By Alex Langer
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The theme for the 16th contest was Revolution
The messenger looked hungry, Martí thought. The boy’s shirt was stained with sweat and dust and hung loose on his shoulders, and his cheeks were hollowed. His makeshift armband, a slash of blood like every other member of the Red Guard, was tied tightly on his right arm.
The boy cleared his throat. “Comandante-” he started his voice cracking and quavering. He couldn’t be older than fifteen.
Martí sighed, and pulled himself up in bed, dressed only in a nightshirt. The commandeered house was pretty in a humble way, all whitewashed walls and simple furniture, befitting a popular revolution. The presidential palace, where so many tyrants had grown corpulent from the blood of the Salvadoran people and where the top three-quarters of President Maximiliano Hernández Martínez’s head was still splattered against the wall, was being used as a Red Guard barracks, displacing the members of the Revolutionary Government Junta to less opulent housing.
“The yanquis are coming, and Comrade Gallardo has called an emergency cabinet meeting?”
Martí eyed the boy. “What’s your name, son?"
“Antonio Meléndez, sir.”
“Well, Comrade Meléndez, let me find my pants and my hat, and we will be on our way.”
For a city under military rule primarily by people who had never served in the military, amidst a country at civil war, San Salvador was positively functional. During the day, the streets weren’t exactly crowded, but ration distribution centers had lines outside them, Red Guards remained on patrol, and children played football, relatively oblivious to the atmosphere of subdued violence and restrained panic. The same could not be said for the western highlands, where bands of peasant revolutionaries battled middle-class militias and increasingly worn-down units of the Guatemalan army, or the country’s east, which suffered under the heel of a revolving-door clique of fascists. Their new leader, a self-promoted former colonel with delusions of grandeur, had even sought out Mussolini’s recognition and aid. That had been a nice little propaganda coup for the Democratic Republic, which needed it.
It was a roughly fifteen-minute walk to the Junta’s meeting place, in an annex of the national legislative building. Walking the empty streets before the lifting of curfew, he passed the Metropolitan Cathedral, where a handful of sympathetic, radical priests had been putting on services in the absence of the Archbishop, who had fled to Guatemala and preached damnation for anyone who assisted the “heathen” Communist regime. Copies of Trabajadores, the regime’s hastily assembled newspaper, were plastered on walls beside posters announcing the names of “martyrs of the Revolution” (too many to count) and the number of casualties Guatemalan forces occupying the western highlands had suffered from the actions of “brave popular resistance forces” (exaggerated for morale). He had his bodyguard and Meléndez with him, but in his simple clothing and wide-brimmed hat, Martí looked more like a peasant off the farm than one of the most powerful people in the nation.
He arrived at the checkpoint. Around half of them looked not much older than Meléndez, boys playing soldier, but their weapons would work regardless of their age. Martí nodded, and they saluted. Martí hated when they did that. He left Meléndez at the checkpoint, climbed the steps to the building, and wandered down the dark, musty corridors to his destination. He knocked on the solid door, stained a dark, rich brown, and waited. It swung open, to the sounds of a raucous meeting.
“You’re late, Comrade Chairman,” said Major José Carlos Gallardo, vice-chair of the Revolutionary Government Junta and commanding officer of the forces of the entire Democratic Republic of El Salvador, in theory at least.
Martí nodded stiffly, “My apologies, Comrade Vice-Chairman.” He thought the officer was a snake, more committed to ambition than the cause. The third son of a relatively prosperous grocer, Gallardo had grown up with education and smarts but not status, and had hit a near-ceiling in his career. Higher ranks were reserved for aristocrats, for the most part, which Gallardo was very obviously not. Rather than ape his superiors and hope they didn’t notice his cheap cigars and lack of a nest egg, he had chosen a more direct route to power. His men had joined what Martí thought was a doomed revolt, and turned it into a shocking success, locking up the National Guard and putting General Hernández in a closed casket. Martí had to be at least a little bit grateful.
“Come, sit, we have much to discuss,” Gallardo said, pointing to a chair. His pale-green uniform was unadorned with any insignia. Martí sat. To his right was Ismael Hernández, his long-time compatriot in the Salvadoran Communist Party, and to his left was Miguel Mármol, the normally jocular, grinning leader of the Communist Youth League and commander of the Red Guard, who today looked as though he’d swallowed broken glass.
