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  Number 348 | Julio 2010
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The Contradictory Legacy of the Sandinista Agrarian Reform

Thirty-one years after the triumph of the revolution some traces can still be found throughout the country of the Sandinista government’s agrarian reform. Some are set in boiling lava; others are no longer visible, just footprints in the sand… What did this project achieve? What are its contradictions? How many things were right, how many were mistakes? How much of it was paternalistic? What legacy remains of the agrarian reform, for good or for ill?

José Luis Rocha

Nicaragua embarked on an agrarian reform adventure during the 1980s, inspired by a revolutionary government longing to lead great transformations. The beginnings of the reform were State-centric and its progress slow. It was instrumental in heightening the armed conflict, ambiguous in its results and conflictive from head to foot.

Ambiguity and conflict marked it and continue to mark its descendants. The bitterness of those confiscated and the jubilation of the beneficiaries in the eighties contrasted with the gain of those compensated in the nineties while bank embargoes reduced the beneficiaries’ joyous dream to a nightmare. Dicey and insufficient land titles, conflictive returns of land to prior owners and fraudulent compensation created a heavy burden we taxpayers are still paying for while continuing uncertainty over land ownership blocks access to loans, discourages long-term investment and undermines productivity.

The agrarian reform contained illusion and realism, principles and pragmatism, grandness and misery. But most of all it was a stage across which different concepts, both reformist and anti-reformist, faced off against each other, taking a path of no return (restitution, compensation and re-concentration of land don’t count as a return). Property ownership was shaken up enough to introduce substantial change in the land tenure structure, which in many people’s opinion was not as penetrating and widespread as justice demanded but enough so that 31 years later we can still discern its imprints, some stamped in now-hard lava, others more seeminjgly in sand.

What were its achievements and its slips? What legacy does it leave us, for better and for worse? These are the burning questions. Let’s offer some data and venture some thoughts so we can start sketching out some answers.

Few owners with a lot of land

When the Sandinista government took over, it found a land distribution structure highly concentrated in the hands of what is called the rural bourgeoisie. Of the 5.6 million hectares of land used for agriculture, almost 2.1 million (36%) were in properties larger than 350 hectares. Small farms of less than 35 hectares only accounted for 17.5% of land in use. Land concentration was also linked to credit concentration: in the 1960s and 70s, 90% of the loans destined for the agricultural sector went to the big agro-export landowners.

In agriculture the poor made up 61.4% of the economically active population. Of these, 36.5% were smallholders who hired themselves out as workers at certain periods of the agricultural cycle, 17.4% were farmhands who made up the permanent labor force on the big agro-export haciendas and 7.5% were seasonal laborers who could only find full-time work during the coffee, cotton or sugar cane harvests.

First, second, third steps

No sooner had Somoza taken flight and the FSLN taken power than the Government Junta of National Reconstruction issued its third decree, which ordered the confiscation of all properties owned by Somoza’s family and his allies: soldiers and officials of the routed regime. Soon thereafter another decree extended the confiscations to “people connected with Somoza.” These two decrees affected 20% of all farmland and gave rise to the Area of People’s Property (APP). The confiscated land wasn’t distributed but was rather organized into 1,500 state farms under the management of the newly created Nicaraguan Institute of Agrarian Reform (INRA).

Around 50,000 people, perhaps 13% of all agricultural workers, were employed by the State in these enterprises. But the landless and the smallholders remained in limbo with the initial state policies. These two groups totaled 322,549 people.

Notwithstanding the Sandinista government’s revolutionary aims, two years after taking over, the speech laying out the Agrarian Reform Law charged that 1.2% of the population still owned 47.1% of the land, while 30% of the rural population had no land at all. In the previous two years around 1.2 million hectares had been confiscated from Somocistas and high placed National Guard officers, many of whom had mortgaged them and fled with the cash even before the Sandinistas took power. But as these were huge plantations with tens of thousands of agricultural workers, the government did not consider them appropriate for distribution among peasants.

In the early days of agrarian reform the government opted to expropriate huge farms such as La Fundadora and La Cumplida to convert them into State enterprises. But they also expropriated medium sized properties that were suitable for joining together and making into big State-run haciendas.

