The Ideological Origins of the Farabundo Martin Liberation Front (FMLN) of El Salvador
By Brad K. Berner, submitted by Anonymous on Thu, 18/12/2008 – 16:40
This article details the origins of the FPL and ERP, the two earliest guerrilla organizations in El Salvador in the 1970s. It is based on both organizations’ internal documentation.
The Ideological Origins of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) of El Salvador
When Joaquín Villalobos, ERP commander and a key commander of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front’s General Command, announced in March 1991 that the FMLN had moved beyond Marxism, many analyzed this ideological change as exclusively the result of the failure of Marxism-Leninism in the U.S.S.R. Ideological understanding would have been better served had analysts also quoted Villalobos’s earlier writing, A Democratic Revolution for El Salvador, in which he wrote, “Revolutions reflect the concrete reality in which they develop. Accordingly, each revolutionary process must develop its own concepts and models. To understand the Salvadoran revolutionary effort the historical context in which it developed must be understood” (Villalobos, 1989b: 103). It is the intent of this article to understand part of this context by focusing on the initial ideological development of the first two Salvadoran armed revolutionary organizations: the Popular Forces of Liberation (Fuerzas Populares de Liberación – FPL ) and the Peoples Revolutionary Army (Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo – ERP).
The Communist Party of El Salvador (PCS)
The participation of the Communist Party of El Salvador in the electoral struggle was correct…to not have participated in the electoral struggle would have meant to place ourselves, in fact, very much at the margin of the political struggle and, besides, abandon the masses to bourgeois ideological control.
Jorge Shafik Handal
Secretary General of the Communist Party of El Salvador
(Harnecker, 1985: 116)
As El Salvador went to war against Honduras in the so-called “Soccer War” of 1969, the Communist Party of El Salvador (PCS) ordered its members to patrol the streets of the capital, San Salvador, to assist in the government’s war effort. According to the PCS’s two-stage theory of revolution, supporting the war effort strengthened the national bourgeoisie; nevertheless, theory left the PCS realistically allied with reactionary landowners, the military, and the dominant political party – the Party of National Conciliation (PCN). (1) This seminal event, in fracturing the Salvadoran left, gave birth to the armed revolutionary left.
Established in 1930, the PCS had been effectively destroyed, losing leaders such as Agustín Farabundo Martí in the Matanza or great killing that followed its failed 1932 uprising. (2) Led by middle class intellectuals throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s, it remained pro-Soviet, small in number, and although formally adhering to a policy of armed struggle as “the most probable means of attaining victory,” in practice it supported electoral efforts toward a democratic revolution (PCS, 1980).
As part of the left’s euphoria following the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the PCS, from 1961 to 1963, briefly adopted armed struggle, establishing a United Front for Revolutionary Action (FUAR). Not one shot was fired, and the Party quickly returned to its electoral strategy. But ideological consensus proved to be fleeting. By the time the PCS attended the founding of the Cuban-sponsored Organization of Latin American Solidarity (OLAS) in 1967, an embryonic ideological struggle had emerged inside the Party (Cienfuegos, 1989: 14).
Envisioning the peasant as the historical agent of revolutionary change in Latin America, the OLAS, contrary to the Soviet position, supported armed struggles in the countryside of Latin America. The PCS was in the contradictory position of attending the OLAS while opposing armed struggle in practice. Moreover, while it adhered to the Soviet pro-electoral strategy, it openly criticized the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Analogous to the Party’s international conundrum was its ideological predicament at home.
Domestic social tensions in the 1960’s had given rise to a political opposition dominated by a middle class based reformist Christian Democratic Party (PDC) and an urban movement in which the PCS’s influence rose from 14 to 47 labor syndicates due to its active participation in many successful strikes which the Party’s political commission promptly labeled ‘adventurist.’ (3) Meanwhile, at the National University, student organizing efforts proved both successful and ultimately divisive as organizations influenced by the PCS – the General Association of Salvadoran University Students (AGEUS), and the PDC’s Revolutionary Front of Social Christian University Students (FRUSC) – were radicalized in their baptisms of fire during the student strikes of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. (4)
Notwithstanding these successes, “the organized development of the popular classes covered only some sectors of the working class and of the university students.” (Villalobos, 1986: 2) Yet, in the countryside the political situation was rapidly changing due to the efforts of radicalized Catholic priests who, under the influence of the theology of liberation, were bringing human and social rights to the forefront of the Catholic Church’s message and actions. (5) With the full support of Archbishop Luis Chavez y González, priests began to organize Christian Base Communities (CEBS) throughout El Salvador. (6)
The countryside, long a bastion of governmental support and control, began to change as peasants in the CEBS, intellectually confronting a sharp economic deterioration in their lives, experienced a religious and subsequent political conversion. (7) The result was an activist religious perspective, and many soon became involved politically in peasant organizations, pressing their demands for human and social rights.
Foremost on their agenda was agrarian reform. With the number of landless peasants skyrocketing and wages failing to keep up with the real costs of living, the peasantry needed access to better paying jobs and land. And unlike the Party for Renovative Action (PAR), which had been banned in the late 1960’s for advocating an agrarian reform, the Church could not be outlawed when it took the lead in organizing a National Agrarian Congress in 1970. Following the congress, governmental promises and actions were naught; consequently, many peasants moved from immediate demands to social revolution. For when the peasant could not continue being a peasant, he became a revolutionary (Cabarrus, 1983: 83).
In 1971 the PCS, in the form of the Association of Salvadoran Farm Workers (ATACES), began to organize in the countryside since the majority of the Party, including Jorge Shafik Handal, viewed this changing political scene as ripe for its electoral strategy.
Handal, the son of Palestinian immigrants, had joined the party in 1950, studied law at the National University, was exiled, and studied in Chile, where he refined his electoral views. After returning to El Salvador, he was exiled to Guatemala in 1960. He soon returned to El Salvador and helped direct the FUAR. As one of the Party’s leading advocates of electoral participation, he became Secretary General in 1972.
