History of El Salvador
The highly successful Maya civilisation developed in the mountainous regions between El Salvador and Guatemala around 1500BC before spreading across Central America. The Maya were an artistic civilisation with a dedication to mathematics and astronomy, most obvious in their accurate calendar which predated Western thinking by centuries. Without using the wheel, iron or beasts of burden, they built beautiful stone cities decorated with glyphs reflecting their calendar and legends. Their agricultural techniques were also forward-thinking and they supported huge populations using irrigation channels and natural compost made of organic matter. The El Salvadoran site of San Andres (where archaeological excavations are still continuing) was once the equal of Tikal in Guatemala whilst Joya de Ceren has the remarkably well preserved remains of El Salvador’s ‘Pompeii’- a town buried by the Laguna Caldera volcano’s massive eruption in c. AD590.
By 1000AD the Maya’s influence was decreasing and when the Spanish invaded in 1524, the Pipil Indians (descended from the Aztecs) were the strongest of various indigenous groups. It took 15 years for the Spanish to overcome the indigenous resistance and begin to take advantage of the fertile soil, developing indigo production as their major export, causing death and disease to the indigenous population used as the workforce.
In 1821 the United Provinces of Central America declared themselves free from Spanish rule and by 1839 El Salvador was an autonomous country in its own right. The next 140 years saw a tumultuous period of oligarchy rule and military dictatorships. As global demand for indigo declined, land owners seized ever greater tracts of land in order to plan the new cash crop of coffee. In 1881, a law was passed to expropriate communal indigenous lands and the concentration of land in the hands of the few rose steeply.
The misery of the landless peasants forced to work for the coffee producers and scratch a living on small rented plots of land was exacerbated by the world economic slump of 1929. Popular protests were brutally suppressed – the most notorious being the 1932 indigenous uprising during which 30,000 peasants were massacred within a few short days. The severe decline in indigenous culture can be traced to this massacre as indigenous people hid their origins in order to survive.
Subsequent decades saw continued repression and misery, growing US influence and repeated military coups together with the gradual growth of peasant and worker movements. By the 1970s there was widespread discontent with a failing economy, unfair presidential elections, the repressive measures of the civilian-military junta and massive social inequality which saw a minority ‘fourteen families’ living in luxury and ruling the country with the military, whilst the majority population lived in abject poverty. Peasants, workers and students organisations grew in numbers and force, demanding access to land and basic human rights. Guerrilla groups armed, trained and began to take action.
The response of the government was to sponsor right-wing death squads organised by the military in order to assassinate all political opponents. Thousands of popular lay priests, trade union, student and peasant leaders were tortured, murdered and disappeared. Violence and political tension escalated and in 1980 the popular organisations joined together to form the Farabundo Martí Front for Popular Liberation (FMLN).
In March 1980, a death squad assassinated the much-loved Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, a vociferous spokesman against the military repression. He was shot dead whilst saying mass. Open civil war broke out.
Despite US support amounting to $1 million a day, guerrilla and popular resistance continued to grow and strengthen. The end of the 1980´s saw a military standoff in which neither side could win outright. A combination of embarrassing violent excesses on the part of the Salvadoran military, the rise of anti-intervention opinion in North America and the shift in geo-political aims brought about by the end of the cold war, led the US government to pressurise the Salvadoran military to sue for peace.
In January 1992, the government and guerrilla forces signed the peace accords, formally ending the 12-year civil war, a war which had cost the lives of an estimated 75,000 people and the displacement of hundreds of thousands more. The FMLN entered the political life of the country, a new constitution was introduced, the army and police reformed, a human rights commission created and political repression legally ended.
Subsequent elections have returned a series of rightwing governments who have continued to ally the country with US economic and political interests and fully embrace neoliberal policies to move the country towards a modern economy of sweatshops – opinion which relies on the income of its emigrants to stay afloat. In 2001 El Salvador adopted the US dollar as its legal currency. In March 2009 El Salvador elected its first left government lead by Mauricio Funes (previously a popular journalist) as President.