The Upper Sector

El Salvador Table of Contents

In relation to the total population, the Salvadoran elite was very small; by the early 1980s it constituted approximately 2 percent of the population. This social sector, however, owned 60 percent of the nation's productive land, exercised direct or indirect control over all key productive sectors of the economy, and accounted for one-third of the national income.

The economic interests of the elite fell into three general categories: export-oriented agribusiness, including coffee, cotton, sugar, and cattle; commercial and financial enterprises, including insurance, financial investment, real estate, utilities, and banks; and relatively newer retail and industrial interests, including distributorships and manufacturing. Given the continued dominance of export agriculture and of financial interests in the 1980s, this third category remained less significant overall.

Among the elite, there were divisions based on relative social status and prestige as determined by ancestry. The oldest and most prestigious families were those associated with the colonial "founding fathers" who had developed export agriculture. Next in the pecking order were the families, mainly involved in banking and finance, whose European ancestors had immigrated to El Salvador in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with a useful knowledge of foreign markets. The newest elite families, on the lowest social rung of the upper echelon, included Lebanese, Palestinians, and Jews and were pejoratively referred to as "Turcos" by the "older" elites. These most recent immigrants constituted the bulk of the Salvadoran merchant class; they tended to socialize primarily within their own group.

Despite these social distinctions, the Salvadoran elite as a whole was interconnected through bonds of shared economic interest, direct business dealings, particularly between the agribusiness and financial sectors, and frequent intermarriage. The families of the oligarchy generally intermarried. Daughters anticipated lives as pampered mothers and wives, while sons expected a place in one of the family businesses. Generally, members of elite families tended to live in San Salvador, whence they traveled periodically to their plantations, which were usually directed on site by resident administrators, or to Western Europe or the United States for business or recreation. The elite educated their children in private schools and in United States universities, entertained at fashionable clubs, and enjoyed extravagant conspicuous consumption.

To reconcile their differences and represent their interests, the elite organized into associations. Most notable among these associations was the National Association of Private Enterprise (Asociacion Nacional de la Empresa Privada--ANEP), which has expressed oligarchy views through various declarations in the media and before the government.

The economic oligarchy, although traditionally the most influential sector of Salvadoran society, was not the most powerful in and of itself. The Salvadoran upper sector also included the officer ranks of the military. Active or retired military personnel headed the government from 1932 to 1982, and, as a result, ambitious individual military officers and officer factions also emerged as interest groups in their own right. Members of the military gradually became involved in the elite economic structure--managing and directing banks, the social security institute, the national airline, and the census bureau, as well as owning large estates and becoming involved in export agriculture. This combination of the officer corps and the elite families constituted the most powerful political and economic force in the country.

Although their interests became closely interwoven, the economic oligarchy and the military remained separate entities. A few select military personnel were adopted into the oligarchy after their retirement, but few in the military were welcomed into the more exclusive San Salvador clubs frequented by the elite. For its own part, the officer corps was a closed and cliquish group; 90 percent of its members were graduates of the Captain General Gerardo Barrios Military Academy (Escuela Militar Capitan General Gerardo Barrios) and organized in mutually supportive networks based on graduating class membership. Each graduating class formed a group known as a tanda, whose members assisted each other and entered alliances with other tandas to broker the allocation of command and staff positions within the armed forces. The military served as one of the few mechanisms of upward mobility in Salvadoran society. The expectation of power and prestige was a considerable motivator for cadets, most of whom typically came from a Salvadoran middle-class background.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress