, the landholders and most of the private sector did not appreciate such foresight, and they reacted vigorously, uniting around the defense minister General Humberto Romero. By October the government had backed down, and Romero had become the “official” candidate for the upcoming elections.

Flush with a sense of triumph, the oligarchy and security forces unleashed an attack on the popular organizations and on the church, which they regarded as being responsible for growing peasant militancy. Starting in January, 1977, several priests were arrested and tortured, and several people expelled. Through electoral fraud, the government and military guaranteed the victory of General Romero over the opposition coalition. The opposition (primarily Christian Democrats and Social Democrats) then held a week-long vigil in a plaza in downtown San Salvador. On February 28, government troops attacked the demonstrators, killing an estimated 100 people.

This violence was the power structure’s reaction to organized peasant militancy. By means of popular organizations, the peasants had presented their demands, such as pay hikes for field workers and standards for the food given them on plantations. To press these demands, they had organized strikes and demonstrations, often in the streets of San Salvador. They had been organized at both the village and national levels, and that had given them strength. The power structure correctly saw them as a threat and responded with violence.

This violence in early 1977, and especially the post-election massacre, was a watershed. Many were now convinced that no change could come through the existing political system. The new mass organizations grew rapidly and put increasing pressure on the government. Labor unions became involved, as did slum dwellers, university students, teachers, and others. In order to give an appearance of legality to arbitrary repression, President Romero decreed a sweeping “Law of Public Order and Security.” During 1978, church human rights groups found that 1,063 people had been arrested for political reasons, 147 had been killed by security forces, and another 23 had disappeared after arrest.

While the overwhelming majority of acts of violence so far had been committed by official troops and ORDEN, the counterinsurgency paramilitary organization established in the 1960s, guerrilla groups now began to carry out a number of kidnappings, demanding ransom monies and sometimes the release of political prisoners,

Despite the harsh repression, opposition militancy continued to grow, while the Romero government had no clear program and seemed increasingly unable to govern.

In Guatemala similar developments were taking place. The repression that began in response to the guerilla movements in the 1960s had never ceased. Throughout the 1970s hundreds of people a year were killed for political reasons, very often peasants were tortured and their mutilated bodies were dumped on roadsides. Nevertheless, labor unions became more active after the 1976 earthquake. As in El Salvador, the church played an important role in consciousness-raising. Although the rate of killing soon rose—Guatemalan newspapers gave accounts of 979 killings or disappearances during 1978—militant organizations continued their struggle.


By the end of the 1970s, several hundred thousand people in El Salvador (out of a population of less than five million) had become involved in popular organizations. These mass organizations were political but they were not oriented towards elections. As their members saw it, traditional politicians came to the people only at election time. Political parties did not provide any way for them to defend their rights and promote their interests. The popular organizations, by contrast, were continually active, seeking to dramatize the situation of the people and bring pressure to bear through strikes, demonstrations, and occupations of public buildings. They were organized from the village up, although they also had a national structure.

Since 1979 these organizations have become the primary target of the so-called death squads, and that is the greatest sign of their strength and importance. Many commentators today seem scarcely aware of them. The Kissinger Commission report, for example, simply ignores these popular struggles in the 1970s.

Today many advocate “political” solutions in Central America. What they often fail to see is that the rise of the popular organizations was itself a thoroughly political process, even though it took place largely outside the channels of existing political parties. It was the violent repression unleashed against these organizations that drove many of their members to become guerilla combatants. Any “political” solution which ignores that earlier history is not likely to succeed.

Phillip Berryman was a pastoral worker in Panama during 1965-1975. From 1976 to 1980, he was Central American Representative for the Americans Friends Service Committee. He is the author of The Religious Roots of Rebellion. This article is from his book Inside Central America, Copyright © 1985 by Phillip Berryman. Reprinted with the permission of Pantheon Books, a Division of Random House.

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