T0 AN OUTSIDER the underlying issues in the Salvadorean civil war are not hard to understand. Indicators of social inequality are starkly evident. A tight fisted, almost feudal oligarchy owns most of the arable land. The military and the 'security forces' defend their privileges while the poor majority remain illiterate, malnourished, underpaid and oppressed: an open invitation to revolution.
But while the issues are clear, the actors in the struggle - the real political forces - are more obscure. The main opposition, the 'Organizaciones Populares' represent the vast majority of Salvadoreans. With names like BPR, FAPU and LP-28 they may seem like so many bewildering anagrams.
They do differ greatly from the social institutions we might be familiar with. They're neither mainstream political parties, nor political fringe groups, nor neighbourhood associations, nor public interest groups. There is also a complex series of links between the poor, the traditional political parties, the Church and the Popular Organizations.
In fact, they are often misunderstood because of deliberate efforts to misrepresent them. Inside El Salvador, a handful of wealthy families and the military, and outside the US government, are trying to tar the Popular Organizations with the 'extremist' or 'terrorist' brush. The western media have generally parroted the same charges - often with little understanding of their history or their widespread support.
Although the 'Popular Organizations' are recent, their genesis stretches back at least 100 years. In the last century, indigenous campesinos were evicted from their communal lands when legislation was passed favouring the new coffee planters. At first the campesinos became colonos (indentured workers on the large estates) or moved to poorer terrain. But conditions of life for the peasants plummeted during the early decades of the 20th century. Their complaints - hunger, disease, indignity and persecution - became more urgent when the coffee-market collapsed in the early 1930s. With it went a main source of wage income for campesino families.
Motivated by the same frustrations that exist today, an agrarian revolt was organized, then betrayed a few days before it was to begin. The leader Farabundo Marti was executed. Like Sandino, namesake of the Sandinista Liberation Movement in neighbouring Nicaragua, Marti became a martyr prophet for the current campesino movements. Not content with crushing the rebellion, Salvadorean rulers had the Armed Forces 'teach' the population an unforgettable lesson.
'Peasant leaders were hanged in town squares, the bodies left dangling for days', according to one report. 'Persons with Indian features were lined up in groups of 50 and shot by firing squad.' About 30,000 unarmed campesinos were slaughtered in the massacre of 1932. The survivors discarded their indigenous style of dress and stopped speaking native languages. Less easy to eradicate was the fundamental issue of unequal distribution of land.
The governing oligarchy known as the 'Fourteen Families' has monopolized both economic and political power. On their behalf the military has ruled with an iron fist. The slaughter of 1932 was seen as a necessary step to ensure 'social tranquility' and to maintain a profitable economy. Sometimes it seems the army and the wealthy right wing are now attempting to repeat the slaughter.
The poor in both the cities and the countryside also remember the massacre. Since 1932 they have tried every conceivable avenue to win reforms.
'Literacy training, community development, co-operatives, electoral politics: there is no idea, technique or reform which the Salvadorean campesinos and workers did not take up with energy and great good will,' according to one advisor of the murdered Archbishop Romero. But each attempt, when it seemed to be about to work, was blocked by the oligarchy and crushed by the military. Elections in El Salvador have been fraudulent or reversed by coup d'etat- and sometimes both. During the 1960s the newly introduced PDC (Christian Democrat Party), the social-democratic MNR (National Revolutionary Movement), and the Communist UDN (Nationalist Democrat Union) all made substantial gains at the polls - especially when they ran in coalitions. Still the oligarchy refused to tolerate even miniscule, token changes. Elections were a proven dead-end.
In the face of this continued inertia new social actors emerged. They include stronger unions in the cities and new Christian 'comunidades de base' in the countryside and in shantytowns.
A 'comunidad de base' is a small group of campesinos (or students, or slum dwellers) which meets to reflect on daily life and on the Christian message - each in the light of the other.
The 'comunidades de base' renewed the campesinos' religious faith and made them more aware of their own exploitation. But it also gave them social dignity and the confidence to organize themselves.
