Peasant Struggle, Political Opportunities, and the Unfinished Agrarian Reform in El Salvador *

By Kowalchuk, Lisa | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Peasant Struggle, Political Opportunities, and the Unfinished Agrarian Reform in El Salvador *


Kowalchuk, Lisa, Canadian Journal of Sociology


Abstract: This paper uses the political opportunity framework to explain the demobilization of a peasant land struggle that emerged in El Salvador in the mid-1990s. The political opportunities for the struggle to deepen the land reform me compared over a two year period to the opportunities for a separate campaign, carried out by some of the same organizations, for the cancellation of the land and bank debts of previous land reform beneficiaries. It is found that while the political opportunities for the land struggle remained essentially the same, important new opportunities for debt cancellation emerged in the form of access to the political system, elite allies, and elite realignments. It was this shift in the relative opportunities for land reform that led to the demobilization of the land struggle. Unable to wage strong campaigns on both issues simultaneously, peasant activists gave greater priority to their efforts on the debt.

Resume: Cet article emploie le cadre de la possibilite politique pour expliquer la demobilisation d'une lutte agraire qui a emerge au Salvador au milieu des annees 90. Les possibilites politiques de la lutte a approfondir la reforme agraire sont comparees, durant une periode de deux ans, aux possibilities d'une autre campagne qui a ete effectuee par quelques-unes des memes organisations. Cette derniere campagne luttait pour l'annulation des dettes terraines et financieres qu'avaient les beneficiaires de reformes agraires anterieures. Pendant que les possibilites politiques de la lutte agraire n'ont pas beaucoup change, on trouve qu'autres possibilites importantes ont emerge pour l'annulation de la dette. Ces nouvelles possibilites sont datas les alliances elites, les restructurations elites, et l'acces au systeme politique. Ce virage dans les possibilites relatives de la reforme agraire a mene a la demobilisation de la lutte agraire. Puisque les paysans activistes ne pouvaient pas maintenir la force de ses campagnes sur les deux questions en meme temps, ils ont accorde la priorite aux efforts sur la dette.

Introduction

In the autumn of 1995, hundreds of peasants invaded over 60 agricultural properties in the western and central regions of El Salvador. Their well-planned action demonstrated their impatience with the government's failure to enforce the Constitutional limit on the size of farm holdings. But a few months later, the land struggle quietly fizzled out. The mass based protests and the intensive lobbying and media work that had led up to the land invasions gave way to a little publicized and frequently deadlocked negotiation between peasant leaders and government bureaucrats. In contrast, a separate movement initiated by the same peasant organizations became increasingly active over the next two years. This second struggle sought the cancellation of land and production credit debts acquired by peasants who had benefited from the 1980 Agrarian Reform and subsequent land transfer programs.

The central objective of this paper is to contribute to ala understanding of how changes in the intensity and focus of protest activity are affected by the political environment of social movements. Within this, it seeks to address a void in the empirical research conducted within the political opportunity framework. The literature pays insufficient attention to the agency of activists as they respond to shifts in political opportunities. To understand the relationship between political opportunities and the evolution of social movement mobilization, it is necessary to conceptualize opportunities as dynamic, processual phenomena, and to examine activists' perceptions of opportunities and strategic decision-making of key actors in movement organizations. Such a micro-focused analysis also permits recognition of fluctuation in opportunities for different issues. As the Salvadorean case material will reveal, these changes in relative opportunities can influence activists' priorities, leading to the demobilization of protest around some issues and the intensification of protest around others. …

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