On Monday, October 23, several hundred campesinos conducted a peaceful takeover of about 13 large properties in the departments of Ahuachapan and Sonsonate. For some, the action was evidence of the perennial problem of land in El Salvador. For others, it was merely the manifestation of political interests whose goal is to destabilize the "democratic process" prior to the municipal and legislative elections of 1997.
The second of the two viewpoints has been principally espoused by legislative deputies from the ARENA party, top officials of the Land Reform Institute (ISTA), and the director of the National Civilian Police (PNC), Rodrigo Avila. Given the similarities among their commentaries, one can deduce that, from the standpoint of the Calderon Sol government, the historical problem of land is now reduced to simply the political manipulation of "innocent" campesinos, behind whom are the "dark" forces of the opposition and the FMLN. In this view, the land takeovers are an isolated and private problem which has nothing whatsoever to do with the structural and unequal distribution of wealth and property in El Salvador. Thus, since the incident is seen to be independent of any historical motivation and no more than a common crime, the proponents of this view justify the use of all legal means to defend private property and penalize "these criminal gangs" who flagrantly violate the Constitution.
In confirmation of the above, on October 26 a series of amendments to the Penal and Penal Procedural Codes were passed in an "emergency" fashion. Explicitly, articles 248 of the Penal Code and 122 of the Penal Procedural Code were amended. The reforms are aimed at awarding more autonomy to judges in issuing eviction orders for usurped lands. Furthermore, the punishment imposed on the transgressors (2-4 years of prison) will apply to all those who propose, promote or instigate the usurpation of properties. Gloria Salguero Gross, president of the legislature, stated: "we are ready to pass any law which helps support legality."
With the help of MINUSAL and the Human Rights Ombudsman's Office, the PNC evicted the campesinos on Thursday of that week. As they left the lands, they said the "takeovers" would be repeated constantly until the government enforced the constitutional ban on owning over 245 hectares and distributed the excess. Furthermore, the peaceful and "voluntary" eviction saved the campesinos from a jail sentence or from being forcibly "dispersed."
The media has insistently repeated that the mastermind of the "land takeovers" is the FMLN, and that the campesino masses are merely a means to its political ends. The media also reports alleged campesino comments about belonging to the rank and file of the FMLN, and emphasizes the unconstitutional nature of the actions. This kind of reporting reflects some ideological bias which is important to point out:
Underlying the official discourse is denial of the historical nature of the problem at hand. If the land takeovers are merely a reflection of FMLN political interests and not of the campesinos' real interests, it would thus be valid to term them "usurpers" and "criminals," and to overlook the content of their demands.
Furthermore, ignoring the statements made by the campesinos themselves -who have clearly and accurately expressed their demands- their detractors have tried to separate the always-latent problem of land and its social repercussions from the takeovers to which these problems have led. They have tried to look at the action in an isolated way, instead of at the structural reality which generated it, in order to detract attention from the urgent needs of campesinos.
A press release published by the Democratic Campesino Alliance (ADC) expressed the reasons and justifications behind the recent actions. The ADC document set forth two ideas:
The ADC document constitutes a rectification of statements made by public officials. Their demand that the government enforce the Constitution obviates the issue of the constitutionality of the takeovers, since the actions reflect a willingness to use the Constitution as a guide and apply its provisions. If Salguero Gross speaks of enforcing the law, and is referring to enforcement of constitutional principles, then it is her duty to see that the legality of the articles mentioned by the campesinos is not undermined by the government's reluctance to enforce them.
To pretend that the campesinos' action is not a reflection of the perennial problem of an unequal distribution of wealth is tantamount to denying history and forgetting that this was one of the detonators of the civil war which swept the nation during the last decade. The current situation cannot be taken lightly from any point of view. To consider the positions of a sector which is lobbying for its right to a dignified and secure lifestyle as "criminal" means going back to the ideological polarization which prevailed before and during the war.
The best solution would be one which seeks to overcome or remedy the current living conditions of campesinos, and not one which applies a nightstick to silence them. The legislative measures passed to this end are nothing more than refined forms of repression to address a problem which so far no one has been able-or worse yet, has wanted- to resolve.