Next to Gallardo was Luis Felipe Recinos, the reformist leader of the Federación Regional de Trabajadores Salvadoreños, the country’s largest labor union. He had been a fierce opponent of the Communists within the labor movement, but Gallardo had insisted on the presence of some non-Communists on the Junta “in the interests of popular unity,” and Recinos was more tolerable than other suggestions he had had. On his other side was their finance minister, Captain Arturo Morales, a close friend of Gallardo’s and a logistics officer from a mid-sized planter family. His background showed in his gold-framed glasses, soft hands and languid, easy grace. Martí sat, and the ill-fated meeting began.
“We will not surrender the beating heart of the revolution to the yanqui capitalist pigs!” thundered Mármol, slamming his hands on the table.
Three months previous, U.S. military forces under the command of General Smedley Butler had landed in La Libertad. The port town had never been under the control of revolutionary forces - the alcalde had declared his neutrality and guarded it with the aid of his cousin, the commander of a nearby Army battalion - but it had traded with the capital and allowed correspondence in and out. Once the Marines and bluejackets arrived, the town was off-limits, putting even more strain on long, dangerous smuggling routes through Honduras. Communist informants in the town had sent an increasingly frantic series of messages to the Junta, concerning a build-up of military strength. Red Guard pickets had been pushed back out of sight of the town, and earlier that morning, they had received word that there was troop movement north towards Zaragoza, the main community in between La Libertad and the capital. Such was their crisis, and to Martí, there didn’t seem to be a tolerable way out.
“Well, what do you suggest then, Miguel?” retorted Recinos, his balding head shining with sweat and his face red.
“My Red Guards will resist with all their might. The yanquis may had the firepower, but we have the numbers and the courage. They won’t die for their country like we will."
“That’s all you’re asking your boys to do! Die! The fight is hopeless,” said Recinos.
Mármol sneered. “Of course you would say that, traitor. You have always accommodated yourself to the capitalists.”
Recinos darkened from red to maroon. “And what have you done for the working class? Talk talk talk, and luck yourself into power on the backs of others.”
“Enough,” said Gallardo, sharply. “I won’t surrender if we can fight, but we are here to discuss the available options, not wave a bloody shirt. We have approximately 8,000 men under arms in and around the capital. Around 6,000 of those are Red Guard volunteers, who, while they may be brave” - he nodded to Mármol - “are poorly equipped and trained for a stand-up fight with American soldiers. The remainder are, frankly, not much better. Depending on the size and composition of the American force, they could make short work of us.”
Martí nodded. “I agree,” he said, and Gallardo’s eyes narrowed in surprise as Martí gave him a curt nod. He wasn’t Martí’s idea of a revolutionary leader, but he could lead, at the very least
“What will the revolutionary brigades in the field do, if we surrender? Will they join us? Knowing Ama and Sánchez, for instance, they will denounce us as traitors and continue fighting, and it’s not as though we have much leverage over them once we’ve surrendered,” said Hernandez, referring to the leaders of the Izalco and Juayúa revolutionary brigades, respectively. Feliciano Ama for instance, mayordomo of the Cofradía del Corpus Christi, and alcalde del comun of the country’s Pipil Indian community, commanded at least 2,000 fighters across the Sonsonate Department, with allies as far north as Chalatenango.
Hernández had been the Junta’s main contact with the forces of the revolution in the western highlands, a thankless, hair-pulling job akin to herding cats armed with machine guns. The dirty little secret of the Junta was that the plans for an indio uprising predated the Communist Party’s participation. Out-of-work campesinos starving due to collapsing global coffee prices, the caffeinated lifeblood of the national economy, had organized to annihilate the rural bourgeoisie and aristocracy, burning local government offices and seizing control of land with machete and rifle. The urban uprising, led by the Communist Party, had succeeded almost in spite of itself, but in doing so had destroyed the functioning of the Salvadoran state’s repressive apparatus, leaving the highlands rebellion to grow and spread to the north and east. By late March 1932, Guatemalan forces had pushed the the rebels out of the most populated towns, but by the time the first Mayan conscript with an Enfield had crossed the border, the uprising had already converted itself from a jacquerie to an organized armed rebellion.
Now, the various comandantes, sporadically coordinating with each other and with the Junta, fought a brutal war of ambushes and raids, and jealously ruled their captured turf. They worked with and recognized the central government, but obeying them was an entirely different matter. The influence the Junta had over them mainly came from distributions of cash and imported materiel, flows that would cease if the Junta surrendered to the Americans.
Gallardo scowled. Hernández had a point, and one that was a knife to the commander's ribs. "Well, then we fight. An initial victory will give us an opportunity to negotiate terms, rather than roll over like kicked dogs."
Martí fanned his face with his hat, sweat dripping down his face. The weather was hot, and the small room was stifling. Suddenly, he stopped.
"What if we negotiated first? Our forces may not be that strong, but the yanquis may not know that."
Gallardo shook his head. "They will have spies everywhere," he said. "And this man, Butler, he is a Marine. They are like hunting dogs. They wake up in the morning and want to do two things: dig a hole and kill something. There will be no negotiation with him unless we draw blood."
Martí replied, "But he's no ordinary Marine. Our comrades in Nicaragua reported that he was sympathetic to the plight of workers, and that even then he was exhausted with war. The new American president too, he may be a capitalist, but he is not an ordinary one. Perhaps there is something different here."
Gallardo demurred for a moment. "What do you suggest?" he asked.
"Mobilize our forces. Make a show of it. Make it clear that battle would be bloody and gruesome. And send me and the banker" - he pointed at Morales - "to Zaragoza with an honor guard. We will negotiate something that lets us fight another day."
Gallardo nodded. "And what would that be?"
Martí answered. "Surrender, but with conditions." He waved his hand as Mármol stood and inflated his lungs in a bid to shout. "In exchange for putting down our arms, we will be guaranteed amnesty, and no return to military rule, or immediate disarmament of the revolutionary brigades. Rather, we will welcome a return to civilian rule and new, fair elections, which of course is what we desired all along."
The others at the table looked at him quizzically. "Araujo," said Martí. "He is, after all, the elected president."
This time, Mármol got a word in. “Araujo?! He’s weak. A snivelling bourgeois coward.”
Martí nodded. “Exactly. He’s popular, but he’s weak. If he returns to power, Butler and his Marines won’t stay long. And when they leave, Araujo will need our muscle to keep the fascists from taking power back. We’ll be bargaining from a position of strength. We’ll get our revolution in the end, rather than pointlessly dying on the barricades.”
Mármol was suddenly uncharacteristically quiet. Gallardo nodded, “Let’s put it to a vote. In favor?”
All but Mármol raised their hands, then, slowly, he did. “I won’t go against you, Farabundo,” he said quietly.
Gallardo stood. “Good. Let’s get started then. Comrade Chairman, you may want to bathe first.”
The presidential residence had been scrubbed clean. The plain red flags had been replaced with national ones for the parade, but there were plenty of men and women in the crowds with red armbands, cheering themselves hoarse. A patriotic display, and also a show of force. U.S. Marines helped provide security, as did the uniformed soldiers of the Democratic Republic, back under their old banners. Martí smiled, watching from the roof of the residence. He could not have imagined a better result.
The motorcade – small, for the leader of a country, but better than nothing for a man reinstalled by foreigners and Reds – crawled along the parade route. Waving from the bed of a truck filled with bodyguards, and wearing the presidential sash of office, was Arturo Araujo. The once and future president wore an expensive but well-worn suit, with a conservative tie that matched his aristocratic good looks. His wife, a stately Englishwoman, waved beside him.
The son of a wealthy landowner and former finance minister, Araujo had studied engineering in Liverpool, and formed friendships with members of the British Labour Party. He became enamored with their brand of reformist socialism, believing that the masses could be empowered and the bourgeoisie tamed without tearing everything down all at once. Martí disagreed, but unlike some of his comrades, he thought Araujo was a good man, and a better adversary than the alternatives.
