Asymmetrical Alliances, Organizational Democracy and Peasant Protest in El Salvador *

By Kowalchuk, Lisa | The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, August 2003 | Go to article overview

Asymmetrical Alliances, Organizational Democracy and Peasant Protest in El Salvador *


Kowalchuk, Lisa, The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology


   We're doing this not so much for us as for our children,
   so they'll have a place to work, and for their children
   too. We believe that since we're already dying of hunger,
   we may as well die fighting for something. (1)

IN THE AUTUMN OF 1995, hundreds of landless and landpoor peasants invaded over 60 properties in the Salvadorean countryside. This bold action, which signalled their frustration with the government's failure to address inequalities in landownership, was co-ordinated by six peasant organizations and the umbrella association to which they belonged. A few months after the land invasions, however, these organizations cut back on mass-based protest, publicity, and lobby activities on the land issue, in order to focus on a separate campaign for the land reform beneficiaries in the coalition. This sector of the coalition membership sought the cancellation of land and bank debts. While the debt struggle intensified and remained a vital, visible force over the next two years, the movement for land quickly disappeared from public view. Those who had been willing to die in the quest for land instead watched their struggle go to sleep. At the same time, movement leaders mobilized hundreds of landless peasants in protest activities for debt cancellation, a campaign that was of dubious benefit to them. This paper attempts to explain this lack of symmetry in the advantages of coalition membership, by examining the internal processes and characteristics of the peasant organizations.

The possibility that the needs and goals of some groups become sidelined within movement coalitions has largely been overlooked as a focus of scholarly inquiry. Much of the writing on coalitions in the U.S. and in Latin America assumes that they are helpful for all participants (Blokland, 1995; De Almeida and Sanchez, 2000; Garcia, 1994; Pare, 1985; Petras and Veltmeyer, 2001; Schwartz, 1990; West, 1986). There is no question that coalitions enhance the effectiveness of collective action. But this does not necessarily mean that all participants' demands are represented in the coalition agenda. Poorer sectors of lower class groups, such as low-skilled workers and landless peasants (Landsberger and Hewitt, 1970; Piven and Cloward, 1977), sometimes end up being marginalized in coalitions. The root causes of this problem, however, are under-theorized. Whether a group's goals are addressed or neglected in a coalition depends on the ability of their organization to shape the coalition's priorities. As a number of scholars have observed, democracy in movement coalitions is influenced by inter-organizational dynamics, such as inequalities in the resources of each organization, and in their contributions to movement campaigns and to the maintenance of the coalition (Ayres, 1998; Bleyer, 1992; Diaz-Veizades and Chang, 1996; Kleidman, 1993; Mestries, 1995). But as Brian Obach's work reveals, the extent of symmetry in the benefits of coalitions is also a function of decision-making processes within the member organizations (Obach, 1999).

The present analysis of the Salvadorean peasant movement supports Obach's approach. Peasants seeking land were marginalized in the sense that they were mobilized to support the objectives of the land reform beneficiaries in the coalition, but received no reciprocal support from that group. Indeed, because their own struggle was demobilized, there were no land-related protest activities for other groups to take part in after 1995. I argue that this imbalance in the benefits of coalition membership is rooted in the weakness of democracy within the peasant organizations. Although these organizations had formal procedures for grassroots participation in decision making, they did not function effectively. Decision making remained centralized due to patterns of member-leader relations inherited from the 1980-1992 civil war, inequalities in the knowledge and skills of leaders and members, and the centralized focus of the movement's demands and tactics. …

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