El Salvador   

El Salvador is a country in Central America with a population of approximately 6.9 million people. It is bordered to the west by Guatemala, to the north and east by Honduras, and to the south by the Pacific Ocean. El Salvador is the most densely populated nation on the American mainland (especially in its capital, San Salvador) and the most industrialized nation in the region. Its official name is Republic of El Salvador (Spanish: República de El Salvador, IPA: [re'puβlika ðe el salβa'ðor]). The country was named after the Spanish word for "The Saviour," in honor of Jesus Christ, and its territory was known prehispanically as Cuscatlán. Throughout most of the 19th and 20th centuries, El Salvador was usually known to the English-speaking world simply as Salvador. People from El Salvador are called "Salvadorans" (formally) and "Guanacos" (informally).


In June 1524, the Spanish Captain Pedro de Alvarado attacked Cuscatlán (land of beautiful jewels), which was populated by indigenous tribes, the largest being the Pipil. After 17 days of bloody battles many natives had died. Pedro de Alvarado, defeated and wounded in his left hip, abandoned the fight and ran to Guatemala, telling his brother, Gonzalo de Alvarado, to continue with the conquest of Cuscatlán. Later, his cousin Diego de Alvarado, established the villa of San Salvador on April, 1525. In August of 1526, a Spanish base was founded in San Salvador, from there, the Spanish would combat the surrounding villages of Pipil Indians. Another attack on Cuzcatlán in 1528 ended in the demise of the Pipil and the hanging of their leader Atlacatl. King Carlos I of Spain granted San Salvador the title of city in 1546. During the following years, El Salvador developed under Spanish dominion within the Viceroyalty of New Spain. Towards the end of 1810 a combination of external and internal factors allowed Central American elites to attempt independence from the Spanish crown. The internal factors were mainly the interest the elites had in controlling the territories they owned without involvement from Spanish authorities. The external factors were the success of the French and American revolutions in the 18th century and the weakening of the military power of the Spanish crown because of its wars against Napoleonic France. The independence movement was consolidated on November 5, 1811, when the Salvadoran priest, Jose Matías Delgado, sounded the bells of the Iglesia La Merced in San Salvador, making a call for the insurrection. After many years of internal fights, the Acta de Independencia (Act of Independence) of Central America was signed in Guatemala on September 15, 1821.

On September 15, 1821, Mexico gained independence as Th First Mexican Empire under the rule of Emperor Agustin de Iturbide, El Salvador and the other Central American provinces declared their independence from Spain and became part of the Mexican Empire. In 1823, the United Provinces of Central America was formed by the five Central American states under General Manuel José Arce. When this federation was dissolved in 1838, El Salvador became an independent republic. El Salvador's early history as an independent state was marked by frequent revolutions.

From 1872 to 1898 El Salvador was a prime mover in attempts to reestablish an isthmian federation. The governments of El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua formed the Greater Republic of Central America via the Pact of Amapala in 1895. Although Guatemala and Costa Rica considered joining the Greater Republic (which was rechristened the United States of Central America when its constitution went into effect in 1898), neither country joined. This union, which had planned to establish its capital city at Amapala on the Golfo de Fonseca, did not survive a seizure of power in El Salvador in 1898.

The enormous profits that coffee yielded as a monoculture export served as an impetus for the process whereby land became concentrated in the hands of an oligarchy of several hundred families. A succession of presidents from the ranks of the Salvadoran oligarchy, nominally both conservative and liberal, throughout the last half of the 19th century generally agreed on the promotion of coffee as the predominant cash crop, on the development of infrastructure (railroads and port facilities) primarily in support of the coffee trade, on the elimination of communal landholdings to facilitate further coffee production, on the passage of anti-vagrancy laws to ensure that displaced campesinos and other rural residents provided sufficient labor for the coffee fincas (plantations), and on the suppression of rural discontent.

The coffee industry grew inexorably in El Salvador. As a result the elite provided the bulk of the government's financial support through import duties on goods imported with the foreign currencies that coffee sales earned. This support, coupled with the humbler and more mundane mechanisms of corruption, ensured the coffee growers of overwhelming influence within the government and the military which they used to create the Guardia Nacional (GN) in 1912. The duties of the GN differed from those of the Policia Nacional (PN), mainly in that GN personnel were specifically responsible for providing security on the coffee fincas and effectively suppressing rural dissent.

