El Salvador Table of Contents

The Oligarchy and the Liberal State

Coffee would become the last of the great monoculture export commodities in El Salvador. Its widespread cultivation began in the mid-nineteenth century as the world demand for indigo dried up. The huge profits that it yielded served as a further impetus for the process whereby land became concentrated in the hands of an oligarchy. Although legend and radical propaganda have quantified the oligarchy at the level of fourteen families, a figure of several hundred families lies much closer to the truth. A succession of presidents, nominally both conservative and liberal, throughout the last half of the nineteenth century supported the seizure of land from individual smallholders and communal owners.

Despite the continued participation of conservatives, however, the period of the establishment of the codfee republic (roughly 1871 to 1927) is described commonly as the era of the liberal state in El Salvador. The church was not as powerful in El Salvador as in other Latin American states at the time; therefore, the economic aspects of liberalism--an adherence to the principles of free-market capitalism--dominated the conduct of the state. Anticlericalism was a distinctly secondary theme, expressed primarily through social legislation (such as the establishment of secular marriage and education) rather than though the kind of direct action, e.g., repression and expropriation, taken against the church in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Mexico.

Despite some differences over the degree of emphasis of political versus economic issues, Salvadoran liberals generally agreed on the promotion of coffee as the predominant cash crop, on the development of infrastructure (railroads and port facilities) primarily in support of the coffee trade, on the elimination of communal landholdings to facilitate further coffee production, on the passage of antivagrancy laws to ensure that displaced campesinos and other rural residents provided sufficient labor for the coffee fincas (plantations), and on the suppression of rural discontent.

The coffee industry grew inexorably in El Salvador, after a somewhat tentative start in the mid-1800s. Between 1880 and 1914, the value of coffee exports rose by more than 1,100 percent. Although the coffee industry itself was not taxed by the government, tremendous revenue was raised indirectly through import duties on goods imported with the foreign currencies that coffee sales earned (goods intended for the consumption of the small coffee-producing elite). From 1870 to 1914, an average of 58.7 percent of government revenue derived from this source. Even if the coffee elite did not run the government directly (and many scholars argue that they did), the elite certainly provided the bulk of the government's financial support. This support, coupled with the humbler and more mundane mechanisms of corruption, ensured the coffee growers of overwhelming influence within the government and the military.

The priorities of the coffee industry dictated a shift in the mission of the embryonic Salvadoran armed forces from external defense of the national territory to the maintenance of internal order. The creation of the National Guard (Guardia Nacional--GN) in 1912 epitomizes this change. The duties of the GN differed from those of the National Police (Policia Nacional--PN), mainly in that GN personnel were specifically responsible for providing security on the coffee fincas. Most fincas enjoyed the services of their own GN units posted on the grounds; regional GN commanders routinely were compensated by the finca owners to ensure the continued loyalty of the guardsmen.

Suppression of rural dissent was subtle and institutionalized; campesinos generally accepted the status quo because of the implied threat of retaliation from the GN or other military units. One exception to this pattern was Aquino's rebellion. Although it predated the coffee boom, its reverberations were felt throughout Salvadoran society for decades.

Aquino was a laborer on an indigo hacienda in the region of Los Nonualcos in the central part of the country. He led a brief but violent uprising in 1833. The Indian participants aimed to end their impressment into the army and effect the return of tribute paid to the government under false pretenses after 1811, when tribute requirements were discontinued by the Spanish parliament (but payments were still collected by the local authorities). In the initial uprising, several thousand rebels, mainly Indians, successfully captured several army posts between Santiago Nonualco and San Vicente, where Aquino's forces won a battle against government troops only to be defeated the next day by reinforcements mustered during the rebels' march. Had Aquino chosen to proceed directly to San Salvador after his early victories, the capital would have been largely undefended. As it was, the defeat at San Vicente effectively ended the rebellion, reestablished governmental control over the rural areas, led to Aquino's capture and execution some months later, and deterred any comparable act of violent dissent for approximately 100 years.

From the time of its declaration of independence from Spain as a part of the United Provinces of Central America, El Salvador was governed under a succession of constitutions. A number of these documents were produced during the era of the liberal state. The constitution of 1871 attempted to increase the power of the legislature relative to that of the president; it specified a two-year term for the chief executive with no immediate reelection. The constitutions of 1872 and 1880 were drafted as little more than legal circumventions of that two-year restriction. The constitution of 1885 never went into effect because the body that drafted it, the National Assembly, was dissolved four days after its adoption. The last constitution of the liberal era, the constitution of 1886, was the longest lived of all Salvadoran charters, governing the country until 1939 and serving as the basis of a post-World War II document as well.

