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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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-
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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