In 1968 Handal endorsed armed struggle providing that the objective conditions were ripe (Handal, 1968). In the case of El Salvador, he and the majority of the Party believed they weren’t. Accordingly, the Party joined in a coalition with the PDC and the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) in electoral campaigns for most of the 1970’s.
Even though the coalition’s candidate, José Napoleon Duarte, won the presidential election of 1972 and then lost through fraud to the PCN’s candidate, Handal was not deterred. A year later he wrote that the results of 1972 validated the broad front electoral strategy because the campaign had helped in the people’s political awakening; moreover, the failed post-election constitutionalist military coup in support of the legitimate electoral results had demonstrated the efficacy of an alliance with reformist sectors of the military. (8) In Handal’s opinion, even though the failed coup demonstrated that the army could no longer be relied on to uncritically back the ruling class, armed revolution was still out of the question because “last year  the subjective conditions for revolution had not yet matured” (Handal, 1973: 49-50). Others had already disagreed, left the Party, and embarked on armed struggle. (9)
According to Fermán Cienfuegos (Eduardo Sancho Castaneda), a former member of the Party’s Communist Youth and later a member of the General Command of the FMLN, by 1969 the PCS was in crisis and had begun to factionalize over the question of armed struggle and the Party’s support of the government in the war against Honduras. A minority, composed mainly of Communist Youth, led by then Secretary General Salvador Cayetano Carpio, believed the time had come to begin the armed struggle. For in spite of the fact that the PCS was “the only organization that kept the tradition of Farabundo Martí,” it had not applied the tradition integrally, and as a result, “had not succeeded in converting itself into the historical vanguard” (Cienfuegos, 1989: 13). Consequently, a new vanguard had to be formed. Some followed Carpio out of the Party and formed the Popular Forces of Liberation “Farabundo Martí” (FPL) in April 1970; others, primarily from the Communist Youth, had already begun discussions with young radical Christian Democrats which would eventually result in the formation of the Peoples Revolutionary Army (ERP).
The Popular Forces of Liberation (FPL)
In order for the people to advance toward the revolution, it’s necessary to form and consolidate an advanced and integral revolutionary organization – Marxist-Leninist, political-military – that will bring about armed struggle and advance the people to military and political struggle. The FPL is trying to convert itself into this specific organization.
FPL Un paso adelante, 1972b
Reflecting on the origins of the FMLN, Salvador Cayetano Carpio, leader of the FPL and member of the General Command of the FMLN, stated in 1980, “By the end of 1969 it was completely clear that El Salvador – its people – needed an integral strategy in which all forms of struggle could be utilized, combined in a dialectical manner, and that the armed struggle was the key” (Menéndez Rodríguez, 1983: 28).
Carpio, a shoemaker’s son, former seminary student and later baker’s union organizer, had joined the Communist Party in 1947. He rose quickly, becoming a member of the Central Committee in 1949. Arrested and tortured in 1952, he later escaped, wrote Secuestro y capucha describing his experiences, and went to study in the U.S.S.R. for three years. After returning to El Salvador, he successfully organized PCS affiliated labor unions and served as the Secretary General of the PCS from 1964 to 1970.
By 1970 Carpio had come to the conclusion that the time was propitious for armed political revolutionary struggle; yet, a ‘stubborn majority’ of the party was blocking the advance toward such a strategy. As the Bases Estatuarios later expressed, the PCS was “sunk in opportunism, revisionism, bourgeois reformism, and economism” (FPL, 1978: 1). Consequently, in March 1970, Carpio and a handful of PCS members broke with the party, and on 1 April 1970, they established the Popular Forces of Liberation “Farabundo Martí” (FPL). (10)
In selecting the name Farabundo Marti, the FPL, in Nombre de la organización, clearly defined itself and its program stating:
[Farabundo Martí was] among the leaders of this gigantic episode (1932) that left such profound footprints in the following historical periods of the country. Unquestionably, he was the most integral and encouraging exponent of the people. Notwithstanding the weaknesses or failures in the preparation and political-military directions of the popular movement, his essential revolutionary characteristics are in great part in harmony with those of today’s revolutionary movement: combatant, political-military, guerrilla, Marxist, creator of the Communist Party, thinker at the Central American level, anti-imperialist, and most of all courageous (FPL, n.d.: 2).
Program and Organization
By December 1973, when the FPL began publishing Estrella Roja, its internal ideological organ, the FPL’s program was clearly formulated:
The fundamental revolutionary objectives of the working class are 1) the liberation of the country with respect to imperialism, 2) the liquidation of the political and economic power of the landholding oligarchic bourgeoisie and of the bourgeoisie in general, and 3) the liquidation of the regime and the establishment of popular power (FPL, 1973).
Although not yet a socialist revolution, such a popular revolution toward socialism would establish, under the hegemony of the working class, a Popular Revolutionary Government which would begin to construct socialism. (11) But first the regime needed to be destroyed, and to destroy the regime, an organization had to be built.
