Courtesy Reuters

Oligarchs and Officers: The Crisis in El Salvador

Not since Vietnam has the domino theory enjoyed such currency in Washington. Less than a year after Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza was driven from Managua by the first Latin American revolution in two decades, neighboring El Salvador teeters on the brink of full-scale insurrection. In truth, El Salvador has hardly had a government over the past 12 months. The nation's nominal rulers have long since lost control of their own security forces and today stand isolated amidst a rising tide of political violence from both Right and Left.

In Washington, policymakers are searching desperately for a solution to El Salvador's complex political equation, but the answer remains as elusive as the opening to a Chinese box. The current crisis may have no exit short of civil war-a bloody denouement that would not only shred the social fabric of El Salvador but would also pose grave risks to regional peace. Current U.S. policy, while designed to avoid such a conflict, is not working. While the United States has successfully thwarted two rightist attempts to overthrow centrist governments, the Salvadorean junta today is no closer to finding a permanent solution to its political crisis than it was when it came into power six months ago. The junta's impotence stems from its isolation; it has yet to create for itself any significant base of political support. Such isolation has been a chronic problem for Salvadorean governments, and it is only by overcoming this historical dilemma that the current crisis can be permanently resolved.


El Salvador is burdened with the most rigid class structure and worst income inequality in all of Latin America. For over a century, the social and economic life of the nation has been dominated by a small landed elite known popularly as "the 14 families" (Los catorce), though their actual number is well over 14. The family clans comprising the oligarchy include only a few thousand people in this nation of nearly five million, but until recently they owned 60 percent of the

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