The men who served as presidents of the liberal state in El Salvador came to power through a limited array of means. Santiago Gonzalez, who assumed the office in 1871, apparently sought to establish a personalist dictatorship. He never successfully consolidated his rule, however, and was defeated by Andres Valle in the elections of 1876. Valle fell victim to one of the chronic afflictions of Salvadoran political history--intervention from Guatemala. He was replaced less than a year after his election by Rafael Zaldivar, who was more to the liking of the Guatemalan dictator Justo Rufino Barrios. Zaldivar proved exceptionally durable; he was twice elected president after his initial violent installation, serving as the country's leader from 1876 until his overthrow in 1885 by forces led by Francisco Menendez, who was ousted and executed by his army commander, General Carlos Erzeta, in 1890. Erzeta is the only president during the period of the liberal state who is reputed to have made some effort to improve the lot of the lower classes by attempting to enforce an agricultural minimum wage, though the evidence for even this small gesture is sketchy.

Another confrontation with Guatemala contributed to the downfall of Erzeta, who was ousted in 1894 by Rafael Gutierrez; he, in turn, was replaced four years later in a bloodless coup led by General Tomas Regalado. His term took El Salvador rather uneventfully into the twentieth century. Regalado's peaceful transfer of power in 1903 to his handpicked successor, Pedro Jose Escalon, ushered in a period of comparative stability that extended until the depression-provoked upheaval of 1931-32. The only exception to this pattern of peaceful succession was the assassination of President Manuel Enrique Araujo in 1913. Araujo was reputed to have held somewhat reformist views toward some of the policies of the liberal state, in particular the notion of financing development through foreign loans. His assassination may have sprung from this sort of policy dispute, although the full motive has never been established satisfactorily.

Araujo's death ushered in a brief period of modified dynastic rule, whereby President Carlos Melendez named his brother Jorge as his successor; Jorge in turn tapped his brother-in-law, Alfonso Quinonez Molina, to succeed him. The Melendez and Quinonez clans were two of the most powerful among the ranks of the Salvadoran oligarchy.

Throughout the period of the liberal state in El Salvador, the preeminent position of the oligarchy was never threatened by the actions of the government. Some have attributed this to the pervasive influence of the organization that has been described as the "invisible government" of the country, the Coffee Growers Association (Asociacion Cafetalera). The direct (in the case of the Melendez-Quinonez minidynasty) and indirect connections of the presidents of the period with the country's powerful families undoubtedly came into play as well. Generally speaking, however, the system continued to function without adjustment because it worked well from the perspective of the small percentage of Salvadorans who benefited from it, namely the economic elite, upper-echelon government officials, and the military High Command.

Although society in general appeared to be static under the liberal state, the same truly cannot be said for the Salvadoran oligarchy. The introduction of coffee production in itself changed the composition of that group, as the new coffee barons joined the ranks of the old plantation owners (who in many cases were slow to recognize the potential of coffee and lost some wealth and standing by delaying their switch from indigo production). New blood also was introduced into the oligarchy by way of foreign immigration. These immigrants, who would eventually come to constitute the bulk of the Salvadoran merchant class, frequently married into the landowning oligarchic families, further diversifying the composition of the elite stratum of society.

Another process worthy of note during this period despite its lack of tangible results was the ongoing series of unification efforts by the Central American states. El Salvador was a prime mover in most of these attempts to reestablish an isthmian federation. In 1872 El Salvador signed a pact of union with Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica, but the union was never implemented. In 1876 a congress of all five Central American states failed to achieve agreement on federation. A provisional pact signed by the five states in 1889 technically created the "Republic of Central America"; that effort too never was realized. Undaunted, the governments of El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua formed the "Greater Republic of Central America" (República Mayor de Centroamerica) via the Pact of Amapala (1895). Although Guatemala and Costa Rica considered joining the Greater Republic (which was rechristened "the United States of Central America" when its constitution went into effect in 1898), neither country joined. This union, which had planned to establish its capital city at Amapala on the Golfo de Fonseca, did not survive Regalado's seizure of power in El Salvador in 1898. Although the Central American spirit seemed willing, the commitment was weak. The notion of unification was another manifestation of the idealistic liberal ethos, and it proved durable and quite resistant to political realities.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress