Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Challenging Communist Causality: Miguel Mármol and Reynaldo Galindo-Pohl’s Recuerdos de Sonsonate

Ernesto Cortez, Pintor de Sonsonate
Roque Dalton’s Miguel Marmol (1972), Jorge Schlesinger’s Revolución Comunista: ¿Guatemala en peligro? (1946) and Joaquín Méndez’ Los sucesos comunistas en El Salvador (1932)  are key texts that have formed the emblematic memories of the uprising in January of 1932 in El Salvador and have framed it as a communist uprising.  One relatively unknown primary source, Reynaldo Galindo-Pohl’s Recuerdos de Sonsonate: Crónica del 32’ (2001), is a memoir that responds to these emblematic narratives of 1932 with a perspective that is critical of interpretations that frame the uprising as communist.  His narrative reconstructs Sonsonate as it was in the early 30’s and brings to light a nuanced set of causes behind the uprising of 1932 that have been broadly forgotten such as the extinction of communally held ejidal lands, the impact of the global economy and increased government repression.  Galindo Pohl’s text is a counter-narrative that provides an alternative socio-historical perspective on 1932 from within one of the main municipalities impacted by the events of 1932. 

Dominant Accounts of 1932
Scholars of Salvadoran History have recently begun to question the dominant narrative frames that have shaped the collective memory of 1932.  Remembering a Massacre in El Salvador argues that communism is one of the main interpretations of 1932 among people from the left and the right (Lindo-Fuentes, Ching, Lara-Martínez 6).  Considering the hysteria of the first Red Scare, a result of the Russian Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, it is understandable that this popular uprising was immediately framed as communist.  In fact, uprisings had occurred already in El Salvador’s past (Aquino) and were thought of as class and ethnic issues before discussions of communism became commonplace after the Russian Revolution of 1917(Lindo-Fuentes, Ching, Lara-Martínez 47).
The threat of communism was real, as Lindo-Fuentes, Ching and Lara-Martínez point out, “just a few years earlier the 1917 Revolution had brought Russia, then one of the largest and potentially wealthiest countries in the world, under communist rule.  The new Russian leaders vowed to promote global revolution.”(6) At the same time, Lindo-Fuentes, Ching and Lara-Martínez argue that the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) would seem like a more relevant comparison to make with El Salvador than faraway Russia.  “Indeed, conditions in western El Salvador resembled those in Mexico; the region had a history of ethnic conflict in which Ladinos (members of the dominant culture regardless of race) defined Indians as threats to progress, and Indians, in turn, identified Ladinos as repressive, elitist racists who were determined to eradicate Indians from society” (9).    
Lindo-Fuentes, Ching, and Lara-Martínez argue that communism became the main way to explain the uprising of 1932 in El Salvador because both the left and right found legitimacy in this narrative frame and were able to use it to garner political support:
The right accepted communist causality because it portrayed their forefathers as the historic defenders of the nation, who fought back the barbaric threat of communism and preserved El Salvador as a Catholic nation respectful of private property and ruled according to the values of the business community.  Furthermore the right used this argument to justify its hard-line stance against mass mobilization in the 1960s and 1970s, including the use of death squads to eliminate supposed “communist” insurgents.  The left accepted communist causality because it depicted communists as the historic leaders of the masses, the protectors of the downtrodden, and the vanguard in the fight against capitalism.  The left also used this argument to promote itself as the leader of the surge in mass militancy after 1960.  (Lindo-Fuentes, Ching, and Lara-Martínez  8)
One of the strongest pieces of evidence that Remembering a Massacre in El Salvador offers to question communist causality is the documents from the Russian archives that show that the PCS and the SRI did not instigate the revolt, but rather that they tried to take on leadership positions within the revolt once they saw that it would happen whether they were ready or not (48).  So, the PCS was involved, but it was not the primary organizational impetus behind 1932.  Instead the authors argue that the uprising originated in local interpretations of social conditions through the caciques and cofradías. (58, 73)  Also they cite Jeffrey Gould and Aldo Lauria Santiago’s work that shows that the local SRI chapters allowed a lot of local autonomy and in this way functioned as malleable entities adapted to local needs (61). 
Communist framing has shaped historical investigations of 1932.  Soon after the uprising the types of questions journalists were asking assumed that communism was the primary cause: “Where did communist agitation begin?” (Schlesinger 4)  What was the degree of devastation caused by the indigenous masses and their communist agitators?” (Méndez  7)  Two of these influential early accounts of 1932 were Joaquín Méndez’ Los sucesos comunistas en El Salvador  (1932) and Jorge Schlesinger’s Revolución comunista : Guatemala en peligro? (1946).  Both served as key references for subsequent accounts of 1932 such as Roque Dalton’s Miguel Mármol (Lindo-Fuentes, Ching, and Lara-Martínez 117; 124).
