El Salvador - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about El Salvador: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...


El Salvador

El Salvador, republic on the Pacific Coast of Central America. The smallest country in the region, El Salvador is second only to Guatemala in population, and is the most densely populated republic on the mainland of the Americas. Although traditionally a rural country, it experienced extensive migration to urban areas in the 20th century, and nearly one-third of its population lives within the metropolitan area of San Salvador, the capital and largest city. The country was named El Salvador, which is Spanish for “the savior,” in honor of Jesus Christ.

A volcanic mountain chain dominates the country’s landscape and provides ideal conditions for coffee cultivation, which has been the mainstay of the Salvadoran economy for more than a century. The coffee-based economy helped create a society divided between a small, wealthy ruling class and a large, impoverished laboring class. Throughout the 1980s the nation was torn by civil war, but in the 1990s it began to recover from the social, political, and economic damage caused by a decade of violent struggle. As El Salvador entered the 21st century, its democratic system appeared to stabilize as it witnessed several peaceful transitions between governments. Nevertheless, El Salvador’s economy continued to struggle.


El Salvador is 140 km (90 mi) wide at its widest point and 260 km (160 mi) long, with an area of 21,041 sq km (8,124 sq mi). The only Central American state without a Caribbean shoreline, El Salvador is bounded on the west by Guatemala, on the north and east by Honduras, on the south by the Pacific Ocean, and on the extreme southeast by the Gulf of Fonseca, which it shares with Honduras and Nicaragua. The country’s geography is defined by its volcanic mountains, separated by the plateaus and valleys of the central region. The mountains descend to a narrow, fertile coastal plain, which drops steeply into the Pacific.

Natural Regions in El Salvador

Volcanic ranges occupy most of El Salvador’s area. More than 25 extinct volcanic cones punctuate its horizons, with many small and large craters showing past lava flows. The San Miguel, Santa Ana, San Salvador, and Izalco volcanoes have all been active in modern times. The highest mountains are in the sparsely populated, northwestern part of the country and include the Santa Ana volcano, the highest point in the country, at 2,385 m (7,825 ft) above sea level.

Most of El Salvador’s population and agricultural land are located in the central plateaus and valleys, at elevations from 600 m (2,000 ft) to 1,200 m (4,000 ft), where volcanic ash contributes to rich soil. The Pacific coastal plain also offers rich agricultural lands. However, much of it is sandy and marshy, except for areas near the Gulf of Fonseca, where the land is higher and is marked by cliffs and ridges. Small bays, coves, capes, estuaries, and islands dot the 300-km (200-mi) Pacific coastline. El Salvador claims territorial waters to 200 nautical miles (370 km/230 mi) offshore. Earthquakes are frequent in El Salvador.

Rivers and Lakes in El Salvador

Several small rivers flow through El Salvador into the Pacific, including the Goascorán, Jiboa, Torola, Paz and the Río Grande de San Miguel. Only the largest river, the Lempa, flowing from Honduras across El Salvador to the ocean, is navigable for commercial traffic. Volcanic craters enclose scenic lakes, the most important of which are Ilopango (70 sq km/27 sq mi) and Coatepeque (26 sq km/10 sq mi). The largest natural lake is Lake Güija (44 sq km/17 sq mi). Several artificial lakes were created by the damming of the Lempa River, the largest of which is Embalse Cerrón Grande (350 sq km/135 sq mi).

Climate in El Salvador

El Salvador’s tropical climate varies between regions. The coastal plains along the Pacific are very hot, although the humidity is relatively low. Much of the country enjoys mountain elevation: A semitropical, springlike climate prevails from about 600 to 1,200 m (about 2,000 to 4,000 ft), and a temperate climate occurs above 1,200 m (4,000 ft). A rainy season from May through October brings the annual average rainfall for most of the country to about 2,030 mm (about 80 in). Dry and often dusty conditions prevail from November through April. The average annual temperature of San Salvador is 24°C (75°F).

Plant and Animal Life in El Salvador

El Salvador contains fewer species of plants than the other Central American states, but still has much of the luxuriant and colorful vegetation characteristic of the tropics, including more than 200 different species of orchids. The mountains of El Salvador have temperate grasslands and sparse forests of oak and pine. The natural vegetation of the rest of the country consists of deciduous trees and subtropical grasslands. Tropical fruit and medicinal plants are abundant.

Because of its high population density and fairly extensive farming, only 14 percent of El Salvador’s land remains as forest. This has limited the survival of animal life to a greater extent than in other Central American states. Habitat destruction and logging have caused many animal species to become rare or to disappear altogether, notably the crested eagle and the jaguar. Among the mammals still found wild in El Salvador are the monkey, coyote, puma, and ocelot, along with a great variety of small animals. Reptiles include the iguana and boa constrictor, and there are 251 different bird species, including 17 varieties of hummingbirds. The Salvadoran government has established natural reserves and parks to preserve natural habitats, the most important of which are at Montecristo National Park, El Imposible National Park, Cerro Verde, Deininger Park, and El Jocotal Lagoon.