One group of Sandinistas believed in good faith that breaking up large and medium sized haciendas into small plots would reduce their productivity and jeopardize the generation of hard cash from exports. This income was essential for the revolutionary government to implement its social promises in a context where the dark clouds of the US economic blockade and armed aggression financed and managed by the Reagan government could already be discerned. So it was decided to add idle farmland to the properties subject to expropriation, and a year after the triumph of the revolution the Agrarian Reform Law began to be drafted.

The law streamlined the agrarian reform process and gave rise to a boom in different forms of property ownership. Idle, underused or abandoned properties larger than 350 hectares in the Pacific region and 700 acres in the country’s interior were potential candidates. Even so, only 558 properties covering an area of 350,000 hectares were affected in that first wave (1981-84). Subsequently, Law 14 passed on January 11, 1986, legalized the confiscation of all idle or underused properties, regardless of their size. This law and the accelerated agrarian reform increased the bank of available land. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, these laws did not penalize large landowners as such, but only those who were letting their land lie fallow, which the country could ill afford.

In 1988, two years before the FSLN’s electoral defeat, the private sector had gone from owning all of the 5.6 million hectares of productive land to owning only 2.6 million, while 48% had become part of the reformed sector. Private properties larger than 350 hectares went from representing almost 2.1 million hectares (36%) to 350,000 (6.4%). In addition to reformist zeal many other events stepped up the speed propelling the country toward such a revolutionary land tenure structure.

In those years cooperatives and State Production Units (UPE) became the ownership forms that absorbed the most land. Almost 12% of the land became state property and nearly 14% ended up in the hands of cooperatives: 11.4% as Sandinista Agricultural Cooperatives (CAS), in which the property was collectively held and 1.7% as credit and service cooperatives (CCS) for small farmers with their own land. With almost a quarter of the land ending up farmed collectively, it was an unprecedented turnaround in the patterns of agrarian property. It was the model pushed by the revolution.

In 1984, the bank of land to be redistributed had increased by expropriating farms. It was a means of punishing counterrevolutionaries (by adding aid to the contras as a legal cause of confiscation), a way to keep promises, a prize for Sandinistas, a self-defense strategy and above all a recognition of the right to “land seizures” (occupations and invasions). Special titling legalized the de facto agrarian reform that had been occurring since before the triumph of the revolution.

The war, a change in INRA’s regional directors in war-torn Matagalpa and Jinotega, both important departments for cattle and coffee, and a shift in the thinking of INRA’s top leaders marked a new trend in agrarian reform: less state property and more peasant property. On all sides of this shift in tendency was the conflict and outright confrontation between the thinking of two rural organizations: the Rural Workers Association (ATC) and the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG).

ATC demands salaries, not land

The ATC was founded on March 25, 1978, as an organization of agricultural and semi-proletarian workers. A year later it had 47,851 members. Prior to the triumph of the revolution it had constituted a logistical support network for the Sandinista guerrillas. Its members cut communication lines, telephones and roads, joined the fighting and transmitted information, operating on a territorial basis, working by communities and districts.

After the triumph the ATC organized the Sandinista Agricultural Communes, which that later came to be called Sandinista Agricultural Cooperatives, made up of organized agricultural workers’ collectives that seized Somocista farms and worked them collectively. In this way the ATC became a key work force favoring the strategy of not breaking up big farm estates that the ideologues of Sandinista agrarian policy considered the epitome of agricultural development due to their great concentration of capital, land and workers as well as their use of superior technology. The new government was worried about peasants who were seizing farms before INRA could formalize the confiscation.

Originally peasants and small and medium farmers were organized in the ATC. But the difference between their perspectives and interests and those of farm workers made their coexistence within one organization difficult. Peasants’ demands for land were very different from workers’ demands for higher wages, and the ATC’s leadership was more interested in defending farm workers’ interests. When peasants organized the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG), the ATC redefined itself as the organization of farm workers.

From then on the ATC prioritized organizing workers in state agrarian reform enterprises. It replaced its territorial structure based on districts with network of unions on the haciendas. In 1983, even with the departure of peasants into UNAG, the ATC already had 44,413 members.