Even though the FPL defined itself as not anti-party but anti-party leadership, it avoided direct recruitment from the PCS because it saw itself not as a traditional style Communist Party but as a party in embryo (FPL, 1973; FPL, 1978: 13, 16). Such beginnings were meager, for according to Carpio, “We began from absolutely zero. We did not even have one cent or one pistol” (Harnecker, 1985: 134). Nevertheless, by August 1972, when the FPL issued its First Pronouncement, the FPL had survived its ‘initial phase’ and fully intended to pursue a combined political-military strategy, thereby converting itself into the legitimate revolutionary vanguard (FPL, 1972b). (12)
Although an organization founded by a worker’s nucleus professing a working class hegemony, the FPL’s recruits came first from university and high school students and teachers, secondly from the working class and peasants, and later from radicalized Christians (FPL, 1976: 4). (13) Despite Carpio’s pre-FPL opposition, Christians joined the FPL, and the FPL worked with individual priests, eventually establishing itself within many Christian Base Communities. In January of 1975, the FPL, identifying itself as a Marxist-Leninist organization that did not exclude Christians, clarified its position in its Letter to Progressive Priests stating,
We start from the premise that to be Christian is not opposed to the duty of fighting for justice, for the liberation of the people from exploitation and misery…we consider the incorporation of the peasants and workers, who are fundamentally Christian, absolutely necessary to the revolution – a strategic condition. The FPL carries through this belief in practice. Whenever there is a Catholic activist who wishes to make a leap in his revolutionary work and who fulfills the requirements of our organization, we have no reason to reject him, to close the door and prevent him from realizing his aspirations to serve the revolutionary cause. In raising him to a higher level of political activity our objective at the same time is that his religious work is not discredited. On the other hand, it is necessary to say that every revolutionary, as he moves toward an understanding of the real world, fills the gaps and weaknesses, deficiencies and errors in his knowledge with a scientific foundation which places both understanding and action behind the collective interest…The FPL wants to emphasize its respect for the sector of priests with advanced ideas and practices, hoping that their efforts will bear greater fruit each day for the revolution (FPL, 1975a: 22).
The resulting direct incorporation of large numbers of Christians into the FPL directly affected its ideology by infusing a messianic spirit of self-sacrifice, or mystique, into its daily interpretation.
International and National Analyses
The FPL’s world view, which was based on a fundamental contradiction between socialism and capitalism, was bi-polar; however, while it considered the socialist bloc a ‘strategic rearguard’ and was basically pro-Soviet (FPL, 1976: 15), the FPL recognized weaknesses in world socialism and regarded itself as autonomous (FPL, 1972b). Accordingly, Yankee imperialism was the fundamental enemy, and although the internal bourgeoisie was the immediate enemy, the FPL believed that the revolution was to be both anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist; for, based on its national analysis these two enemies were virtually one and the same (FPL, 1973; FPL, 1975b: 27; FPL, 1978: 4, 9, 27).
According to the FPL, El Salvador was a dependent capitalist country whose dependency had begun in the 19th century with the introduction of capitalist relations into coffee production in the countryside. At the top of the resulting social formation stood a landowning, oligarchic, or creole, bourgeoisie which was directly linked and subordinated to U.S. imperialism (FPL, 1973). Even though banking, commercial and industrial sectors had developed from this original landowning bourgeoisie, they all formed one amalgamated circle, composed of a few completely powerful families – the so-called ‘fourteen families’ – who dominated “in complete fusion with imperialist capital” all sectors of the economy (FPL, 1978: 5-6).
Politically, this dependent capitalist formation was a developing military fascist-like tyranny in which the Salvadoran army was also directly tied and subservient to U.S. imperialism. Consequently, in direct opposition to the PCS’s viewpoint, no independent national bourgeoisie existed. (14)
Opposed to this oligarchic bourgeoisie and U.S. imperialism were the revolutionary classes, composed of a working class, which included both the industrial and agricultural proletariat, and its allies. (15) Among these allies in the countryside were both poor peasants, who as semi-proletariats were the most revolutionary of the peasants and the principal ally of the working class, and middle or petty bourgeois peasants. (16) Other allies included advanced urban sectors of the petty bourgeoisie: students, teachers, intellectuals, and small and middle businessmen and producers (FPL, 1973: 7). Such a broad alliance was necessary because “it is evident that no revolutionary class by itself will be capable of destroying the power of the internal bourgeoisie and of imperialism; therefore, an alliance of the exploited classes under the direction and hegemony of the proletariat is necessary” (FPL, 1973: 16).
Based on its national and international analyses, the FPL rejected both the PCS’s national bourgeoisie-based electoral strategy and the ERP’s later position of forming a broad anti-fascist front. Since an independent national bourgeoisie did not exist, the main conflict was not between national capitalists and imperialism but between the worker and national/foreign capitalism. In such a situation, elections merely played into the hands of the enemy. Also, any thought of a broad, anti-fascist front was out of the question since the government was not yet fascist; moreover, the formation of such a premature front would liquidate class contradictions. And since the army was a puppet of imperialism, any thought of military reformers was anathema. In fact, due to its close ties to both the oligarchy and imperialism, the army had to be destroyed by a strategy called Prolonged Popular War/Guerra Popular Prolongada (GPP). (17)
In its First Pronouncement, the FPL stated that “the prolonged revolutionary war is the struggle of all the people for their liberation” (FPL, 1972c). Earlier, in citing the Latin American left’s failures and the positive experiences of the Salvadoran students and workers’ strikes of the 1960’s, the FPL rejected the foco theory from the beginning (FPL, 1971). (18) No guerrilla would go to the mountains to serve as a catalyst for revolution, since for the FPL the model was not Cuba but Vietnam. (19)
Convinced from the beginning the U.S. would eventually intervene in the Salvadoran revolution, the FPL viewed the National Liberation Front (NLF) of South Vietnam as a model for confronting this future intervention. A political body that represented most sectors of the population needed to be built and the revolution’s army forces would develop from guerrilla to regular forces. The FPL could then confront and overcome both the Salvadoran army and the eventual introduction of U.S. forces by fighting a war without military fronts that would eventually change the correlation of forces within an estimated ten to fifteen years (FPL, 1971). Furthermore, since revolutionary situations conducive to taking power would occur many times during the revolutionary war, time was on the FPL’s side if it followed a strategy that combined its political and military efforts.
This combination of political and military efforts, a lesson learned in part from the successful 1965 U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic, was based on “combining revolutionary military action with the combative struggle of the masses for their immediate needs,” with the end result being a well-organized mass movement linked to revolutionary military forces. (FPL, 1973) (20)
While time may have been theoretically on the FPL’s side, space presented a problem. In recognizing the guerrilla struggle of the mountains as primary, since it would take place among the very peasants who would be the fundamental source of recruits, the FPL noted that it was precisely this mountainous environment that El Salvador lacked (FPL, 1971: 6). For, although mountainous, El Salvador was small and did not have the necessary high mountain ranges that would deny easy access to enemy forces. This geographical dilemma was to be resolved by conducting a Central American struggle, for “in the immense Central American territory exist unsurpassable conditions for the guerrillas of the mountains” (FPL, 1971: 2).
