The military coup in El Salvador of October 15th 1979 provoked a new and remarkable twist in the bloody social conflicts which have wracked this Central American republic. The former dictator, General Humberto Romero, was replaced by a junta which proclaimed the need for sweeping reforms and which initially attracted the support of Christian Democrats, Social Democrats and Communists. The most important groups of the armed revolutionary left maintained an attitude of watchful hostility towards the reformist junta, and in the days following the coup there were clashes in several working class districts around the capital between the army and the leftist guerrillas. It quickly became clear that the new government could not carry through its programme of reforms in most parts of the country and was unable either to suppress rightist terrorism directed at the popular forces, or even to control its own military and security apparatus. In December the Social Democrats and Communists withdrew support from the junta and in subsequent months some of the Christian Democrats have followed suit. On March 24th Archbishop Oscar

Romero was assassinated; on the previous day he had made an impassioned appeal for an end to military repression and had declared that soldiers were not obliged to obey orders that were contrary to their conscience. Between January and June over two thousand people were killed as a result of official or paramilitary violence, while in May the Salvadorian high command declared that two northern provinces, Morazon and Chalatenango, were ‘military emergency zones’. In January and mid-April the oppositional guerrilla forces moved to form a wider united front and to integrate some of those who had formerly supported the reformist Government set up in October 1979. The mounting popular opposition to military repression in El Salvador has often been compared to the last stages of the struggle against Somoza in Nicaragua. Yet, as we will see, El Salvador’s particular socio-economic and political development has been different from that of Nicaragua and does not lay the basis for the same type of polarizations. In El Salvador the rightest para-military groups can command some sectional support while the military sponsored government continues to proclaim the need for reform and to receive the support of some Christian Democrats and of the United States.

El Salvador remains as ever an agricultural country. In 1974 agriculture made up 26 per cent of the gnp, and in 1977 it provided around fourfifths of revenues from exports.footnote1 In 1975 more than 60 per cent of the population were classed as agricultural. The rural sector is thus of fundamental importance for all political developments.

The division in land utilization between cattle-raising haciendas and villages cultivating maize, which dated from the colonial epoch, was overridden by the introduction of coffee planting. Between 1880 and 1912, the common lands of the villages in the hilly volcanic regions were for the most part sold to urban middle- and upper-class families at give-away prices, a small portion alone being distributed among the villagers. Since the coffee tree needs five years growth before its first harvest, its cultivation is only possible for persons with a certain amount of capital, and hardly at all for small farmers, for whom the land has to provide their basic foodstuffs. Right from the beginning, therefore, coffee was concentrated pre-eminently in the hands of a small and relatively rich coffee bourgeoisie owning large estates.

At first, these big coffee planters maintained the traditional relations of production that existed on the haciendas. The workers (colonos) received a plot of land on which to cultivate food crops in return for their work for the landowner. Since in the coffee-growing regions, however, the land left to the colonos could be more profitably used for coffee cultivation, the colono system was already replaced by wage labour in the 1920s. The workers no longer received any land for their own use, but only a primitive hut on the estate. During the 1940s and 1950s, with the extension of coffee cultivation (annual receipts from coffee exports rose by a factor of ten), the number of landless rural labourers also rose in proportion to the traditional colonos. In the 1950s, modern technology took root in coffee cultivation and made possible a reduction of the permanently employed labour force. In the 1960s, the era of the Alliance for Progress, social legislation and a guaranteed minimum wage was introduced for the permanent employees, so as to forestall the radicalization of the growing (illegal) trade-union organization in the countryside. The coffee bourgeoisie subsequently counteracted the tendencies of the workers to organize, as well as the minimum wage, by seeking to reduce to a minimum the number of permanent employees, replacing labour by capital, so that they only needed to employ a larger number of workers for the short periods of harvesting. A mobile rural proletariat of seasonal workers now grew up, with the chance of finding employment on the coffee estates only between November and March.