Work in “bureaucratic capitalism”

The ATC defined two priority lines of action: raise productivity and train workers so that in future they could take over management of the UPEs. In practice, however, the ATC concentrated its demands on wages and the prices of consumer goods during that phase, as management of the haciendas was the preserve of the state bureaucracy. Farm workers no longer answered to the farmer-boss but to the State-boss, the bureaucrat-boss characteristic of what Cornelius Castoriadis called “bureaucratic capitalism,” based on the social division between the proletariat and a bureaucracy that excludes workers from managing the means of production.

And although the ATC’s intervention got the enterprises to keep paying the wages of workers mobilized in the armed struggle against the contras, there were many limitations to its achievements. For example the unions never could get the bosses to incorporate temporary workers as permanent. They couldn’t even maintain the value of their wages: the nominal pay for piecework in the coffee harvest only went up by 0.15 córdobas between 1980 and 1983. In real terms, and measured by its buying power relative to inflation, this was a reduction of almost 40%. The coffee pickers’ wage was one of the most affected, even in times of good international prices. The price of corn and beans dropped by at least 5% while cotton pickers’ wages fell by 28%.

The deterioration in wages went hand in hand with declining work discipline, demonstrated by an ironic definition of socialism: “A system in which the State pretends to pay and the workers pretend to work.” A perception that the revolution should change the rules of the game and instigate a more relaxed work ethic, thus distinguishing itself from capitalist exploitation of the labor force, was widespread. In fact, the shrinkage of the working day to two or three hours was identified as one of the most conclusive obstacles that held back production in those years. Those without land longed for a more aggressive agrarian reform while farm workers waited for their historic vacation.

The UNAG is born with a peasant seal

UNAG was born in April 1981, nourished by peasants who were poor but had experienced a rapid economic ascent during the coffee and cattle expansion of the years prior to the revolution’s triumph. Many had collaborated with the guerrillas and were loyal to the FSLN, even when they didn’t necessarily share their politics.

Gathered together in the Perla de Matagalpa theater, 3,000 small and medium farmers representing 100,000 peasants broke publicly with the Central Cooperative of Coffee Growers, created during Somoza’s time and manipulated by the bourgeoisie who opposed the FSLN and aspired to create a broad front against the revolution. The peasants who met that day were the embryo of UNAG.

They owned a medium-sized amount of land, had been sidelined by the agrarian business organizations but were now targets of the proselytizing work of those same organizations of rural business owners who opposed the revolution. UNAG filled a gap and neutralized the progress of the rural sectors opposed to the revolution.

UNAG sought to unite all farmers, regardless of their class status, to achieve hegemony among the rural sector the ATC hadn’t organized. This helped lessen the fear that incessant land demands had created among a sizeable group of peasant landowners and employers of a few workers in the center of the country. This sector said it particularly needed long-term loans, agricultural supplies, technical assistance, penetration roads, participation in state institutions and decisions on prices and commercialization. They were also very interested in land and in fact were the ones who pressured INRA to pass the Agrarian reform law in 1981.

UNAG and the struggle for land up to 1986

Directed by the FSLN, UNAG worked with cooperatives at the start and successfully urged many of its members to form Credit and Service Cooperatives (CCS); in the eighties, 93% of its members belonged to cooperatives, largely these CCSs. In 1984, as the contra war heated up, UNAG sought to extend its social base to take in other small and medium farmers who weren’t in cooperatives and even those portrayed as representatives of the “patriotic bourgeoisie.” They were incorporated by promoting farming associations and commissions for each crop and energizing the District Committees.

While the ATC dedicated itself exclusively to agricultural workers, the poor peasants recruited through the district outreach work joined with middle-income and well-off peasants in UNAG, which ended up giving it a very heterogeneous social base. This situation had disadvantages for some. The predominance of landowning peasants meant that UNAG’s demands were those of the medium farmer concerned about prices, commercialization, transport and access to agricultural inputs, not those of the poor peasant clamoring for land. At first, the FSLN feared the demand for land by poor peasants who hadn’t been absorbed into state enterprises could collapse its national unity project based on an alliance with the rural bourgeoisie. The FSLN didn’t want to give this project up and didn’t want to distribute the land belonging to state enterprises, perceived as the axis of national accumulation.