To wage a Central American struggle made historical sense since Central America was seen as the weak link in the world-wide chain of imperialism. (21) Also, Yankee imperialism had developed a Central American strategy in forming the Central American Defense Command (CONDECA) in order to coordinate the armies of the respective Central American governments. CONDECA was seen as being the Central American army of the United States (FPL, 1972d: 6). Los trabajadores del campo en la revolución further elaborated this point stating:
Each one of the peoples of Central America can not carry out the prolonged revolutionary war separately, squeezed into the borders of their respective frontiers. Imperialism is using a Central American strategy and has concentrated the reactionary military forces of these countries in an organism that has as its object to deliver blows together against any popular force that signifies a real danger in any part of Central America. Besides, in the last instance, imperialism’s own forces can come to help their puppets in Central America if they find their own domination in danger… therefore the revolutionary struggle of each of the people’s revolutions has to unite with the other peoples’ struggles of the isthmus (FPL, 1972d: 12).
Drawing upon the ideas of Farabundo Martí as to how to bring about this unity, the FPL envisioned “the creation of a revolutionary Central American army” (FPL, 1971; FPL, 1978: 7).
Although the struggle in the countryside was strategically fundamental, in 1970 the FPL began to implement its GPP strategy in the cities, expanded to the suburban areas in 1973 and reached the countryside in 1974 (FPL, 1973; FPL, 1976). Organizationally, this effort took the form of groups of armed commandos, assisted by grupos de apoyo, or support groups. These support groups were fundamental since, in addition to directly assisting the armed component, they also served as a channel for incorporation into the armed struggle through their efforts in organizing, orienting and radicalizing the mass movement (FPL, 1972d). According to El camino de FPL hacía las masas populares, these clandestine paramilitary support groups were the central link between armed and mass struggle (FPL, 1972a).
The commando units soon began operations, most notably in the case of the bombing of the Argentine Embassy in 1972. (22) Next, the armed commando units were coordinated into militia units, which by 1976 were formed into local guerrilla formations. Eventually out of these formations would develop regular mobile army units. To coordinate the military struggle, a national military commission was established in 1975.
Initially appearing as minor ‘terrorist incidents,’ by 1976 the FPL’s initial plans had developed pretty much according to plan. Its members were deadly serious about winning the struggle, for on 11 October 1976, three FPL members – Andrés Torres, Alejandro Solano, and Clara Elizabeth Ramírez – held off units of the Salvadoran army for eight hours until their deaths in the town of Santa Tecla. Preferring to die in combat, they had refused to surrender.
The People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP)
Each revolution should construct its own renewed revolutionary thought and adapt itself to its own realities.
Joaquín Villalobos (1988: 30)
Strongly influenced by the example of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, members of the Communist Party’s Youth Organization left the Party due to its support of the Salvadoran government during the war with Honduras in 1969 and continued insistence on an electoral strategy. “We were born as the negation of the Communist Party, with an anti-party position,” recalled FMLN Commander Fermán Cienfuegos in 1986 (Cienfuegos, 1989: 16). Soon discussions began with leaders of the Revolutionary Front of Social Christian University Students (FRUSC), the Christian Democratic Party’s youth organization. These discussions resulted in the formation of El Grupo, or the Group, in 1970. Subsequently, the decision was made to embark on armed struggle.
The Group’s initial action in early 1971, a kidnapping to secure funds, failed, and the organization was virtually destroyed by the Salvadoran government; nevertheless, the remaining five or six members established the Peoples Revolutionary Army (ERP) in late 1971 and went public in 1972. (23) The organization’s initial ideological influences were heterogeneous.
The nucleus of those that came from the PCS and the Christian Youth had a classic Leninist political formation of historical materialism. We had read the Selected Works of Lenin even though we were dispersed and self-taught. We were influenced by the Tupamaros of Uruguay, Carlos Marighella of Brazil, the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR) in Peru, in some measure by the MIR in Chile, by the writings of Mao Tse-tung, Kim Il Sung, Fidel and Che Guevara. Besides, we had the direct influence of the Guatemalan revolutionary movement, especially the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), whose history we knew. Later, Roque Dalton brought new ideas: Vietnam, Korea and the international experience of the National Liberation Movements of Africa (Cienfuegos, 1989: 15-16).
On the international political stage the ERP was virtually isolated. In fact, “in the moment that [the ERP] was born it did not have international support, not from the communist movement nor from the socialist camp” (Cienfuegos, 1989: 26). Moreover, aside from initial relations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) of Guatemala, contact with other Central American revolutionary organizations was virtually nonexistent, for “we did not know the Sandinistas, in spite of the fact that the FSLN was founded in 1961” (Cienfuegos, 1989: 16).
Program and Orientation
From the beginning the highly nationalistic and heterogeneous ERP never fit the orthodox mold. Favoring military action and consistently abjuring foreign models, its program for socialist revolution, as elaborated in Grano de oro, was the polar opposite of the PCS’s two-stage theory. The ERP envisioned a democratic state as part of the socialist transformation because imperialism’s domination had unified the anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist struggles. In fact, since the closing of the democratic opening in El Salvador had given rise to a fascist government, a revolutionary situation had existed since mid-1972. (24) Therefore, if the left formed a broad front, including clergy and patriotic sectors of the armed forces, then a combined democratic and socialist revolution could triumph and socialism could be constructed. But first it was necessary to form an armed vanguard organization.
