Antonio Acosta, professor of American History at the University of Seville, has returned to the well-studied problem of the nature of the Salvadoran ruling class and its role in the expansion of the export economy and the formation of the state in the postcolonial decades of nineteenth-century Latin America. However, he approaches these issues with a twenty-first-century sensibility. His book centers on the creation of inequality, particularly through state policies.
Acosta examines how a hybrid “oligarchy” became the dominant class. He claims to be seeking the nineteenth-century origins of the 1932 Matanza, when thousands of coffee-growing peasants were slaughtered, but the study focuses much more on the uses of state power to concentrate wealth than on the distribution of land. Acosta shows that the state that emerged with the rise of coffee in the second half of the nineteenth century was run on a form of liberalism that was not “an idea out of place” but also not one that strengthened citizenship or equality.
Based on considerable research in Salvadoran national, judicial, and municipal archives, as well as government reports published in the Diario Oficial and the Gaceta del Salvador, Acosta’s study provides arresting details drawn from contracts, wills, and legal cases in the 1848-1890 period. However, his study is frustrated by the lack of government recordkeeping, which has left no statistical series. Acosta relies instead on impressionistic examples, spotty numbers, and extrapolation. We [End Page 686] get occasional thumbnail biographies of members of the dominant class, but not enough to support broad generalizations. Nonetheless, his conclusions seem sound, particularly when comparing El Salvador’s nineteenth-century trajectory with that of other coffee-growing countries, a comparison that Acosta unfortunately fails to make.
The shortage of data resulted from the Salvadoran state’s weakness and relative poverty. However, Acosta makes the important point that state weakness was not a failure of political will on the part of the dominant class, but rather a key part of the dominant class’s strategy for concentrating wealth and political power. The liberal state was not neutral. The country had no national currency, no bank until 1880, constant deficits, and an underdeveloped transportation system, but these were not signs of the dominant class’s failure. Although dedicated to “liberalism,” they certainly were not advocates of laissez-faire in action (even if sometimes in word). The Salvadoran state picked winners and losers based on political objectives rather than leaving the course of events to the “laws” of the market. This was particularly evident in transportation, banking, and monetary and taxation policy, on which Acosta concentrates.
The system that Acosta sketches was intricate. Landlords and major merchants were not taxed on their land or their income. Government revenue came instead from import taxes, which hit the urban population disproportionately, and a tax on aguardiente production, consumed mostly by the poorer Salvadorans, but these were insufficient to cover the cost of the internal and international wars the country suffered in this period. Consequently, the government had to borrow extensively. But with few mineral resources, a diminishing indigo export sector, and coffee only starting to become important, foreigners were reluctant to lend to the Salvadoran government. Hence, Acosta’s is not so much a dependency story of foreign control of El Salvador as it is an explanation of how landlords, military officers, government officials, and merchants (the four groups often interpenetrated) created a state to their own benefit. As Acosta tellingly points out: “No, El Salvador was not, and is not, a poor country. There were land owners who converted wide layers of the society into poverty”(p. xvii).
How did they do this? Instead of paying taxes, members of the dominant class loaned money to the government to cover its expenses. To pay back these loans, the Salvadoran treasury accepted the bonds and debt instruments as currency when, for instance, landlords bought government lands. In many cases those lands, tierras...