Hernández Martínez, Maxi-Miliano (1882–1966)

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Hernández Martínez, Maxi-Miliano (1882–1966)

Maximiliano Hernández Martínez (b. 1882; d. May 1966), career army officer and politician, president of El Salvador (1931–1934 and 1935–1944).

Born in San Salvador and educated at the Guatemalan military academy, Martínez entered the army in 1899. Rising rapidly during the 1906 border war with Guatemala, he reached the rank of major three years after receiving his commission. By 1919 he held the rank of brigadier general. Highly regarded by his colleagues for his ability as a planner and strategist, Martínez spent most of his army career as a professor at the Salvadoran Military Academy and in the office of the chief of staff. His features were both Indian and boyish, and he always appeared considerably younger than his age. Despite a calm exterior, he was regarded as a stern commander and a strong-willed, ambitious man.

Martínez's political rise began in 1930. One of six candidates for the presidency, Martínez withdrew to become the vice-presidential candidate of Arturo Araújo, a wealthy landowner who enjoyed labor-movement support. Receiving only a plurality of the votes in the January 1931 election, the pair was elected by the National Assembly. General Martínez was appointed minister of war in addition to his vice presidency. The regime proved controversial and was confronted with the economic and financial crises caused by the global depression.

The maneuvering resulting from a military coup on 2 December 1931 brought Martínez to power. Although Martínez was not directly involved in the coup and was apparently held prisoner by the junior officers who led the revolt during its initial stages, he was suspected of complicity. After several days of confusion, Martínez was released by the military directorate and installed as provisional president (5 December) in accordance with the constitutional provisions. While the junior officers apparently intended that he be a figurehead, he eventually out-maneuvered them to take full control.

Martínez's consolidation of power was facilitated by a leftist-led peasant uprising during January 1932. The bloody rebellion, which reflected peasant discontent, numbered Communists among its leadership. Attacks on landowners and towns in many areas of the country greatly alarmed the elite, which turned to the army for protection. The army put down the revolt after incurring extensive casualties, variously numbered from 10,000 to 30,000, in what became known as the matanza (massacre). The result changed the nation's political climate, solidifying the power of General Martínez, creating support for a military regime, and leaving the entire isthmus frightened of communism.

Initially other Central American governments, in particular that of General Jorge Ubico in Guatemala, supported the United States in opposing Martínez. Contending that the Washington Treaties of 1923 precluded recognition of anyone who came to power as the result of a coup, the United States insisted on Martínez's resignation. Martínez and Ubico became rivals in a diplomatic contest for support throughout the isthmus. When nonrecognition failed to topple Martínez because of his control of the internal government security apparatus and U.S. reluctance to intervene militarily, the United States recognized the Martínez regime in January 1934. The general arranged his own reelection in violation of the Salvadoran constitution in 1934, beginning his second term in March 1935. After a prolonged stalemate, the Central American Conference of 1934 was convened to modify the Washington Treaties of 1923.

Martínez held the nation in the tight grip of a harsh dictatorship until 1944. A theosophist and spiritualist who believed in the transmigration of human souls into other persons, he was rumored to be involved in rituals and was often regarded as a witch doctor. The security apparatus controlled all aspects of Salvadoran life, including the press, ruthlessly suppressing dissent.

The general did stamp out corruption, cease foreign borrowing, and stabilize the currency. His regime was best known for its public works program, which though not as extensive as that of his Guatemalan contemporary, changed the face of the nation. His efforts included extensive road building as well as the construction of many government buildings. He was periodically reelected, save for a brief interim regime.

After a few years of continued rivalry, Martínez and Ubico joined the leaders of Honduras and Nicaragua in a détente in which each agreed to prevent rebel movements against his neighbors, thereby acknowledging that none could gain ascendancy. This agreement gave rise to the myth of a Central American Dictators League, which seemed to gain further credence when both Guatemala and El Salvador became the first governments to recognize the new Spanish regime of Generalíssimo Francisco Franco in Spain. In fact, however, there was no formal agreement and certainly no linkage to the Axis powers. Rather, the respective Central American military presidents merely adopted a mutual nonintervention policy.

Martínez was forced from office on 8 May 1944 by a general strike protesting a new effort to extend his tenure yet again. The revolution proved short-lived, but though the military regained control, Martínez's hour had passed, and he remained in exile in Honduras until his death.

See alsoMilitary Dictatorships: 1821–1945; Washington Treaties of 1907 and 1923.


Thomas P. Anderson, Matanza: El Salvador's Communist Revolt of 1932 (1971).

Kenneth J. Grieb, "The United States and the Rise of General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez," in Journal of Latin American Studies 3, no. 2 (1971): 151-172.

Patricia Parkman, Nonviolent Insurrection in El Salvador (1988).

Additional Bibliography

Ching, Erik Kristofer. "From Clientelism to Militarism: The State, Politics and Authoritarianism in El Salvador, 1840–1940." Ph.D. diss., University of California, Santa Barbara, 1997.

Martínez Peñate, Óscar. El Salvador: Historia general. San Salvador: Editorial Nuevo Enfoque, 2002.

                                    Kenneth J. Grieb

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