During the 20th century, El Salvador suffered from one of the longest periods of military rule and political domination in the Americas, beginning with the 1931 coup against the democratically-elected Arturo Aurajo, and culminating in a bloody civil war that lasted from 1979 to 1992. In Authoritarian El Salvador: Politics and the Origins of the Military Regimes, 1880-1940
(University of Notre Dame Press, 2014), Erik Ching
examines the origins of this history of authoritarian governance in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. What he reveals is a seemingly paradoxical political system, in which frequent elections and high voter turnout and political engagement coexisted with frequent coups and a near-total lack of actual democratic influence on governance. This system led to a peculiar national understand of "democracy" that colored the behavior of El Salvador's military rulers.
Marshaling a wide range of documents, including electoral records, political correspondence, and press articles, Ching presents pre-1931 Salvadorian politics as controlled by networks of political patronage that controlled voting at the local level. Rather than disenfranchising poor and indigenous citizens, these networks provided them a limited degree of political influence. Ching argues that the incorporation of poor and indigenous Salvadorians into regional and eventually national political networks was a key factor in some of the most distinctive features and events in the country's early-20th Century history: the actions of the paramilitary Liga Roja, composed largely of peasants; the 1932 uprising of indigenous farmers, which he locates partly in response to a sense of electoral disenfranchisement; and the actions of the post 1931 military regime, which brutally surpressed the 1932 uprising, but went on to promote land reform and other measures to keep the peasantry in the political fold.