Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 26 | Agosto 1983



Agrarian Reform in El Salvador and Nicaragua Pacification or liberation?

Everything is different between Nicaragua and El Salvador, two neighboring countries. And everything displays and questions the contradictions in U.S. policy, which seeks a strategy of symmetry. Different also are the agrarian reform projects being carried out in El Salvador and in Nicaragua.

EnvĂ­o team

Recently, the Reagan administration has tried to equate the critical situation in Nicaragua with that of El Salvador and the rest of Central America. This has been done in an attempt to neutralize the distinct paces of the liberation movements in these countries and thus more easily conserve the hegemony of the U.S. in the region.

There is a world of difference between the situations in these two countries. A revolutionary war is being waged in El Salvador, while Nicaragua is being attacked from outside the country. Contradictions are evident in U.S. policies toward El Salvador and Nicaragua and a study of the agrarian reform programs in both these countries highlights these contradictions.

The following article, comparing the agrarian reforms in El Salvador and Nicaragua, was written by Institute associates for campesino movements throughout the continent.


Through their own experience and suffering, Latin American campesinos have learned that agrarian reform, in the hands of a particular social class, has been used as a tool to bring about that group's own political and economic projects. Agrarian reform can be used as an instrument by one class to displace another, as was the case in Mexico and Bolivia, when the bourgeoisie eliminated the power of the landed oligarchy. Those land reforms were not done to improve the lives of the campesinos but rather to isolate the oligarchy politically. Agrarian reform can also serve as an instrument to eliminate the power of foreign investors, large landowners and the agrarian bourgeoisie, as was the case in Cuba.

In the last twenty years, the Latin American peasantry has learned, through the agrarian reforms carried out under the auspices of the Alliance for Progress, that agrarian reform can also be an instrument to aid the dominant class in maintaining their power by pacifying the peasantry and giving them the leftovers in the agricultural sector.

It is important to keep three questions in mind when evaluating any agrarian reform:

1. Who is implementing it?

2. Why is it being implemented?

3. What concrete results has it brought to campesinos and farmworkers?


Involvement of the MilitaryThe most repressive faction of the Salvadoran army is responsible for implementing the agrarian reform in El Salvador. Even though this group did not propose it, it fell to them to implement it after political struggles over its nature and depth had lasted five months.

The current Salvadoran agrarian reform was originally announced as the central feature of a reform program launched by a group of young military officers and progressives who, with the help of the U.S. Embassy, took power on October 15, 1979, and constituted a civilian military junta with representatives from some progressive parties and the university. In time, this agrarian reform became the crux of the contradictions between the ultraright Salvadoran oligarchy and some reformist sectors of the bourgeoisie, especially the Social Christians. In practice, the coffee oligarchy and the Salvadoran bourgeoisie did not accept the reform program, even though it was destined to weaken the support of the peasantry and the urban poor for the revolutionary organizations. The bourgeoisie opted to maintain complete control over the country's wealth, instead of the tactical move of giving up a small part to neutralize the revolutionary desires of the people.

Without the support of the bourgeoisie, the influence of the civilian military junta rapidly diminished and it soon became evident that the reformist officers lacked control within the military apparatus. By December 1979, the civilian members of the junta, Mayorga, Ungo and Andino, had already resigned and the progressive officers were forced to go into exile in order to save their own lives. When the agrarian reform decree was promulgated on March 6, 1980, power was securely in the hands of military officials who were determined to defend the privileges of the bourgeoisie in Salvadoran society. The Salvadoran Christian Democrats then lent a democratic facade to the junta and the agrarian reform was implemented.

Agrarian Reform: Pacify the Campesinos, Save the System

If the young officers who had proposed the agrarian reform were sent into exile, why was the agrarian reform implemented? The first reason is simple: the U.S. government required some indication on the part of the Salvadorans to carry out social reforms in order to continue giving military aid, advisors, and financial credits to the dominant groups and the army. The real author of the Salvadoran agrarian reforms was the U.S. State Department. Participation in the formulation of the agrarian reform law was restricted to representatives of the U.S. Embassy, the army's high command and several cabinet members. Neither the university, sectors of the Catholic church, campesino organizations (with the exception of the Salvadoran Communal Union, which is supported by AIFLD) nor the professionals from the Institute for Agrarian Transformation (ISTA) participated in the formulation of the agrarian reform project. When several Professionals protested the violence which was being used to implement the agrarian reform, they were fired, and ISTA's director, Rodolfo Viera, was assassinated by members of the paramilitary groups.

The promised agrarian reform had three phases: 1) The expropriation of 238 estates with more than 500 hectares in each. These estates covered 218,000 hectares (15% of the agricultural land). 2) The expropriation of approximately 1,750 farms between 150 and 500 hectares in size. This area included more than 334,000 hectares (23% of the cultivated land) and formed the backbone of Salvadoran agriculture, encompassing two thirds of the coffee production. 3) The "Land to the Tiller" program (which gave the land ceded by the large land holders to the medium sized farmers, tenant farmers and sharecroppers). This last phase was a copy of the program designed by Professor Roy Prosterman to pacify the Vietcong in Vietnam. The State Department forced this program to be applied in El Salvador, without investigating whether the conditions in Central America were similar to those encountered in Asia.