As the economic crisis and peasants’ disillusionment at their unmet demands spread in the countryside, UNAG’s power to unite was eroded, although it never ceased to attract new members. UNAG became increasingly critical of the FSLN and its farming policy, especially after 1986, when it successfully channeled the peasants’ demand for land. Taking the lead in their mobilizations, it once again projected itself as a central organization in the countryside, changing both its discourse and its practice. Its slogan in 1986 was “An organization for struggle.” And the struggle was for land. This change gave UNAG a new look and recovered its strength.

Cooperatives = solidarity

From the start of the revolution the Sandinista government promoted cooperatives to push “a spirit of solidarity and cooperation” and overcome “competitive and exploitative relationships among men.” Competition was perceived as an evil of capitalism that had to be suppressed. Solidarity was the key feature of the “new man” and multiple devices were employed to promote it.

This collectivist impetus sprang in part from a sort of ideological debt to Sandino who in the 1920s said he was “in favor of land belonging to the State” and inclined “towards a cooperative regime” along the Río Coco. Cooperatives were part of the FSLN’s 1969 historic program, which was committed to motivating and encouraging peasants to organize and take their destiny into their own hands, participating directly in the country’s development.

Collective work was seen as the breeding ground of solidarity. Furthermore, the economies of scale involved in working as a large landholding made it possible to use irrigation and mechanization and to apply modern technology; operating as a group would also facilitate access to loans, technical assistance, the buying and storage of harvests and the supply of agricultural inputs. The plan also included providing educational programs and health, housing and cultural services. In 1988 it even went so far as to exempt productive cooperatives from paying income tax.

The cooperativist project soon attained wide coverage: 2,849 cooperatives with 65,820 members had already been set up by 1982. They controlled an area of around 700,000 hectares. By 1988 the project had gained more ground, with 3,151 cooperatives and 76,715 members who controlled over a million hectares.

Preobrazhenski vs. Bujarin

Not all types of cooperatives showed the same evolution. Ever since its creation, UNAG challenged the position of the Ministry of Agricultural Development and Agrarian Reform (MIDINRA), formerly INRA, on the cooperative concept. A genuine controversy arose between the two institutions. Social scientist Peter Marchetti compared this controversy to the one between Eugene Preobrazhenski and Nikolai Bukharin in 1924 regarding the New Economic Policy applied in the Soviet Union between 1921 and 1929.

Preobrazhenski favored a rapid transition to socialism supported by the expansion of State enterprises and industrialization at the expense of the peasantry. MIDINRA supported large-scale projects with State property (APP or CAS) controlling the harvest and its commercialization to ensure the supply of cheap agricultural produce to the cities. Preobrazhenski and MIDINRA viewed the peasantry as backward, a seedbed of capitalism. At the other extreme was Bukharin and UNAG, for whom an alliance with the peasantry was vital for ethical reasons, to attend to cultural factors, limit the State monopoly, promote a worker-peasant alliance, respond to market forces and make better use of national productive potential.

The Cooperatives Law expressed these antagonistic visions in the possibility of creating two types of cooperatives: credit and service cooperatives with individual land ownership and production cooperatives with collective property. Given its more flexible form of organization, the CCS model attracted the majority of farmers’ groups in the country given that it didn’t involve collectivization or a commitment to the State. The Sandinista Agricultural Cooperatives (CAS), mostly representative of the production cooperative type, were numerically smaller at first because they depended on the allocation of agrarian reform land. Initially they only had a seventh of the CCSs’ land and members.

Landless peasants were the most willing to organize into a CAS. The CCSs were made up of middle income peasant farmers who already had land and were interested in forming associations as a way of getting access to loans. As the government offered loans on condition of forming a cooperative, many peasants registered as CCS members without complying with the minimal operational require¬ments. Many formally constituted CCSs never called a member’s assembly and their members never did anything together short of the procedures to get a loan. The 1981 Cooperatives Law stipulated that “the Revolutionary State will grant Farming Cooperatives special financial support through programs that offer preferential interest rates.” In practice, even debt write-offs became an implicit norm that benefited the cooperative members to a large extent.

Preobrazhenski won

It was soon clear which model would be the winner. In 1982 the cooperative development strategy prioritized CAS access to land, loans and technical supplies. This is illustrated by the fact that an average of 11 to 12 hectors per member had been granted to the cooperatives at the start of the agrarian reform. In 1988 the CCSs were still within this range, while the CASs had risen to an average of some 20 hectares, thanks to the transformation of state enterprises into cooperatives.

