The Legacy of Latin American Land Reform

September 25, 2007


There is no general formula to start and effectively execute major land reforms; rather, it must evolve and adapt according to the complex economic and political dynamics that characterize a particular country at a given time.

By Solon L. Barraclough

At the dawn of the twentieth century, traditional indigenous systems had been eliminated or subordinated everywhere in the western hemisphere, and two broad systems of agrarian relations co-existed. On the one hand, bi-modal latifundia systems––so-called because of the interaction between the large latifundia estates and small peasant holdings––dominated most of Latin America, the Caribbean and much of the southern United States. The latifundia were typically worked by indentured or slave labor, or by nearby small (minifundia) cultivators in return for token wages and access to some of the estates’ resources. On the other hand, family farm-based systems were predominant in most of the rest of the United States, Canada and a few small regions in Latin America.[1]

The latifundia-based systems were highly profitable for the landed elites who controlled political and economic power in colonial and post- colonial societies. Those elites shaped agrarian institutions in their own interests in order to control access to land, water, markets, education. infrastructure, credit, technology and political influence. It is no accident that in the British-colonized southeastern United States the economic interests of the slave-holding aristocracy were only subordinated to a truly national development strategy after a bloody civil war won by the industrializing and family farm-based states of the North. Even then, it took a century after the abolition of slavery before the South’s latifundia-based agrarian structure began to be substantially modified.

I first experienced the dynamics of latifundia systems not in Latin America but in the United States Mississippi delta in the mid-1950s where I was co-manager of a large cotton, livestock and forest estate worked primarily by black sharecroppers and wage workers. My position conferred on me the privileges and prerogatives enjoyed by the local landowning elite. Having been brought up in a family-farm environment, the powers over workers and their families implied by these privileges were unimaginable to me. These powers were strengthened by a caste system frequently enforced by “white citizens councils.” The civil rights movement, massive migration to northern cities, industrialization and farm mechanization stimulated rather rapid social changes in the former slave owning South after the 1950s. Without land reform however, most blacks and many poor whites failed to benefit, regardless of whether they stayed or migrated.[2]

In rural Latin America during the 1950s and 1960s I found the caste situation of the U.S. rural South replicated nearly everywhere in one form or another In the early 1960s, I visited Peruvian haciendas when corporal punishment was still arbitrarily administered by estate owners and managers for minor infractions of rules. On some estates, indigenous tenant workers were expected to kneel and kiss the Patrón’s poncho as a symbol of submission and respect. Even in Chile many large estate owners in 1960 strictly regulated who could enter or leave the property, and used at iron hand to maintain control over the goods and printed information available to debt-ridden residents through the estate’s commissary. Until 1956, Chilean estate owners could effectively direct the votes of their tenants, workers and other clients to the candidate and party of their choice. Union organization of agricultural workers was for all practical purposes prohibited by law until 1967.

In present-day Guatemala, the situation is even worse. In Alto Vera Paz, I talked only a year ago with indigenous refugees who had fled to the mountains to escape from earlier army massacres and landlord abuses. They were barely subsisting by clearing and burning forests for their milpas in the newly created biosphere reserve of Cerro de las Minas. They saw no alternative for survival other than returning to their traditional lands to become peons on large estates, or becoming conscripts for the army, while still risking bloody reprisals.

Land reform has been one of the most conflictive issues in twentieth- century Latin America. The reasons are simple. Effective reforms imply radical changes in economic and political relations both locally and nationally. And given Latin America’s role in the global economy, powerful transnational interests are frequently involved. I think it is best to understand land reform as a political process by which the rights and obligations associated with the control of land and labor are redistributed on a large scale to benefit landless workers, poor tenants and other small cultivators at the expense of large landholders and their associates. Land reform necessarily implies a change in power relations in favor of those who physically work the land at the expense of those who traditionally accumulate the wealth derived from it.

The first major land reform of the present century followed the Mexican revolution of 1910-1917. What was originally a struggle to gain state power by dissatisfied members of an emerging middle class became radicalized when peasant mobilizations to reclaim ancestral lands found allies among the various contending revolutionaries and even among some groups attempting to contain the revolution. The revolutionary Constitution of 1917, and a subsequent 1922 land-reform law, recognized the principle that the land had a crucial social function, and should belong to those who worked it. Massive land redistribution, however, had to await the 1930s, when it was driven by new widespread peasant mobilizations encouraged by radical reforuners in the 1934-1940 administration of President Lázaro Cárdenas. Distribution during the Cárdenas years of 45 million acres of land to some 800,000 peasant families organized in communally held ejidos helped to consolidate the virtually uncontested power of Cárdenas’ Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) for the next half century. The Cárdenas reforms seemed to some to fulfil many of the peasant revolutionaries’ goals even though some states––such as Chiapas––were hardly touched by reform, and over half the good irrigated land remained in the hands of large commercial private owners. After 1940, however, power gradually shifted to favor large and medium farm entrepreneurs urban industrial and commercial interests, and the land developers associated with the PRI.

