The origins of El Salvador's chaos go back many decades -- and indeed it is possible to trace them back to colonial times. But as the country appears to move precipitously toward civil war, it is only necessary to look at the past 47 years of military rule to understand something of the reason for today's trauma.
Throughout this period, the nation's military has supported, and been supported by, about 2 percent of the population -- the small, powerful group that owns or controls 60 percent of the land here.
Most Salvadoreans are poor. And although a middle class has been developing in recent years, the chasm between the "haves" and "have-nots" has grown larger.
With the population soaring 3 percent yearly, one of Latin America's fastest growth rates, the have-nots have become more numerous and more vocal in their protest against these inequities.
There have been opposition movements all along, but they did not flourish until leftist agitators with better organizing techniques began drawing thousands of unhappy Salvadoreans -- especially young people -- to their side. Today there is a veritable alphabet soup of leftist-led organizations know by their Spanish acronyms: BPR, FPL, FAPU, LP-28, UDN.
Using terrorist tactics that include kidnappings, assassinations, seizure of churches, government buildings, and embassies, and bus-burning, they have, in a sense, laid siege to the country. Since Jan. 1, some 300 persons have been killed, at least 35 kidnapped, 15 buildings occupied, and numerous buses and stores burned.
In the process, El Salvador is being torn apart, not only by leftist protests , but also by a mushrooming reaction to the Left from many Salvadoreans who either do not want change or who reject the Marxist ideological content of the leftist protesters. Conservative counterprotests are becoming just as violent as the leftist protests.
This has brought El Salvador, Latin America's smallest continental nation, to the edge of an abyss. Some Salvadoreans would say the country already has fallen into the abyss and nothing short of a miracle can lift it out.
Civil was seems imminent to many.
"There is no way to prevent it," says Silvio Antonio Reyes, a shopkeeper in downtown San Salvador. Most Salvadoreans with whom the visitor talks echo this view.
"The Left with its Marxist ideology and the Right with its conservative, sometimes reactionary approach hate each other with a passion that I have never seen before, and both will use terror as a weapon," he says. "And there is nothing to stop them from chopping each other apart. We will all get hurt in the process."
With each escalation of violence, there are fewer jobs, less money, and shortages of goods.
El Salvador's present military leaders, no longer supporting the few who own much, are trying to find a way out of the dilemma. Last Oct. 15, reform-minded younger officers came to power and are trying to build bridges to the majority of nearly 5 million Salvadoreans.
But their efforts may be too late.
That, however, does not stop them. Headed by a group of middle-aged colonels , they are trying to work out basic reforms to cut back on the power of the wealthy and put more money into the pockets of the poor.
The colonels have disassociated themselves from the economic elite and turned to moderate-minded civilians in an effort to form a government of national unity.
But some Salvadoreans complain the colonels have not put all that much distance between themselves and the traditional elite. They point out, for example, that the Army officers have yet to come forward with a substantial land-reform program, one of the country's most critical needs in the view of many of the protesters.
Moreover, it is generally admitted that despite the colonels' good intentions , little progress has been made because the old ties between the military and the economic elite are simply too strong. The first military-civilian government fell apart in December. But the military came back in January with a new formula, a joint government with the leaders of the Christian Democratic Party.
The only problem with this formula is that the Christian Democrats, once the country's largest political party, no longer have much clout. Since they lost the 1972 presidential election in what has been regarded as a fraudulent vote, the Christian Democrats have seen much of their popular support erode.
"They are a thin shell of their onetime selves," writes a columnist in El Diario de Hoy, a San Salvador newspaper.
This has not stopped the joint military- Christian Democratic government, however, and it has gone ahead with nationalization of banks and foreign commerce, two activities in which the economic elite are accused of using their power to control the economy.
Earlier the junta cut bus fares, put a ceiling on the prices of food staples such as corn, rice, beans, and oil, and increased the minumum wage for half-a-million Salvadorean fieldworkers to $4.50 per day. This is still short of the $5.50 demanded by the leftists.
Moreover, even when such efforts come close to leftist demands, there is no certainty the Left will accept them. Indeed, the Bloque Popular Revolucionario, the most powerful group, says it will not "bargain with the government." Instead , it states: "Organization Democratica Nacionalista, states: "The way to end this nonsense by the Marxists is to kill them."
How to calm the passions and bring the warring sides together is the dilemma facing the government.
Despite the ominous signs of imminent civil war and the violent actions of both Right and Left, the present military-civilian government argues, as one of its members, Col. Adolfo Armando Majano, put it: "We could not live with ourselves if we did not try."