Organizational problems plagued the ERP from the beginning. As explained by Joaquín Villalobos, “It was an initial response, with little vision…composed of a disorganized structure, integrated by numerous groups with different forms of seeing the strategic and unifying projection” (Menéndez Rodríguez, 1983: 124).
During its first years of existence, the ERP was not a highly centralized organization, for due to the influence of Alejandro Rivas Mira (Sebastián Urquilla) it had adopted a federal (decentralized) structure. Rivas Mira, upon returning from Western Europe, where he had been active in the student anti-Communist left in 1968, had joined the ERP as part of a Christian Youth group, secured a position of leadership because he was “the man of best formation at the moment,” and then instituted a federalized structure (PRS, 1978: 28). When combined with the ERP’s varied ideological origins, this decentralized structure made it almost impossible to establish a coherent political line. For example, in its Boletín General no.1, the ERP pointed out federalism’s resulting “ideological diversionism” and “organic dispersion” stating:
The gravest danger of this functioning is shown by the non-ideological and non-political cohesion inside the organization, as each tactical leader – therefore each column of the organization – in the long run converts itself into a small organization, which by its own development and autonomy, then elaborates its own form of work, its own methodology, and its own style of political conduction (ERP, 1974a).
Analogous to the ERP’s initial lack of organizational cohesion was its heterogeneous composition. Early members included most of the leaders of FRUSC, Communist Party youth, Baptist ministers, members of Acción Cristiana, Dr. Fabio Castillo Figueroa, Ana Guadalupe Martínez, and anti-Soviets such as Rivas Mira. (25) However, there was one fundamental point of cohesion. Most of the ERP’s members were young, middle class, Marxist nationalists who had been politically molded in the student strikes of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. They believed it was time to undertake armed struggle. As Fermán Cienfuegos explained:
Those of us that came from the Communist Youth had a more flexible position in the sense of initiating the armed struggle with other movements who, although they were not Marxists, were disposed to take up arms (Cienfuegos, 1989: 24).
The inclusion of non-Marxist, radicalized Christians from its beginning distinguished the early ERP from the FPL and influenced the formation of two distinct guerrilla organizations instead of one. Prior to the formation of the FPL, a meeting was held on 24 December 1969 to plan the launching of armed struggle in El Salvador. Salvador Cayetano Carpio, later commander of the FPL, refused to accept a joining of Marxist and Christian influenced groups; thus necessitating the formation of two organizations, according to leaders of the ERP who were present at the meeting. For the ERP there was never any question of Christian participation in the revolution. As stated by Joaquín Villalobos, “since revolutionary Christians were part of the process from the beginning, there was never any contradiction between Christianity and revolution” (Villalobos, 1988: 42).
From the beginning the ERP allied with priests who were working in La Unión, San Miguel, and Morazán in eastern El Salvador. This area, in particular Morazán, was viewed as a potential region for building a military rearguard, due to the Christian values of the peasantry and their small-holding status that allowed them the freedom to engage in political activities.
Returning to El Salvador in 1973 after 13 years in exile, the poet Roque Dalton (26) saw the student make up of the ERP as living proof of his thesis that students would act as the ‘social detonator’ of the revolutionary process due to the very limited revolutionary possibilities of the working class. Opting for armed struggle, Dalton had left the PCS in the 1960’s. He believed he had found an example in the Cuban Revolution, which was not “the historical exception but the first stage in the liberation process and at the same time the revolutionary vanguard” (Dalton, 1970: 115). Dalton believed that vanguards had to be created, and he thought he had found just such a vanguard in the ERP.
To unify its efforts and established itself as a vanguard organization, the ERP undertook an internal struggle against federalism and began to centralize the organization from 1973 through 1974. In 1975 the ERP began to build a party – the Party of the Salvadoran Revolution (PRS), eventually holding its first full plenum in July 1977 (PRS, 1978).
International and National Analyses
Revolutions can neither be exported nor imported. Revolutions are made by people. So in our country, the East-West conflict is non-existent. What exists is social injustice, imperialist intervention and a popular revolutionary way for national liberation.
Joaquín Villalobos (Villalobos, 1986: 31)
The ERP’s initial anti-Soviet and anti-Cuban viewpoint was bolstered by a strident nationalism which abjured revolutionary models, and while non-aligned with respect to the U.S./USSR Cold War struggle, the ERP was anti-U.S. imperialism with respect to Latin America. It maintained that even though the incidence of U.S. influence was less in El Salvador than in other parts of Latin America, the U.S. would try to destroy the Salvadoran revolution. This gave the revolution its liberating character and did not tie it “to the fluctuations in the struggle for world hegemony between the USSR and the United States” (PRS, 1980: 81).
Much has been made out of the ERP’s turn to Maoism. (27) Although the ERP was Maoist from the beginning in the sense of having an independent, nationalistic, and Latin American viewpoint, Maoist proved to be a conveniently deprecating label for the other Salvadoran revolutionary organizations to use against the ERP, and for the ERP itself to use to explain its own failings. (28) Nevertheless, the ERP did not result from the typical Latin American Communist Party splits of the 1960’s; nor did it have supportive connections or ideological affinity with China. Rather, the ERP originated in Latin American conditions with a strident nationalism at its core; for it was not to China the ERP turned for analysis but to the historical experience of the Venezuelan guerrilla movement. (29)
The vicissitudes of the Venezuelan guerrilla movement in the late 1960’s and 1970’s directly impacted the ERP because the ERP had established close relations with those in the Venezuelan movement who wished to continue armed struggle. Consequently, the Venezuelan Communist Party’s suspension of aid to the guerrillas exacerbated the ERP’s anti-Communist Party orientation; likewise, Cuban suspension of aid brought strong criticism from the ERP and abysmal relations. Such practical experiences, in bolstering Rivas Mira’s critique of Soviet imperialism, resulted in the ERP labeling itself ERP-ML (Marxist-Leninist); yet, when the ERP voted in 1977 to remove the ML label, few knew what it meant ideologically. For, instead of looking to the USSR, China or Cuba, the ERP had a Latin American continental perspective.
