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History, The Coffee Revolution

Alberto Masferrer, Masferrer, worldwide depression, export crop, Salvadorans

After Duenas, however, liberal presidents were elected who continued the reforms Barrios had begun. This began a long period of liberal rule, from 1871 to 1944, that saw the transformation of El Salvador’s economy, political structure, and society. The major factor behind this change was the development of a coffee industry as the economic mainstay of the nation. This produced a new, wealthy ruling class and deepened the gulf between rich and poor Salvadorans.

After 1885 Salvadorans were finally free from Guatemalan control. The governments that followed concentrated on economic growth and improving the country’s basic facilities, such as roads and ports. Indigo exports, which had provided much of El Salvador’s income, declined after chemical dyes were developed in 1856. But coffee rapidly replaced indigo as an export crop, bringing El Salvador such prosperity that by the early 20th century it was considered the most progressive of the Central American states. New ports and railways were built, and El Salvador became the first nation in Central America with paved highways. In San Salvador, impressive public buildings were constructed, including a new national palace, national library, and military school. Upper-class residents built lavish private homes, and the city’s streets were paved and lighted. The population increased, and a small but growing middle class emerged to staff the government bureaucracy and to work in other businesses that grew up around the coffee boom.

However, this progress benefited only a small group; most Salvadorans remained poor. Land was taken from rural residents and Native Americans and devoted to coffee growing, decreasing the amount of food that could be grown. Prices for food, much of it imported, rose, but wages remained low and the population increased rapidly. The elite group of coffee planters, often called the Fourteen Families, dominated the government as well as the economy. Between 1885 and 1931, members of these families presided over the government, while the armed forces maintained order.

Criticism of the governing elite grew during the 1920s. Alberto Masferrer, a Salvadoran intellectual whose ideas led to the founding of the Labor Party in 1930, called on the elite to take responsibility for the welfare of El Salvador’s poor. He advocated moderate social-welfare programs and the right of workers to form unions and strike. More radical opposition came from Agustin Farabundo Marti, who began to organize rural workers into Communist Party cells. Marti sought a revolution that would overthrow the government and give peasants control over the land.

The worldwide depression that began in 1929 paved the way for the election in 1930 of the Labor Party candidate Arturo Araujo as president. Araujo was a member of the planter elite, but the upper class would not permit him to enact the social reforms he and Masferrer had proposed. After a year of strikes and disorder, on December 2, 1931, the military removed Araujo from office and replaced him with his vice president, General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez.

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