Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 216 | Julio 1999


Latin America

Agrarian Reforms: The Latin American Experience

What were the causes and main consequences of the agrarian reforms implemented in Latin America from the 1950s to the 1980s? How did they change the structure of land possession, and what resistance did they have to overcome? The banner of agrarian reform has been folded away, but the land question has yet to be resolved.

Cristóbal Kay

How well was Latin American agriculture performing before the agrarian reforms were implemented? The figures reflecting agricultural growth in the post-war period were poor, particularly in the area of national food production and its relation to population growth. Between 1934 and 1960 agricultural production grew at an annual rate of 2.6%, according to the UN's Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), but high population growth rates meant that per-capita agricultural production increased only marginally: 0.3% between 1950 and 1964. It was not until the end of the 1950s that per-capita agricultural production reached pre-war levels.

Although the production of export crops grew more quickly than that of crops destined for national consumption, Latin America's position in the global agricultural market deteriorated. Food imports in Latin America rose by 44% between 1948-1952 and 1965, compared to a growth of only 26% in agricultural exports. Meanwhile, global agricultural exports rose by 50% during the same period, indicating a relative drop in the region's contribution to the world markets. The net contribution of agriculture to foreign currency income dropped as well, adding to Latin America's balance of payments problems.

Haciendas and landlords: The golden age

Latin American agriculture was inefficient and squandered resources, particularly land and labor. To a large extent this state of affairs was due to a highly inequitable system of land possession, though blame can also be attributed to inadequate levels of government support. The growth in agriculture was far more the result of an increase in the area of land under cultivation than of any increase in yields. The expansion of cultivated land, unaccompanied by any substantial technical and social transformations, clearly predominated over agricultural intensification. There is a marked contrast here with the developed world: between 1948-52 and 1957-59 the area of land cultivated in Latin America increased by 24% and the yields by 7%, while in Europe the increases were 3% and 24% respectively.

From 1850 to 1930 the hacienda system, also known as the large estate-smallholding (minifundio-latifundio) complex, expanded to achieve a dominant position within the Latin American agrarian structure. This expansion was often achieved at the expense of rural indigenous populations, which were displaced towards marginal zones. It was the golden age of the hacienda system and the landlords reached the peak of their economic power, political influence and social prestige. Only in Mexico was this predominance successfully challenged through the revolutionary uprisings of 1910-17. Nonetheless, it was not until the populist Cárdenas government came to power in 1934 that the hacienda system finally lost its predominant influence in Mexico. The Bolivian revolution in the early 1950s also dealt a heavy blow to the landlord system by implementing an extensive agrarian reform program.

The 1959 Cuban revolution sealed the fate of the hacienda system in most Latin American countries. Fearful of the specter of socialism and of the possible spread of the revolution to other countries in the region, the US government launched the Alliance for Progress, which encouraged governments throughout the region to implement agrarian reform programs with the help of US economic aid. The region thus witnessed a series of agrarian reforms during the 1960s and 1970s, for example in Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. At the end of the 1970s and during the 1980s, following the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, agrarian reforms were also carried out in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Only in Argentina was no agrarian reform ever implemented. In Brazil, strong opposition from the landlords blocked any attempts at agrarian reform, but there has been a limited redistribution of land since the restoration of democracy in the mid-1980s.

Transformations from above

In the post-war period before the agrarian reform, the introduction of policies aimed at encouraging industrialization by means of import substitution had already begun to transform the traditional hacienda system in Latin America. Governments adopted measures such as subsidized credits for the purchase of agricultural machinery and equipment, better quality livestock, fertilizers and higher-yield seeds along with technical assistance programs, all designed to stimulate the technical modernization of the system's large properties. Some landlords sold part of their properties to finance improvements on their remaining land, thus accelerating a landlord-led transformation from above, a process that paradoxically gained momentum with the arrival of the agrarian reforms. The social relations of production had also started to change. Land tenure in exchange for work and to a certain extent share-cropping started to be replaced by wage labor.

The irony, then, is that in their early days many agrarian reforms in Latin America triggered the modernization of the hacienda system and the transformation of haciendas into capitalist farms, thus accelerating the process towards agrarian capitalism, rather than eliminating the haciendas from below by redistributing their lands to peasants and encouraging the development of rural production among them. The later flourishing of agrarian reforms, however, did open up the possibility for peasant farmers to participate in agricultural capitalism, albeit in subordination to agroindustrial capital.

Prejudice, exploitation and repression

In their explanation of Latin America's limited agricultural performance, structuralists point to the high concentration of land in a few hands, while neoclassical and monetarist interpretations tend to blame government policy, particularly price and trade policies, which supposedly discriminated against agriculture. The price controls applied by governments to certain basic food products, along with an exchange rate policy that overvalued local currency so that food imports became cheaper and agricultural exports less profitable, acted as a disincentive to agricultural production. Although it is now basically accepted that the import-substitution industrialization policy adopted by most Latin American governments discriminated against agriculture, it is generally ignored that compensatory policies cushioned the large agricultural producers against the discrimination to some extent. The landlords received highly subsidized credits and benefited from the cheap importation of agricultural machinery and inputs as well as specialized technical assistance programs. Government policies were not only prejudiced against agriculture; within the agricultural sector they were also prejudiced against peasants and rural laborers.

Although the landlords no longer dominated the political system in many Latin American countries during the post-war period, they continued to influence government policy and could orient the power of the state in their favor in their relations with the peasants. Agricultural tenants had to pay high rents (in money, in kind or in manpower) while agricultural laborers were paid low wages and suffered poor working conditions. The rural labor force was largely unorganized and a series of legal obstacles blocked its unionization. Throughout rural Latin America, working conditions were repressive and exploitative.

Structuralists and reformist liberals, particularly those from the United States, considered the bi-modal agrarian structure (large estates-smallholdings) in Latin America to be unjust and inefficient with damaging social and political consequences. While the structuralists tended to favor agricultural cooperative- or associative-based organizations, the liberals defended family agriculture, though some did also promote cooperatives. It was stated that by modifying the unequal distribution of income, agrarian reform would increase the national market for industrial products, strengthen the industrialization effort through an increased contribution from agricultural products and have a positive effect on the exchange rate.

The pre-reform debate

Agrarian reform analysts vigorously defended the idea by emphasizing that the high concentration of land constituted an inefficient employment of resources. The large farms exploited extensive areas of land, thus reducing their productivity, while leaving a large area uncultivated. The mono-cropping generally adopted in areas dedicated to export crops produced harmful environmental effects and the exploitation of large areas of land also limited employment opportunities and contributed to the low levels of labor productivity. Meanwhile, the relative abundance of agricultural laborers and the high concentration of land into a few hands meant that the landlords could continue paying low wages even in those places where investment had increased labor productivity. It was also argued that land concentration impeded the adoption of modern technology as the landlords could obtain good incomes without intensifying production due to the sheer size of their properties. The landlords also saw their land as a useful insurance against inflation. Owning extensive properties not only provided economic power, it also provided a recognized social status. With all these benefits, agricultural efficiency was not always their priority. The reformists insisted that the concentration of land in a few hands was the cause of the social inequality and the marginalization and poverty suffered by the rural population in Latin America.

With respect to prices, the structuralists were the first to point out the deterioration of Latin America's terms of trade. The falling buying power of agricultural exports relative to industrial imports was not advantageous to the continent. Despite the emphasis neoclassical economists put on price incentives, the structuralists argued that the incentives would probably not improve agricultural efficiency and growth given that the large landlords reacted slowly to them and did not usually make much effort to modernize their enterprises. Smallholders were also slow to react positively to price incentives, although for different reasons, such as their lack of resources and technical knowledge. Later studies show that the structuralists perhaps underestimated their positive effect, but this does not mean that price incentives have proved a better policy than agrarian reform in achieving growth with equity in the countryside.

Many studies revealing that peasants were more responsible for the market mechanisms than the structuralists had previously supposed were done after the agrarian reforms had been introduced. In the same way that it can be argued that the structuralists underestimated the dynamic potential of the landlords, it can be also be said that the neoclassic economists underestimated the negative repercussions that Latin America's agrarian structures had on economic development. While the structuralists pinned their hopes on agrarian reform, the neoclassic thinkers pinned theirs on the free market. Following the application of the agrarian reform and the more recent experiments in free market economics there is a growing consensus that both perspectives are needed to achieve development with equity.

