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Reviewed by:
  • Solidarity Under Siege: The Salvadoran Labor Movement, 1970–1990 by Jeffrey L. Gould
  • Erik Ching
Solidarity Under Siege: The Salvadoran Labor Movement, 1970–1990. By Jeffrey L. Gould. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Pp. 262. $29.99 paper.

This book is set in the shrimp industry based out of Puerto El Triunfo on El Salvador’s southeast Pacific coast, a stretch of ocean that was especially rich in shrimp and fish stocks. Although it only lasted from the late 1950s into the mid 1980s, El Salvador’s shrimp industry was very profitable. Despite, or because of that profitability, the shrimp industry was defined by highly complex sociopolitical relations between owners and workers, and among the workers themselves, over differing jobs in the production process, gender relations, and ideological differences, among other distinctions. These differences, but especially the ideological variable, took shape in two rival labor unions among shrimp workers.

Gould defines the core of their difference as a “desencuentro,” essentially a division among oppositional or subaltern groups that prevented them from uniting despite having a common adversary. Gould finds that in the case of the shrimp workers the main division was between a more radical faction that prioritized “revolutionary major utopias” and a more reformist faction that emphasized “subaltern minor utopias,” that is, more concrete gains on a local scale (7). Gould describes the shrimp industry in close detail and then expands upward to show the interplay between the national labor federations and the local unions. Thus, he also shows that the case of El Triunfo mirrored broader conditions throughout the country.

The book is a deeply researched, meticulous case study that makes myriad important and original contributions. But it does not necessarily make those contributions obvious to the uninitiated reader. For example, the historiographical section (10–12) in the introduction references some related works, but does not place Gould’s overarching claims in an argumentative context. Rather, Gould scatters those claims throughout the book and leaves it to the reader to recognize them and to appreciate their import. These claims include, but are not necessarily limited to, the following: the revolutionary left enjoyed less support than it claimed (10); right-wing paramilitary members could be good trade unionists as long as “politics” was left aside (38); subaltern political consciousness at times preceded military repression (55); terms like ‘class,’ ‘class consciousness’, and ‘labor union’ had murky meanings for union members (59–60); union activists in Puerto El Triunfo kept the oppositional parties and guerrillas at arm’s length (74); a spontaneous, non-guerrilla-inspired, rank-and-file class consciousness emerged among the shrimp workers that was non-Leninist and (157) equated the radical left with the radical right (118–19); and the desencuentros between the two shrimp workers’ unions contributed to the demise of the shrimp industry and the subsequent decimation of their livelihoods (125 and 236). [End Page 500]

Ultimately, Gould casts this as a story of lost potential, or “historic missed opportunities,” (125) of what El Salvador could have been, or at least what tragedies it could have avoided, if only the factions of the labor movement could have overcome their desencuentros and united forces.

As I have said in reviews elsewhere, one of the major challenges we scholars of recent El Salvador face is a lack of documentary materials and archival records. Subsequently, we rely heavily on oral interviews, for better or worse. Indeed, oral interviews constitute a substantive portion of Gould’s evidence base. But Gould supplements his interviews with original documentary materials, such as the abandoned archives of the two shrimp workers’ unions, and the judicial records related to a massive bank fraud perpetrated by the owner of one of El Triunfo’s shrimp companies.

Managed by someone of Gould’s talent and experience, these highly original sources make for a major piece of academic research. His book will keep us rethinking what we know about the story of labor and oppositional politics in El Salvador for a long time to come. For the reasons that I mention above, along with the fact that a diverse welter of people and organizations appear throughout the book, it will be a challenging read for some...


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pp. 500-501
Launched on MUSE
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