Salvador land reform plowed under by rightists

The dismal story of land reform here mirrors the problem of most reformist movements in this country: What began as a legitimate effort to change society - to give peasants a stake in land they had worked for oligarchic landowners - is being upended by right-wing efforts to quash the program.

The land reform's future is now being debated in the back rooms of the nation's Constituent Assembly. The outcome will be closely watched in the United States Congress. Most observers expect the rightists who control the Assembly to allow land already expropriated to remain in the hands of cooperatives and peasant farmers - but let the overall program die from neglect.

Violence, mismanagement, and greed have dogged the program from its early days in 1980, when it was hailed as Latin America's most sweeping land reform, to the current effort to sabotage it in the Assembly.

Most of those who began the program have been killed, exiled, or have joined the rebel movement here. The Christian Democratic-military junta that designed the program in 1979 has in effect been replaced by an elected assembly controlled by politicians who oppose land reform. The institute that orchestrated the program, the Salvadorean Institute for Agrarian Transformation, now is in the hands of the ultra-right Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA).

The reform was designed in three phases. The first phase allows the government to expropriate all farms larger than 1,250 acres and turn them into cooperatives to be bought, eventually, by the laborers who work them. The second phase takes farms between 500 and 1,250 acres. The third phase gives small farmers direct title to the land they had been renting or collectively farming.

The program initially redistributed 20 percent of the country's land among some 83,000 families. Its goal was to provide land to two-thirds of the 300,000 nonlandowning agricultural families.

These first two phases technically are still under way. But the oligarchy, whose interests reside mainly in smaller coffee estates that would be taken over by peasants, essentially blocked implementation of Phase 2. When ARENA took control of the Constituent Assembly in 1982, one of its first acts was to stymie this aspect of the reform.

The estates that became cooperatives were approached by local Army officials who sought protection money, gasoline, and bribes. When laborers refused the Army's demands, they were often threatened and some of them were killed.

Many cooperatives found it impossible to get supplies or credit to farm. Cooperative leaders became targets for ultra-rightist violence. The director of the land reform, Rodolfo Viera, was assassinated in 1981.

Members of the United States-backed Salvadorean Communal Union (UCS), which represents cooperative workers, charged that in the first year of the reform, ''at least 90 UCS officials'' were killed. An estimated 5,000 peasants involved in cooperatives were also murdered during the first year, according to cooperative leaders here. Thousands more were forcibly evicted from their land.

The third phase of the land reform, called the ''land-to-the-tiller'' program , was modeled on projects sponsored by the US in South Vietnam and the Philippines. It was to give peasants immediate ownership of small plots of land they had previously rented or collectively farmed. The expectation now is that this phase will never begin.

A year after it began, the program was considered a failure by its initiators. The chief adviser to Rodolfo Viera, Leonel Gomez, charged that the spirit of change ''had been replaced by the interest of the military rulers whose sole concern is for increased US military and economic aid, for increased power, and an increased ability to rule, to kill, and to corrupt.''

After three years of the program, there is little left.

The few leaders left in El Salvador who are attempting to salvage the reform have been victims of increasing repression. The leader of the ARENA party, Roberto d'Aubuisson, went on three television networks a week ago Sunday to accuse the head of the US-backed UCS of collaboration with the guerrillas.

A recent US government report, ''El Salvador: Brighter Prospects For Land Reform,'' has a difficult time fulfilling its title.

The report says that of the 328 properties expropriated under Phase 1 in 1980 , 28 were abandoned. It goes on to say that large estates can ''barely cover their production costs, yet they owe about $300 million in land compensation on which interest is compounded at 9.5 percent annually.''

Phase 3, which attempted to give 150,000 people a direct title to land, has been destroyed through intimidation, cooperative union leaders say. Less than a third of those eligible dared to apply for their titles, according to these officials. These laborers rarely live on their land, for fear of persecution. Those who have received land are often evicted. The cooperative leaders say at least 1,500 peasants have been forced off their land since January.

''What we are arguing about now,'' says Dr. Ricardo Alfredo Gonzalez Comacho, a member of the Democratic Action Party, ''is not the economic viability of the reform, but its political value in the society.''

ARENA and the country's current top military officials argue the program has neither economic nor political value.

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