In a society such as the Salvadoran, where six families possess more land than 133,000 campesino families, where there is a strong process of changing the campesino economy to a worker economy, and where the landless population rose from 11.8% in 1961 to 40.9% in 1975, the logic behind the U.S. pressure for agrarian reform is obvious: the defense of the entire capitalist system at the expense of a few capitalists. The State Department understands that without profound reforms, the campesino and worker revolution, which seeks to replace capitalism by a more just system, could be triumphant.

For the Salvadoran military, this agrarian reform is one more marker in the long history of "cosmetic reforms" that have served to legitimize the domination of the fourteen families and the rest of the Salvadoran oligarchy. it is along the same lines as the reforms carried out by Colonel Osorio between 1950 and 1956, Colonel Rivera between 1962 and 1967, and Colonel Molina between 1972 and 1974. However, the latest agrarian reform was unable to force the complete submission of the military to the bourgeoisie, as had occurred in October 1976, when the army supported the bourgeoisie in repealing the Agrarian Transformation Law that had projected the expropriation of 50,000 hectares of lands used for cotton production. On that occasion, the bourgeoisie had to make some concessions in order to assure the continued support of the U.S., which saw the "need" for reforms.

The combination of the two powers, that of the U.S. to save the system and that of the agrarian bourgeoisie to protect their bank accounts, produced an agrarian reform which did not really affect the bourgeoisie, nor did it pacify the revolutionary peasantry as had been hoped by the State Department. However, the collision between these two powers had several results. On the one hand, it placed the agrarian reform project in the hands of the most obstinate members of the military, who have used it to achieve a kind of "Pavlovian terror." They have given land from a few restricted parts of the Salvadoran countryside to "tame" workers, who are then incorporated into the paramilitary group ORDEN and the Christian Democratic party. These peasants pay ORDEN and the military a new kind of rent in order to assure their security, while the leaders and peasants who will not submit themselves to these groups are assassinated.

On the other hand, the disagreement between the State Department and the agrarian bourgeoisie has made land reform the Achilles heel of the current Salvadoran government, because it has profoundly divided the bourgeoisie. The agrarian bourgeoisie has resisted the implementation of the reform, yet the industrial and the urban petty bourgeoisie support the agrarian reform project in order to maintain U.S. aid and in the hope that significant reforms can save the system.


In Nicaragua, the agrarian reform began in the western part of the country as a measure taken in the zones liberated by the Sandinista guerrillas. The goal was to broaden the alliance between the peasants and workers in the struggle against the Somoza dictatorship. Since then it has maintained its character as a transforming force in society.

Campesinos Implement the Agrarian Reform

Nicaraguan campesinos and farmworkers have been the principal subjects in the implementation as well as the formulation of the agrarian reform. At the time of the Sandinista victory, more than 20% of the cultivated land was abandoned by the Somocistas and occupied by the workers and peasants. In those early months, the State had to play the role of mediator between the grassroots agricultural movement and the anti Somoza bourgeoisie in order to achieve national unity. This unity was politically indispensable to create the necessary structures to defend the victory from counterrevolutionary and imperialist forces.

By September of 1979, the government had controlled the land invasions. In February 1980, there was a massive march of farmworkers and campesinos into Managua to pressure the new government into recognizing the takeovers of non Somocista farms and to formulate legislation which would require large landowners to rent their uncultivated land to campesinos at fixed prices two or three times lower than the market prices. After achieving these reforms, the campesinos responded to the requests of the Farmworkers' Association (ATC) and organized 3,000 cooperatives in six months. Eighty percent of the nation's agricultural producers, who had never had access to formal credit, participated for the first time in the national financial system.

In Nicaragua, the principal authors of the Agrarian Reform Law were farmworkers and campesinos organized in the ATC and UNAG (the National Farmworkers and Cattleraisers Union). The law was announced on the second anniversary of the revolution and promulgated on August 21, 1981. As opposed to the Salvadoran law, the Nicaraguan legislation facilitates campesino participation in the designation of unused farms and farms that are not being fully utilized and in cases of rental arrangements and land transfers. At the local level, campesinos compiled lists of farms to be expropriated using these criteria. And because the campesinos and farmworkers have unions which stand behind them, they are not afraid to assume control of the farms which are being decapitalized until the State can arrange the legal documents for the expropriation.

An Agrarian Reform Aimed at the Agro industrial Development of the Country and the Transformation of the System

In Nicaragua, a basic aim of agrarian reform is to fortify the worker campesino alliance and to increase the power of this alliance within the whole of the society. The Area of Public Ownership (APP), which operates under public administration, was created in order to establish an alternative to the private agricultural sector. In its first year, APP employed 12.5% more workers than had been employed before in tobacco production, 17% more in rice, and 31% more in sugar. Moreover, many formerly landless farmworkers and seasonal ones have been able to cultivate basic grains on lands given to them by APP.

The APP is not only a base for the agro-industrialization of Nicaragua, it is also the starting point for farmworker administration of the means of production. To provide the peasantry with land, credits, subsidized inputs, technical assistance, distribution and commercialization, education and health care, will mean and expansion in the domestic market, an indispensable requisite for creating the base for further self-sufficiency.