It is evident that there is a necessity to establish, together with the Marxist-Leninist forces, a continental strategy in relation to the anti-imperialist aspect of the revolution…The Latin American and Salvadoran revolution does not need to wait for the key moments in the struggles for hegemony between the USSR and North American imperialism in order to decide when the masses pass over to the offensive…It is evident that the true revolution in any Latin American country can only sustain itself by maintaining the continental aspect of the struggle against imperialism (PRS, 1980: 79-81).
Although the ERP supported a continental revolution to confront U.S. imperialism, its international analysis was secondary to that of the national situation in El Salvador. According to ERP theoretician Rafael Arce Zablah, in Grano de oro, El Salvador was a dependent capitalist country, with an oligarchy that was integrated into the capitalist system through coffee. Moreover, within the oligarchy, a financial sector, which was fascist, was the principal enemy, not the national bourgeoisie. (ERP, 300 años, 23; PRS, 1980: 59)
In complete disagreement with the FPL’s Prolonged Popular War (GPP) strategy, the ERP supported an insurrectional strategy that intended to create the conditions for revolution in a relatively short period of time. Political and military efforts were directed towards dramatic armed attacks on the existing fascist power structure that would spark a popular insurrection.
The strength of the ERP’s strategy lay in its focus and audacity. With the goal of overthrowing the regime in the shortest possible time, every effort was made to build the organization’s military capacity. While building a strong military force, ERP commandos and military units began limited armed actions, including the assassinations of key public officials, bank robberies to fund the organization, bombings, and brief military occupations of villages and towns.
However, differences soon arose within the organization concerning the prioritizing of military action over political/mass organizing. A ‘political faction’ led by Roque Dalton, arguing in favor of political work to ideologically prepare the people, confronted what was later labeled the ‘militarist’ line. Dalton was accused of being a foreign agent, arrested, tried, and executed in May 1975. His supporters left the ERP and formed the National Resistance (RN).
As a result, the ERP found itself isolated on the left. The organization went through a period of intense self-criticism (1975-1977) that resulted in the purging of ‘militarists.’ And despite such setbacks, pragmatic efforts had begun to take root in Morazán. (30)
Typical of the Latin American armed left of the 1960’s and 1970’s, El Salvador’s initial guerrilla groups were to the left of the Communist Party, and their formation evidenced the complete lack of a monolithic communist movement. However, specific to the historical situation of El Salvador, the Communist Party did not fracture along USSR/China lines but on national analysis. The split was between an old left and a new left, which formed political-military organizations that were tied to mass organizations. Moreover, Christians were welcomed into the revolutionary process. Tragically for future unity, the initial separate formation and consolidation of the guerrilla organizations portended years of sectarianism. When the military government was overthrown by a coup in October 1979, the PCS participated in the new government, the ERP called for insurrection, and the FPL, while rejecting the new government, rejected calls for insurrection and maintained its long-term perspective. Even with the formation of the FMLN in October 1980, the ideological and historical origins of the organizations frequently continued to impede tactical and strategic unity.
1). The PCS’s two-stage theory consisted of an initial democratic stage which, with the national bourgeoisie participating, would isolate the oligarchy and U.S. imperialism. Key to this theoretical position was the PCS’s contention of the existence of a national bourgeoisie capable of overthrowing the feudal oligarchy and carrying through a national democratic revolution. Although the second stage would be socialist, such a revolution was not for El Salvador in the short run; therefore, the immediate tactical situation required the formation of a broad middle class based front against both U.S. imperialism and the feudal landowners.
2). Agustín Farabundo Martí (1894-1932) was an avid supporter of Leon Trotsky, helped found the Central American Socialist Party in 1925, joined and later broke with Sandino in his struggle against the U.S. in Nicaragua, and was executed by a governmental firing squad in the Matanza on 1 February 1932. The communiqué announcing the establishment of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) on 10 October 1980, stated, “For our name, we have taken the immortal figure of Agustín Farabundo Martí, because we consider that this clairvoyant and visionary leader synthesizes the character and the content of the heroic struggle of our people.”
3). For more information about these strikes see Carpio (1967) and Menjivar (1979).
4). This was particularly the case in the Common Core strike of January 1970 at the National University of El Salvador.
5). For further information on the theology of liberation in El Salvador see works by Ignacio Ellacurria, Segundo Montes, and Jon Sobrino in Estudios Centroamericanos published by the Central American University (UCA) of San Salvador.
6). In his August 1966 pastoral letter The Responsibility of the Laity in the Ordering of Temporal Life, Monsignor Chavez y González had begun to distance the Church from its old established ties to the government and the landed elite. The military viewed him as supporting the Christian Democratic Party (PDC).
7). See Cabarrus (1983) which details how one peasant organization – The Christian Federation of Salvadoran Farm Workers (FECCAS) – soon left the PDC fold and eventually joined the Popular Revolutionary Bloc (BPR) which was linked to the Popular Forces of Liberation (FPL).
8). Handal had previously spoken approvingly of Peru’s leftist-oriented military government, viewing it as anti-oligarchy and anti-imperialist (PCS, 1971).
9). In Handal’s view, the electoral process was not exhausted until after the fraudulent February 1977 election (Handal, 1983: 20-21). At its seventh Congress in April of 1979 the PCS adopted armed struggle and began to organize its armed units.
10). Among the initial members of the FPL were José Dimas Alas, the Secretary General of the Federación Unitaria Sindical Salvadoreña (FUSS), and Ernesto Morales, the youth secretary of FUSS.
11). Estrella Roja (FPL, 1973: 30, 33) calls this not purely proletarian government a “Popular Revolutionary Government of Workers and Peasants.” The Bases Estatuarios (FPL, 1978: 12) refers to it as a “proletarian dictatorship” or a “Popular Revolutionary Dictatorship.”
