Dashed Hopes: The 1972 Elections
In the wake of the Football War, the PDC sought to turn the
issue of unequal land distribution to its political advantage.
The war had not only highlighted this issue, it had exacerbated
it. Returning refugees were unable to resume the kind of farming
they had practiced in Honduras; their employment opportunities as
coffee laborers, always limited and seasonal in nature, were
restricted still further by the scale of the war-induced influx.
Pressure intensified for some kind of land reform.
The PDC was the first political party to drop out of the so-
called National Unity Front that had been formed to support the
war effort against Honduras. Party spokesmen began to push the
issue of full agrarian reform, including credit and technical
assistance, as a major platform plank for the 1972 presidential
elections. The thinking of the Christian Democrats on this
question was as much practical as idealistic. Agrarian reform was
not just a popular rallying point for them; it was also seen as a
way to establish a new class of small- to medium-sized
landholders who would presumably demonstrate some loyalty to the
party and government that granted them that status. This was a
common strategy for Latin American Christian democratic parties,
in keeping with their advocacy of free-enterprise reformism.
The Legislative Assembly provided a tangible demonstration of
the appeal of agrarian reform in January 1970 when it convened
the National Agrarian Reform Congress in San Salvador. The
congress included representatives from the government, the
opposition, labor, and business groups. Its convocation was an
unprecedented event in Salvadoran history, even though it was
charged only with making recommendations, not policy. Moreover,
those recommendations turned out to be, by Salvadoran standards,
revolutionary. They included a call for massive land
expropriation by the government in order to achieve a more
equitable and productive distribution of national resources. The
delegates judged that landholdings above a certain size could be
characterized as fulfilling no legitimate "social function" and
were thus legally liable to expropriation under the constitution.
This call for expropriation actually exceeded what had been
called for in the PDC's reform program. By agreeing to the
resolutions of the congress, however, the PDC effectively
incorporated expropriation into its political agenda. By so
doing, it provoked further misgivings among the elite and
conservative sectors of the military with regard to the party's
intentions should it achieve power.
The legislative and municipal elections of March 1970 were
discouraging for the PDC, as it dropped three seats in the
Legislative Assembly and lost control of seventy municipalities.
Electoral fraud was alleged against the PCN by the PDC and other
opposition parties, but fraud never was proved. Nevertheless, the
Christian Democrats confidently looked toward the 1972
presidential balloting. Duarte, the party's most popular figure,
had agreed to resign the mayoralty of San Salvador and head the
national ticket. Despite the 1970 results, there were signs of
weakening popular support for the PCN stemming from economic
decline. Agrarian reform provided a strong issue for a national
campaign. One problem that confronted the PDC was internal in
nature and concerned a dispute over tactics. One faction of the
party advocated a direct organizational challenge to the PCN in
its rural strongholds, whereas another faction stressed the need
to radicalize PDC doctrine and programs in an effort to draw a
sharper contrast between it and the ruling party. Duarte, not
wishing to become embroiled in this potentially divisive debate,
resigned as party secretary general and generally sought to
remain above the fray.
The 1972 elections took place in an uneasy political
atmosphere. The 1970 election of socialist Salvador Allende
Gossens as president of Chile had resurrected anxieties over
communist gains in Latin America. This concern was shared not
only by the political right and the military but also by the
majority of Christian Democrats. In El Salvador, organizational
efforts by leftist parties such as the PCES and by activist Roman
Catholic clergy were viewed with alarm by conservative sectors.
The fears of the economic elite in particular were provoked by
the 1971 kidnapping and murder of Ernesto Regalado Duenas, the
son of a prominent family, by a leftist terrorist organization
calling itself "the Group"
(see Left-Wing Extremism
, ch. 5). A
protracted teachers' strike in 1971 only added to the unsettled
climate prevailing in the country.
The PDC opted to participate in the elections as the leading
party of a coalition designated the United National Opposition
(Union Nacional Opositora--UNO). The other members of the
coalition were smaller and more radical than the PDC. The
National Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Nacional
Revolucionario--MNR) was originally a social democratic party.