World class inequitable structure

During the first half of the 1960s, the Alliance for Progress encouraged research into the agrarian structure in Latin America. The research, research done by the Inter-American Agricultural Development Committee (CIDA), created in 1961, represents the most ambitious collective study on land ownership in Latin America to date. Reports were published on seven countries during the mid-1960s: Argentina and Ecuador (1965) and Guatemala, Brazil, Columbia, Chile and Peru (1966). These were later followed by two or three reports on other countries. This research had a quite considerable influence on the formation of a certain vision of the Latin American agrarian question, and on the drawing up of the agrarian reform policies themselves. It also contributed a bi-modal perspective of the Latin American land tenure system to which the respective governments referred to add scientific weight to their defense of their agrarian reform legislation.

Latin America had one of the most inequitable agrarian structures in the world. On one extreme were the smallholders, owners of tiny plots of land, and on the other were the large estate owners with extensive areas of land in the form of plantations, haciendas and ranches. By 1960, the large estate owners accounted for more or less 5% of the agricultural units but possessed 80% of the land, while the smallholders accounted for 80% of the agricultural units but only possessed 5% of the land. As these figures illustrate, the medium-sized agricultural sector was relatively insignificant.

Later studies reveal that this bi-modal description was greatly exaggerated: those who possessed land had a considerable degree of control over the resources within their properties, and the medium-capacity peasant farmers had access to better quality land and had more capital, meaning that they contributed more to agricultural production than was once thought. But despite this evidence of a greater heterogeneity, Latin America still had one of the world's most polarized agrarian systems.

A very inefficient agrarian system

The lands belonging to peasants provided the bulk of employment. Half of the agricultural laborers worked on such properties, four-fifths of whom were relatives who received no remuneration. Fewer than a fifth of all the laborers worked on large estates. In 1960, approximately a third of the agricultural work force owned no land and a variety of land tenure agreements were in general use: at least a quarter of the farmhands were tenant farmers or occupied their land illegally.

Such an agricultural system was inefficient. On one hand, the large estates were under-used, with part of the land worked excessively while a considerable proportion of it was left uncultivated. On the other hand, the smallholdings squandered labor by employing too much on lands of very limited extension. It is no surprise that while labor productivity was much higher on the large estates than the smallholdings, the opposite was true of land productivity. The average production per agricultural laborer was approximately five to ten times higher on the large estates than on the smallholdings, whereas production per hectare was around three to four times higher on the smallholdings.

Given that a large proportion of the rural work force was unemployed or underemployed and that land was relatively scarce, from a development point of view it was seen as more important to raise labor productivity. Those in favor of agrarian reform argued that land productivity could be more easily increased if the land were redistributed, rather than making costly investments in modern technology which risked bringing about displacements in the work force. They also argued that agrarian reform would be likely to have a more favorable effect on income distribution than would the extension of modern technology, no matter how important this might be.

The landlords take measures

Even before the agrarian reforms were implemented, they began to force changes in land tenure and the labor structure. In the shifting political climate of the 1950s and 1960s, the landlords anticipated the possibility that agrarian reform legislation might be passed and took evasive action. To avoid expropriation, some of them reduced the size of their properties, subdividing them among family members or selling off part of their land. And to reduce the demands for expropriation coming from the rural work force, they employed two other measures. The first was to cut back the number of tenants on their lands to reduce the pressure from those who, as agricultural producers, wanted to increase the amount of land they rented and pay less for it. Secondly, they replaced permanent workers with others who were hired seasonally. In comparison with the permanent wage laborers, those who were paid seasonally had fewer rights and could be fired or laid off more easily. Mechanization allowed the landlords to readjust the composition of their work force and considerably reduce it, thus weakening demands for both land redistribution and higher wages.

