Authoritarian El Salvador

Politics and the Origins of the Military Regimes, 1880–1940

Erik Ching

From the Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies

In December 1931, El Salvador’s civilian president, Arturo Araujo, was overthrown in a military coup. Such an event was hardly unique in Salvadoran history, but the 1931 coup proved to be a watershed. Araujo had been the nation’s first democratically elected president, and although no one could have foreseen the result, the coup led to five decades of uninterrupted military rule, the longest run in modern Latin American history. Furthermore, six weeks after coming to power, the new military regime oversaw the crackdown on a peasant rebellion in western El Salvador that is one of the worst episodes of state-sponsored repression in modern Latin American history. Democracy would not return to El Salvador until the 1990s, and only then after a brutal twelve-year civil war.

In Authoritarian El Salvador: Politics and the Origins of the Military Regimes, 1880-1940, Erik Ching seeks to explain the origins of the military regime that came to power in 1931. Based on his comprehensive survey of the extant documentary record in El Salvador’s national archive, Ching argues that El Salvador was typified by a longstanding tradition of authoritarianism dating back to the early- to mid-nineteenth century. The basic structures of that system were based on patron-client relationships that wove local, regional, and national political actors into complex webs of rival patronage networks. Decidedly nondemocratic in practice, the system nevertheless exhibited highly paradoxical traits: it remained steadfastly loyal to elections as the mechanism by which political aspirants acquired office, and it employed a political discourse laden with appeals to liberty and free suffrage. That blending of nondemocratic authoritarianism with populist reformism and rhetoric set the precedent for military rule for the next fifty years.

Erik Ching is professor of history at Furman University. He is coauthor with Héctor Lindo Fuentes of Modernizing Minds in El Salvador: Education Reform and the Cold War, 1960–1980.

“With his Authoritarian El Salvador: Politics and the Origins of the Military Regimes, 1880-1940, Erik Ching makes a significant and original contribution to the historiography of Central America and to debates on patron-client relations and systems of political development. No doubt the enormous empirical research and attention to archival detail he presents will spark debate in the rich and growing literature on politics, democracy, and authoritarianism in post-independence Latin America.” — Justin Wolfe, Tulane University

“This is an innovative and important work. In-depth research in local and national archives allowed Erik Ching to reveal the formal and informal mechanisms of Salvadoran politics until the eve of the Second World War. This book is an essential reference to understand the roots of political authoritarianism in El Salvador.” — Héctor Lindo-Fuentes, Fordham University

“During the 1980s, when El Salvador was in the midst of a terrible civil war, numerous books were written that attempted to explain that small country’s predicament but usually ended up quite short on detail and nuance. Now we have Erik Ching’s very detailed and nuanced study that takes us not only back in time—to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—but to local environments where elites and clients interacted to decide the outcome of electoral contests that anointed municipal and national power holders. This book is indispensable for understanding a political culture that combined democratic rhetoric with violence and repression of dissenting points of view.” — Knut Walter, author of The Regime of Anastasio Somoza, 1936–1956