Joaquín Méndez’ Los sucesos comunistas en El Salvador was published immediately following the January uprising in 1932.  Méndez was a journalist who was commissioned by the government to tour the municipalities of Western El Salvador in February and March to interview eyewitnesses and photograph the damaged communities.  The title of his book, “The Communist Events of 1932,” clearly reveals his ideological interpretation of the insurrection.  In his prologue he blames the Communist Party for agitating the indigenous population to revolt: “Y tanto aquí, como en el extranjero, no podía apreciarse en su justa magnitud la obra devastadora que realizó la masa indígena excitada por los agitadores comunistas.”  His book is part ethnography, part catalogue of the damages incurred by the communities at the hands of the “reds.”  For example, several photographs show broken doors; one is captioned: “Pasando por las calles de Izalco, se nota que casi todas las puertas fueron destruídas a filo de machete y a golpes de hacha, por los rojos” (Méndez 26).
Roque Dalton relies heavily on Jorge Schlesinger’s Revolución comunista: Guatemala en peligro? (1946) in the writing of Miguel Mármol (Lindo-Fuentes, Ching, and Lara-Martínez 124).  Schlesinger writes his book as a warning for Central American countries and governments.  He explains that the communist agitation in El Salvador began in the capital of San Salvador where it was largely contained and relatively innocuous, but once propaganda filtered into the rural areas, where the working and living conditions were much more miserable, the demands sparked a popular insurrection amongst the “ignorant and gullible” masses. (Schlesinger 5)  “La Revolución Comunista de El Salvador, nos enseña hasta dónde pudo llegar un pueblo oprimido y hambriento, estimulado por promesas de inmediatas reinvindicaciones sociales; y, la historia se repite…” (Schlesinger 6)        
Almost twenty years later, Roque Dalton’s Miguél Mármol (1972) is published and contributes significantly to the dominant communist frame of the uprising of 1932.  Roque Dalton is one of the most prominent figures of the Salvadoran left and Lindo-Fuentes, Ching, and Lara-Martínez argue quite convincingly that Roque Dalton’s politics substantially shaped the narrative of Miguel Mármol’s life.  It is noteworthy that in prior works such as El Salvador and El Salvador: Monografía, Dalton makes an effort to revise traditional versions of history to emphasize the role of class conflict as a driving historical force (Lindo-Fuentes, Ching, and Lara-Martínez 134).  In 1966 Miguel Mármol, a communist eyewitness of the events of 1932 in El Salvador, unexpectedly met Roque Dalton in Prague and agreed to share his testimonial.  Roque Dalton openly admits in his introduction to Miguel Mármol that his motivation in collecting Mármol’s testimony is not to represent historical reality, but instead to transform historical reality through his work (Dalton 34).  The authors of Remembering a Massacre in El Salvador also point out that Roque Dalton had a few dozen pages of notes from his interviews with Miguel Mármol while the published testimony is more than 500 pages.  “He subjected Méarmol’s words (or, at least what he recorded of Mármol’s words) to narrative reconfiguration.  The process sometimes altered their meaning by adding to them, subtracting from them, and putting them at the service of a plot imbued with political significance” (180).  They also argue that the rebellion makes up only a small part of the life of Miguel Mármol, but Roque Dalton subtitles the book, “Los sucesos de 1932 en El Salvador.” 
Miguel Mármol is one of the founding members of the Salvadoran communist party (PCS) in 1930 and one of the main organizers of the rebellion of 1932.  Mármol was put to death before a firing squad after the revolt, but managed to survive underneath the bodies of his fallen comrades. In the text Mármol reflects on the social struggles in El Salvador between 1930-50 for the benefit of future generations committed to the working class struggle.  Miguel Mármol clearly sets out the communist nature of the insurrection, “En 1932 hicimos una insurrección communista para luchar por un programa democrático burgués” (Dalton 210).  Mármol himself was a labor activist and founding member of the Salvadoran Communist Party and the narrative naturally unfolds from this vantage point (Lindo-Fuentes, Ching, and Lara-Martínez 152).  In the text the Salvadoran Communist Party (PCS) emerges as key to the development of the insurrection.  His deep sense of regret and responsibility in the devastating defeat further suggest that he perceived the PCS as having a decisive role in the failure of the insurrection.  Mármol explains that the Communist Party in El Salvador lacked military experience and lacked the ability to coordinate the insurrection across all of the municipalities (359; 361).  He said that he would only be able to die in peace if his party and his country are able to learn from the fundamental mistakes of 1932 (363).