12). To see how the terminology grew to support Carpio’s position see Informe del comando central al primer consejo revolucionario de las FPL (FPL, 1976: 1), Bases Estatuarios de las FPL (FPL, 1978: 4), Carta Miliciana (FPL, 1979: 8), El proceso del desarrollo de las FPL (FPL, 1980a).
13). Prominent early recruits included:
Mélida Anaya Montes (Ana Maria) directed the secondary school teachers union, helped establish the Popular Revolutionary Bloc (BPR) – the FPL linked mass organization – in 1975, and became a primary theoretician in analyzing the Vietnam War. She rose to the position of second in command of the FPL and was murdered by Carpio’s followers on 6 April 1983, in an internal FPL struggle. Officially, Carpio committed suicide days later after it was learned he had given the order to kill her (See Comunicado de las FPL, 9 December 1983, and Comunicado del Comando General del FMLN, 16 December 1983).
Salvador Sánchez Cerin (Leonel González) was a teacher who later became the top commander of the FPL and a member of the FMLN’s General Command.
Felipe Peña and Ana Castillo Rivas (Eugenia) came from the university-based Catholic Action organization.
Apolinario Serrano (Polín), a close associate of Archbishop Oscar Romero, became Secretary General of the Christian Federation of Peasants (FECCAS) in 1974 and Secretary General of the Federation of Peasant Workers (FTC) in 1978. He was murdered by government forces 29 September 1979.
Justo Mejía initially worked with the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) and later helped form the Union of Rural Workers (UTC), which joined with FECCAS to form the FTC. He was murdered by government forces 9 November 1977.
14). Estrella Roja #1 (FPL, 1973) uses the term “tirania militar fascistoide.” Initially the FPL also included renting and leasing capitalists and rich peasants among the reactionary classes. See Los trabajadores del campo en la revolución (FPL, 1972d).
15). The agricultural proletariat, which was viewed as part of the working class, consisted of salaried day laborers. See Bases Estatuarios de las FPL (FPL, 1978: 16).
16). Los trabajadores del campo en la revolución (FPL, 1972d: 3) points out that “without the proletariat and semi-proletariat [the poor peasants] we will not be able to carry out the popular revolution.” The Bases Estatuarios de las FPL (FPL, 1978: 16) states in Article 7 that the principal ally of the working class is the poor peasant. By 1980 the FPL included both the petty bourgeoisie and rich peasants as exploited classes. See The Social Classes in El Salvador (FPL, 1980b: 7).
17). Such a strategy was also called “Prolonged War” in Sobre la orientación: táctica adecuada en el periodo inicial (FPL, 1971: 2), “People’s Prolonged War” in Los trabajdores del camp en la revolución (FPL, 1972d: 12), and finally “Prolonged Popular War” in Informe del comando central al primer consejo revolucionario de las FPL (FPL, 1976).
18). See Menéndez Rodríguez (1983: 35, 37-38) for the Carpio interview about ruling out the foco strategy.
19). See Anaya Montes (1980) for a thorough FPL view of the Vietnam War.
20). Estrella Roja #1 (FPL, 1973) mentions this. An elaborate version can be found in El proceso de desarrollo de las FPL (FPL, 1980a) which states that the revolutionary violence of the masses would help to raise the revolutionary consciousness of the masses, support recruitment, and be linked to partial insurrections that would lead to a general insurrection, which would combine mass uprisings with regular military strikes to destroy the government’s army.
21). For a concise theoretical explanation of this position see Menjivar (1980b). Menjivar, a former dean and rector of the National University, became the primary theoretician of the FPL-linked Popular Revolutionary Bloc (BPR) mass organization. He applied the dependency thinking of Theotonio dos Santos of Brazil and Anibal Quijano of Peru, along with Eldelberto Torres Rivas’s scholarship on the nation state to El Salvador.
22). Such actions eventually included the assassination, or ajusticiamiento, of prominent former and current government officials and supporters, including a foreign minister, an ex-president and the rector of the National University.
23). See Villalobos interview in Menéndez Rodríguez (1980) and Manaut (1989: 213).
24). More specifically, July 1971 – August 1972 marked the period of the end of the democratic opening.
25). Prominent early members of the ERP were:
Nidia Diaz, a member of Acción Communitaria, participated in the Common Core student strikes and later became a commander of the Central American Revolutionary Workers Party (PRTC) of the FMLN. She is the author of Nunca estuve sola (1989).
Lilian Mercedes Letona became an ERP commander. She was killed by government forces on 1 August 1983.
Ana Guadalupe Martínez, a medical student when she joined the ERP in 1973, later a commander in the ERP, a main spokesperson on international affairs, and author of Las cárceles clandestinas/El Salvador’s Clandestine Prisons (1980) that recounts her experiences as a prisoner of the National Guard in 1976.
Lil Milagro Ramírez, a radicalized Christian, had worked with market women and studied in Chile. She was killed by government forces.
Roberto Roca (Francisco Jovel), president of the Common Core Student Congress and vice-president of AGEUS, later became the commander of the PRTC and a member of the General Command of the FMLN
Joaquín Villalobos (Rene Cruz) participated in the National University strikes, helped establish the first ERP armed nuclei, and later became the ERP’s top commander and a member of the FMLN’s General Command
Rafael Arce Zablah “Amilcar,” a leader of FRUSC, became the primary theoretician of the ERP in writing Grano de oro, the ERP’s primary analytical work in its early days. He died from wounds received in combat on 26 September 1975.
26). Roque Dalton (1935-1975) was educated in Jesuit schools in San Salvador; studied law and anthropology in El Salvador, Chile, and Mexico; and was a friend of Guatemalan revolutionary poet Otto René Castillo. He joined the Salvadoran Communist Party, was arrested, jailed, and escaped. During his thirteen years in exile he traveled to North Korea, Vietnam, edited the World Marxist Review in Prague, and finally settled in Cuba. He returned to El Salvador in 1973, and advocated people’s war, but not as an exact copy of Vietnam. He was murdered on 10 May 1975, during an internal ERP struggle.
