Filling the El Salvador Gap

Whoops!  When I was working on Chapter 4 of my Latin American history series, covering the years from 1830 to 1889 A.D., I only talked about El Salvador in the first two decades.  I forgot to say anything about the country when I got past 1850.  Today I was composing the part of Chapter 5 that will cover El Salvador, and realized my omission, so here is what I added to Chapter 4:

Before 1900, El Salvador went through three economic cycles that were each dominated by one product.  First came a cacao cycle in the seventeenth century, only a few decades after Europeans discovered chocolate.  Then came an indigo cycle in the early nineteenth century.  The indigo market busted because of the development of synthetic dyes, meaning the real thing was no longer needed.  Salvadorans looked for a new cash crop, and settled on the same choice as Costa Rica:  coffee.  Some coffee had been grown since independence, but it was in the 1860s that large-scale planting of coffee trees began.  The coffee cycle never ended; that is still El Salvador’s primary export today.

The switch from indigo to coffee put poor farmers, especially Indians, at a disadvantage.  Whereas indigo was planted and harvested every year, coffee trees had to grow for three years before they produced their first harvest, so farmers could only afford to plant coffee if they did not need the money right away.  The government saw former indigo-growing lands as potential coffee plantations, and in 1856 it decreed that if a pueblo did not plant two thirds of its communal lands with coffee, the state would confiscate the lands.  Then in 1881-82, President Rafael Zaldívar passed two laws that worked to abolish communal land ownership altogether.  With each tract of land owned by a single farmer, it became easier for the state to take it, one way or another.

At the time those laws were passed, 40 percent of the farmland was communal, and 60 percent of the population made a living off it.  After that, within a single generation most of the land was concentrated in the hands of an elite that Salvadorans called “the Fourteen Families.”  While that number is probably not correct, it shows how land, wealth and political power was concentrated on a feudal scale, in the hands of a tiny oligarchy.  By the beginning of the twentieth century, 95% of El Salvador’s income would come from coffee exports, but only 2% of Salvadorans controlled that wealth.

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