Coffee and Unrest
El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America, about the size of Massachusetts, yet it has the densest population. As in Guatemala, coffee is king. Fourteen families have controlled the wealth and power in this country for several generations.
In the period from 1930 to 1932 there was general unrest among the peasants. The lack of land coupled with an economic depression left most people without food or a livelihood. The Communist Party began organizing actively. Farabundo Marti, a Salvadoran who had served a Sandino’s personal secretary and lieutenant, returned to El Salvador to help organize an insurrection.
The same issues facing the people in 1930 face the vast majority today. Lack of basic human needs, like running water, electricity, clean water, access to the land, have remained constant for fifty years.
In the early years of the century, coffee was like gold in terms of the disruption it caused in the lives of the indigenous. In the late nineteenth century communal lands were abolished by decree and large coffee fincas (plantations) were created. The peasants who were shoved off the land had to work on the fincas for intolerable wages. Coffee as an export crop meant that the profits from its sale enriched the owners of the fincas but did not raise the standard of living of the workers. Since so much land was used to cultivate coffee for export, there was little left for subsistence crops for domestic consumption.
Protests in the coffee fields grew in 1930. On May Day of that year, eighty thousand workers and peasants marched into San Salvador, demanding a minimum wage for farm workers and relief centers for the unemployed. In the rural areas, regular armed skirmishes between the army and peasants occurred.
By 1932 the opposition forces were ready for a general insurrection set for January 22. Betrayal led to the arrest of Marti and other leaders. They tried to call of the insurrection, but those in the rural areas did not know how to stop the momentum. Thousands of farm workers and peasants, primarily indigenous, stoned government offices, occupied city halls, and set fire to the houses of the rich.
General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez, who had overthrown the elected government the year before, crushed the rebellion. Within weeks the army, the wealthy landowners, and paramilitary forces carried out a massacre that killed thirty thousand. Peasant leaders were hanged in the town square to deter future rebellions.