The mere threat of agrarian reform accelerated the breaking up and capitalization of the haciendas. Generally speaking, the agrarian reform legislation did not include haciendas that covered less than a stipulated area of land. In some cases it also exempted haciendas that exceeded the established limit if they were modern and efficient. The landlords thus attempted to avoid expropriation by subdividing and modernizing their properties. The criteria for efficiency often referred to whether a hacienda had machinery or used hired paid labor rather than tenant farmers, a practice particularly frowned upon as it was considered to be part of a feudal and oppressive work system.

The medium-sized capitalist agricultural sector expanded, particularly in those countries where agrarian reform legislation allowed the landlords to keep part of their properties after expropriation; in other words when they had the right to a reserve, as was the case in Chile. In general, the landlords kept the main part of their hacienda, with the best quality soil and the main constructions. They also often kept their cattle and agricultural machinery, which, concentrated in smaller-sized farms, improved the farm's capital/land and capital/work force ratios.

Agrarian reform from above

The most far-reaching agrarian reforms were the result of social revolutions. Such was the case in Mexico (1910), Bolivia (1952), Cuba (1959) and Nicaragua (1979). Some elected governments also carried out radical agrarian reforms, such as in Chile during the Frei (1964-69) and Allende (1970-73) administrations. Some military regimes did likewise, such as the government of General Velasco Alvarado (1969-75) in Peru. Civilian governments in the rest of Latin America mainly carried out more moderate reforms in terms of the area of land expropriated and the amount of peasant farmers benefited.

The most notable exception is Argentina, where there has been no agrarian reform to date and such an action is not even on the country's political agenda. The peculiarity of the Argentine case can be explained in part by the relative importance in that country of family-based agriculture and medium-sized capitalist haciendas and by the relatively high level of urbanization. In addition, neither Paraguay nor Uruguay has witnessed an agrarian reform of any significance, although both countries did implement settlement programs.

The Latin American agrarian reforms have generally been the result of political changes produced from above. Although in some cases these changes were responses to social pressure from below, few Latin American agrarian reforms were the direct consequence of peasant uprisings. Urban social forces and to some extent international forces (as in the case of the Alliance for Progress) played an important role in opening the way for agrarian reform. Even if the peasants did not constitute an important force behind agrarian reform, however, they did considerably influence the actual process in that the zones where rural protest was strongest generally received greater attention from the organizations implementing the agrarian reforms.

Diverse experiences, diverse processes

Agrarian reforms are social processes whose unexpected consequences can either radically or, more often, conservatively reorient the initial aim of the reform itself, and, in some cases, annul it altogether. Technocratic and reformist governments often initiated agrarian reforms in an attempt to modernize agriculture and integrate the peasant sector, but, unsurprisingly, they faced opposition from landlords, who on several occasions succeeded in stopping or reversing the process. In Guatemala, the 1952 agrarian reform of President Arbenz came to an abrupt end two years later when Arbenz was overthrown by a US-backed armed invasion. The measures implemented through his agrarian reform, such as the expropriation of approximately a fifth of the country's cultivable land to the benefit of almost a quarter of the peasant sector, were rapidly reversed.

In Chile, President Frei's moderate agrarian reform between 1964 and 1970 fueled the demands of the peasant movement, which called for intensification of the reform process. The radicalization of the peasant movement was one of the factors that helped Allende win the presidency in 1970. Peasant radicalism in turn pushed Allende's democratic socialist expropriation program further than had originally been planned. Following the military coup in 1973, which repressed and disarticulated the peasant movement, only part of the expropriated land was returned to its former owners. Despite its political power, the military government did not dare to reverse the agrarian reform completely.

To accelerate industrialization

The governments pursued a variety of objectives in adopting agrarian reform policies. One of the most important, and in fact the primary one in the technocratic agrarian reform models, was an increased agricultural growth rate. In these models, only inefficient properties were to be expropriated, while those that demonstrated a more businesslike mentality would be encouraged to modernize even more. It was hoped that less land would be left idle, that the plots would be cultivated more intensively and that agricultural production would increase as a result. Equity was another objective, economically as well as socially. It was considered that a fairer distribution of income would facilitate the import-substitution process by expanding the national market for industrial products. A more dynamic agricultural sector would lower food prices, generate more foreign currency and create a greater demand for industrial products. Thus, the underlying economic objective of agrarian reform was to accelerate the country's industrialization.

The agrarian reforms also had social and political objectives. By distributing land to the peasants, the governments hoped to reduce the social conflicts in the countryside and win the political support of the peasant sector. Through land redistribution and other measures that helped to create or reinforce peasant organizations, the governments aspired to incorporate the peasantry into the social and political system. They thought that offering the peasants participation in society would reinforce civil society and the democratic system. More radical agrarian reform models specifically tended to organize and mobilize the peasant sector with the objective of undermining the landlords' resistance to expropriation.

Alliance between landlords and the bourgeoisie

The governments also aimed to win over the newly emerging industrial bourgeoisie, whose strategic economic interests would be further stimulated by the agrarian reform and the consequent increased buying power of the rural sector. This objective turned out to be more problematic than expected, because the urban industrialists tended to have close links with the landowning class and feared that the social mobilization in the countryside would spread to urban areas. The political links were much closer than supposed because the industrialists generally placed short-term political interests and economic profits above longer-term and more structural interests. The bourgeoisie knew perfectly well that the agrarian reforms could gather momentum and spill over into urban disturbances that would intensify the urban workers' demands for higher wages and better working conditions and could even lead to demands for the expropriation of urban enterprises. The experience of the Chilean agrarian reform is a good example of such an escalation. The mobilization of rural and urban workers and their growing demands strengthened the alliance between the rural and the urban bourgeoisie, which also included several middle-class sectors.

In Peru, the progressive military government of Velasco Alvarado carried out a sweeping agrarian reform to encourage the country's industrialization. But despite the objective of this development project it failed to win the industrial bourgeoisie's support or to persuade the affected landlords to invest in industry using the agrarian reform bonds paid to them as compensation for expropriation. Such reluctance was unsurprising given that the government was creating a sector of social property in which the state controlled all important industrial and commercial enterprises and allowed the workers a degree of participation.

Although the agrarian reforms were mainly implemented from above, the conflicts in the countryside began to build up once the expropriations got underway. The peasant farmers demanded the extension and intensification of the agrarian reform process while the landowners opposed such demands and pressured the government -- and in some cases the armed forces -- to put an end to the increasingly daring actions of the peasants. Such was the case in those nations in which political parties and other organizations took advantage of the opening up of the political system to strengthen the peasant organizations and support their social mobilization. The support, or lack of it, from the urban-based political parties and social groups was fundamental in determining the results of the agrarian reform process.

Expropriations and beneficiaries

The scope of the agrarian reform in Latin America varied greatly, in terms of both the amount of land expropriated and the number of peasants benefited, as reflected in figures from ECLAC and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. With respect to land extension, the agrarian reforms in Bolivia and Cuba resulted in the largest expropriations: approximately four-fifths of the agricultural land in both cases. Nearly half the cultivable land was expropriated in Mexico, Chile, Peru and Nicaragua, and between a sixth and a quarter in Colombia, Panama, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic. An even smaller proportion of agricultural land was affected in Ecuador, Costa Rica, Honduras and Uruguay. In Venezuela approximately a fifth of the land was affected by the agrarian reform, but nearly three quarters of it belonged to the state and was basically located in areas yet to be settled. Thus the reform process in that country was more than anything a settlement program.

Cuba, Bolivia and Mexico were the countries in which the largest proportion of peasants and rural laborers benefited from agrarian reform. Approximately three-quarters of the agricultural properties in Cuba and Bolivia were incorporated into the reformed sector, and in Mexico it was just under half. In Nicaragua, Peru and Venezuela about a third of the peasants and rural laborers benefited from the reforms; in El Salvador and Chile the figures were a quarter and a fifth, respectively. In Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras and Costa Rica from just under to just over a tenth of rural families benefited from the land redistribution. In other countries the proportion was even lower.

Political power and peasant power

The fact that the most far-reaching agrarian reforms were the product of revolutions demonstrates the importance of holding political power. The agrarian reform had a wider impact where the landowners were defeated and displaced from power, although in some cases they did manage to reverse some or all of the benefits of revolutionary agrarian reform by means of a counterrevolution or coup d'état.