Following the Mexican revolution and the First World War, land occupations by peasants, and strikes by plantation workers became increasingly frequent throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. These were usually ruthlessly put down, especially during the depressed 1930s. One of the most notorious incidents of this kind was the massacre in 1932 of over 20,000 mostly indigenous peasants in El Salvador Strikes were most frequent on capital -intensive agro-export estates where workers faced increasingly harst conditions. Peasant occupations of land claimed by large estate owners also multiplied, particularly in the Andean region. Indigenous communities whose traditional lands had been appropriated by large estates for commercial crops and extensive livestock production were sometimes emboldened by the large landowners’ economic weakness. In areas where peasants had been coerced or induced to work for periods in commercial mines or plantations, land occupations were often sparked by returning workers who had been exposed to labor unions and a wide variety of radical organizations and ideas.

The prolonged agro-export boom following the Second World War was also associated with escalating agrarian unrest. The rapid growth of agricultural and mineral exports led to accelerating social polarization. The old societies were organized to provide the oligarchy with a cheap docile labor force, as well as cheap credit, cheap imports, and remunerative exports. Many of the old rich, and several newly wealthy families became richer during the export boom, while most of the poor remained poor and some became poorer, especially in rural areas.[3] This pattern of economic growth was politically destabilizing.

In practically every Latin American country during the 1950s, there were numerous conflicts between agro-export workers and large landowners, between dispossessed peasants and estate owners, between entrepreneurial peasants and landlords, among peasant groups with conflicting claims to land and water, and between modernizing agricultural entrepreneurs and traditional estate owners determined to protect their quasi-feudal privileges. Such conflicts had been endemic in the past but rather easily repressed or resolved by ruling oligarchies with the support of the state. They became increasingly difficult to contain as many new social strata grew in importance and found allies in their quests for greater control over wealth and political power. The position of landholding oligarchies was becoming precarious both in states where urban-based populist coalitions had wrested a substantial share of power from old rural elites, and in states where these rural elites depended more and more on authoritarian military regimes to protect their traditional privileges.

In the 1940s, the U.S. government, seeking to ward off the instability that might undermine its influence, initiated a rather radical land reform in Puerto Rico. A decade later, driven by similar motivations, major land reforms commenced in Guatemala, Bolivia, Venezuela and Cuba. Guatemala and Bolivia were among the poorest, most quasi-feudal and ethnically segregated states in the entire region. Cuba and Venezuela, on the other hand, were among the wealthier, more urbanized societies affected by rapid modernization based primarily on agro-exports such as sugar in Cuba, and petroleum exports in Venezuela.

The abortive Guatemalan land reform began uinder the administration of Jacobo Arbenz, elected in 1951. In only 18 months. Arbenz’ agrarian-reform program distributed over two million acres. This land was taken from expropriated large estates, including some owned by the U.S.-based United Fruit Company, and from state-owned coffee farms that had been taken from German owners during the Second World War. Over 100,000 campesino families (about 40% of the rural population at the time) had benefited before the land reform was overturned by a U.S.-backed military coup in 1954. The lands were returned to their old owners and many peasants who had participated were aggressively persecuted.[4]

The land reform in Bolivia in some ways resembled that in Mexico. Urban middle-class dissidents seized state power in 1952, supported by the powerful miners’ union confederation and a widespread mobilization of mostly indigenous peasants. As many hacienda mansions were simply abandoned by frightened absentee owners, the reform law of 1953 merely attempted to formalize a de facto process that was already far advanced. Reform was cheap because most agriculture on these estates was carried out by peasants cultivating family plots and grazing their animals on estate pastures. They had been obliged to deliver produce and services to the owner for these privileges, and reform merely meant that they no longer had to.

During the 1950s, large estates that included about half the country’s crop and pasture lands, located mostly in the Andean high plains and valleys, were occupied by tenant residents and by peasants from nearby communities.[5] In the sense that the term is used here, however, there was little land reform after the initial few years of the revolution. On the contrary, the power of large estate and industrial landowners has been increasing in much of the Amazonian region, while many traditional large owners remain influential elsewhere, directing their clientelistic networks from retained portions of their estates. A major accomplishment of the reform and revolution, however, was the official recognition that indigenous peasants had full legal rights. This is no small accomplishment when one looks at Guatemala, or many parts of Peru and Ecuador.

The land reform of the Cuban revolution was in many ways the most ambitious of all. All estates of over 165 acres were expropriated in two stages. These estates included over three-fourths of all agricultural land. The number of smallholders tripled, but they still accounted for only a minority of the agricultural population. Most farm workers were still wage laborers on large capital-intensive units which included two-thirds of the island’s cultivated land. After a brief experiment with cooperative management, most units became state farms, although with considerable worker participation. There was little pressure from workers for subdivision of the highly capitalized large estates as they were primarily industrial workers, not peasant farmers. Following reform, the health, nutrition, living conditions and education of the rural population improved dramatically, which was clear evidence of a transfer of resources to their benefit. Agricultural production between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s increased at about the same rate––on average about 3% yearly––as in the rest of Latin America, in spite of the U.S. ernbargo. Serious difficulties have emerged, of course, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had become Cuba’s principal supplier of inputs and its most important market.

The Alliance for Progress was launched in 1961 by the Organization of American States (OAS), tempted by a promise of increased aid from the newly elected Kennedy Administration. Representatives of all member states signed the declaration of Punta del Este, recognizing the need to reform “unjust structures of land tenure and use, with a view to replacing latifundia and dwarf holdings by an equitable system of land tenure so that ... the land will become for the man who works it the basis of his economic stability, the foundation of his increasing welfare, and the guarantee of his freedom and dignity.”[6]

By chance, I was rapporteur for the sub-commission drafting the declaration on agrarian reform. The actual wording was drafted by representatives of Mexico, Bolivia, Venezuela and Brazil, all of whom were personally convinced of the need for radical reforms. Moreover, land reforms were under way, or anticipated, in their own countries. In order to reach a consensus at the conference, the declaration had to be acceptable to the U.S. delegation (headed by the Ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson), the Cuban delegation (headed by Che Guevera) and countries most opposed to reform (spoken for most forcefully by the delegation from Peru). Every phrase and comma had to be considered with these many constraints in mind.

Following the Declaration of Punta del Este, nearly every government in the region adopted land-reform laws. The declaration had not committed any government to action, but it provided a certain international legitimacy for groups–hitherto branded as subversive––which were advocating reform in countries such as Peru and Nicaragua, and offered the powerful incentive of increased U.S. aid to many hesitant governments. These post-1961 land reforms were for the most part, however, merely cosmetic. Often, they were programs primarily designed to colonize state lands (often at unacceptable human and ecological costs) and to bail out large estate owners in economic difficulties by buying their lands for resettlement.

Land reforms with deeper and more far-reaching implications were attempted in Chile and Peru. The conservative Alessandri Administration’s 1962 land reform in Chile implied little change in social relations, but in the rather unique Chilean context of well-organized political parties competing for campesino votes, it helped set in motion a political process of rapid radicalization. The rural population represented only 30% of the electorate––it is now less than 15%––but its support was important. The centrist, primarily urban middle-class Christian Democrats won the next presidential elections with the help of rightist parties, and also by attracting considerable campesino support with the promise of profound land reform and a new labor code to permit effective rural unions. The newly elected Frei Administration expropriated about half the larger irrigated estates. Expropriated lands were turned over to beneficiaries in transitional land-reform units (asentamientos) co-managed by state-appointed technicians and the former estate’s resident workers and tenants. All political parties took advantage of the new labor code to encourage peasants and workers to organize in politically oriented unions and cooperatives.

The Frei Administration’s land reform, however, only benefited about a quarter the number of peasants who had been led to believe that the reform would improve their lives. The narrow victory of Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity coalition in 1970 was helped by increased support from many disillusioned campesinos. During Allende’s first two years, nearly all the remaining large estates were expropriated and over half the agricultural workforce joined unions. Rapid and often rather chaotic campesino mobilizations and land takeovers inspired fear among the propertied classes, however, and contributed to the atmosphere that permitted the 1973 U.S.-backed military coup to succeed.

Under the repressive Pinochet dictatorship, most rural unions quickly disappeared. Some of the expropriated lands were returned to former owners, while stern neoliberal policies soon forced over half the land-reform beneficiaries to sell their parcels after the land-reform settlements had been sub-divided into private plots. Nonetheless, Chile’s old bi-modal agrarian structure had been profoundly transformed. Capital-intensive large and medium-sized commercial farms predominated.

Chile’s agriculture has now become thoroughly capitalist, dominated by agricultural entrepreneurs employing mostly poor non-resident wage workers. Trends in this direction were evident before they were interrupted by a decade of land reform. Had the counter-reform been avoided, the outcome in terms of agricultural productivity would probably have been about the same, but distribution of income would have been much fairer. Now, with almost no larger estates left, campesinos and their allies will have to push tor a different kind of land reform emphasizing improved working conditions, better housing, collective bargaining, better services, progressive taxation, and the like. Prospects for such reforms are bleak with Pinochet still sitting in the wings and a neoliberal-dominated world order that leaves little space for a popularly based development strategy anywhere.

Land reform in Peru had a rather different dynamic. Peru’s agrarian structure was much more polarized and repressive than Chile’s, and its large rural indigenous population was as badly treated as those in pre-reform Bolivia and in present-day Guatemala. Successive Peruvian governments had pursued cheap food policies in response to pressures from a rapidly growing and mostly destitute urban informal sector, a small, partially organized working class, and many vocal middle-class groups. Highly subsidized food imports enabled the government to keep food prices low, but led to the increasing impoverishment of farmers in the interior. Peasant unrest was endemic and often brutally repressed.

Following a military coup in 1968 that overthrew the elected Belaúnde regime, General Velasco Alvarado proclaimed a sweeping land reform. This reform, however, was anything but peasant-based. It was strictly controlled by the military and the agrarian bureaucracy in spite of extensive efforts by some groups in the government to mobilize peasant support and “participation.” The Velasco Administration’s political support for reform came mainly from discontented mestizo army officers, administrators, and professionals. These groups resented both foreign investors, who controlled many lucrative agro-exports, and the traditional large estate-holding rural elite whom they blamed for their country’s backwardness. The government expropriated some 40% of the country’s agricultural land, but it lacked both the vision and the backing of a mobilized peasantry that would have been required to change many other aspects of the traditional development strategy. Actual and potential food producers lacked the incentives, resources and autonorny which would have been necessary to increase production significantly for domestic markets.

Although over one-fourth of the rural people were supposedly beneficiaries of land reform, few perceived tangible benefits. The status and influence of indigenous populations increased only marginally, if at all. Cooperatives were in practice administered by state technicians––often the same ones who previously ran the private estates. Usually land-reform enterprises had no profits to share with either their members or neighboring indigenous communities who were also supposed to benefit. Peasants who received individual parcels could seldom cover their operating costs, to say nothing of debt amortization. Since the 1970s, most land-reform units seem to have been sub-divided in one way or another. It is almost impossible, however, to assess the legacy of the land reform within the chaos that has engulfed Peru during the last two decades.

This sampling of Latin American experiences, as well as my acquaintance with numerous others in Asia and Africa, suggests that land reforms evolve according to complex political dynamics that are to a large extent unique for each time and place. Generalizations can be made, but they are necessarily so abstract that at best they only provide working hypotheses about some of the processes, social actors and institutions that should be examined in any particular situation. This may not be very helpful for anyone seeking general “laws of motion” governing social change, but the real world is a very messy place.

More than anything else, effective land reform requires a popularly based development strategy in which those exercising power perceive the continuing support of small peasants, rural workers and other popular sectors in society as crucial for their continued political power and legitimacy. In democratic systems, this usually translates into calculations about votes. In authoritarian systems, the linkages are more subtle but no less real. Transnational investors and Cold War strategists have also been important actors in influencing outcomes. Continued control of state power, of course, depends on much more than widespread popular support, as Allende, Arbenz, Goulart and many other would-be land reformers have learned at great cost. Personal convictions and ideologies have often played a role in land-reform processes, but the economic interests of the state’s principal support groups and straight-forward political expediency seem more often to have been the decisive factors. Relatively autonomous and democratic peasant and worker organizations, both economic and political, have been crucial ingredients in every effective land reform. Where they were largely absent, there has been little real reform. But they are never sufficient in themselves, as the Chilean––and Nicaraguan––case shows.

Latin American experiences confirm the long-known fact that land reforms are never policy options for governments in the same sense that employment programs, cheap food imports, or changes in monetary policies are. Land reform requires very special alignments of social forces. Nor is there a way to neatly separate the legacy of land reforms from the legacies of concomitant historical processes. The best one can do is speculate about what might have happened had they not taken place.

