San Salvador — Retired Col. Ernesto Claramount sinks back in the couch in his living room. Several grandchildren play in the next room and one occupies a crib at Colonel Claramount's feet.
The front door opens on to the street in the nondescript suburb. Unlike many of his military counterparts in wealthier suburbs, there is no high wall around his property or contingents of security guards with automatic weapons in the street.
''I have no power now and little to protect,'' the silver-haired colonel says. ''All that was taken from me long ago.''
Claramount, a former calvary officer who retains the bearing and posture of an equestrian, was the National Opposition Union presidential candidate in 1977. The union was a coalition of several reformist political parties, including the Christian Democratic Party.
By most accounts, Claramount was robbed of the election when the official government party, the National Conciliation Party, stuffed the ballot boxes and arrested or murdered several of Claramount's poll watchers. The Electoral Commission never released the results of the vote. The ruling National Conciliation Party, however, declared a 2-to-1 victory for Gen. Carlos Humberto Romero.
Claramount and thousands of his supporters occupied the Plaza Libertad in the capital for six days and six nights to protest the fraudulent elections. Many of those who kept the vigil with the colonel, including Fr. Alfonso Navarro, a Roman Catholic priest who held a mass for the protesters, were assassinated in the weeks following the demonstration.
''At midnight on the sixth day the troops entered the plaza,'' Claramount says, ''and began to fire on the crowd. Several hundred of us found refuge in the Rosario Church. The rest of the crowd was forced down a side street where they were separated into smaller groups. Most were badly beaten and we guess about 800 were killed.''
Claramount was escorted out of the church by three high-ranking military officials who he contends intended to shoot him.
''I'm afraid I cannot give you their names since they all remain in power,'' he says. ''But I will say that the only reason that I am alive today is because Monsignor Rivera y Damas insisted on walking with me when I was taken out of the church.''
Claramount was sent into exile and all his property, which included a large dairy, was expropriated by the Romero government.
Claramount returned from exile in Costa Rica 12 days after the 1979 reformist coup.
''I hoped when I returned that the corruption, repression, and failure to address the needs of the majority of Salvadoreans could be rectified. As I watch the 1984 presidential elections, it is painfully obvious that this has not happened.''
Claramount dates the modern political era in El Salvador from the 1929 stock market crash in the United States.
''By 1930 coffee prices had fallen to an intolerably low level. We collapsed economically, because we depended entirely upon American and European economies, '' Claramount says. ''By 1932 when the peasant uprising occurred, there was a power vacuum. The power the Army assumed during and after the 1932 revolt, in which 30,000 people were killed, became the norm. The repression became institutionalized.
''In the 1930s, throughout Central America, the rule of the law was abandoned for the rule of the gun. In Nicaragua, Anastasio Somoza came to power; in Honduras, Carias Andino; in Guatemala, Jorge Ubico; and in El Salvador, Hernandez Martinez. Thus was born the dictatorships we suffer from today.
''The oligarchy, which has always controlled the Salvadorean Army, decided after the 1932 uprising not to respond with reforms, but force. We are paying for this decision now.
''In the 1970s,'' Claramount says, ''the people of El Salvador started to form popular organizations to demand that the oligarchy, and the military leaders who worked for them, stop treating them like pack animals and give them a voice in the society and a share of the economy.''
Claramount sees the popular organizations formed during this period as the catalyst for the present guerrilla movement.
''When these unions and popular organizations began to protest peacefully in the streets or by organizing strikes,'' Claramount says, ''they were answered with bullets and the kidnapping and murder of their leaders. The closed society that existed, and now exists in El Salvador, has not allowed the majority of people to participate in the political process.
''For 50 years the oligarchy ruled the country through force and fraud. They never saw any reason to change, but only apply these methods in greater doses. I think those in power still suffer from the delusion that they just have not been repressive enough.
''The failure to allow legitimate democratic institutions to function in El Salvador means essentially that the people of El Salvador have never seen democracy work,'' Claramount says. ''As the repression against these organizations in the 1970s intensified it became more and more difficult for those of us who wanted to implement a real democracy. . . .''
And both Presidents Carter and Reagan, he says, ''failed to understand what is happening here and have subsequently been impotent to rectify the conflict in El Salvador.
''If Carter or any of your presidents had truly stood up for democracy here, the guerrilla movement would never have gotten off the ground. Instead, by backing the thieves and assassins who held power, or at best timidly sanctioning them, the US has fueled the guerrilla movement.
''In 1977,'' he continues,'' after we were robbed of the election and our supporters were gunned down as they stood peacefully singing the Natonal Anthem, Carter responded by delaying the appointment of a new ambassador. This was an absurdly weak response. By October, 1977, Carter had forgotten the fraud and slaughter to back the regime.
''The secondary issue of human rights, which the conservatives in the US so often ridicule, gave out to national security. I believe this constant pattern of never promoting what has been condescendingly been labeled human rights, but in reality means the right to basic freedoms and respect for human dignity, has been the primary weapon in the hands of the Marxist insurgents. Reagan, rather than at least recognize this, as perhaps Carter tried to, thinks the war will be determined by giving the military more guns.
''This is not a prolonged popular war,'' Claramount says, ''it is a prolonged war against unpopular governments. If we do not provide the people of El Salvador with a representative government and political parties which have bases of popular support we will not win this war. Now we have the current circus of elections, which is supposed to pass for democracy. For those of us who really believe in democracy, and have suffered because we are Democrats, it is painful to watch a country as free and as great as the US make a fool of itself by defending the corrupt and repressive men who now govern my country.''