A bloodless coup led by General Tomás Regalado took El Salvador into the 20th century. Regalado's peaceful transfer of power in 1903 to his handpicked successor, Pedro José Escalón, ushered in a period of comparative stability that extended until the Depression-provoked upheaval of 1931–32.

In 1930, General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, the country's Minister of Defense, took power in a coup d'état. Soon after, Martínez, now President, suppressed a 1932 revolt consisting of farmers and Indians in the western part of the country. The revolt was conducted by the newly formed Communist Party and its leader Agustín Farabundo Martí. The military conflict left more than 20,000 people dead in retaliatory massacres, which came to be known as "La Matanza;" this marked the beginning of a series of de facto military dictatorships that would rule El Salvador until 1979, when General Humberto Romero of the Party of National Conciliation (PCN) would be overthrown in a reformist coup.

Under the authoritarian rule of Lt. Col. Óscar Osorio (1950–56) and Lt. Col. José María Lemus (1956–60) considerable economic progress was made. Lemus was overthrown by a coup, and after a confused period, a junta composed of leaders of the National Conciliation party came to power in June 1961. The junta's candidate, Lt. Col. Julio Adalberto Rivera, was elected president in 1962. He was succeeded in 1967 by Col. Fidel Sánchez Hernández. Relations with Honduras deteriorated in the late 1960s. There was a border clash in 1967, and a four-day so-called Football war broke out in July 1969. The Salvadoran forces that had invaded Honduras were withdrawn, but not until 1992 was an agreement settling the border controversy with Honduras signed.

In 1979, politician Ing. José Napoleón Duarte of the Christian Democratic Party (PDC, Partido Demócrata Cristiano in Spanish) joined a Revolutionary Government Junta in a coup against then recently elected Presidente Romero (with the Carter administration's tacit acceptance and encouragement). He became the head of state and also the leader of the Junta (Primera Junta Revolucionaria de Gobierno) in 1980. He passed a land reform and redistribution law that forced all landowners (except the government - the largest landowner) to restrict their holdings to 200 manzanas (1 manzana ≈ 6,400 m²), anyone holding larger amounts were forced to sell, and the land was then redistributed under various programs. This land reform law almost single-handedly ruined the economy of El Salvador (primarily agrarian at the time), and heavily contributed to the fall of Mr. Duarte's government.

Having ousted the duly elected president, the situation rapidly deteriorated into a civil war, which would last for 12 years (1980-92) and claim the lives of approximately 75,000 people.

A Second (1980) and Third Junta (1980-1982) quickly filled the vacuum and drafted a new constitution (1982). The Third Junta appointed Dr. Álvaro Magaña as president and called for National Assembly and Presidential Elections. The PDC gained the majority of seats in El Salvador's National Assembly, and beat out Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) candidate Roberto D'Aubuisson for the presidency on June 1, 1984. This ushered in a new democratic era in the history of the country and with the re-election of Mr. Duarte, the first democratic transfer of power in more than fifty years.

During this time, President Duarte was receiving military aid from the United States to fight the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), while the FMLN was receiving aid from groups both in the USA and other countries (Europe, Cuba, Venezuela, Russia). Complicating the situation were the actions of the ARENA party, which was proven to have had ties with death squads that were active in the country at the time. Finally, in the midst of increasing ineffectiveness, economic devastation, and a catastrophic civil war, PDC lost the 1988 elections and Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) candidate Lic. Alfredo Félix Cristiani was elected [1]. The war ended with a 1992 cease-fire and peace agreement between the government, the political parties and the FMLN. This agreement was brokered by US president Reagan and finalized by President George HW Bush.

Among the victims of the war included Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero, who is believed to be one of the greatest apostles of the poor in Latin America, for delivering his message of peace and equality for all Salvadorans. He was assassinated while delivering mass on Monday, March 24, 1980.