In Mexico, for example, while rural poverty is still widespread, the country’s economic growth after 1940 has been exceptionally rapid for Latin America in spite of slow or negative growth rates during the 1980s. If one compares Mexico with Guatemala and the rest of Central America, or even states within Mexico where land reform took place such as Michoacin, Morelia or Puebla with others such as Chiapas where it did not, then land reform seems to have been important for Mexico’s relatively rapid development since 1940. But counterfactual questions can never be answered decisively.

The same kinds of questions can be raised concerning land reforms in Bolivia, Guatemala, Cuba, Chile and Peru. I suspect that rural Bolivia would be more like Peru had there been no reform in the early 1950s, Their histories, cultures, geographies and socioeconomic systems were similar. That Shining Path terrorists flourished in Peru but could not find support in Bolivia hardly seems to be an accident. Nonetheless, Bolivia remains the poorest nation in South America.

Like all quests for greater social justice, struggles for land reform have brought disappointments and tragic perversions as well as limited successes. The Latin American experience demonstrates that during land-reform processes there are no necessary tradeoffs between greater social justice and more sustainable and equitable economic growth, or between growth and an improvement in social equity and human rights. Sometimes one suffers at the expense of the other, but these trade-offs are seldom necessary. All these goals can and should be complementary.

Given this complexity, what can one possibly say about the future? The need for massive and profound land reform remains throughout much of l.atin America. This is clear from indicators of land concentration, landlessness, near landlessness, abuses of human rights, rural poverty, malnutrition and ecological degradation. The land-reform processes that would be most appropriate, however, are very diverse and depend upon each situation and its broader context. One fails to see how indigenous peasants in Guatemala, for example, can improve their livelihoods or even survive if large estates are not expropriated and redistributed. Legal titles are not enough, as these are often simply ignored if held by poor peasants or indigenous communities, and the land is wanted by powerful speculators or large landowners. The same is true in many parts of Brazil and numerous other countries. But the political obstacles to such reforms appear formidable.

In areas such as central Chile and southern Brazil, where capital-intensive large entrepreneurial farms predominate, the kinds of reform measures required are different. But it is often as difficult politically to bring about improvements in rural services, working conditions, human rights, collective bargaining and progressive tax reforms as it is to redistribute rights to land.

The international context is particularly unfavorable for deep social reforms. Unregulated international trade and capital movements in the name of neoliberalism put the poor everywhere in competition with one another while facilitating the plunder of the world’s natural resources by the wealthy. There is little space in the neoliberal paradigm for popularly based development strategies promoted by states that are accountable to their peoples. So prospects for land reform look bleak, but they always do until the process gets underway. Meanwhile, all one can do is try to enable disadvantaged groups to organize. There have to be increased pressures on governments, and incentives for positive social change at all levels. When one thinks of the state of the world in the mid-1990s, however, one does not expect miracles overnight.

Solon L. Barraclough is the retired director of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISO) In Geneva, Switzerland. His most recent book is An End to Hunger? (Zed Books, 1991).

NACLA thanks the Inter-American Development Bank for granting its permission to use José Clemente Orozco’s lithograph “Zapatistas.” The ideas of the article are solely the responsibility of the author, and the Inter-American Development Bank does not endorse nor disapprove of its content.

1. For further discussion, see Solon Barraclough, “Migrations and Development in Rural Latin America,” in J.A. Mollett, ed., Migrants in Agricultural Development (London: Macmillan Academic and Professional Ltd., 1991).
2. See Solon Barraclough, “No Plumbing for Negroes,” The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 216, No. 9 (September, 1965).
3. See Solon Barraclough, Agrarian Structure in Latin America (Lexington, Massachusetts: Lexington Press, 1973); and Barraclough, An End to Hunger? The Social Origins of Food Strategies (London: Zed Books, 1991).
4. CIDA (Comité Interamericano de Desarrollo Agrícola), Tenencia de la Tierra y Desarrollo Socio-Económico del Sector Agrícola de Guatemala (Washington, D.C.: Unión Panamericana, Secretary General of the Organization of American States, 1965).
5. See Solon Barraclough, “Agrarian Reform in Latin America Actual Situation and Problems,” paper prepared for the Seminario sobre Desarrollo Forestal, Reforma Agraria y Colonización para Paises de América Latina (Brasilia, November 18-25, 1968), Instituto de Capacitación e Investigación en Reforma Agraria, Santiago de Chile, 1968.
6. “Declaration to the Peoples of America,” in The Charter of Punta Del Este (Washington, D.C.: Organization of American States, 1961).

Tags: agrarian reform, land, campesinos, latifundia, Alliance for Progress

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.