On other occasions, the peasants were able to take the agrarian reform process further than had been intended or to reorient it according to their interests once it was underway. In Peru, the agricultural communities that had been excluded from the land in the reformed sector and could only benefit from profits generated by the reformed enterprises, later got direct access to the reformed lands. Whether their traditional claims to land from the expropriated haciendas were real or imagined, their demand for a share of the confiscated properties is understandable given that only a few reformed enterprises made any profits, and given the scarcity of land in the peasant communities. In the end, considerable amounts of land were transferred from the reformed enterprises to the peasant communities following violent clashes with the police.

In Nicaragua, the peasants managed to pressure the Sandinsta government into adopting an agrarian reform policy less centered on the state than its first effort, which had strongly favored the state enterprises. After 1984, several reformed enterprises were transferred directly to peasant beneficiaries, as both cooperative and individual properties. This change of policy was also implemented to reduce the influence of the contras on the peasant sector and to stimulate food production. Following this policy change, the amount of expropriated land redistributed to beneficiaries in individual properties tripled from 8% in 1981-84 to 24% in 1985-88. The peasant beneficiaries also achieved a more favorable access to the limited resources, which somewhat modified the advantageous treatment originally granted to state enterprises. Nonetheless, the civil war and the economic deterioration it produced left the peasants in a very complicated situation.

In Colombia and Ecuador, and currently in Brazil, the peasants also resorted to land occupation which resulted in expropriations and gave them access to land. Such land occupations lacked the scope and significance of those in Mexico, Chile and Peru, however.

Even with all these struggles and advances, the agrarian reform in most Latin American nations was limited in scope in terms of the land expropriated and the peasants benefited because the peasantry was unable to extend the expropriation process or stop the landowners from blocking or rolling it back. Despite an explicit commitment to agrarian reform and peasant agriculture, most Latin American governments implemented timid reforms and did not support peasant agriculture to any significant extent. Rhetoric prevailed where the governments were too weak to implement agrarian reforms of any significance, or where the hidden agenda of the reform was to encourage capitalist agriculture. William Thiesenhusen, an expert on Latin American agrarian reform, summed up this reality succinctly in the title of his book on the subject: Broken Promises: Agrarian Reform and the Latin American Campesino (1995).

Reasons for statism and collectivism

Surprisingly, collective and cooperative forms of organization within the reformed sector turned out to be much more common than the capitalist context in Latin America (with the exception of Cuba) might have suggested. In Mexico, particularly since the Cárdenas government in the 1930s, the reformed sector was dominated by ejidos, a traditional collective model of indigenous organization, although production in them is largely based on individual farms. Until recently it was illegal to sell ejido land.

In Cuba, state farms predominated from the revolution's first days and by the mid-1980s most farmers who had previously worked the land privately had joined production cooperatives. In the Chilean reformed sector during the Frei and Allende years (1964-73), production cooperatives and state haciendas constituted the dominant form of agricultural organization, as was also the case in Peru between 1969 and the 1980s, when the agrarian reform carried out by Velasco Alvarado's government was gradually dissolved; in Nicaragua during the Sandinista revolution (1979-90); and in El Salvador during the Christian Democratic regime (1980-89), when only a small proportion of expropriated land was directly distributed as peasant family farms.

One important explanation of the statist and collectivist nature of the most important agrarian reforms in Latin America can be found in the agrarian system they inherited. The governments feared that subdividing the large plantations, haciendas and ranches that predominated before the reform into individual peasant family farms would bring about a loss in economies of scale, reduce profits in foreign currency because the peasants would replace export crops with food crops, damage technological improvements, limit the number of beneficiaries, and increase the problems of the smallholdings. In addition, a collective reformed sector reduced the costs of subdivision, allowed the government more direct control over production, and in some cases over marketing, and could also encourage internal solidarity.

In those countries that pursued a socialist development model, such as Cuba, Chile under Allende and Nicaragua under the Sandinistas, the interest in collectivism was also sustained by political and ideological interests. In some cases the collective forms of organization were considered transitory (Chile and El Salvador) in that there would be a gradual de-collectivization process as the beneficiaries gained business and technical experience.