The MNR was pushed further to the left, however, as former PAR
supporters joined its ranks after their party was legally
proscribed in 1967. The National Democratic Union (Union
Democratica Nacional--UDN) was an even smaller grouping that had
once described itself as the party of the noncommunist left in El
Salvador. By this time, however, the UDN had been infiltrated by
the PCES and was functioning as a communist front group. Despite
the leftist leanings of the MNR and UDN and the lingering effect
of the agrarian reform congress, the UNO platform was moderate in
tone, calling for measured reform, respect for private property,
and the protection of private investment. As expected, Duarte was
tapped as the presidential candidate. He in turn chose the MNR's
Guillermo Manuel Ungo Revelo as his running mate.
President Sanchez chose Colonel Arturo Armando Molina as the
PCN candidate. The PPS also entered the contest, led by Jose
Antonio Rodriguez Porth. A small PCN splinter party calling
itself the United Democratic Independent Front, funded by some
leading oligarchic families, rounded out the field. The campaign
was a violent and dangerous one for the opposition. UNO's leaders
decried numerous incidents of harassment, kidnapping, and assault
against their activists. The leading perpetrators of these
actions, according to the opposition, were troops of the GN.
Further roadblocks were thrown in the way of UNO by the PCN-
controlled Central Electoral Council, which disqualified the
opposition coalition's candidate slates for the Legislative
Assembly in the departments of San Salvador, San Miguel,
Usulutan, Sonsonate, La Union, and San Vicente.
The actual vote count in the presidential balloting of
February 20, 1972, probably will never be known. As expected,
Duarte ran strongly in San Salvador, offsetting the traditional
PCN advantage in the countryside. Poll watchers for UNO claimed
that the final tally nationwide was 327,000 for Duarte and
318,000 for Molina. Tabulations were suspended by the government,
however, and a recount was initiated. The official results of
that count placed Molina ahead of Duarte by 10,000 votes. The
selection of the president thus was relegated to the assembly,
where the PCN majority affirmed Molina's tainted victory after a
walkout by opposition deputies. An appeal by Duarte and Ungo for
new balloting was denied by the Central Electoral Council.
The blatancy of the fraud employed to maintain the PCN in
power outraged and disillusioned many Salvadorans, including
members of the armed forces. One faction of the officer corps, a
new Military Youth, attempted to take direct action to redress
the official exploitation of a system that had until that point
shown some promise of evolving in a genuinely democratic
direction. This group of young army officers, led by Colonel
Benjamin Mejia, launched a coup on March 25, 1972. Their
immediate goal was the establishment of a "revolutionary junta."
It seemed clear, however, that the officers favored the
installation of Duarte as president.
Mejia and his followers initiated their action by seizing the
presidential residence and taking Sanchez and some of his family
members hostage. From that point on, however, events ran against
the insurgents. The thunder of aerial bombing over the capital
soon announced the loyalty of the air force to the government.
The coup attempt never gained the support of more than a minority
within the officer corps, and that only in the army. Some
residents of the capital took to the streets in support of the
young officers, but they were no match for the loyalist military
forces. In desperation, Mejia turned to Duarte, urging him to
deliver a radio address in support of the rebels. Despite some
misgivings, Duarte agreed. His address was broadcast shortly
after noon and may have saved some lives by warning civilians to
evacuate areas targeted for rebel artillery strikes. Its overall
impact, however, was insufficient to reverse the tide of action
in the streets. Loyalist forces regained effective control of San
Salvador by early that evening.
Like many other government opponents, Duarte sought refuge
within the foreign diplomatic community. He was taken in by the
first secretary of the Venezuelan embassy but was soon tracked
down by government security forces, who broke into the diplomat's
house and dragged Duarte away amidst kicks and blows from rifle
butts. The Christian democratic leader was detained briefly,
beaten, and interrogated, then dispatched to Guatemala. From
there, he flew to exile in Venezuela. He left behind a country
where aspirations for change had been dashed and where repression
was once again the official antidote to dissent.
Data as of November 1988