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.

This process of replacing permanent employees by seasonal workers, which in coffee cultivation took place only slowly on account of the relatively narrow limits of mechanization imposed by natural conditions, was repeated far more violently in cotton cultivation. The rapidly rising demand for cotton on the world market in the early 1950s opened up the lower lying valleys and coastal areas to agricultural production for export. The land used for cotton was generally leased by the big landlords to capitalist farmers. 52 per cent of the cotton fields, at the beginning of the 1970s, were leased in this way, with 83 per cent being operated by middle and large enterprises.footnote2 The colonos of the haciendas, who had no legal title to the land that they tilled, had to make way. Since cotton cultivation required still less labour than cattle-raising, and experienced an enormous intensification in the course of the 1950s (the yield per hectare doubling from 1950 to 1960)footnote3, only a small proportion of the former colonos found work in cotton growing, and generally only then during the months of harvest. From colonos, they became landless peasants and seasonal workers.

Coffee and cotton remain El Salvador’s principal export products. In the late 1970s, coffee comprised between 80 and 90 per cent of export revenue, and cotton between 10 and 15 per cent.footnote4 The growth of a mobile rural proletariat, employed only on a seasonal basis, can thus be seen as characteristic for virtually the entire agricultural export sector. At the same time, the mechanization of the agricultural export economy led to a reduction in the number of workers employed in agriculture from 310,097 in 1961 to 267,079 in 1975.footnote5 The old colono system now exists on only a few obsolete haciendas, although in the late 1960s, a middle strata of peasants managed to develop and become quite significant on the basis of sugar cultivation.