In 1986 CASs had already received 75% of the land assigned by the agrarian reform to cooperatives and individual owners. They grew significantly between 1982 and 1988: 129% in the number of cooperatives, 217% in membership and 453% in area. The CCSs, in contrast, saw decreases of 6%, 14% and 38%, respectively. They were also seriously affected by the war, shrinking 17% in the center of the country. Moreover many of the CCSs that existed in name only were dissolving. The war actually strengthened the CASs, as they owed a greater debt to the FSLN, while it broke up the CCSs due to fear of armed counterrevolutionaries accusing them of links to the FSLN.

Significantly, the first bands of armed counter¬revolutionaries, the MILPAS (Anti-Sandinista People’s Militias), appeared in 1980 in the northern part of the country, supported by small and medium coffee farmers and cattle ranchers who feared that growing nationalization of the rural economy would end up confiscating their property. The MILPAS leaders were former Sandinista guerrillas unhappy that confiscated land had been turned into state enterprises and not distributed among landless peasants.

The State gambled on the CAS model, which it considered a superior form of organization. Changes were made to MIDINRA policies that favored it. Although the 1981 Agrarian Reform Law allowed for the possibility of transferring expropriated and State land to cooperatives, this method was only applied before 1983 when the land was already in fact in the hands of peasants and cooperatives or the farms were too small to be managed efficiently by the State. The political alliance with the rural bourgeoisie limited large-scale distribution.

The war forced the pace

The war changed the panorama and the policies. With increasing counterrevolutionary attacks, a wide distribution of state land was started to regain the political initiative and promote the defense of adjacent territory.

In 1983 armed incursions by contra groups redoubled and the FSLN introduced the draft, which it dubbed Patriotic Military Service (SMP). By then there were swarms of armed counterrevolutionary bands in the border area with Honduras, a mountainous area ideal for insurgency. Between 1981 and 1985 the contras carried out a reported 133 attacks in this area, leaving 242 dead, 49 wounded and 44 abducted, just among cooperative members and workers on state farms.

The war accelerated the agrarian reform process. Promises had to be kept, in part on principle and in part due to the urgency of staving off the counterrevolution and its proselytizing work, which was gaining a foothold due to the economic deterioration many farmers were beginning to experience. Farmers whose land had been confiscated and those who thought they might be expropriated were especially discontented. Most of the contra leaders were farmers from Matagalpa and Jinotega who saw the revolution as a threat. The dissatisfaction had to be allayed.

The state intervention policy with regard to land tenure was designed, in simple terms, to confiscate land from ten people and hand it over to one hundred. The high point of the agrarian reform was 1984, the year that 37% of the 2.7 million hectares ultimately affected by the agrarian reform were given out with special titles: a legal recognition of the right to occupy land by families who had been farming small plots for decades. Indeed issuing this type of title was further driven by the start of the war: 66% of the reformed land in this category was “granted” in 1984. Only 13.57% received titles before then. The reform that benefited cooperatives was relatively similar: 86% of the land was granted to them between 1983 and 1987. In the first three years of the revolution, cooperatives scarcely received 10% of the amount that would be handed over to them in the course of the decade.

The same mistakes as the
Mexican agrarian reform

Strengthening a peasant front loyal to the revolution that would hold back the advance of the counterrevolutionaries was a matter of urgency. A retaining wall was built of individual FSLN sympathizers and cooperatives, beneficiaries of land recently confiscated or taken from the huge bag of APP land. Some 39% of the land given out in 1986-87 came from farms with over 350 hectares. Only 8% was from farms smaller than that. The rest was APP. The war meant the growth of the Bukharin-UNAG model.

The land redistribution of those years created a land tenure structure with a more suitable social base that would later allow for the prospering of interesting experiences in organic production and insertion into fair trade networks.