Collectivism: More apparent than real

Those responsible for formulating the agrarian reform policies throughout Latin America massively underestimated the relative importance of peasant agriculture within the large properties, through share cropping and tenancy in return for labor, for example. National censuses generally could not register, at least with any precision, the number of peasants who leased land one way or another within the hacienda system, in other words the internal peasant economy. This in turn led to an underestimation of the difficulties implied in organizing collective agriculture and the pressure that beneficiaries would exert within the collective for the expansion of their own family enterprises. The new administrators of the reformed collective-style enterprises, who were generally named by the state, had much less authority over the beneficiaries than the landowners had had, and proved unable to avoid the collectives' gradual internal deterioration.

The abiding influence that the old enterprises, which possessed extensive areas of land before the reform, maintained afterwards is surprising. The collectivist nature of the reformed sector should not be overly lauded, as it was almost always more apparent than real, a reflection of the varying degrees of capitalist development and proletarianization of the agricultural work force in each of the countries or enterprises prior to the agrarian reform. In Peru, for example, approximately half of the agricultural land in the reformed sector (collective and state farms) was farmed individually, while in Chile and El Salvador the figure was around a fifth. Only in Cuba was this practice minimal.

Peru and Cuba: Two specific cases

The nature of the enterprises after the reforms also reflected the differences between types of property (plantations and haciendas), as was the case in Peru. Before the expropriation, Peru's large coastal sugar plantations were capitalized and employed a large proportion of paid labor, while the haciendas in the mountainous regions, which were more oriented to the domestic market, relied much more on the labor of tenant farmers. It was much easier to establish centralized and collective administration systems on the expropriated sugar plantations than on the haciendas, and this in turn had an important influence on the later de-collectivization process.

One little-mentioned trait of the Cuban agrarian reforms (1959 and 1963) is that the Castro government extended the peasant property-owning sector by giving property titles to approximately 160,000 tenant farmers, sharecroppers and illegal occupants. Before the revolution there were only some 40,000 peasant farmers. Cuban agriculture was dominated by sugar plantations, and the agricultural labor was for the most part proletarian. Many of those who cut sugar cane seasonally came from urban zones. As a result, the state took over the sugar plantations without any real problems. After a while, the state farms were combined into even larger units, gigantic agroindustrial complexes under the direct control of the Ministry of Agriculture or the Ministry of Sugar. The Cubans responsible for formulating the country's agrarian policy profoundly believed that big is beautiful, and not until two decades after the revolution did the Cuban leadership launch a campaign to encourage peasants farmers to join the collective system. As they had resisted joining the state enterprises, they were now encouraged to join Agricultural Production Cooperatives (CPA) and within one decade over two-thirds of all peasant farmers did so. Soon it was evident that the CPAs were outperforming the state farms and they began to be seen as an example to follow, something that ultimately led to the transformation of the state farms.

How to evaluate the agrarian reforms?

The success or failure of the agrarian reforms in Latin America is a matter of great controversy. To date several general evaluations have been made, but the answers are not always clear, reflecting the complicated nature of the task. The evaluations vary according to the criteria applied, the weight given to each of the criteria and the period considered. A long-term evaluation could produce completely different results from one done on a shorter time scale. Given that agrarian reform is by nature a prolonged process, a long-term evaluation must cover about two or three decades from the start of the reform. Although a long-term perspective would be the most suitable, such an approach is not without its problems as other factors begin to affect the results of agrarian reforms. Attributing a particular result to this process is especially complicated, and it is more complicated still to precisely measure the effect of the process. Any evaluation should be treated with certain reservations.

Agrarian reforms can be evaluated in strictly economic terms or in a more broadly systematic and institutional way. It is possible to evaluate them in relation to the effect they had on growth, employment, income distribution, the eradication of poverty and socio-political participation, as well as on the broader development context. More recent evaluations have included the extent to which agrarian reforms affected gender inequalities and conditions in the surrounding settings.

(To be continued)
Translated by envío from the article “¿El fin de la reforma agraria en América Latina?” first published in La Revista Mexicana de Sociología, octubre-diciembre 1998.

Cristábal Kay is from the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague.

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