General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez (1882-1966) served as president of El Salvador from 1931 to 1944. His regime was a strict dictatorship which suppressed a Communist-led uprising during its initial days in office. He promoted economic growth based on the expansion of the large coffee estates, thereby benefiting the landowners and initiating links between the military and the oligarchy.
Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, who was born October 29, 1882, entered El Salvador's army at an early age. He gained combat experience in the 1906 war with Guatemala, establishing a solid record and rising to brigadier general by 1919. During much of his career he served as a professor at the Salvadoran Military Academy.
Martínez rose to power in 1931 during a tumultuous year of political maneuvering. The only military officer considered a leading candidate for the presidency in the election of 1931, Martínez emerged as the vice president on a ticket headed by Arturo Araujo, a wealthy landowner with aspirations for reform. However, after winning the election Araujo proved to be a weak ruler, unable to deal with the severe problems resulting from the global depression, especially the depressed price of coffee, the nation's principal export. In December 1931 a group of young army officers ousted Araujo in a military coup. Martínez was arrested, though the young officers later installed him as president since under the constitution he was next in line as vice president. The United States vigorously opposed the coup, invoking the 1923 Washington Treaty, by which the governments of Central America had pledged not to grant diplomatic recognition to any regime installed by an armed revolt. While the United States had not signed the treaty, it had sponsored the idea. However, since this revolt occurred at a moment when the United States had pledged not to intervene militarily in Latin America, the Salvadoran military felt that it could resist pressure from Washington.
In the midst of the maneuvering the situation was changed by the outbreak of an agrarian revolt in which discontented peasants sought to seize land. Fighting erupted throughout the interior of the nation, and several landowners were killed by peasant mobs. While the revolt reflected the conditions of the peasants, it was led by avowed Communists, including Agustín Farabundo Martí. The uprising alarmed the landowners and forced them to seek military support. In the process they turned to General Martínez, who was largely Native American Mestizo of poor origin with little in common with the elite. Martínez perceived his opportunity and ruthlessly put down the revolt. The death toll in the uprising and the subsequent repression was very high.
Martínez was able to consolidate his position with his new found support from the oligarchy and carefully orchestrated his own election. In later years Martínez twice extended his term of office through constitutional conventions.
A recluse who seldom appeared in public, Martínez was a vegetarian, a nondrinker, and a theosophist who believed in reincarnation and engaged in occult practices. The general held seances at his home and was fond of recommending colored water to cure all ills. Because of his beliefs, he was quoted as stating that "It is a greater crime to kill an ant than a man, for when a man dies he becomes reincarnated, while an ant dies forever."
El Salvador was essentially bankrupt during the 1930s, and as this left little money for government projects, Martínez's efforts were based on minimal expenditures and were more modest than those of neighboring countries. Martínez refused to contract new loans abroad, instead insisting that his nation live on its resources. In 1937 he had a plaque installed in the National Congress Building over his signature saying: "I propose before the Nation that it never consent to the incurrance of new debts." The Martínez government did construct a modest network of dirt roads, several governmental buildings, and a few schools and hospitals. Martínez also launched a land distribution effort by which the government divided the lands it owned into small parcels to be deeded to landless peasants. His regime purchased several estates for division, though, since the government had little money, the program proceeded slowly and its effect was limited.
The general maintained tight personal control of the nation through an extensive system of repression and spies. His regime became more oppressive in its later years, especially after 1938. Police methods were harsh. Among his "reforms" were laws reinstituting the death penalty for such crimes as rebellion. A revolt on May 8, 1944, led to his resignation. After that he lived in obscurity in exile in Honduras for many years and died there in 1966.
The Martínez regime constituted an important water-shed in the politics of El Salvador, marking the initial control of the nation by the military and the origin of the alliance between the military and the landowners which dominated politics in that nation for many decades. The unsuccessful peasant uprising that enabled him to consolidate power also polarized his nation between upper and lower classes. These legacies were to continue to affect the politics of El Salvador for decades after Martínez abandoned power.
For details of the early days of the Martínez regime see Thomas P. Anderson, Matanza: El Salvador's Communist Revolt of 1932 (1971) and Kenneth J. Grieb, "The United States and the Rise of General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez," in the Journal of Latin American Studies (London, November 1971). There are no detailed histories covering the entire regime.