These far-reaching achievements would have gone even further had it not been for the limitations pointed out by Michel Merlet, an agro­economy expert who worked with INRA through most of the eighties and now directs AGTER, an association for the improved governance of natural resources: “between 1985 and 1987, almost half the state sector was redistributed to cooperatives or peasants. These measures helped the government regain control of the situation: production of basic grains increased, the contra advance was halted, but an indisputable division persisted, a real schism at the heart of the peasantry. A more flexible agrarian reform from 1984 on did not lead to a radical review. No sooner had the country emerged from the emergency situation than the FSLN stopped expanding and intensifying the agrarian reform.”

The bottom line is discouraging. According to Merlet’s figures, the transformation of the land tenure structure was effective but limited in 1988. “The big holdings (more than 350 hectares) only represented 19% of all farmland (7% private and 12% state farms) compared to 36% in 1978. Production cooperatives were working 12% of the land and the rest was in the hands of individual peasant farmers and strata of rural petty bourgeoisie. Some 70,000 peasant families received land: almost one out of every two peasant families. But the area redistributed for individual usage only represented 5% of all farmland.”

Fifty years later, the Sandinista land reform repeated all the vices, errors and abuses of the reform undertaken by Mexico’s Lázaro Cárdenas in the 1940s: slow parceling out, successive debt pardons, the impossibility of selling or willing land, the under-utilization of plots, a fall in production and productivity, a mix of paternalism and subjection, and investment wasted on extravagant projects.

The Sandinista piñata
and the neoliberal turn

The nineties brought an abrupt new tack. Violeta Chamorro’s electoral victory meant that the government Cabinet was largely occupied by a group of technocrats educated in US universities that fed them theories packaged by the defenders of monetarism and neoliberal ideology. United with business by faith in the market’s invisible hand, they implemented a series of policies aimed at dismantling state controls, privatizing the APP and lowering taxes.

The General Board of National Public Sector Corporations (CORNAP) was created in 1990 to take over the State’s business functions. It was effectively a holding company responsible for offloading the APP enterprises.

But even before CORNAP was gestated in the neoliberal womb, the Sandinista regime had already started privatizing. In the two-month transition period between the FSLN’s electoral defeat (February) and Violeta Chamorro’s inauguration (April), the Sandinista leadership implemented the swiftest transfer of goods in national history: farms, houses, buildings, factories, vehicles, tractors, islets and millions of dollars in cash left the APP to become the exclusive preserve of the Sandinista elite.

Compared to the Sandinista “piñata,” as it came to be known, all other redistribution in the 1980s paled into insignificance. It contributed to a rollback of the agrarian reform that has never been well examined. Some of the country’s best farms ended up in Sandinista hands, including those of the agrarian reform minister and deputy ministers.

CORNAP started operating with what remained after the Sandinista piñata. Most of the properties awarded by CORNAP went to private buyers or lessees: 52% of all properties transacted and 59% of their value. Only after a major battle did the new government reluctantly benefit the APP workers with 23% and 30% of the transactions and their value, respectively.

Unprecedented in military history

The participation of former combatants, both from the Sandinista Popular Army and the National Resistance, in the privatization process was very small. Although they were beneficiaries of 241 of the 1,532 transactions implemented by CORNAP between 1991 and 1994, the value of the property awarded them, a little over 15 million córdobas, represented less than 1.4% of the total value of the transactions. They made their dissatisfaction felt immediately. Meanwhile the US government, which had generously disbursed millions to keep the armed counterrevolution in weaponry, refused to have anything to do with its now retired “freedom fighters” and pressured the Chamorro government to reduce the Sandinista Popular Army to a bare minimum. The number of army troops plunged from 86,810 in January 1990 to 16,200 in 1992 and then to 14,553 by 1994, making the newly-renamed Army of Nicaragua the smallest in Central America. According to Nicaraguan military expert Roberto Cajina, with an overall demobilization rate of 86% and a yearly rate of 21.5%, the demobilization of Nicaragua’s army is unprecedented in contemporary military history.

The discharge of Sandinista soldiers was rapid, unfairly skewed and chaotic. For the most part the thousands of two-year conscripts simply went happily back home. But for those of all ranks who had made the army their career and revolutionary commitment, there were various plans, some of which stressed seniority criteria and others the rank reached. They also had varying compensation methods (houses, land, money, staggered disbursements). Worst of all, the seeming poilitical criteria for deciding who would remain in active service and who would retire were never made clear. Even more than the unequal compensation and subsequent lack of government compliance due to insufficient resources, the emotions related to being cut out of the herd after all the sacrifice and danger without any clear and understandable explanation fueled resentment.

