An Agrarian Republic: Commercial Agriculture and the Politics of Peasant Communities in El Salvador, 1823-1914

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Lauria-Santiago, Aldo A., An Agrarian Republic: Commercial Agriculture and the Politics of Peasant Communities in El Salvador, 1823-1914. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 1999. Tables, abbreviations, notes, glossary, bibliography, index, viii (326 pages). ISBN 0-8229-5700-0.

Aldo Lauria-Santiago's An Agrarian Republic is a path-breaking reconstruction of the agrarian social history in the 19th century El Salvador. The book refutes the commonly held assumption that El Salvador's post-1950s agrarian patterns, political system, or social relations existed in the past and were traceable to the 19th century in particular. As Lauria demonstrates, the 19th century El Salvador was far from being characterized by a centralized state, oppressive landownership system, proletarianization of the peasantry, or oligarchic elites dictating state policy.

The colonial legacies of common lands and strong, heterogeneous peasant communities were alive and well in the beginning of the republican era, giving the Salvadoran peasantry considerable political autonomy and secure access to land and trade networks virtually throughout the 19th century. The Salvadoran polity, meanwhile, was highly decentralized. The central government was too weak, split, and unstable until the 1880s to govern peasant life; rather, it was the local power bases, with their considerable power and autonomy, that conditioned the other social sectors as well as the state, holding the various political factions hostage to the local loyalties. Common lands increased in importance between the 1820s and 1870s, as military factions controlling the state - yet dependent on local support - encouraged their expansion. Haciendas, meanwhile, headed for a decline. The odds were actually against the large landowners until the 20th century due to the absence of a strong central government to manage local disputes or make sweeping structural reforms, and because of the persistent lack of access to labor, capital and markets, particularly in indigo production.

Lauria's research vividly demonstrates that the privatization of community and municipal lands launched in the 1880s and the concomitant expansion of export agriculture did not cause the expropriation and proletarianization of peasant producers. As the myth goes: the reforms actually augmented the number of property owners and produced a large landowning class of peasants and farmers. Moreover, the reforms were not, as often argued, imposed on the peasantry by the central government or oligarchic elites. First, by the 1870s, both the peasants and the elites were constrained by communal land ownership in their efforts to expand commercial agriculture, and thus shared a stake in the land privatization. Second, the transition to a free-holding peasantry was mediated largely by the local actors, with its results owing to local-level "small-scale interactions that involved complex local balances of power, negotiation, conflict, and competition" (p. 237).

Rather than producing an automatic transition to "proletarian agrarian capitalism", the privatization intensified the existing tensions among and between the peasantry and the Indian communities, rendering them polarized and differentiated, and eroding their relative coherence and ethnic solidarity. This differentiation, Lauria argues; was exacerbated both by the farmers' growing participation in commercial networks and by demographic trends, which in the absence of more land to split up compelled the growing number of heirs of the small proprietors to become tenant farmers or seasonal laborers. The market crises of 1921 and 1929-30 further indebted the peasantry; an emerging elite and richer peasants came to enjoy access to land and cheap labor. By the 1930s, the new large landowners derived additional economic power and stability from the consolidation of the state and the central government's promotion of coffee production as the flagship of the Salvadorian economy. …