In the Beginning There Was the Coffee Oligarchy

September 25, 2007

El Salvador. The smallest of Central America's republics--roughly the size of Massachusetts. The banana republic where no bananas are grown and where coffee is king. A country where a handful of families control the destiny of five million; where military rule has prevailed for 50 years; where 2% of the population own 60% of the land. El Salvador, 1932. The site of the first Communist uprising in the hemisphere. Where 30,000 were massacred in the space of several weeks. Where since that time, in the words of poet-revolutionary, Roque Dalton, "all (Salvadoreans) were born half-dead." And where "we survive half-alive." And where today a revolution brews. 1932. It does not appear in the history books. Until recently, it was spoken of only in whispers among trusted friends. The memory of the uprising became the ghost that haunted the 60 or so families who control the country and the five million who suffer the effects of their control: unemploy- ment, malnutrition, illiteracy, brutality, and early death. For the coffee- based bourgeoisie it was the nightmare of their demise. For the army, it was the test of their resolve. And for the peasants and workers, it was the terror of repression and the seed of class struggle. All would be forgotten, hoped the rich. A lesson had been taught. But nothing has been forgotten, and the lesson that was taught was not the lesson that the rich had wanted learned. The conditions that led workers and peasants to rebel in the 1930s have not changed substantially in 50 years. Demands ranging from running water and electricity in the slums to land reform in the countryside are today met with the same intransigence and brutal repression. What has changed is the composition, numbers and organizational strength of the rebels. The rule of the oligarchy, and its military protectors, is now being challenged by a mass movement that unites the struggles of rural and urban workers, peasants, students, teachers, clergy and others. Several Marxist organizations are widely acknowledged as providing leadership to this broad mass movement. They themselves have recently united on a tactical basis to form a Coordinadora, or coordinating structure. Political-military organizations on the left have also reached agreements for common actions. El Salvador today is at the brink of insur- rection. Foreign investors are closing their plants, awaiting a Chilean-style solution to in- stability or simply moving on to more tranquil terrain. Wealthy Salvadoreans are sending their families to Miami, while they organize right-wing terror squads and prepare for a last-ditch stand against the "communist menace." The close memory of Somoza's downfall reminds them of all they stand to lose if El Salvador goes the way of Nicaragua. Meanwhile, the U.S. government desper- ately seeks a middle-ground solution to the crisis, after decades of complicity with the Salvadorean bourgeoisie. It now supports a civilian/military junta that has announced top-down reforms to put the lid on popular unrest. Its plan for agrarian reform has been described by a U.S. official as designed to "breed capitalists like rabbits" by bribing the peasantry with a small plot of land. 2 Yet even the reforms are overshadowed by repression. The state of seige declared by the junta has led to the selective slaughter of key leaders on the left and attempts to intimidate the popular movement. But reform with repression has not slowed the revolutionary movement. For the essence of its demands is the right of people to par- ticipate in the decisions that affect their lives. This includes the right to replace the military rule of the bourgeoisie with a popular, demo- cratic and revolutionary government. There is no middle ground solution to the crisis. The ruling junta has no popular base what- soever, and little support within the bourgeoisie itself. Its to buy time and decapitate the mass movement. The lessons of Salvadorean history are precisely that no centrist force exists capable of mediating the demands of the majority for economic and social justice, and the pressures of a small minority to preserve their exorbi- tant wealth and privilege. El Salvador's history of coffee and cotton, of generals from the pages of Garcia Mar- quez, of massacres and frustrated modern- izers, is the stuff that revolutions are made of. THE GOLDEN GRAIN Coffee. Grano de oro. From a single seed, society was built. And the seeds of today's struggle were sown. El Salvador is the eighth largest coffee pro- ducer in the world, the largest in Central America. Until the 1950s, when agriculture became more diversified, coffee accounted for 90% of all exports. Today it accounts for 44%.3 The United States and Germany consume most of El Salvador's coffee. As one of the ironies of capitalism, only instant coffee is generally available inside the country. The red berry is best picked by hand. Cof- fee workers are either employed year-round to tend the trees, or recruited as day laborers at harvest time. The day laborer may be the small peasant, unable to survive on his own plot of land, or the landless rural proletarian. In the mid-19th century, coffee created its own labor force: communal lands (ejidos) were abolished by decree, to make way for large fincas in the cool highlands of western El Salvador. The scarcity of land, and dense population even in the 1800s, led to the rapid destruction of pre-capitalist forms of production. Com- mercial agriculture grew at the expense of- and not parallel to - the subsistence economy. As a result, wage labor and capitalist relations of production developed more rapidly and more extensively than elsewhere in Central America. 