“Recompas” and “recontras”: together for land

Between April and December 1992 many demobilized military, fed up with the broken promises, led a series of protests and hunger strikes to spotlight the government’s failure to implement signed agreements corresponding to the three discharge plans. They emphasized property legalization and access to loans and technical assistance. And they argued that grants of land to demobilized army personnel had been based on elitist criteria that exclusively favored high-ranking officers: a total of 582 officers (2 colonels, 25 lieutenant colonels, 97 majors and 458 captains), representing only 5.8% of all demobilized officers. Many demobilized officers were also adversely affected by the mechanism of compensation payments disbursed over a long period. Many dissenters organized into re-armed groups, some to get the government’s attention, some to carry on the war and some to engage in simple banditry.

Ex-National Resistance members were also dissatisfied. In their case the main problem was the bogging down of the land titling process and repayments or compensation that had been made a priority in agreement 2 of the disarmament Protocol. Meager resources were meted out to provide for the war wounded, orphans and widows, resulting in miserable pensions. Talk began to be heard of a social frontier that didn’t allow services to get through to the regions with settlements of demobilized Resistance fighters.

Bands of armed army veterans (“recompas”) and Resistance veterans (“recontras”) turned their rearmament and rebellion into a modus vivendi to claim allocations of land and other unmet promises. At first some recompa groups reactivated to respond to revenge abuses by recontras, but more often the two formerly adversarial groups discovered they had shared interests and united in bands under separate command known as “rejuntos” or joint command known as “revueltos” to engage in publicity-getting actions such as taking over a city or stretch of highway. (The names were an emblematic example of Nicaraguan humor in adversity: permutations on the well-known phrase “juntos pero no revueltos”/together but not mixed, referring to generations of families forced to live under the same roof due to poverty rather than choice.)

Chamorro’s “land reform”

After the Sandinista agrarian reform came the Chamorro land reform, which was mostly an instrument for severance pay and unemployment benefit for the Army and Resistance veterans and an offer to pacify outbreaks of the rearmed groups. Although the government didn’t always keep its promises, there was some land distribution partly due to the advance of the agricultural frontier, sometimes fanning the flames of ethnic conflicts with indigenous peoples on the Caribbean side of the country, and partly due to the privatization of State properties. Of the 22,000 demobilized contras, 11,385 had already gotten 231,000 hectares of land by 1992. Some of these and other awards entered into conflict with other State programs.

For example, the Chamorro government granted land in areas later demarcated as forestry reserves, generating conflict in both directions. The presence of settlers had a demonstrable effect in attracting new invaders to the reserve areas so the army would carry out evictions that were legitimate according to one law but in violation of another.

At the end of the 1980s the ATC, with it 65,000 members, had been grouping together union branches according to the crop farmed and the enterprise. In the coffee enterprises, it guaranteed workers’ participation, putting its money on a “de-professionalization” of the organization to get rid of the bureaucrats and allow greater union participation in the enterprises’ economic management.

This process accelerated with the privatization of state enterprises in the nineties, especially following farm seizures promoted by the ATC to upset privatization plans favorable to business owners connected with the Chamorro government. The ATC was thus able to achieve the objective pursued in training workshops received in the eighties: worker-managed state enterprises. But in this case the workers became owners too, a situation unforeseen in the revolutionary government’s early plans.

Better a hired hand on another’s
farm than boss on one’s own

The farm workers organized in the ATC managed to acquire a coffee processing operation and nine coffee estates covering a combined area of 16,670 hectares, distributed in Matagalpa, Jinotega, Carazo and Managua. With all these they formed a coffee company, AGROCAFE S.A. in 1999, with 2,032 members, 98% of whom were workers in these farms, which combined coffee growing with basic grains and cattle ranching and also possessed a large area of forest. According to AGROCAFE, these firms belonging to the then newly-named Area of Workers’ Property (APT) were responsible for 7% of the country’s coffee production.

