A difference of opinion
by John Lamperti
General and President (1890-94) Carlos Ezeta
During the 1870s and 1880s all Salvadoran governments supported the interests of coffee growers, providing subsidies and infrastructure for the benefit of planters and passing laws to expropriate the communal lands of Indian villages. The coffee industry took off; this was "good government" for the growers. But in 1890 there was a sudden change. Carlos Alvarez, the son of one of the most important coffee barons, writes of the early 1890s that
Bitter times had come for El Salvador. The brothers Carlos and Antonio Ezeta had come into power, Carlos as President and Antonio as Vice-President. Carlos had been the right hand man of the preceding president General Menéndez, but he betrayed him and brought about his assassination in order to take power himself. A man of bad intentions, he imposed arbitrary taxes on individuals and jailed those who didn't want to obey his orders. One victim of these taxes was my uncle Esteban who was still in El Salvador while they were in power; they took 10,000 pesos away from him.1
"They earned the hatred of all the people," Carlos continues. But help was coming. A group of 44 brave men, some of them just returned from exile in neighboring Guatemala, assembled on the night of April 29, 1894 and attacked the Santa Ana army barracks by surprise. Having succeeded in taking it over, they aroused the fighting spirit of "the whole city" and proclaimed the end of the Ezetas' illegitimate rule. Antonio Ezeta, who had made himself the "boss" of western El Salvador, was roused from bed where he was sleeping with an actress of the Santa Ana theater, and had to flee in his underwear (so the story goes) back to the capital to avoid capture by the rebels.
Once in San Salvador, Carlos Ezeta mobilized units of the national army and set out to bring the rebellious city to heel, threatening to leave no stone upon another when he captured it. But the people of Santa Ana--women included--resisted courageously and well, and the government army had to abandon the siege in defeat after 42 days. The Ezeta brothers saw the handwriting on the wall and fled into exile, where they died years later in misery and ostracism. These actions of "The Forty Four" earned Santa Ana the title of "Heroic City" by which it is still known.
This version of events is roughly consistent with the more detailed account given in an official history.2 But while the basic facts are not in dispute, not everyone agrees about what it all meant. The legendary left-wing activist Miguel Mármol was born in 1905, the first child of a poor, single, teenage mother. Since he came into the world a decade after the Ezetas were overthrown he had to learn about them second hand, and much of his history came from an older man, a blind ex-farm laborer whom he called "Archive." Archive remembered the Ezeta period this way:
Contrary to what's been said in El Salvador during these last years, the Ezeta government was one of the most progressive in our history as a Republic.... General Carlos Ezeta, acting as President of the Republic, ordered the landowners to modernize their estates, he forced them to build adequate housing and to introduce various improvements in the living conditions, and he passed a law forcing them to use all their land to grow coffee. ... The 'work-loads' in the fields were reduced and the same wage was fixed for each one. ... The bosses also had to provide three nutritious meals a day ... Money spilled over everywhere in the countryside ... Peasants also began buying hats, machetes, candles and many hand-crafted items. There was a sudden flowering of craftsmen in the cities. From the 75 centavos a day they had been earning, they were now earning four or even five colons a day. ... Our class and all the poor people were happy under the Ezetas.
Naturally something like that could not be tolerated for long by the landowners and the rest of the elite:
The Church, the feudal bosses and the conservative Guatemalan government began to conspire together. ... Finally there was an insurrection in Santa Ana, backed by the Guatemalan government, that was successful. It was the famous 'rebellion of the 44,' a reactionary mob that defended feudal interests and that bourgeois historians couldn't record by its true name, because those 44 were 44 rich good-for-nothings and 44 traitors and 44 sons of bitches. ... One of those 44 rich boys, Rafael Antonio Gutiérrez, became the provisional President, and the city of Santa Ana was named The Heroic City. An absolutely oligarchic title, though, and today when the poor people of Santa Ana brag about it they're only putting a noose about their own necks. ... The economic situation became miserable for the people, including Santa Ana, because in spite of everything the Ezeta government was more for the people, while that of the 44 was fundamentally an enemy of the people.3
Which of these accounts is "true"? Perhaps both. On Mármol's side of the argument, it's notable that among "the 44" were men bearing the names of El Salvador's richest land-owning families, while today the surname "Ezeta" is hardly to be seen among the elite. In any case these divergent views of the Ezeta period are a dramatic reminder that "history" depends, among other things, on the class and social position of the observer--and that position is usually much nearer the top than the bottom.
1) "Memorias de la familia Alvarez escrita por Carlos Alvarez Angel, 1951," in Los Alvarez: Recuerdos de Una Familia, Mauricio Alvarez Geoffroy, privately printed in 1995, page 51-52. Carlos' father Rafael Alvarez Lalinde was in his day perhaps the most important coffee grower in El Salvador, and a leader of the industry on the world scale.
2) See José F. Figeac, Recordatorio Histórico de la República de El Salvador (San Salvador, 1934). This account at least acquits Carlos Ezeta of conspiring to murder his predecessor, stating that General Menéndez, sword in hand, was rushing out of his house to confront the pro-Ezeta uprising when he suffered a fatal heart attack.
3) Roque Dalton, Miguel Mármol, pages 60-63. This book is an oral history of the life of a revolutionary, as recorded by Dalton in the 1960s. Mármol lived to the age of 87 despite (among other things) facing a firing squad during the great massacre of 1932, and he is an invaluable witness to history as seen from below.