27). Dunkerley (1983: 93) wrote that that ERP turned Maoist after the foco didn’t work. The National Resistance, a member group of the FMLN, stated that “in reaction to the challenge [development of the RN] the foquistas made an abrupt turn towards Maoism, heavily criticizing the Cuban revolution, characterizing the Soviet Union as social imperialists” (RN, 1977: 13).
28). See PRS (1978: 28) which, in its general condemnation of Rivas Mira, states that Rivas Mira, who had been a Maoist in France, had planted Maoism in the ERP. Rivas Mira was expelled from the ERP.
29). For more on the Venezuelan aspect see Alegria and Flakoll (1983) and Martínez (1980).
30). Morazán became an ERP stronghold during the civil war. Also, the ERP undertook political work. In 1977 it formed a mass organization – Ligas Populares 28 de Febrero (LP-28)/Popular Leagues of 28 February – and a political party – Partido de la Revolución Salvadoreña (PRS)/Party of the Salvadorian Revolution – in 1976.
Alegria, Claribel, and D. J. Flakoll
1983 No me agarran viva: la mujer salvadoreña en lucha. Mexico: Ediciones ERA.
Anaya Montes, Mélida
1980 Experiencias vietnamitas en su guerra de liberación. San Salvador: Enero 32.
Cabarrus, Carlos Rafael
1983 Genesis de una revolución. Mexico: Ediciones de la Casa.
Carpio, Salvador Cayetano
1967 La huelga general obrera de abril
1979 Secuestro y capucha: en un pais del “Mundo Libre.” San Jose: EDUCA.
1989 Veredas de la historia: historia del FMLN. Mexico: Editorial Roque Dalton.
1970 “¿Revolución en la revolución? y la crítica de derecha.” Cuadernos 9 Havana: Casa de las Americas.
1989 Nunca estuve sola. Mexico: Editorial Mestiza.
1983 The Long War: Dictatorship and Revolution in El Salvador. London: Verso.
ERP (Ejército Revolucinario del Pueblo)
1972a Analisis político de la situación nacional mimeo
1972b El combatiente, nos. 4 & 5, mimeo
1973 Acercamiento con las FPL – sobre la base de una política de principios (December) mimeo
1974a Boletín general 1 (2 February) mimeo
1974b Consideraciones generales de la coyuntura electoral y liniamientos generales de acción, mimeo
n.d. Los comandos organizados del pueblo, mimeo
n.d. 300 años, mimeo
FPL (Fuerzas Populares de Liberación “Farabundo Martí”)
1971 Sobre la orientación: tactica adecuada en el periodo inicial. (October) mimeo
1972a El camino de FPL hacía las masas populares. (September) mimeo
1972b Un paso adelante en la conciencia y en la practica revolucionaria de los combatientes de las FPL. (December) mimeo
1972c Primer Pronunciamiento de las FPL. (August-September) mimeo
1972d Los trabajadores del campo en la revolución. (November) mimeo
1973 Estrella Roja 1 (December) mimeo
1975a Estrella Roja 2 (February) mimeo
1975b Carta a los sacerdotes progresistas (January) mimeo
1976 Informe del comando central al primer consejo revolucionario de las FPL. (June), mimeo
1978 Bases Estatuarios de las FPL. 2 revision (May) (1st edition 1977)
1979 Carta Miliciana. 3, mineo
1980a El proceso de desarrollo de las FPL. Comando Central. (1 May), mimeo.
1980b The Social Classes in El Salvador. mimeo
n.d. Nombre de la organización. mimeo
Handal, Jorge Shafik
1968 “Reflections on a Continental Strategy for Latin American Revolutionaries.” World Marxist Review (April).
1973 “El Salvador: A Precarious Balance.” World Marxist Review 16, no. 6 (June): 46-50.
1983 “Consideraciones acerca del viraje del PCS hacía la lucha armada.” Fundamentos y Perspectivas, no. 5 (April): 20-21.
1985 Pueblo en armas. Managua: Editorial Nueva Nicaragua.
Manaut, Raul Benitez
1989 La teoria militar y la guerra civil en El Salvador. San Salvador: UCA.
Martínez, Ana Guadalupe
1980 Carceles clandestinas del El Salvador. Mexico: UAS.
1979 Formación y lucha del proletariado industrial salvadoreño. San Salvador: UCA.
1980b “El Salvador: The Smallest Link.” Contemporary Marxism 1 (spring): 19-28.
Menéndez Rodríguez, Mario
1980 El Salvador: una autentica guerra civil. San Jose: EDUCA.
1983 Voices from El Salvador. San Francisco: Solidarity Publications.
PCS (Partido Comunista de El Salvador)
1971 “Entrevista con Jorge Schafik Handal.” Unidad (8 July).
1980 “50 años en el corazón del pueblo luchando por su revolución.” Boletín 3-4, Comisión Exterior del PCS (May), mimeo.
PRS (Partido de la Revolución Salvadoreña – ERP)
1978 Mimeo del Partido
1980 El Salvador: un volcán social. Ruptura.
RN (Resistancia Nacional)
1977 Por la causa proletaria 25.
1986 “El estado actual de la guerra y sus perspectivas.” Estudios Centroamericanos 449 (March-April) San Salvador: UCA. Translated as 1986 The War in El Salvador. San Francisco: Solidarity Publications
1988 Perspectivas de victoria y proyecto revolucionario. (November) mimeo. later in 1989 “Perspectivas de victoria y proyecto revolucionario.” Estudios Centroamericanos 44, nos. 483-484 (January-February)
1989b “A Democratic Revolution for El Salvador.” Foreign Policy 74 (spring)
Zablah, Rafael Arce
n.d. El grano de oro, mimeo
Brad K. Berner
Formerly a history instructor at Arizona State University, Mr. Berner is currently living and teaching in Moscow, Russia.