Coffee and Communism in the Volcanic Land of El Salvador

Few commodities have such rich and varied global history.

Coffee and Communism had formed an explosive mix in the tragic history of El Salvador, according to Augustin Sedgewick in his book, Coffeeland: A History.

Coffee created wealth for the rich and found the largest export market in the US. But coffee became a curse for the poor indigenous people who were deprived of their traditional land source for food and were forced to work as plantation workers in miserable conditions.

Communism gave hope to the poor but that brought in US intervention which caused even more death and destruction.

Sedgewick makes an interesting connection between the Salvadorian coffee to global communism and Manchester capitalism.

Friedrich Engels, from a wealthy German family goes to Manchester in 1842 to oversee the textile mill set up by his father. Manchester was the global capital of the Industrial Revolution at that time when British factories took in one-third of the world’s raw materials and produced forty percent of the world’s manufactured exports. Engels is impressed by the capitalist achievement but is shocked by the poor conditions of the workers. He puts these in his book “ The condition of the working class in England”. Later in 1948, he coauthors with Karl Marx the Communist Manifesto which changes the history of the world including El Salvador.

Born in a poor working-class family of Manchester, James Hill leaves the city in 1899  at the age of eighteen to become a salesman of Manchester textiles in the far off El Salvador. There he ventures into coffee cultivation in Santa Anna, near the Izalco volcano which used to erupt daily, reminding him of the tall factory chimneys of Manchester.

The volcanic soil of the surrounding hills is good for coffee which accounted for ninety percent of the country’s exports at the time of his arrival. The coffee plantations run by the people of European origin use the native Indian labour with low wages and hard work. The coffee barons take away the community lands and forests of the Indians, with governmental facilitation (in the name of privatisation of land), depriving the Indians their source of maize, fruits, fuel and medicine. Some of the coffee planters take extraordinary steps to prevent the poor workers from free fruits and eatables which are  available freely in the coffee plantations. They cut down the fruit trees and remove beans and other food crops which are grown inside the plantations and plant useless and even poisonous plants. Unable to feed themselves from the land, the Indians have no other alternative but to join as workers in the coffee plantations.

Hill succeeds as a Coffee King and joins the list of fourteen oligarchic families which control the economy and politics of El Salvador. Farabundo Marti, the communist leader, fights against the exploitation and oppression of the agricultural workers. Born in a landlord’s family, Marti espouses the cause of the poor even as a college student. After being thrown out of the Law School and sent into exile, he joins Sandino and becomes his trusted lieutenant in the fight in Nicaragua against the dictatorship. Thereafter, he comes back to lead an armed uprising of the workers. But the poorly armed workers are massacred by the National Guards with their latest machine guns imported from US. Several thousands of the are massacred in what is known as “La Matanza” (The Slaughter) in 1932. Marti and his fellow leaders are executed by firing squads.

Later, the followers of Marti form a Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN),  which takes up arms against the military dictatorship in 1979. They are inspired by the success of Sandinistas who overthrew the Somoza dictatorship Nicaragua. But the military dictatorship massacres thousands of people with the active support of the Reagan administration in the name of anti-communism. The civil war of the country comes to an end with the peace deal in 1992. Later, Mauricio Funes of FMLN becomes president in 2009. He is succeeded by Sanchez Ceren, a former guerilla fighter, who gets elected as president in 2014.

The Izalco volcano in the heart of the coffee plantations in Santa Ana area used to erupt many times daily from 1770 to 1966. It was known as the El Faro del Pacifique ( Light of the Pacific). It has stopped eruption since 1966. The Salvadoreans hoped that the 1992 Peace Agreement had put an end to the eruption of clash between communism and coffee.

But the coffee vs communism war has now been replaced by the gang war between Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio18 gangs.

The civil war of the eighties drove some youth to flee to US. But these poor and illiterate youth fell in the trap of the drug gangs in LA and become gangsters themselves. The US deported these gangsters back to El Salvador where these have formed two large notorious gangs Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio18. These hold the country to ransom by their brutal crime and violence making El Salvador as one of the top murder capitals of the world. The rivalry between these two became so violent at one stage in 2012, the government of El Salvador intervened and brokered a ceasefire between them. In order to bring the two sides to the negotiating table, the government relaxed conditions in the prisons in which the members of the two gangs were held. Following this peace deal, the murder rate had dropped immediately. But this truce broke down in 2014 and crime has gone up again. Now the Salvadoreans flee to escape the gang violence and try for asylum in US.