4 In contrast to its neighbors, the agro-export economy in El Salvador was born without foreign capital as its sire. In the early part of the century, foreign capital did play an im- portant role in developing the infrastructure required for getting the crop to market. Rail- roads, electrical energy, communications net- works were all the product of British and U.S. investments. Coffee production and export remained in the hands of domestic capital. The oligarchy became known as the "Fourteen Families," only a slight exaggeration of the truth. In 1961, six families held as much land as 80% of the rural population.' The oligarchy is generally divided into growers and exporters, although some families are involved in both. Exporters in particular have tended to diversify their holdings beyond agriculture. In the 1880s, they became a source of short-term credit for the strictly landowning fraction and created financial institutions to formalize that role. In the 1950s sectors of the oligarchy began in- vesting in industry. TROUBLE AHEAD Until 1932, politics was a game played by the oligarchy, involving inter-family struggles for control of the state. For them, political stability depended on the world market price for coffee. But capitalist agriculture had not been implanted without resistance. Rural uprisings had occurred at close intervals 4MarlApr 1980 5 o ulent o l d fi b l " p frmagarens of a coffee nca eon Age of the coffee oligarchy. thoughout the late 1800s. By 1912 a National Guard was created to maintain order in the countryside. The "Golden Age," as the oligarchy came to view it, ended in 1932. The bottom fell out of the coffee market with the worldwide depression in 1929. Coffee exports fell in value from $16 million in 1928 to $4.8 million in 1932.6 For the growing number of unemployed, the crisis was worse in El Salvador than in neighboring countries. There were no idle lands to provide subsistence and thousands of Salvadoreans were forced to migrate. In Hon- duras, 40% of the labor force on United Fruit's plantations were from El Salvador. 7 The crisis mobilized the small but growing working-class movement which had devel- oped within the Regional Federation of Salva- dorean Workers (FRTS). Initiated in the ear- ly 1920s, the FRTS defied a government ban on unions and organized textile and railroad workers, artisans, peasants and farmworkers. Its leadership was greatly influenced by several organizations loosely associated with the Communist International. The FRTS sent organizers into the rural areas to talk about the accomplishments of the soviets in Russia. They opened workers' schools and agitated for the creation of a worker-peasant alliance. By 1928, they had won the 8-hour day and the right to unionize urban workers. (Farmworker unions remain illegal to this day.) In 1930, leaders of many of the local unions within the FRTS met to form the Salvadorean Communist Party (PCS). Among those pre- sent was Agustin Farabundo Marti. Marti had been exiled in 1920 while still a university student. He traveled throughout Mexico and Central America in an effort to promote a regional perspective to the revolu- tionary upsurge in every country. To this end he was one of the founders in 1925 of the Cen- tral American Socialist Party. Also in pursuit of this goal he constantly expanded his inter- national contacts, including a visit to the Anti-Imperialist League in New York. In 1928, he joined Sandino in Nicaragua, serv- ing for two years as his personal secretary and lieutenant. It was from Sandino's head- quarters that he wrote a friend in September 1928: Our war against the invaders of Central America is now formally launched. In MarlApr 1980 56 Nicaragua the liberating struggle of the Americas has begun and it is hoped that the joint action of all the oppressed lands of the continent will sweep away the last vestiges of Yankee imperialism.8 Finally in 1930, Marti returned to ripening conditions in his native land. Protests in the coffee fields had grown into a movement, stu- dent protests were breaking out, and on May Day 1930, eighty thousand workers and peasants had marched into San Salvador, demanding a minimum wage for farmworkers and relief centers for the unemployed. Strikes and armed battles with the National Guard in rural areas were a regular occurrence. THE UPRISING A new government, elected in 1931, teetered from the pressures of the interna- tional economic crisis and the local popular struggle. The PCS, expanding its influence rapidly, began to plan the seizure of power. It had concentrated its organizing efforts in the critical coffee-growing areas of western El Salvador. The majority of the workers there were Pipil and Nauhautl Indians, descen- dants of those who opposed the original Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. Marti was among the Party cadre sent to organize the workers. The oligarchy, weakened by the economic crisis, sought the assistance of the Army. President Arturo Araujo, chosen in 1931 in what have been called the only free elections in El Salvador's history, was deposed. His Vice President, General Maximiliano Her- nandez Martinez, assumed power. Revolutionary