El Salvador Essay, Research Paper
The Olmec Boulder, a stone sculpture of a giant head found near Chalchuapa in
western El Salvador, is evidence of Olmec presence in the region from at
least 2000 BC. The step-pyramid ruins at Tazumal and San Andres show that the
Maya also lived in western El Salvador for over 1000 years. Groups that
inhabited the eastern part of the country included the Chorti, Lenca and
When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, the country was dominated by
the Pipil, descendants of Nahuatl-speaking Toltecs and Aztecs, both Mexican
tribes. The Pipil probably came to central El Salvador in the 11th century
just after the Maya dynasty collapsed. Their culture was similar to that of
the Aztecs, with heavy Maya influences and a maize-based agricultural economy
that supported several cities and a complex culture including hieroglyphic
writing, astronomy and mathematics.
Spain’s claim was staked by the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado, who arrived
in the area in 1525. The Spanish developed plantations of cotton, balsam and
indigo. Throughout the 1700s agriculture boomed, but a group of 14 elite
European families maintained control of most of the land, which was farmed by
enslaved indigenous people or slaves imported from Africa.
Father Jose Matias Delgado organized a revolt against Spain in 1811, but it
was quickly suppressed. Napoleon’s invasion of Spain the following year
increased the impetus for reform, and El Salvador eventually gained
independence in 1821. This did not alter the dynamics of land ownership, an
issue at the core of an unsuccessful Indian rebellion in 1833, led by
Anastasio Aquino. In 1841, following the dissolution of the Central American
Federation (formed between El Salvador, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras and
Nicaragua), El Salvador became a sovereign independent nation.
In the second half of the 19th century, synthetic dyes undermined the indigo
market, and coffee took main stage in the economy. By the 20th century, 95%
of El Salvador’s income came from coffee exports, but only 2% of the
population controlled that wealth. Intermittent efforts by the poor majority
to redress El Salvador’s social and economic injustices were met with severe
repression. The first popular movement for change followed on the heels of
the stock-market crash of 1929 and the subsequent plummeting of coffee
In January 1932, Augustin Farabundo Marti, a founder of the Central American
Socialist party, led an uprising of peasants and Indians. The military
responded by systematically killing anyone who looked Indian or who supported
the uprising. In all, 30,000 people were killed. Marti was arrested and
executed by firing squad; his name is preserved in the FMLN (Frente Marti
By the 1960s El Salvador’s failing economy and severe overpopulation drove
hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans to cross illegally into Honduras seeking
work. In 1969, allegations of Honduran mistreatment of Salvadoran immigrants
were raised just as a World Cup soccer match between the two countries was
being played. National rivalries and passions escalated to a ridiculous level
that resulted in El Salvador invading Honduran territory and bombing its
airports. The conflict lasted less than 100 hours, but relations between the
two neighbors were hostile for over a decade.
During the 1970s the population suffered from increased landlessness,
poverty, unemployment and overpopulation. Political parties became polarized
and fought for power largely through coups and electoral fraud. In 1972, the
military arrested and exiled the elected president and installed their own
candidate in power. Guerrilla activity increased, and the government
responded by unleashing ‘death squads’ who murdered, tortured or kidnapped
thousands of Salvadorans.
In 1979, a junta of military and civilians overthrew the president and
promised reforms. When these reforms were not met, opposition parties banded
together under the party name Federacion Democratico Revolucionario, of which
the FMLN was the largest group.
The successful revolution in Nicaragua in 1979 encouraged many Salvadorans to
believe that armed struggle was the only way to secure reforms. When popular
archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated saying mass in 1980, his death
sparked an armed insurrection.
FMLN guerrillas gained control of areas in the north and east of El Salvador
and blew up bridges, destroyed power lines and burned coffee plantations in a
bid to stifle the country’s economy. The Reagan Administration, unnerved by
the success of Nicaragua’s socialist revolution, donated huge amounts of
money to the Salvadoran government, and the military retaliated by decimating
villages, causing 300,000 citizens to flee the country.
In 1982, the extreme right ARENA party took power and death squads began
targeting trade unionists and agrarian reformers.
In April 1990, United Nations-mediated negotiations began between the
government and the FMLN, and finally, on 16 January 1992, a compromise was
signed and a ceasefire took effect. The FMLN became an opposition party, and
the government agreed to various reforms, including dismantling the death
squads and replacing them with a national civil police force. Land was to be
distributed to citizens and human rights violations to be investigated.
During the course of the 12-year war, an estimated 75,000 people were killed,
and the US government donated a staggering US$6 billion to the Salvadoran
government’s war effort, despite knowledge of atrocities carried out by the
military. In March 1994, ARENA member Calderon Sol was voted president, amid
allegations of electoral fraud.
While some of the reforms outlined in the peace accords have been implemented
(most notably the land-transfer program), many Salvadorans consider the
current situation to be no better now than it was before the civil war.
Unemployment, poverty, disgruntled ex-combatants and a proliferation of guns
in the country have led to high homicide rates – just one of the reasons why
approximately 20% of Salvadorans now live abroad.
In March 1997, the FMLN won elections in the cities of six of the 14
departments; it now governs a greater percentage of the population than
ARENA. Presidential elections are scheduled for 1999.
El Salvador is predominantly a Roman Catholic country. During the war the
government assumed that the Catholic Church supported communism because it
sympathized with the poor, and it targeted the Church for violence. Many fled
the religion either because they feared for their lives or because they were
unhappy with the Church’s affiliation with the opposition. Protestantism,
especially Evangelism, offered a welcome alternative. Other churches include
the Baptist and Pentecostal.
Spanish is the national language. Many men, mainly between the ages of 20 and
40, learned some English in the US during the war. Indigenous languages have
died out in daily use, but there is some academic interest in preserving the
Nahua language of the Pipils.
Most of the music on Salvadoran radio is standard pop fare from the US,
Mexico or other parts of Latin America, but there’s a small underground
movement of cancion popular (folk music), which draws its inspiration from
current events in El Salvador. Poetry is popular, and well-known writers
include Manlio Argueta and Francisco Rodriguez.
The village of La Palma has become famous for a school of art started by
Fernando Llort. His childlike, almost cartoony, images of mountain villages,
campesinos and Christ are painted in bright colors on objects ranging from
seeds to church walls. The town of Ilobasco is known for its ceramics, while
San Sebastian is recognized for its textile arts.
El Salvadorans chow down on a standard daily fare of casamiento, a mixture of
rice and beans. Another mainstay is pupusas, a cornmeal mass stuffed with
farmer’s cheese, refried beans or chicharron (fried pork fat). Licuados
(fruit drinks), coffee and gaseosas (soft drinks) are ubiquitous. Tic-Tack
and Torito are vodka-like spirits made from sugar cane and are not for those
who cherish their stomach lining.