The assassination was carried out by Rafael Alvaro Saravia, who in 1979 left the Salvadoran military, and from that time worked closely with Roberto D’Aubuisson. D’Aubuisson, in conjunction with elements of the Salvadoran armed forces and far right Salvadoran civilians in El Salvador, Guatemala and the United States, founded the far right political party Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (“ARENA”), which is now in power in El Salvador. D’Aubuisson organized death squads composed of civilians and military figures that systematically carried out politically-motivated assassinations and other human rights abuses in El Salvador.

According to the 1993 United Nations' Truth Commission report, over 96% of the human rights violations carried out during the war were committed by the Salvadoran military or the paramilitary death squads, while 3.5% were committed by the FMLN. The civilian population in disputed or guerrilla-controlled areas was automatically assumed to be the enemy, as at El Mozote and the Sumpul river. The opposing side behaved likewise, as when mayors were executed, the killings justified as acts of war because the victims had obstructed the delivery of supplies to combatants, or when innocent bystanders became military targets, as in the case of the United States Marines in the Zona Rosa section of San Salvador. During the war, a small group of 55 military advisers from the U.S. Military Group (MILGRP) [1] helped to train government forces, which were heavily funded by the U.S. as well. In the meantime, the guerrillas of the FMLN were trained and funded by the communist government of Cuba and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, as well as supported by Western and several eastern European countries and the USSR itself, creating one of the last scenarios of the Cold War. After the fall of Communism in Europe, the conditions for peace negotiations were finally set. A ceasefire was established in 1992 when the rebels of the FMLN and the government of President Alfredo Cristiani of the ARENA party signed "Peace accords" on January 16, 1992 that assured political and military reforms and punishment for human rights abuses during the civil war; death squad activity was virtually eliminated and several of the military as well as the insurgent participants were granted pardons with the signing of the Peace Accords.

In 1998, Hurricane Mitch devastated the country, leaving 200 dead and over 30,000 homeless, damaging about 20% of the nation's housing.

El Salvador suffers from frequent earthquakes. On January 13, 2001, an earthquake that measured 7.6 on the Richter scale caused a landslide that killed more than 800 people. On February 13, 2001, a second earthquake killed 255 people and damaged about 20% of the nation's housing. An even worse disaster beset the country in the summer of 2001 when a severe drought destroyed 80% of the country's crops, causing famine in the countryside.[citation needed]


El Salvador is located in Central America. It has a total area of 8,123 square miles (21,040 km²), making it comparable in size to, although slightly smaller than, the state of Massachusetts. El Salvador is the smallest country in continental America. Due to its size it is affectionately called the "Tom Thumb of the Americas" (Pulgarcito de America). It has 123.6 square miles (320 km²) of water within its borders. Several small rivers flow through El Salvador into the Pacific Ocean, including the Goascorán, Jiboa, Torola, Paz and the Río Grande de San Miguel. Only the largest river, the Lempa River, flowing from Honduras across El Salvador to the ocean, is navigable for commercial traffic. Volcanic craters enclose lakes, the most important of which are Lake Ilopango (70 km²/27 sq mi) and Lake Coatepeque (26 km²/10 sq mi). Lake Güija is El Salvador's largest natural lake (44 km²/17 sq mi). Several artificial lakes were created by the damming of the Lempa, the largest of which is Embalse Cerrón Grande (350 km²/135 sq mi).

El Salvador shares borders with Guatemala—126 miles (203 km) and Honduras—212.5 miles (342 km), and is the only Central American country that does not have a Caribbean coastline. The highest point in the country is Cerro El Pital at 8,957 feet (2,730 meters).


More information on politics and government of El Salvador can be found at Politics of El Salvador, the main article in the Politics and government of El Salvador series.

The political framework of El Salvador takes place in a presidential representative democratic republic, whereby the President of El Salvador (Elias Antonio Saca) is both head of state and head of government, and of a pluriform multi-party system. Executive power is exercised by the government. Legislative power is vested in both the government and the Legislative Assembly. The Judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature.


Administrative divisions

El Salvador is divided into 14 departments (departamentos), and subdivided into municipalities (municipios).

The departments are the following:

  1. Ahuachapán
  2. Cabañas
  3. Chalatenango
  4. Cuscatlán
  5. La Libertad
  6. La Paz
  7. La Unión
  1. Morazán
  2. San Miguel
  3. San Salvador
  4. San Vicente
  5. Santa Ana
  6. Sonsonate
  7. Usulután


The Salvadoran economy has experienced mixed results from the recent government's commitment to free market initiatives and conservative fiscal management that include the privatization of the banking system, telecommunications, public pensions, electrical distribution, and some electrical generation, reduction of import duties, elimination of price controls, and an improved enforcement of intellectual property rights. The GDP variable has been growing at a steady and moderate pace since the signing of peace accords in 1992, in an environment of macroeconomic stability. A problem that the Salvadoran economy faces is the inequality in the distribution of income. In 1999, the richest fifth of the population received 45% of the country's income, while the poorest fifth received only 5.6%.

As of December 1999, net international reserves equalled US$1.8 billion or roughly five months of imports. Having this hard currency buffer to work with, the Salvadoran Government undertook a monetary integration plan beginning January 1, 2001 by which the U.S. dollar became legal tender alongside the Salvadoran colón and all formal accounting was undertaken in U.S. dollars. This way, the government has formally limited its possibility of implementing open market monetary policies to influence short term variables in the economy. Since 2004, the colón stopped circulating and is now never used in the country for any type of transaction; however some stores still have prices in both colónes and U.S. dollars. In general, there was general discontent with the shift to the U.S. dollar, primarily due to wage stagnation vis a vis basic commodity pricing in the marketplace. There is speculation by economists a corresponding inflationary rise was on the offing regardless had the shift not been made. Additionally there are contentions that, according to Gresham's Law, a reversion to the colón would be disastrous to the economy.

The change to the dollar also precipitated a trend toward lower interest rates in El Salvador, helping many to secure much needed credit for house or car purchases; over time, displeasure with the change has largely disappeared, though the issue resurfaces as a political tool when elections are on the horizon.

A challenge in El Salvador has been developing new growth sectors for a more diversified economy. As many other former colonies, for many years El Salvador was considered a monoexporter economy. This means, an economy that depended heavily on one type of export. During colonial times, the Spanish decided that El Salvador would produce and export indigo, but after the invention of synthetic dyes in the 19th century, Salvadoran authorities and the newly created modern state turned to coffee as the main export of the economy. Since the cultivation of coffee required the highest lands in the country, many of these lands were expropriated from indigenous reserves and given or sold cheaply to those that could cultivate coffee. The government provided little or no compensation to the indigenous peoples. On occasions this compensation implied merely the right to work for seasons in the newly created coffee farms and to be allowed to grow their own food. Such actions provided the basis of conflicts that would shape the political landscape of El Salvador for the years to come.

For many decades, coffee was one of the only sources of foreign currency in the Salvadoran economy. The civil war in the 80's and the fall of international coffee prices in the 90's, pressured the Salvadoran government to diversify the economy. ARENA governments have followed policies that intend to develop other exporting industries in the country as textiles and sea products. Tourism is another industry Salvadoran authorities regard as a possibility for the country. But rampant crime rates, lack of infrastructure and inadequate social capital have prevented this resource from being properly exploited and is still under development.

The government is also developing ports and infrastructure in La Union in the east of the country, in order to use the area as a "dry canal" for transporting goods from the Gulf of Fonseca on the Pacific Ocean to Honduras and the Atlantic Ocean in the north.

Currently there are fifteen free trade zones in El Salvador. The largest beneficiary has been the maquila industry, which provides 88,700 jobs directly, and consists primarily of supplying labor for the cutting and assembling of clothes for export to the United States.

El Salvador signed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), negotiated by the five countries of Central America and the Dominican Republic, with the United States in 2004. In order to take advantage of CAFTA, the Salvadoran government is challenged to conduct policies that guarantee better conditions for entrepreneurs and workers to transfer from declining to growing sectors in the economy. El Salvador has already signed free trade agreements with Mexico, Chile, the Dominican Republic, and Panama, and increased its exports to those countries. El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua also are negotiating a free trade agreement with Canada, and negotiations started in 2006 for a free trade agreement with Colombia.

