THE HISTORY OF EL SALVADOR revolves around one central issue-- land. In this, the smallest country in Central America, land always has been a scarce commodity whose importance has been amplified by the comparative absence of precious metals or lucrative mineral deposits. Agriculture defined the economic life of the country well before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the early 1500s, and, despite some modest advances in industrial capacity, agriculture has continued to dominate the nation's wealth, social structure, and political dynamics.
The unequal distribution of land in El Salvador can be traced directly to the Spanish colonial system, under which land title was vested in the crown. Those select individuals granted control of specified areas acted, at least in theory, only as stewards over the lands and peoples under their control. Although private property rights eventually were established, the functional structure put in place by the Spanish was perpetuated well into the twentieth century by the landed oligarchy, with the assistance of the military.
Although the indigenous, or Indian, population gradually was diminished through disease and abuse and eventually subsumed into a growing mestizo (mixed Caucasian and Indian) population, its position at the base of society was assumed by the rural lower class. Until the mid-twentieth century, the patterns of landownership and income distribution ran unrelentingly against this segment of the population. As elsewhere in Latin America, those with more got more, those with less got less. Under the model of monoculture export that came to prevail in El Salvador, the concentration of land into large units, or haciendas, made for greater overall efficiency of production. The other side of the economic coin, however, was engraved with images of worsening poverty, deprivation, illiteracy, and disease as the singleminded pursuit of wealth by a minuscule percentage of the population denied the vast majority of Salvadorans access to more than a subsistence level of income.
Although slow to develop, the political ramifications of this process of skewed distribution were inevitable. Unfortunately for the marginalized campesinos (farmers or farm laborers), however, the landowners were prepared to protect their gains by force against any effort to improve the lot of the lower class. A rural uprising in 1833, led by Indian leader Anastasio Aquino, was put down by forces hired by the landowners. A century later, another insurrection, this time led by the Marxist Agustin Farabundo Marti, provoked a now-legendary reprisal known as la matanza (the massacre). The troops that carried out this action, in which by some estimates as many as 30,000 Salvadorans were killed, belonged to the Salvadoran armed forces. Institutionalized and nominally independent from the landed oligarchy, the armed forces proceeded from that point to assume control of the political process in El Salvador.
The Salvadoran officer corps was not altogether unsympathetic to popular sentiment for reform of the oligarchic system. In the Salvadoran political equation, however, the economic elite's resistance to change remained a given. Therefore, efforts by the military to institute gradual, guided reforms--land reform chief among them--repeatedly ran into the brick wall of elite opposition and influence. It was not until 1980, when the officer corps allied itself publicly with the middle-class Christian Democratic Party, that substantive reform appeared achievable. By that time, however, El Salvador stood on the threshold of a major civil conflict between government forces backed by the United States and guerrillas supported by Nicaragua, Cuba, and the Soviet Union. This conflict catapulted the country's internal conflicts onto the world stage. The future course of reform in El Salvador was thus uncertain, as the nation entered the 1980s burdened with the legacies of economic and social inequality and political exclusion of the middle and lower classes by the elite.
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