07 January 2013

Coffee and Central America Unrest

Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast, 1999, Excerpts

In El Salvador, the people’s Revolutionary Army [ERP] challenged the repressive regime of General Carlos Humberto Romero. Right wing death squads roamed the countryside. The entire country descended into a bloodbath, with over fifty thousand people killed by one side or the other in the next few years. The coffee-growing oligarchy loathed the rebels but were split politically, with some supporting the death squads, others seeking moderate reforms. The chaotic violence inevitably reduced the coffee harvest, as many laborers were killed or joined the rebels. In November 1989, six Jesuit priests and two women workers were slain by death squads in El Salvador.

In Nicaragua, a small group of Marxist intellectuals, the Sandinistas, led the fight against longtime president Anastasio Somoza, with the entire country rallying behind them, eager to get rid of the dictator. In July 1979 Somoza fled and the Sandinistas took over, promising a better life for all, including coffee growers and laborers. The Sandinistas launched their revolution by commandeering Somoza’s coffee plantations.

The new government seized the vast Somoza family holdings, which included 15 percent of the coffee fincas, while dedicating itself to renovating selected farms. At first, Nicaraguan coffee workers and farm owners were enthusiastic about these programs; over the next few years, however, it became clear that the urban Marxists didn’t know much about coffee. The Sandinistas called coffee farmers who cooperated with them “patriotic producers.” Anyone who questions their politics or policies was labeled a “capitalist parasite.”

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