One fairly unknown primary source, Recuerdos de Sonsonate, is an eyewitness memoir that responds to these dominant narratives with an alternative interpretation of the causes of 1932.  It is important to contextualize Reynaldo Galindo Pohl within Salvadoran society in order to evaluate how his background influences his account.  Even though he is my Great Uncle, I do not have many of my own memories of Reynaldo Galindo Pohl.  His international career as a diplomat was at its most prolific during most of my childhood and through the 90’s.  By then, we had left El Salvador as part of the diaspora caused by the war in the 80’s.  I spent time with him in 2005 when family reunited in El Salvador for my Grandmother’s funeral and novena.  He was already in his late eighties and struggled with his hearing and eyesight, but when my toddler reached for his metal rimmed glasses and knocked them to the floor, his sense of humor was quick, “Ya me fregaste cipote” he concluded playfully making us all laugh. 

Recuerdos de Sonsonate: Motivations
In his introduction Reynaldo Galindo-Pohl explains that he was motivated to write Recuerdos de Sonsonate by a personal longing for the past, but also because he felt that it was critical for Sonsonate and for El Salvador to understand what had happened in 1932.  Reynaldo Galindo Pohl’s deep sense of nostalgia for Sonsonate was more pronounced when his work as a lawyer and an international diplomat took him to far away places; waiting out the noon break from UNESCO on the steps of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, for example, or looking out over the Bahía de Guanabara from the balcony of the Hotel Gloria in Río de Janeiro.  His work in these and other international cities gave him a hopeful outlook about El Salvador despite Sonsonate’s own dark history: “…concluí que los pueblos antes de llegar a la culminación, sufren períodos de oscuridad, asociados a descalabros y angustias, que todo en la vida tiene un precio, a veces un precio muy alto, y que nada se obtiene súbitamante ni por arte de magia” (30). 
Galindo Pohl became fully immersed in the process of writing Recuerdos de Sonsonate in 1985, during the Salvadoran civil war.  He argues that 1932 had a decisive impact on El Salvador’s history and attributes the Salvadoran war of the 80’s to a continued lack of understanding about the problems that came to a head in 1932.  It is understandable that the Salvadoran Civil War of the 80’s brought back memories of 1932 for him and provided a framework for gauging the present: “Al cerrarse este capítulo, parecía que el nivel de la violencia de 1932 nunca jamás sería igualado y menos superado.  Sin embargo, la Guerra Civil superó en violencia al 32’ (36). 
In part, Recuerdos is also a response to other narratives that circulated about 1932.  According to Galindo Pohl, another reason for writing his account was to add to the completeness of the historical record: “Algunos hechos mencionados no aparecen en los libros que se han escrito sobre los sucesos de 1932, y es conveniente rescatarlos para entregar pistas que puedan conducir a su comprobación o rechazo” (32).  It is worth emphasizing that he would not have been able to make this claim without having read at least the main books about the uprising published through 1985, at least the primary Spanish language texts, including Joaquín Méndez’s Los sucesos comunistas en El Salvador (1932), Jorge Schlesinger’s Revolución comunista (1946) and Miguél Mármol: Los sucesos de 1932 (1972).
In Recuerdos, Galindo-Pohl is critical of  “wishful thinking” party line interpretations of the 1932 uprising, which he describes as too subjective: 
El tratamiento inteligente, efectivo y oportuno de problemas sociales, ecónomicos y politicos, ha de partir de la identificación objetiva de hechos, antecedentes y tendencias del pasado.  El peor enfoque en estas materias es lo que en inglés llaman wishful thinking.  Los respectivos antecendentes pueden ser identificados aplicando el método sociológico-histórico, dentro de criterios de máxima objetividad e imparcialidad.  (36)
He argues that some of the accounts of 1932 adjust historical events to the desires and realities of the present day context.  Here in particular it would seem that he is speaking directly to Roque Dalton who introduces Miguel Mármol declaring that his motives for writing Mármol’s account are eminently political and that he is not interested in reflecting reality, but rather in transforming it. CITE Galindo Pohl cautions against using history as a tool of present day politics:
Sin embargo, esa búsqueda se hace a veces de tipo delirante, al querer que los hechos se ajusten a la medida de los deseos y las conveniencias inmediatas.  De ese modo se rechazan, desde el principio y por principio, las razones de determinada posición.  Este modo de enjuiciar sucesos con razones de partido está bastante difundido, y equivale, mutatis mutandis, en cuanto a irrealidad, a la condición imposible de los juristas romanos, cuyos prototipos eran el alcanzar el cielo con la mano y el tapar el sol con un dedo. (36)
Certain methodological factors should be weighed when evaluating the reliability of Galindo Pohl’s account.  First of all, he describes his work as a “collection of memories” instead of as a product of investigative research (32).  While investigative research in itself does not ensure objectivity, the norms of research are principally concerned with fostering objective data and valid findings.  At the same time, Galindo Pohl refers to Recuerdos as his testimony.  Given his training in law and his experience working with international human rights, “ testimonial” should be taken strictly in its legal sense; the account of a witness who makes a solemn statement of fact. 
Lo que aquí se narra carece del propósito de distribuir culpas o de hacer proselitismo.  Refleja, dentro de la intención firme de objetividad e imparcialidad, lo visto y oído.  No es, pues, una novela ni un estudio de crítica histórica; es únicamente un testimonio (33).   
Recuerdos is, in fact, the eyewitness account of a young boy from Sonsonate who came up with various excuses to get permission to leave the house in order to attend the public meetings at Rafael Campos Park and the sessions held by the Regional de Trabajadores union.  Recuerdos is not an example of the testimonial literature genre that came out of Latin America in the 1970’s and 80s.  In comparison with the norms of the genre of testimonial literature, Galindo-Pohl was not a marginalized person excluded from public discourse; he had the privilege of an education and the resources to write and publish his Recuerdos.
Setting aside the extraordinary human quality of Galindo-Pohl, Recuerdos is fundamentally a personal account and, in this way, inescapably subjective.  Also, Galindo Pohl admits to a thick temporal and geographical filter; he wrote Recuerdos more than fifty years after the uprising of 1932 while abroad.  Galindo-Pohl also re-arranged the narrative in terms of events, people and commentary for the sake of the narrative composition and flow. 
The use of real names of people is also important methodological piece of information.  He explains that fictitious names would have detracted from the historical value of the text:
El uso generalizado de nombres ficticios hubiera podido lanzar la crónica por la vía de la inventiva, en la cual los sucesos imaginados podrían apoderarse del lugar que corresponde a los sucesos de efectiva ocurrencia.  Tal vez algunas personas que sobreviven se decidan a poner por escrito sus recuerdos, para contribuir a la más axacta y completa relación de hechos y al mejor entendimiento de la conmoción socio-política de 1932.
Recuerdos focuses on reconstructing the community for the sake of remembering the historical identity of Sonsonate (31).  For this reason, Recuerdos de Sonsonate focuses on representing what people thought and believed in the 30’s.  Galindo-Pohl explains that at the time people did not know the facts, so it was their beliefs that motivated their actions: “la gente reaccionó con base en lo que creyó, y nadie por entonces tenía tiempo ni voluntad para indagar por la veracidad de estas y aquellas afirmaciones o noticias.” (33)

The Socio-Historical Roots of 1932
In Recuerdos Galindo Pohl brings up a nuanced set of causes behind the uprising of 1932 such as agrarian conflicts, the impact of the Great Depression and heightened government repression.  These causes have been overshadowed by the dominant communist interpretation of 1932.  Galindo Pohl discusses the division of land as a key cause of 1932 that has its roots in the conquest:
La cuestión de la tierra venía como consecuencia de una cantidad de factores que se remontaba a la conquista española, pues esta conquista asentó dos estratos básicos de población, la de los vencedores y la de los vencidos.  (273)
The extinction of ejidos and commonly held lands in 1885 was a result of liberal politics and economic policies that depicted these types of protectionist land holdings as backward.  National progress was thought to only be possible through economic policies that freed land ownership from provincialism.  Galindo Pohl reveals some of the racial tones that were intertwined with the arguments for progress; these suggest that cooperative land holdings were wasted on indigenous peoples who were not capable of, or simply did not have the desire to, make productive use of the land (277).  Galindo Pohl describes how the privatization of the ejidos impacted indigenous communities: “Para ellos la desocupación era rotundamente trágica, pues comportaba la transformación de la pobreza en miseria” (266). 
According to Galindo Pohl, the economic crisis of 1929 that began in the United States was another factor in 1932.  Salvadoran exports, particularly coffee, tied the country to the global economy and the Great Depression caused the Salvadoran economy to spiral downward dramatically after 1930.  The economists of the day viewed the depression as a corrective measure that was part of a normal economic cycle.  According to Galindo-Pohl, the popular uprising of 1932 was a response to the extreme frustration caused by the global economic crisis (282). 
The government adopted severe measures to prevent workers from agitating and hoped that the global economy would improve given time.  On August 12, 1930 the government of Pío Romero Bosque passed the first decree prohibiting meetings of workers.  On October 30th of that year, a more general decree was passed that prohibited all types of public meetings or protests (282).  On May 17 of 1931 Galindo Pohl describes one such public meeting in the Rafael Campos Park in Sonsonate of several hundred unarmed peasants.  When the first speaker began, armed agents from the National Police approached the speaker and dispersed the meeting.  Galindo Pohl says that the demonstrators cooperated and retreated but when they had walked about two blocks, the National Police open fired anyway.  Galindo Pohl was thirteen years old at the time and he describes seeing a wounded and bleeding man of about 40 years of age walking with difficulty and grasping at balconies and walls to steady himself.  Galindo Pohl portrays the polarization of Salvadorans who lived in the city and those who worked in the countryside; his Mother did not offer to help the injured man and the man did not ask anyone for help, “Mamá, mamá, ahí va un hombre herido; ¿ por qué no le damos posada? -¿Lo ha pedido? -No. -Entonces no lo necesita” (338).
According to Galindo Pohl people who participated in demonstrations of any kind were commonly identified as communists even though there was no evidence that they had any knowledge of the theoretical background of Marxism.  Galindo Pohl portrays demonstrators as more concerned with immediate needs than with an ideological program.  In contrast with the centrality of communism in the accounts of Méndez, Schlesinger and Mármol-Dalton, Galindo Pohl says there was no mention of the Communist Party at any of the student and labor demonstrations in Sonsonate:
Si ese partido tuvo participación importante en la insurrección fue cosa que no se dijo, ni siquiera los sectores profesionales y estudiantiles.  El contenido de las arengas, examinado únicamente con base de recuerdos, permite, muchos años más tarde llegar a esta conclusión. (335)
Socorro Rojo Internacional (SRI) provided modest economic assistance and moral support to labor activists, but Galindo Pohl argues that it was a myth that the SRI had an organizational role in the insurrection (336).  In early January a flyer circulated in Sonsonate that included the instructions of the Socorro Rojo Internacional to go ahead with an insurrection and to only respect the lives of children under two years old.  According to Galindo Pohl, this could have been a document spread by anyone intent on heightening tensions because the authenticity of this document was never verified (342).  Fascinatingly he places the SRI flyer incident alongside several other examples of unexplained omens of catastrophe.  For example, in early January a large red hot air balloon passed slowly above Sonsonate about 200 meters above ground.  People interpreted it as a signal that the city would be invaded that same night (347).  A few days later, citizens of Sonsonate woke up to find their homes marked with red chalk and numbered 1 through 50.  Galindo Pohl’s house was marked as number 26.  People suspected that these were the fifty houses that would be taken over for the rebel leaders.  Finally, around the 18th of January a cloud of ash rained several inches of soot from a nearby volcano.  People interpreted this as a natural sign of that the insurrection was at hand.  While each of these anecdotes helps to reconstruct the atmosphere of panic and fear of Sonsonate in the early days of 1932, but does not serve as evidence that the uprising of 1932 had communist origins. 

          Recuerdos de Sonsonate: Crónica del 32’ is a memoir that pushes back against the master narrative of 1932 as a communist uprising.  Galindo Pohl suggests that key causes such as land, the global economy, and repression have been marginalized in the collective memory and imagination, but played a much more significant role in the early 30’s in Sonsonate than did communism.  Galindo Pohl’s memoir offers anecdotes rich in socio-historical details from a perspective that is both inside and outside of the events.  Recuerdos is not free from the “narrative reconfiguration” of Roque Dalton's Miguel Mármol, but rather is the product of a new historical context in which communism is no longer perceived as a formidable threat given its global decline as a socio-political movement.  In the similar case of Alessandro Portelli's The Death of Luigi Trastulli, Portelli finds that it is not the historical events that are relevant, but rather how people remember them.  Narrative configurations change with the passage of time.  For this reason, Recuerdos de Sonsonate is not a corrective of earlier accounts, but rather should be read as a product of the war of the 80s and of the negotiated peace and in dialogue with other accounts of 32’.   

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