El Salvadoran land reform may bite the dust

El Salvador's "revolutionary" land-reform program, considered by the now-defunct five-man junta to be the key to averting leftist insurrection, is sputtering under political and military pressure.

The implementation of any land-reform program, even with the best of intentions, would be difficult under the conditions of near civil war existing in this nation. Some 10,000 to 12,000 people have died here this year.

"Nobody said the agrarian reform would be an overnight success," one US diplomat says. "before the agrarian reform succeeds, this junta may be long gone."

Actually, the junta that put together the land-reform package is gone -- replaced by one its members, Jose Napoleon Duarte, as president.Lack of time, however, may be the land program's biggest handicap. Powerful rightist and leftist groups are chipping away at it for their own reasons.

On paper, the land-reform program is the most comprehensive in Latin America since Cuba's in the early 1960s -- and more radical than that in Nicaragua last year. Its goals were so sweeping that the militant left, which had long campaigned for such reform, was set back for months; the government had claimed its most powerful issue.

The first stage of the program, approved last March as Land Reform Law 134, changed El Salvador's largest 263 estates into cooperatives and removed much of the old ultraconservative oligarchy. Some 15 percent of El Salvador's overcrowded agricultural lands were expropriated and 200,000 peasants were listed as beneficiaries. The remaining 85.5 percent of the land is on the drawing board, waiting to be restructured.

The second phase, designed to collectivize all farms of between 240 and 1,200 acres and to break the strength of the elite coffee growers, has been stalled by conservatives in the government and military.

Under the so-called, "Land to the Tiller" law, a third phase of the program, 180,000 peasants farming on rented lands would become owners of up to 20 percent of the nation's arable land. The law, which has government approval, has been led back by conservatives.

A diplomatic source who supports the intentions of the agrarian reform explains that the government would lose badly needed middle-class support if the law goes into effect.

"When that goes through, watch out," he said. "They'd be tampering with lands owned by middle-class military men and their families. A [right-wing] coup could crystallize around that."

A high official of the Salvadoran Land Reform Institute (ISRA), the government branch in charge of the reform, says his agency does not have the facilities or personnel to carry out the entire program even if the government musters unequivocal support. "If things keep going the way they are, the left is going to increase in number dramatically," he said. "The people don't have faith in the government; I'm a government employee and I don't have any."

Part of the government's credibility problem stems from repeated attacks on peasants in the cooperatives by the government's own security forces and by paramilitary squads thought to be financed by the exiled elite. Government moderates say ultraright terrors is the No. 1 problem facing the cooperative program.

At the sprawling El Penon cattle ranch in the western province of Sonsonate, five truckloads of Army and National Guard troops broke a peaceful calm at dawn last June 12. It took five hours for the Salvadoran soldiers to round up seven unarmed peasants, five of whom were elected officials of the cooperative. They were lined up on a clay bank along a dirt road inside the ranch and executed. It was days before the National Guard gave their companions permission to bury them.

The incident, like dozens of others that have taken the lives of 200 cooperative peasants since May, has been documented by ISRA technicians and denounced by moderate Army officers.

"More than anything, our biggest problem is the violence. Our lives are improving, but we work in fear," said one El Penon rancher tending his grazing cattle. "There is always a feeling of insecurity."

Another rancher agreed, saying, "If the Army won't support land reform, what hope do we have?"

Liberal Army officers have attempted to control the ultraright but they are losing influence rapidly, according to informed sources.

A majority of peasants who work on the cooperatives, fearful their old patronsm could return, refuse to sign up as cooperative associates, fearing they could be punished in the future. As members of the cooperatives, the peasants would be entitled to a share of the profits.

That is, if there were profits. Although cultivation of basic grains is up, harvests of cotton and sugar are expected to be poor this spring and international coffee prices are down. Leftists have burned sugar crops to disrupt the economy.

Private coffee farmers, who are concerned their lands may be expropriated in the spring, have cut their expenditures on fertilizers and are streamlining their farms to minimize possible losses. Accordingly, the government expects to lose a sizable chunk of its important coffee export earnings.

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