Second Spanish Republic. Agrarian Reform June 1931-November 1933.

Second Spanish Republic. Agrarian Reform June 1931-November 1933.

Agrarian reforms introduced early by the Second Spanish Republic were so contentious that for many historians they were –with religion, regional autonomy and military reform— among the most acrimonious issues leading to the Civil War of 1936-39.

Bitter passions were aroused as reformers battled with conservatives to improve the conditions of the peasants who worked the land. The intention was to correct social inequality by turning landless labourers into owners and to modernise the agricultural system of the country. This would complete a long unfulfilled dream of the 18th-century ilustrados, the 19th-century liberals and the 20th-century regenerationists.

As in the case of Church-state relationship, the Provisional Government had already taken some steps to alleviate the abject poverty of the peasants, especially the landless workers of the south.

Laws were introduced requiring landowners to hire local residents ahead of outsiders (aka the Municipal Boundaries Act), and orders were issued to prevent owners from withdrawing their land from production and to keep it under cultivation according to traditional practice.

Also 8-hour days were to replace the infamous de sol a sol (i. e. sunrise to sunset) system, renters were protected from the sudden cancellation of their leases, and arbitration committees were established to ensure that labour laws were followed. This was a promising beginning, but more important it held out hope of more fundamental changes to come.

When it came to the Constitution, the Republic’s provisions were far less confrontational and detailed than they had been for the Church. Nevertheless, the general clauses of Article 44 allowed for considerable latitude and provoked a lot of heated debate, almost causing the resignation of the President, Alcalá Zamora, himself the owner of large estates in Andalusia.

According to Article 44, All the wealth of the country, regardless of its ownership, is subordinate to the interests of the national economy… Property of all kind may be the object of mandatory expropriation for reasons of social utility with adequate compensation…. Under no circumstances will goods be subject to confiscation.

The real battle for agrarian reform took place after the Constitution had been approved, when the government got down to details. The problem was complex and far reaching, and compounded by a variety of factors:

  1. geographical diversity and different kinds of products cultivated in different regions;
  2. the various needs of irrigated and non-irrigated lands;
  3. the impracticality of the minifundios (small-holdings) of the north and the abject poverty of the peasants who worked the latifundios (large estates) of the south;
  4. and –common to virtually all areas– the backward state of farm machinery (many farmers still used roman style ploughs!) and resources to work the land.

The thrust of the reform was directed at the redistribution of land, which meant going head to head with landed interests primarily in Andalusia, Extremadura and parts of Castile (Salamanca and southern La Mancha). Several proposals were presented to the Cortes between July 1931 and August 1932, but all were rejected as either inadequate by the socialists or too draconian by the conservatives.

The irony here is that the majority of the Cortes, being left wing, wanted reform, but was divided over the kind of reform to be enacted. In general terms, the socialists argued for collective property, but the more moderate centre Left wanted to distribute the land into individual lots. The Right skilfully exploited the split, and succeeded in delaying any significant passage until an unsuccessful attempt at a military coup in August, 1932. This finally brought the left together in a common front and galvanised them into passing an Agrarian Reform Bill (known as the Ley de Bases) early in September. 

The prolonged process, however, demonstrates the difficulty of producing a bill that would have radical impact on the traditional system of ownership of large areas of land in the face of determined and united opposition.

The bill specified, for example, thirteen different categories of expropriable lands, according to location, size, status –whether they were cultivated or not– or the kind of goods they produced (wines, olives, grains, pasture). Some properties could be expropriated entirely, others only partially. Compensation would be paid, following complicated calculations according to the assessed value of the land.

To help administer the new law, an Institute of Agrarian Reform (IRA) was established, but it suffered from pitifully inadequate funds, minimal political clout, shortage of technical experts, and burocratic meddling. Finally, any hopes the bill might succeed suffered a serious blow with the fall of Prime Minister Manuel Azana’s government in September 1933. 

The problem facing those seeking agrarian reform was the high expectation of the peasants in the south hungry for land. But the landowners were a major obstacle.

Economically powerful, they reacted to the threat of expropriation by forming a formidable political association in support of property rights. They used every means possible to delay implementation of the law, deliberately leaving their land untilled, threatening to move their money out of the country, refusing salary increases to their workers, and even resorting to lock-outs and violence.

The result was a profound disappointment for the thousands of peasants who had pinned their hopes on the changes promised by the Republic. In the euphoria of the early days, plans were drawn up to settle some 60.000 to 75.000 families per year with their own plots confiscated from large properties. After two years, only 12.260 families had seen their dreams realised. The result of so little real progress left a passionately embittered peasantry ripe for violence.

And violence did erupt. Frustrated by their unfulfilled expectations, landowners’ non-cooperation and rising unemployment, many peasants resorted to strikes, land occupation and even insurrection.

These protests, however, were perceived as dangerous to social order and the republican government ironically resorted to the same repressive measures that the monarchy had employed earlier: it called in the hated Guardia Civil (Civil Guards, a rural police force founded in 1844 and organised along military lines).

Such was the case in the village of Castilblanco (Extremadura) where the Guardia Civil shot and killed a striker on January 1, 1932. Revenge was swift. The peasants killed all four guardias responsible for ending the protest, which only led to reprisals and further violence. The whole affair provided the Right with plenty of ammunition to condemn republican excesses.

The inability of the republican government to ensure order and stability to carry out its promises remained a constant throughout 1932 and 1933 as unrest marked political and social life of the country.

In January 1933, a bloody, violent event occurred in the obscure, agricultural community of Casas Viejas –or Benalup-Casas Viejas) as it is now called– midway inland between Cadiz and Algeciras that had serious consequences for the government. Following a nationwide call for strikes by the anarchist trade union (CNT: Confederación Nacional del Trabajo), the landless and mostly unemployed jornaleros (day labourers) were easily caught up in the revolutionary spirit and took over the town early on the morning of the 11th.

The Tragedy of Casas Viejas

In the process, two Civil Guards were killed. Reinforcements were brought in, including Assault Guards. They surrounded and attacked, setting fire to the hut of a charcoal burner where some of the militants had barricaded themselves. When the smoke literally had cleared, ten militants had been killed either from rifle fire or incineration.  

But what followed was worse: twelve men were randomly selected, herded to the burnt-out hut to see what “they were responsible for” and what “they had done” and promptly executed in cold blood.

The massacre at Casas Viejas came to haunt the government. The conservative press and allied Rightists had a field day, so much so that the issue became a political “hot potato” that contributed eventually to the downfall of the government in September of 1933. The shifting alliances that held the leftist Republic together split apart and Prime Minister Azaña’s ministry was saddled with the label “the government of Casas Viejas.”

What had really stunned the country was the brutal punishment inflicted on a group of poverty stricken, landless, southern jornaleros when compared to the more cautious approach used against the more powerful anarchist rebels of large urban centres. It was authoritarian overkill, which Azana tried to whitewash  claiming that there was “no evidence of any government blame” (Casanova 122).

In early September, 1933, Azaña was forced to resign. On October 10, the president, Niceto Alcalá Zamora dissolved the Cortes and called new elections for November 19.

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Image of victims of Casas Viejas: De Desconocido –, Dominio público,