Results of These Two Models

The following table demonstrates the differences between the agrarian reforms in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

More Land, More Titles, More Infrastructure

Taking into account the difference in size between these two countries, Nicaragua has expropriated 100% more land than El Salvador (five times more in absolute terms). Furthermore, in El Salvador large land owners have been permitted to keep up to 180 hectares of their best land, which usually includes the most important infrastructure and capital investments on their property. In Nicaragua all capital and infrastructure were expropriated along with the land. Moreover, in El Salvador while large landowners have received compensation for 31% of their property, and compensation has been approved for 37% more, the campesinos have only received land titles for 2% of the land holdings. In Nicaragua more land titles were given out on the first day of the agrarian reform than in the first two years of the Salvadoran agrarian reform. From March of 1980 through May of 1982, only seven land titles were given out in El Salvador.

Better Land and More Beneficiaries

In El Salvador only 5.8% of the families have benefited from the agrarian reform; 23.6% have been incorporated into the reformed sector in Nicaragua. One of the most crucial differences between these two agrarian reforms is the quality of the land given to the beneficiaries. In El Salvador more than half of the beneficiaries have received plots of land smaller than two hectares in size; land which cannot be cultivated each year because of its location in hilly areas and its lack of good soil. The Salvadoran agrarian reform, "a la Prosterman," condemns the peasantry to land which can not even produce enough for the subsistence of their families. In addition, the Salvadoran campesinos have a 30-year mortgage on the land they receive.

In Nicaragua, farmworkers who were once tenant farmers, sharecroppers, or seasonal workers do not receive the same plots of land which they had previously worked; rather they receive better land, which will permit them to leave behind the misery of minifundismo (tiny subsistence plots). This is one of the big advantages of the Nicaraguan model. Other benefits of the programs which form part of the Nicaraguan Agricultural Policy are education, health care, new provisioning sources and road construction, which allows for bringing provisions into isolated areas and taking out the goods produced by the campesinos.

As can be seen in the table, the Salvadoran reform process not only has beneficiaries, but it also has victims. Along with the thousands of campesinos who have been massacred by the army, the "Land to the Tiller" Program itself has been responsible for the expulsion of thousands of campesino families from their land.

More Participation, More Cooperatives

There is an obvious difference in the number of popular organizations which have been developed in each of these two countries. Perhaps the most important point of comparison is the fact that the Salvadoran cooperatives have not received any financial assistance. Additionally, while in Nicaragua the peasants control the cooperatives, in El Salvador, administration of the new cooperatives is divided between the campesinos, ISTA and the military. The average size of the cooperatives also points to the fact that in Nicaragua associates have more opportunity to participate in the organization, given the smaller number of members.

The Future: Acceleration of the Nicaraguan Process and Last Rites of the Salvadoran Reforms
In El Salvador, only 25,000 of the 125,000 potential beneficiaries had begun the application process for land before the end of 1981. In the first half of 1982, only 4,096 more had applied. In other words, the pace of applications had dropped from 2,097 cases a month in 1981 to 682 a month in 1982. In fact, in April and May this figure shrank even further to 569 cases and in June of last year not one single new application was registered.

The elections in March 1982, which had been urged by the U.S. in order to obtain more support for the controversial agrarian reform, actually converted it into the scourge of the reform process. The advances gained by the extreme right justified an almost complete moratorium of the agrarian reform. Between April 26 and May 18, 1982, the Constituent Assembly revoked Decrees 3 and 6 of the Agrarian Reform Law, which had formed the legal basis for the second and third phases of the Salvadoran agrarian reform. Currently, the reform remains at a standstill because of objections from the country's powerful bourgeoisie.

On the other hand, in Nicaragua the agrarian reform has accelerated; two times more land was redistributed between July 1992 and March 1983 than between October 1981 and June 1982. Once planning mechanisms at the grassroots level are completed, an even greater increase is foreseen throughout the rest of 1983 as is evidenced by the first half of the year.

The Nicaraguan agrarian reform law, as has been mentioned above, authorizes the expropriation of land owners who have not utilized arable lands or are decapitalizing their farms. In times of war, it is more or less logical to reduce production or stop it completely. But today in Nicaragua this type of "logic" is unacceptable: reducing production is grounds for expropriation, according to the law. Paradoxically, therefore, U.S. aggression has dramatically accelerated the agrarian reform. Between October 1981 and December 1982, land titles for 248,200 acres were given to the campesinos. By the end of July 1983 this figure had risen to 317,900, and in July alone 170,000 acres were distributed. This latter figure is higher than that of the entire first year of the law's application.

Along with this acceleration in the pace of expropriation, a new model of campesino organization has appeared in the Nicaraguan countryside: self defense cooperatives. Production in these cooperatives is carried out under conditions of constant harassment since they are located in war zones. The campesinos both the men and the women work the land with guns on their shoulders, and all family members cooperate in the construction of small local resistance economies. It is expected that the pace of the agrarian reform and the creation of this type of armed community will continue to grow in the coming year.

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