These days, the American media warn Latin Americans about the Debt Trap, when they take credit from China for infrastructure and other projects. Let us see how the American Debt Trap worked out for El Salvador, which had borrowed six million dollars in 1922 from Chatham Phoenix National Bank and Trust of New York with guarantee from the State Department.

El Salvador had to accept three conditions.

The first, an American Customs Inspector be appointed in El Salvador to collect part of the export tax on coffee.

The second, an American Chief of Agriculture be posted in the Salavodrean Ministry. He would make the Salvadoreans plant commercial crops for exports so that these exports could be taxed and US would get a share of the tax. This meant the land under production of corn and beans had to be diverted for commercial crops. The result was that production of staples had gone down and the country had to import food. The price of corn and beans had doubled and tripled. The poor farmers had to give up their land to the big planters and go to work in the coffee and commercial crop plantations for daily wages to be able to buy food.

The third, an American Chief of National Guard (armed police) was posted in El Salvador. He increased the number of Guards and got them paid on priority basis from the export revenue and the external loans. Some of the guards were sent to US for training and brainwashed about the evils of communism and were taught the dirty tricks to kill and torture communists.

But the American method of debt trap in El Salvador is benign in comparison to their occupation of Dominican Republic where they sent the Marines to enforce debt repayment.

The book starts with the 1979 kidnapping of Jaime Hill, grandson of the founder, by a revolutionary group which collects a ransom of 4 million dollars and uses it for their insurgent activities. This is insignificant in comparison to the 6 billion dollars aid given by US to El Salvador which was used for death and destruction in the country. The book ends with Jaime Hill taking up charity work to help the poor Salvadoreans.

Alexandra Hill, the daughter of Jaime Hill is the foreign minister of the country in the Nayib Bukele administration since June 2019. She has worked with UN and regional organisations dealing with rehabilitation of drug victims. Bukele had started his political career with FMLN. After his expulsion from the party, he joined a new centre-right party and won in their ticket beating the candidate of FMLN in the presidential elections of 2019.

Sedgewick, who has done extensive research on the global history of work, food and capitalism has filled the book with lot of stories and theories throughout the book. Here is one such story:

A small Denver necktie maker called Los Wigwam Weavers lost its best young male loom operators to the war effort in the early 1940s.The owner, Phil Greinetz, hired older men to replace them, but they lacked the dexterity needed to weave the intricate patterns in Wigwam’s ties. Next he hired middle-aged women, and while they could produce ties to his standards, they lacked the stamina to work a full shift. When Greinetz called a company-wide meeting to discuss the problem, his employees had a suggestion: Give us a 15-minute break twice a day, with coffee. Greinetz instituted the coffee breaks and immediately noticed a change in his workers. The women began doing as much work in six and a half hours as the older men had done in eight. Greinetz made the coffee breaks compulsory, but he decided he didn’t need to pay his workers for the half hour they were on break. This led to a suit from the Department of Labor and, eventually, to a 1956 decision by a federal appeals court that enshrined the coffee break in American life. The court ruled that because the coffee breaks “promote more efficiency and result in a greater output,” they benefited the company as much as the workers and should therefore be counted as work time. As for the phrase coffee break, it entered the vernacular through a 1952 advertising campaign by the Pan-American Coffee Bureau, a trade group organized by Central American growers. Their slogan: “Give yourself a coffee-break … and get what coffee gives to you.”

Sedgewick has put the coffee story of El Salvador in the context of the commodity’s global history. Coffee, which was native to Ethiopia came to be commercially cultivated in Yemen. The Ottomans started the mysterious custom of coffee drinking and set up coffee houses in the cities conquered by them to demonstrate the ‘civility of their rule’. The Europeans copied from the Ottomans and the coffee houses generated a new social class which discussed literature, philosophy, politics and revolution. The Americans took to coffee to increase productivity. In Latin America, Brazil became the king of coffee, Colombia became the queen and Central America became as pawns.

The book, published on 7 April this year, is available for Indian readers in Kindle although the hard copy has to wait out for the end of the ‘corona closure’ of the world.

Ambassador (retired) R. Viswanathan is a Latin America expert.