Los Lagartos, El Salvador — Jose Luis Orellana Ardan has worked on a Salvador sugar cane plantation since boyhood, as his father before him. He once appeared to have a future that went beyond the daily toil of a cane cutter. Like many poor peasants who worked on farms and plantations in the rolling hills here, Orellana was deeply affected by El Salvador's 1980 agrarian reform. He was also affected when officials from the rightist ARENA (National Republican Alliance) party were placed in charge of the land reform program in 1983.
''I will always remember the day of the agrarian reform,'' he says. ''It was March 6, 1980. We were working in the fields when the Army occupied Los Lagartos.They called us all together and told us that the plantation was now a cooperative. We were scared and happy at once. We never dreamed that this could happen and we all wondered if what the Army told us was true.''
At the meeting on March 6, the peasants elected a provisional directorate to take over the management of the farm.
''We were inexperienced,'' Orellana says. ''We knew how to cut cane but not how to balance books or apply for credit. We made many mistakes and things were not made easier for us because the day before the Army occupation took place, the owner removed all of the heavy farm machinery and vehicles.''
The governing junta in 1980, headed by Jose Napoleon Duarte, who was then provisional president, set up programs to assist the leaders of 250 new farm cooperatives.
''I took two courses,'' Orellana says, carefully unfolding a piece of paper certifying that he completed a government seminar in rural administration.
''This is me,'' he says, pointing to his name on a piece of paper. ''The other certificate,'' he says sadly, ''was thrown away when the ARENA-appointed manager moved into the office last year.''
When the permanent directorate was elected in May 1980, Orellana became secretary of the commercial committee.
''How can I tell you what this meant to me? I was born on this farm a barefoot peasant who never went beyond second grade and I was now in an office. My family and I were colonos, farm laborers who were treated like animals. My whole way of looking at myself, of understanding what I was capable of doing in life, changed. I had never thought about political systems, because politics never changed anything for us. Now I began to see that some political systems are better than others.''
Orellana and his companions on the cooperative had their wages increased from
''After the harvest the old landowner would give us some money,'' Orellana says. ''To his pretty boys, the ones who were his foremen, he would give more. I remember when I was 19 he gave me 10 cents. This year I received $30.''
Those in the cooperative were given government-sponsored classes in reading and writing, breadmaking, nutrition, sanitation, health, and sewing. The elected leaders received training and assistance from government agencies seeking to advance the land redistribution program.
''In March of 1982,'' Orellana says, ''everything changed. We had made mistakes, but we were advancing, learning. Suddenly the government became our enemy.''
In March 1982, deputies were elected to form the Constituent Assembly. ARENA won control of the legislative body. The government agencies created to foster the reform were turned over to some of the program's fiercest opponents.
''On Los Lagartos the government appointed a new manager, one we had not elected, Ovido Abraham Mena, who is an ARENA member,'' Orellana says.
''The literacy program, the educational and training programs all ended. We could no longer get credit to operate our dairy and honeymaking, or buy fertilizer and insecticide. The value of the plantation was reappraised by the government and we had to begin giving more and more of our profits to the old owner.''
The new manager, Orellana contends, assumed the position of the old landowner.
''We were no longer consulted about the operation of the farm,'' Orellana says, ''and the manager decided he could fire anyone he didn't like. We no longer had a voice. We were, once again, colonos.''
Orellana, however, says that the experience of running the cooperatives gave the peasants incentive to resist ARENA efforts to sabotage the program.
''We allowed ourselves to be trucked to the ARENA meetings. We applauded when we were supposed to,'' he says, clapping lightly, ''and we took the orders of the new manager. But what ARENA did not know is that we could no longer be lied to. We saw what Duarte and the junta did for us and we became determined to put Duarte back in power.''
In this year's presidential election, Orellana, who had never before been politically active, handed out baseball-card-size pictures of Duarte to fellow workers.
''One afternoon the manager saw me handing out the Duarte pictures,'' he says , ''and I was fired from my job in the office. I was sent back to cutting cane.''
All of those on the cooperative suspected of supporting Duarte were hounded by the ARENA manager.
On March 15, the cooperative's doctor, Guadalupe Pietropaoli Caceres, the Duarte representative for the region, was visited at midnight by armed men in civilian clothes who told her to submit her resignation. If she did not, they told her, she and her six children would be killed. She resigned the next day. Four days later her house was burned to the ground.
''In the end the manager lost,'' Orellana says, ''because he never realized that he could not manipulate us as before the reform. I would say that 70 or 80 percent of everyone on Los Lagartos voted for Duarte. I would say the manager thought we would vote for ARENA.
''Because of the reform, most people here support the government,'' Orellana says. ''We have 125 boys in the Army now, and 36 of our boys have died fighting the guerrillas. We do this to protect what we have. The people from ARENA are very stupid to try to push things back to the way they were. The peasant in this country will no longer accept being a slave to the rich. Duarte knows this, and for this reason he may be able to end this war.''