But already by 1994 the situation of the worker/entrepreneurs on these farms was not too promising. In one of them, the Adolfo García, covering 255 hectares in El Crucero, only 16 out of 165 members knew how to read and write. School dropout rates didn’t augur a better future for them: only half of 250 farm workers’ children managed to finish the 1993 academic year. They were very aware of their limitations in managing their own business. Further¬more they were being strangled by a financial debt of 583,000 córdobas and a scarcity of agricultural inputs. The migration of some members to other farms, the cities and Costa Rica started undermining their self-management capacity. The ten córdobas a day they could get as hired hands on other farms almost doubled their income as bosses of their own. Some of these farms were sold or rendered unproductive due to lack of credit.

Diverse circumstances conspired against worker management. Merlet points to “economic insecurity” as a big factor, explaining that structural adjustment policies brutally changed the rules of the game by getting rid of the various subsidies that benefited farmers. The new small farmers and the state enterprises privatized to workers were subjected to pressure from former owners and the police, suffering great land tenure insecurity justified by various unresolved legal problems, and were also economically asphyxiated by a drastic reduction in access to credit and little or no renegotiation of the debts acquired previously by their cooperatives or enterprises.

According to Merlet, who has followed the fate of the agrarian reform over all these years, reformed land was sold off massively, and at prices way below its market value due partly to the flawed legalization, especially in the case of the best lands or those with urban development or tourism potential. If a balance sheet were drawn up of the gains (land given to former combatants, for example) and losses (sales, return to former owners), beneficiaries of the reformed sector would have a net loss of some 400,000 hectares between 1990 and 2000. And the process isn’t over yet.

31 years later?

It’s often been said that a re-concentration of land has occurred in the last decade, an agrarian counter-reform spurred on by the monopolization of small, medium and large arms by the elite, old and new. A recent text by Eduardo Baumeister charts the state of land tenure at four moments of Nicaraguan history, four milestones that fall close to census dates: the start of Somoza’s decline, the end of the Somoza dynasty, the end of the Sandinista agrarian reform and the end of two neoliberal governments (Violeta Chamorro and Arnoldo Alemán).

Between 1963 and 1978 there were no significant changes. The relative drop in the area of farms larger than 350 hectares can be explained by the dividing effect of inheritances. This stratum was transformed, although not as much as some desired, between 1978 and 1988. Collectives absorbed 25.5% of the farmland while the total of the largest farms, those over 140 hectares, dropped by 26%: basically the big farms fed the collectives.

The most significant transformation in the lower strata occurred between 1988 and 2001: three segments of lesser sized farms, 140 hectares or less, grew by almost 13 percentage points; partly due to the breaking up of cooperative land and state farms into individual plots and partly due to the land given to veterans from both sides and to returning exiles. The fact that collectives shrank by over 20 percentage points doesn’t just reflect their subdivision to farm workers and cooperative members. A large part of this area was returned to former owners or acquired by old or new large-scale owners, which accounts for the recovery of farms in the two most extensive strata.

A rise in the number of smallholdings doesn’t imply a rise in the number of smallholders. One shouldn’t confuse the area of farmland with the economic sector. Members of the middle class have acquired many small farms to diversify and spread out their income.

There’s a risk that the governing party could use the current situation, touting the “Christian, socialist and solidarity” Nicaragua proclaimed in its most recent pre-election propaganda, to bring back the outmoded paternalist State to engage in new expropriations and distribute properties among the “good,” who in this “second stage of the revolution,” are submissive yes-men.

Without doubt a fresh attempt at redistribution would bring much applause from the many who are again landless, and from the friends of freebies and of the troubled waters in which fishermen gain. The passage of time is a great fragmenter of smallholdings. But a project like this would forget the burden of unresolved conflict we still carry as a long-term debt of the eighties’ agrarian reform. It would be implemented without the legitimacy the FSLN once enjoyed and abused. And it would ignore the fact that property rights aren’t the only or the most important reason for the struggle around land, its use and the distribution of its benefits.

New struggles could be more suited to common interests and the common good and include other components, provide more options, adopt new strategies and diversify demands and approaches if, as Merlet suggests, instead of talking about “land,” we talked about “rights to land”; if we understood that a title or deed, covers different rights, but not all rights; and if we talked about “property regimes” instead of “type of property.”

José Luis Rocha is a researcher for the Jesuit Service for Migrants of Central America (SJM) and a member of the envío editorial council.

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