Las Marias, El Salvador — Ripe red coffee berries cover the volcanic hills of southwest El Salvador at this time of year. But leftist guerrillas have seen to it that this harvest is different from almost any other.
The rebels have moved onto farms, demanding that landowners give farmwork-ers salary increases, paid meal breaks, medical attention, and a right to organize.
The action touches off a new sort of conflict with the government - and signals that for the first time in the four-year-old civil war, guerrillas are attempting to control a major segment of the nation's economy rather than destroy it.
''We had no choice when we began the war,'' says rebel leader Luis in fluent English. ''We were not strong enough to demand that labor reforms be implemented in areas of economic importance, so we focused on the destruction of the economy to deny the government revenues. Now we are attempting to put the economy to work for us and for the people.''
The guerrillas say that landowners have never complied with the government's minimum wage of $5.80 per 100 pounds of coffee picked. Peasants here, whose only steady employment is the few weeks of coffee-picking at harvest time, confirm this. Workers say they pick an average of 100 pounds of beans a day and are paid about $3 for the 425-pound sacks they bring to the foreman.
The guerrillas moved into the local farms as the harvest began at the end of November, calling for an increase of roughly $1 per day per worker. Local foremen and coffee pickers say the guerrillas also demanded large sums of cash for themselves - a charge that rebel spokesmen deny. The foreman at Los Naranjos Plantation says guerrillas have requested $2,500 from the plantation owner.
''We did not directly demand raises for the workers,'' Luis says. ''We encouraged the coffee pickers to express their need for higher salaries to the bosses. The political consciousness of the labor organization here is dead.
Our goal, aside from improving the living conditions of the people, is to reawaken and provide protection for their own political power.''
The owners complied, in part, with the coffee workers' demands.
But the Army moved into Usulutan, one of the key coffee-growing provinces, in mid-December in an effort to stymie the labor reforms and to ensure the coffee would be harvested.
The Army's efforts met stiff resistance. And when guerrillas mounted a major military strike in the northern province of Morazan, government troops were diverted from Usulutan.
''Before the Army pulled out,'' a guerrilla fighter says, ''they told the people their town would be bombed by the air force because they were all guerrilla collaborators.''
The Salvadorean air force then dropped five large bombs on this tiny village. Minutes after the bombing, the entire population fled. Many residents of Las Marias now are crowded into the tiny school in nearby Jucuata.
Luis says the rebels continued to organize the coffee harvesters, despite the bombings. ''We did not forget our effort to help the workers because of the fighting,'' Luis says. ''We sent messages to all the coffee plantation owners saying our demands must be met.''
''The guerrillas came here yesterday,'' says an elderly woman at Los Naranjos coffee farm. ''They demanded $1,000 for themselves and raises for the workers. They poured gasoline around the buildings but did not set them on fire, saying only that they would return.''
''Do you know,'' she says, flushed with excitement, ''that the owners of this plantation live in Miami and do not know the needs of the workers? They have so much they don't feel hunger. They can't understand our needs.''