Sunday, September 19, 2004

El Salvador - Commentary and History

I wrote the following after reading information out of my travel guide, Footprint Central America and Mexico 2004 by Peter Hutchison, taking to locals, and reading information on the internet, local newspapers...

El Salvador is the smallest and most densely populated country in Central America. You can travel the entire east-west span by car in three and a half hours. The total area is 21,041 square kilometers. Guatemala is to the west, Honduras to the north and east, and the Pacific Ocean is on the south with 321 kilometers of coastline. There are volcanoes - the tallest being 2,365 meters (Santa Ana). Lowlands lie to the north and south. The highest point in the country is 2,730 meters. It is very green, colorful with tropical vegetation (200 species of orchid grow all over the country)...beautiful.

HISTORY - Much like Mexico and Guatemala, the Spaniards moved in and by 1550, occupied what is now El Salvador. The indigenous people and land were treated the same way as well...loss of land and rights. They were made to work the land that was once theirs and illnesses were brought on by newly introduced European diseases and germs. Central America formed its self sufficient government in 1821 and El Salvador declared independence in 1839. However, unrest was present as the indigenous tried to regain the land that was once theirs, but their attempts were met and stopped with brutal force. Land continued to be the main grounds for civil unrest, the peasant uprising in 1932, and the forming of coalitions.

The military coup in 1979 led to the formation of a civilian military junta which promised reforms. These promises were not carried out. In 1980, the opposition unified and formed the coalition, Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). Political tensions kept rising...reaching a civil war.

Many peace talks were attempted but failed - leading the FMLN guerrillas to strike hard in 1989. Negotiations continued but no agreements were made about the purging of the armed forces - which had become the wealthiest department in the country following 10 years of United States support. Between 1979 to 1984, 40,000 civilians were killed - mostly by right winged death squads. By 1989, an estimated 70,000 were killed, including Archbishop Oscar Romero - who was shot while saying mass in 1980. (See the following movies: Romero (1989), for information on the archbishop's assassination, and Oliver Stone's, Salvador, for more info on the civil war from a journalist's point of view.)

Finally, in 1992, in New York, a peace accord was signed and the following month, a cease-fire began. The United States agreed to "forgive" a large portion of the El Salvadorian international debt.

After the war and until now, people had little faith in the government as it never quite found itself structurally. The country has received many interventions from the United Nations, both politically and economically.

In addition to the civil war - as if that was not enough...El Salvador has suffered greatly from the devastating earthquakes of 1986 and 2001. They have also had severe drought (related to El NiƱo) resulting in a food crisis, and has also had recent border conflicts with Honduras.

ECONOMY - Agriculture is the main area bringing in 3/4 of export earnings. Coffee and sugar are the most important. Land ownership is very unevenly distributed - very few own most of the land. The main industries are food processing and petroleum products. Others include textiles, shoes, cosmetics to name a few. Maquila factories (sweatshops) have grown recently and provide 20,000 low-paying jobs.

In attempt to fix the economic problems, El Salvador adopted the US dollar in 2001. Their currency of the 'colon' is no longer in circulation. We found much opposition and strong voice against this in all towns we visited.

CULTURE - The country has a population of 280 people per square kilometer making it the most densely populated country in all mainland America. It is far more homogenous than its neighbor, Guatemala. The indigenous groups are not as visible as they are in Guatemala. In the places traveled, no traditionally dressed people were seen.

Interesting to note that there is not much in terms of "El Salvadorian" music. Most of their music has a Mexican influence.

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