During the same period the Catholic Church was in ferment. The Conference of Bishops at Medellin, Columbia in 1968 denounced the 'injustice and the sinful social structures' which reinforced mass poverty. Inspired by Medellin and the new 'theology of liberation', priests, then sisters and seminarians, and finally layworkers, began to put the teaching into practice.
Campesinos were taught to read and write and shown new farming techniques. Roads to remote villages were opened and co-operation encouraged. The motivation was not merely economic development, but even more to empower and to liberate. In the words of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire: to 'conscientize'.
New campesino leagues, especially the Christian Federation of Salvadorean Campesinos and the Landworkers' Union, brought campesinos together to improve conditions in the fields and at home. The leagues used non-violent tactics of civil disobedience. Their demands were down-to-earth and modest:
Priests who supported the organizing effort were deported and the Christian communities were accused of 'instigating class warfare.'
The trade unions, legal since 1950, had been snarled in regulations designed to hamstring them. In the late 1960s, the unions pushed past the legalisms and developed active locals which held sit-ins, stoppages and strikes.
With centuries of poverty behind them, with all electoral hopes of reform dashed, with the new associations, leagues and unions under attack, the first crucial steps towards unity finally came in the mid-1970s.
Each Popular Organization is an alliance or coalition, an umbrella or network which unites a variety of grass-roots groups - themselves organized in local, regional or even national movements. Central to their success is the involvement of campesinos, workers, students, teachers and slum dwellers in one another's struggles. The main Popular Organizations are:
These three Popular Organizations along with two smaller ones bring together hundreds of thousands of Salvadoreans. They represent more than 80 per cent of the population. They are organized from the grassroots, with an impressive system of representation and effective rules of democracy.
Since the mid-1970s they have mounted peaceful protests - campaigning for better wages and working conditions, social programmes, and the release of political prisoners. They have occupied offices, factories, embassies, churches and radio stations to draw national and world attention to their demands.
The Popular Organizations are independent though linked to the armed guerrillas which have opposed the Salvadorean military and para-military since the early 1970s. The armed groups themselves joined forces under the FMLN banner (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front).
Predictably, the oligarchy and the local media they control have typecast the Popular Organizations as subversive, foreign-inspired and foreign-controlled - dedicated to the destruction of Salvadorean society. They are labelled 'Communist,' even though the communist-inspired UDN is more like a traditional party and the smaller of several coalitions.
The military have threatened, harassed and persecuted the Popular Organizations. And they have tolerated (if not arranged) their violent repression at the hands of the paramilitary. Rape, torture, murder and pillage are the normal tactics. All the groups have been targeted for 'decapitation' - to have their leadership systematically eliminated.
When General Carlos Romero was ousted on October 15 1979, the newly installed civilian-military junta mixed revolutionary rhetoric with some proposals for reform. The promises were met with a mixture of scepticism and hope.
In fact, the new government quickly proved ineffective. Violence and repression topped the gory record of the former regime. Just as ominous was the complete absence of the Popular Organizations in the so-called revolutionary government.
On January 11 1980 the BPR, FAPU, LP-28 and UDN formed a common front. On January 22, 300,000 Salvadoreans demonstrated in support of the new unity. Twenty-one died and 120 were wounded when the military opened fire on the march.
Two months later, El Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down - in large part for his outspoken belief that the Popular Organizations should play a substantial role in the political management of the country.
A second decisive step towards unity came in April 1980 with the formation of the FDR (Democratic Revolutionary Front). The 'Frente' brought together not only the Popular Organizations, but also political, educational, professional and trade union groups.
The FDR continues to attract new groups from the middle classes. International support, especially from social-democratic parties and governments abroad is growing. The Democratic Revolutionary Front now represents nearly four-fifths of El Salvador's 4.7 million people.
Land has been the crux of the struggle since the 1880s. The upper two per cent of the population own 60 per cent of the land. But the junta's much touted land reform programme has failed to touch the key coffee estates or benefit the majority of the rural population.
Unless the Popular Organizations are brought into the government, the current regime can never claim to speak for the people of El Salvador. Until then the battle needed to assure the country's citizens social justice and human dignity will continue.
Michael Czerny is director of the Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice in Toronto and an executive member of the Canadian Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7