sentiment had risen palpably in early January 1932 when the government refused to recognize PCS victories in municipal and legislative elections. The Party set January 22 as the day of insurrection. The day drew near. The PCS had planned simultaneous uprisings in the cities, the rural areas and in military garrisons. Three days before the uprising was scheduled to take place, Marti and other leaders were arrested. The barracks revolt was betrayed by spies and crushed before it began. The PCS tried to call off the uprising in the rural areas, but communication had broken down. On the agreed-upon date, thousands of peasants and farmworkers, primarily Indians, left their homes to march into nearby cities. The pathetically-armed rebels stoned govern- ment offices, occupied city halls and police posts. They broke into shops and torched the houses of the rich. Martinez--known as El Brujo (the Warlock) for his fascination with spiri- tualism-brought the Army's full forceagainst the rebels. Four thousand died and the uprising was crushed. Then the matanza - the massacre-- began. Within weeks, the Army and the paramilitary forces organized by large landowners killed 30,000. Peasant leaders were hung in the town squares, the bodies left dangling for days to make the point. Persons with Indian features were lined up in groups of 50 and shot down by firing squads. Martinez took his place beside the Somozas (1932-79) in Nicaragua, Ubico in Guatemala (1931-44) and Tiburcio Carias Andino in Honduras (1933-49). The Patriarch Generals. "It is a greater crime to kill an ant than a man, because the man is born again at death, while the ant dies forever." 9 So spoke Martinez. Four per cent of the entire population had been killed in the matanza. The Communist Party was liquidated, its cadre killed or ex- iled. The FRTS was annihilated. Indians ceased to wear traditional dress, abandoned traditional customs and ceased to use their native language. And so, the 50-year rule of the military began. The coffee oligarchy turned over the responsibility of running the state to the Ar- my. The oligarchy would attend to financial matters, while the Army protected its wealth. Martinez-El Brujo-ruled for 13 years. His policies were designed to protect the oligarchy and preserve the status quo. Laws were passed to impede mechanization, and only investments in industries that would not compete with artisan production were en- couraged. Industrialization, it was feared, would only destroy the crafts sector and reac- tivate the worker-peasant alliance that had led to the uprising. The textile industry was the only sector that thrived. In the late 1930s and 40s, war-related shortages caused an increased demand for domestic cotton-sparsely planted since the turn of the century. With coffee production still in crisis, the cotton sector grew rapidly and eventually began to export its produce to Japan. Again the peasantry was displaced, as cot- ton plantations took over the coastal lowlands. Again land was concentrated in the hands of a few. Again the country's dependence on foreign markets was height- ened. Again, there was unrest. Martinez's reign had been the bloodiest yet. In 1944 a small, democratic sector within the military launched a coup d'etat. Martinez gained the upper hand over the rebels, but underestimated the resiliency of the masses. A general strike was organized- no small feat at a time of intense repression and general lack of trade union and left organization. Mar- tinez was forced from office-but the military, not the masses, inherited his rule. Martinez' fall set off a power struggle within the oligarchy. One sector, hoping to end the country's dependence on the fluctuating coffee market, wanted to diversify and industrialize the economy. The other continued to view the land as the source of its continued wealth. The modernizers won-but only by agreeing that the land was sacred, that it would not be touched. El Salvador continued down the road toward revolution. IN THE BEGINNING 1. Roque Dalton Garcia, "Todos " Las historias pro- hibidas delpulgarcito (Mexico: Siglo XXI, 1974), p. 125. A brilliant montage of poetry, prose, newspaper articles, and quotations telling the suppressed history of El Salvador by the country's most famous poet- revolutionary. 2. New York Times, March 13, 1980. 3. Latin American Center, UCLA, Statistical Abstract of Latin America (Los Angeles, University of California-Los Angeles). 4. Hector Dada Hirezi La economia de El Salvador y la integracion centroamericana 1945-1960 (San Salvador: UCA Editores), 1978. An excellent short study of the Salvadorean economy. 5. Melvin Burke, "El Sistema de Plantacion y la Pro- letarizacion del Trabajo Agricola en El Salvador," Estudios Centroamericanos ECA, No. 335/336 (September-October 1976), p. 473. 6. Francisco Chavarria Kleinhenm, Fundamentos politicos, economicos y sociales de la evolucion y desar- rollo del movimiento sindical en El Salvador (unpub- lished thesis, University of Costa Rica), 1977. 7. Dada, op. cit., p. 21. 8. Thomas Anderson, Matanza, El Salvador's Com- munist Revolt of 1932 (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1971), p. 37. This excellent book, when published in Spanish, helped to end the 40-year silence about the events of 1932. 9. Cited in Roque Dalton Garcia, op. cit., p. 125.

Tags: El Salvador, oligarchy, coffee, 1932 matanza, Farabundo Marti

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