From Wasteland to Promised Land

3. The Promised Land and the Promise of Land Reform

he underclasses in Latin America envision something better for themselves and their children. As a consequence, many Latin American countries have attempted to institute some type of land reform. Since the structures of oppression were not developed autonomously, many of the reforms were aimed at foreign exploitation. Examples include the nationalization of the oil fields in Chile in 1923, in Argentina in 1924, in Mexico in 1938, in Brazil in 1950, and in Peru in 1969. Sometimes, however, the nationalization has targeted advantaged groups within the country, such as that of Bolivia's tin industry in 1952, when more than half the industry was owned by the Patiño family. (This, interestingly, follows the colonial practice of reserving gold and silver for the king, and is more characteristic of Latin America than of the former English colonies, the United States.) Outside of legislating control over mineral and gas resources, however, there have been relatively few real attempts at rural agrarian land reform, and virtually none at urban land reform.

Mexico attempted land reform in the mid-1800s after expropriating the Church's estates, and in 1917 after the revolution that toppled the Diaz oligarchy. Before the revolution began in 1911, two-tenths of one per cent of the population owned estates, and 88.4% were landless laborers. The goal of the Mexican constitution of 1917 was to redistribute some of the land among the peasants, directly in small holdings, and as grants called ejidos to communities. The latter allowed individuals the right to cultivate plots of community land without buying or renting them. It seemed like a good idea, but there was not enough land to give small holdings to all the landless laborers. Over a quarter of the national territory (more than 55 million hectares) was expropriated and redivided between 1924 and 1970. But with the withdrawal of state support in the form of credit, water resources, transportation and marketing advantages, and technical assistance, the ejidos could not compete successfully with private farms. Other land redistribution attempts have occurred in other Latin American countries, such as Bolivia, Peru, and Cuba, with similar mixed results.

Latin America's most promising approach to land reform was the "Law of Emphyteusis" adopted in 1826 under the influence of Argentina's founding president, Bernardino Rivadavia. Emphyteusis, in ancient Roman law, denoted a perpetual lease of lands and tenements in consideration of annual rent and of improvements. Its enactment quickly resulted in new settlements, new employment opportunities, and the cultivation of hitherto neglected lands. A series of decrees was promulgated to correct administrative defects, but before they became operative, Rivadavia resigned. His bitter opponent, Colonel Dorrengo, proceeded to emasculate the program, a process completed by dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas, who conferred huge land grants upon himself and his minions, eliminating almost wholly the public collection of ground rent. The inland provinces became practically depopulated, and the Emphyteutic Law was finally repealed in 1857.

Effective land reform in Latin America, as elsewhere, has scarcely taken place. One of the major obstacles is that many governments are run or controlled by a powerful elite that owns the most valuable land, and often retards and corrupts the reform process. Foreign enterprises also fight the reforms by threatening to withdraw their investments. They are aided by fiscally conservative politicians who argue that stability is necessary for economic development, even at the expense of ignoring the exploitation of the poor, who are poorly represented in the political process. And the few that have been enacted have been plagued by a host of problems, and often merely reposition the former landowners, thanks to compensation for expropriated lands, as the new monopolists of trade and money lending, able to renew their exploitation of the poor.

Turning to their religious heritage for answers to severe injustice and suffering due to land monopoly seems natural to liberation theologians and their followers. In the Bible, the Promised Land is characterized by the "eminent domain" of God. The abundance of the land comes with the recognition that the earth is the Lord's. Otherwise, we continue in the Wasteland.