Araujo had been elected after his predecessor Bosque, an old-guard boss, had become a democrat seemingly overnight. Araujo ran his own party, the Salvadoran Labor Party, and came in first place in what were the country’s first set of honest elections, mobilizing out-of-work laborers and desperate tenant farmers in the midst of a global depression. He picked Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, a conservative general who had come in fourth place, as his vice president, in order to placate the conservatives who already screamed about the communist in the presidential palace. That same general, a few months later, sent him fleeing into exile in Guatemala. That act had mobilized the people for war, and more than a year later, the reformer was back in San Salvador under very different conditions.
The caravan crawled its way to the residence, prompting Martí and Gallardo to descend back inside. They met Araujo in the presidential study, along with General Smedley Butler, their American custodian. They each reached out and shook his hand, murmuring the appropriate greetings, and then sat. A young Marine brought them each a glass of whisky, and then sat next to Butler.
“To the nation, and your health, gentleman,” said the president.
Martí took a sip, and a long look at the man across from him. His thinning hair and widow’s peak accentuated his dark eyebrows and prominent nose, for an almost hangdog appearance. Despite being Salvadoran born and bred, he almost looked English. The whisky matched too, a fine smoky Scotch.
“From my personal stock. I picked up a taste for the stuff in Britain,” said Araujo. The Marine whispered something to Butler – a translator.
Gallardo concurred. “It’s very nice,” he said, blandly, a sterile smile on his face.
Araujo leaned back. “Ok, let’s get down to business,” he said. “I owe my return to you, and you owe your necks to me. We need each other. I understand that General Butler has already made certain promises, and I am more than happy to abide by them.”
Martí nodded. “Of course. We would expect nothing else from an honorable gentleman such as yourself.”
Araujo shifted. “But if I am to be president, we need more than what’s been put to paper. General Butler has instructed me that while he and some of his forces will provide training to ours, and President Roosevelt will ensure both that Guatemalan forces return to their side of the border and that American credit remains available for our purchase of arms, it is our responsibility to deal with the fascists in the east. This is our fight, gentleman.”
Araujo took a deep breath. “So, let me suggest a few items. General Gallardo, I have a proposal,” he said, promoting the Major several ranks on the spot.
Gallardo had effectively run El Salvador for the past year, but he still had the capacity to be shocked. “Yes, Mr. President?”
“I want you to serve as my Minister of War, for the duration of this crisis. Your skills are impressive, as is your fealty to the people.”
Gallardo blinked. “Yes, Mr. President.”
Araujo smiled. “Excellent.” He then turned to Martí, and started.
“For reasons that should be obvious, it is impossible for me to include the leadership of the Communist Party in my government. I will sign a decree making all political parties legal, yours included, but while General Gallardo is one matter, you are another entirely. However, we can still help each other, and we may agree on more than you think.”
Martí frowned. “President Araujo, you need us more than we need you.”
Araujo spread his hands. “The people are tired of internal struggle, and we can win this war against the fascists. People like General Ama, they may call themselves Red, but they aren’t communists. Their people voted for me two years ago, and they will again. I can make promises to them directly. Recognize their tenure over the lands they’ve seized, and bring their armies into the national fold. Ama may make an excellent Vice President. Now that I sit in this office, what can you do that I can’t?”
Martí started, but Araujo raised his hand. He stood up and walked towards the window. “I plan on doing all of that for them, whether I have your support or not, but your support would make the rest much easier. We need to get production back up and running, keep violence in the highlands to manageable levels and start growing coffee again instead of fertilizing the soil with blood.”
Arauji returned and sat back down. “Hernández convinced me – those in power will not go down without a fight. You’ve won the first half, but we need each other for the rest. We can resolve our differences when the fight is over.”
Martí sipped his scotch. “So, a truce,” he said.
“More than a truce – we can build a partnership,” Araujo said.
Martí placed his whisky down.
“What did you have in mind?”
Alex Langer is a Canadian Jewish writer and law student. He is based in Brooklyn, NY, where he lives with his fiancee and their cat. You can find his fiction elsewhere in Dream of Shadows Issue 2 and the Aurelia Leo Originals Anthology Vol. 1 (upcoming, July 2020).