Fiscal policy has been the biggest challenge for the Salvadoran government. The 1992 peace accords committed the government to heavy expenditures for transition programs and social services. The Stability Adjustment Programs (PAE, for the initials in Spanish) initiated by President Cristiani's administration committed the government to the privatization of banks, the pension system, electric and telephone companies. The total privatization of the pension system has implied a serious burden for the public finance system, because the newly created private Pension Association Funds did not absorb coverage of retired pensionists covered under the old system. The government lost the revenues from contributors and absorbed completely the costs of coverage of retired pensionists. This has been the main source of fiscal imbalance. ARENA governments have financed this deficit with the emission of bonds, something the leftist party FMLN has opposed. Debates surrounding the emission of bonds have stalled the approval of the national budget for many months on several occasions, reason for which in 2006 the government will finance the deficit by reducing expenditure in other sectors. The emission of bonds and the approval of government loans need a qualified majority (3/4 of the votes) in the National Legislature. If the deficit is not financed through a loan it is enough with a simple majority to approve the budget (50% of the votes plus 1).

Despite such challenges to keep public finances in balance, El Salvador still has one of the lowest tax burdens in the American continent (around 11% of GDP), and maintains a very good credit rating. Many specialists claim that it is impossible to advance significant development programs with such a little public sector aid (the tax burden in the United States is around 25% of the GDP and in other developed countries of the EU it can reach around 50%, like in Sweden). The government has focused on improving the collection of its current revenues with a focus on indirect taxes. Leftist politicians criticize such a structure since indirect taxes (like the value added tax) affect everyone alike, whereas direct taxes can be weighed according to levels of income and are therefore fairer taxes. A 10% value-added tax (VAT), implemented in September 1992, was raised to 13% in July 1995. The VAT is the biggest source of revenue, accounting for about 52.3% of total tax revenues in 2004.

Remittances from Salvadorans living and working in the United States, sent to family members in El Salvador, are a major source of foreign income and offset the substantial trade deficit of around $2.9 billion. Remittances have increased steadily in the last decade and reached an all-time high of $2.547 billion in 2005(an increase of 21% over the previous year), and approximately 16.2% of gross domestic product(GDP). As reported in the Wall Street Journal November 1 2006 remittances have had a negative effect. While Salvadorean education levels have gone up wage expectations have risen faster than either skills or productivity. The local propensity for consumption over investment has increased.

As of September 2006, net international reserves stood at $2.02 billion. [2]

In recent years inflation has fallen to single digit levels, and total exports have grown substantially.


Random and organized violent crime is endemic throughout El Salvador and the region. Many Salvadorans are armed, and shootouts are not uncommon. Armed holdups of vehicles traveling on El Salvador's roads appear to be increasing. El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Both violent and petty crimes are prevalent throughout El Salvador. Armed assaults and carjacking take place both in San Salvador and in the interior of the country, but are especially frequent on roads outside the capital where police patrols are scarce. Criminals have been known to follow travelers from the international airport to private residences or secluded stretches of road where they carry out assaults and robberies. Criminals often become violent quickly, especially when victims fail to cooperate immediately in surrendering valuables. Frequently, victims who argue with assailants or refuse to give up their valuables are shot. Margarita Valdez, a famed militant in the Republican army, is wanted for her role in a violent crime years ago.


Spanish is the main language in El Salvador. The Roman Catholic religion plays an important role in the Salvadoran culture. Important foreign personalities in El Salvador were the Jesuit priests and professors Ignacio Ellacuria, Ignacio Martín-Baró and Segundo Montes. Painting, ceramics and textile goods are the main manual artistic expressions. Writers Francisco Gavidia (1863–1955), Salarrué (Salvador Salazar Arrué), Claudia Lars, Alfredo Espino, Pedro Geoffroy, Manlio Argueta, and poet Roque Dalton are among the most important artists to stem from El Salvador. Notable 20th century personages include the late filmmaker Baltasar Polio, artist Fernando Llort, and caricaturist Toño Salazar. Amongst the more renowned representatives of the graphic arts are the painters Carlos Cañas, Julia Díaz, Camilo Minero, Ricardo Carbonell, Roberto Huezo and many others

The local flavour of Spanish, its slang, is called Caliche.

Date English Name Local Name Remarks
March/April Holy Week/Easter Semana Santa Celebrated with Carnival-like events in different cities by the large Catholic population.
May 1 Labor Day Día del trabajo International Labour Day
May 10 Mother's Day Día de la Madre A day for honoring mothers.
August 1–7 August Festivals Fiestas de agosto Week-long festival in celebration of El Salvador del Mundo, patron saint of El Salvador.
September 15 Independence Day Día de la Independencia Celebrates independence from Spain, achieved in 1821
October 12 Columbus Day Día de la Raza This day commemorates the discovery of the Americas
November 2 Day of the Dead Día de los Muertos A day in which people usually visit the tombs of deceased loved ones. (November 1 may be commemorated as well.)
December 25 Christmas Day Navidad In many communities, December 24 (Christmas Eve) is the major day of celebration — often to the point that it is considered the actual day of Navidad — with December 25 serving as a day of rest.


Salvadoran music is cumbia and some a fusion of that of the Native Pipil and Nahua people, and Spanish music. It contains different genres, such as salsa, chanchona,and more recently, hip hop and reggaeton. Folk music is known for its melodies on the marimba. Musicians include Bobby Rivas, and some of the more recent ones are Mecate, Heavy Clan, and Pescozada.


El Salvador's population numbers about 6.9 million people. Fully 90% are mestizo (mixed Amerindian and Spanish/European), 9% white (mostly Spanish, but also some French, German and Italian descent), and only 1% indigenous. Very few Amerindians have retained their native customs, traditions, or languages, especially in the wake of the deliberate government-inspired 1932 massacres. El Salvador is the only Central American country that has no visible native African population because of its relative inaccessibility to the Atlantic slave trade. In addition, General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez instituted race laws in 1930 that prohibited blacks from entering the country. Among the few immigrant groups that reached El Salvador, Palestinian Christians stand out. Though few in number, their descendants have attained great economic and political power in the country, as evidenced by President Antonio Saca and the flourishing commercial, industrial, and construction firms owned by them.

Spanish is the language spoken by virtually all inhabitants, although English is spoken by a small number of people in the capital. English is primarily spoken by deported gangsters of Salvadoran origin removed from major U.S. cities such as Los Angeles, as well by professionals or those in the tourist industry. The country's people are majority Roman Catholic, at least nominally, although Protestantism is rapidly growing and by some estimates is now practiced by as much as one-third of the population.

The capital city of San Salvador has about 2.1 million people; an estimated 42% of El Salvador's population live in rural areas. Urbanization expanded at a phenomenal rate in El Salvador since the 1960s, driving millions to the cities, and creating growth problems for the cities around the country.

According to the most recent United Nations survey, life expectancy for men was 68 years and 74 years for women. Education in El Salvador is free through 9th grade. The national literacy rate is 84.1%.

As of 2004, there were approximately 3.1 million Salvadorans living outside El Salvador, many of whom are immigrants in the United States. The USA has traditionally been the destination of choice for Salvadorans looking for greater economic opportunity. Salvadorans also live in nearby Honduras, Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Other countries with notable Salvadoran communities include Canada, Mexico, the Cayman Islands, throughout Europe and Australia.

The majority of the expatriates emigrated during the civil war of the 1980s and due to adverse economic and social conditions. Pursuant to peace accords signed in January of 1992 between the FMLN and the government, the government made a series of economic reforms in the mold of the free market model supported by the USA. These reforms have generally provided good results on all economic levels, although opposition party politicians allege that this is not the case.

Notes and references

  1. ^ William R. Meara, Contras Cross: Insurgency and Tyranny in Central America, 1979-1989, 2006, ISBN 1-59114-518-X, pp. 38, 52.

Vilas, Carlos. 1995. Between Earthquakes and Volcanoes: Market, State, and the Revolutions in Central America. New York: Monthly Review Press.

See also

Water supply and sanitation in El Salvador Military of El Salvador

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