Natural Resources of El Salvador

El Salvador lacks significant mineral resources, although it has small amounts of gold and silver, as well as limestone and gypsum. Most of its forests have been depleted, but some commercially valuable trees remain, including oak, cedar, mahogany, balsam, and rubber. Its fertile valleys and coastal plain, however, remain its principal natural resources, providing rich soil to grow substantial crops for export and subsistence.

Environmental Issues in El Salvador

El Salvador has one of the highest annual rates of deforestation in the world. Less than 1 percent of the nation’s total land area is designated as protected. The high percentage of primary forest that has disappeared over the years has produced problems such as poor water quality and soil erosion, especially in areas of steep terrain and thin soils. Water pollution and soil contamination from pesticides and disposal of toxic wastes have also become serious problems. The country’s high population density, especially in the metropolitan area of San Salvador, contributes to urban environmental problems, including air and water pollution. In urban areas, most people have access to safe water, but less than half the people in rural areas do.


The Spanish subjugated the native population of El Salvador in the 16th century. Few Spanish women came to the country, however, so many Spanish men took Native American women as their mates. Today nearly 90 percent of the population is mestizo, of mixed European and Native American descent. People of purely Native American descent represent about 5 to 10 percent of the population, while people of European descent represent only about 1 percent.

El Salvador’s population, 5.2 million according to the 1992 census, was estimated at 7,185,218 in 2009. It grew rapidly during the 20th century, at times increasing more than 3 percent a year. According to a 2009 estimate, El Salvador is the most densely populated country on the mainland of the Americas, with 347 persons per sq km (898 per sq mi). This compares with only 12 inhabitants per sq km (31 per sq mi) in 1821 and 38 per sq km (98 per sq mi) in 1900.

Population growth in 2009 has slowed to 1.7 percent. This is due to a declining birth rate, attributed to the use of birth control, and to the large number of people leaving the country to escape both the civil war and widespread poverty. More than 1 million Salvadorans live abroad, and an estimated 6 of every 1,000 people left the country in 1995.

Still, the nation’s birth rate remains far greater than the death rate (25 births and only 5 deaths for every 1,000 people). El Salvador has a young population, with 38 percent under age 15 and only 5 percent over age 65. Current life expectancy at birth for Salvadorans averages 72 years (69 for males and 76 for females), but 22 of every 1,000 infants born die in their first year. In life expectancy and infant mortality, El Salvador ranks in the middle of Central American nations, but still far behind Costa Rica and Panama, which have the best conditions in the region.

Steady migration from the countryside has raised the urban population to 60 percent of the total in this traditionally rural country. By far the greatest concentration of people is around the capital city of San Salvador. Although the city itself has only 510,367 residents (2006), the metropolitan area has about 1.4 million, nearly one-quarter of the Salvadoran population. Other important Salvadoran cities include Santa Ana (population 274,830), center of a rich agricultural region; San Miguel (population 282,367), a trade center at the foot of the San Miguel volcano; and Mejicanos (population 209,708), a suburb of San Salvador.

Ethnic Groups in El Salvador

El Salvador was home to Native Americans 3,000 years before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1524. Inhabited by early Maya peoples, it was later settled by Nahuatl people from Mexico. The country’s mestizo majority has its roots in these ethnic groups, but the tiny elite class that arose with the development of the coffee industry in the 19th century became increasingly more Caucasian because of immigration and marriage with Europeans and North Americans. This Europeanization of the elite class over the past century sets it apart somewhat from the dominant mestizo character of the middle and lower classes.

Cultural characteristics—language, dress, and customs—have been more important than ethnic background in differentiating mestizo from indigenous populations in El Salvador. Although some Native American communities have survived in the country, most of them have adopted European ways as a result of the systematic repression of native people, especially after an uprising in 1932. Estimates of the Native American population range from the official 1992 government census figure of 5 percent to a figure of 10 percent, suggested by anthropological research.

Languages spoken in El Salvador

The official language of El Salvador is Spanish, although a few Native Americans continue to speak indigenous languages (Lenca, Pipil, or Kekchí). Salvadorans in business, government, and academic positions often know English.

Religion in El Salvador

The country is traditionally Roman Catholic, and 91 percent of the population is Catholic. Evangelical Protestant groups have grown rapidly in recent years, and Protestants now number an estimated 8 percent of the population.

The Catholic clergy traditionally played important roles in political and economic affairs until liberal reforms in the late 19th century led to separation of church and state and to a reduced role for the church. During the past 25 years, however, the “theology of liberation,” which emphasizes social and economic justice for the poor, became a major force in Salvadoran Catholicism. Both foreign and native clergy worked to involve the urban and rural poor in political efforts to protect their rights and improve their lives. Catholic archbishops often were mediators between the state and guerrilla forces in the recent civil war. The newer, Protestant sects, on the other hand, have been more conservative politically and less involved directly in the political turmoil. However, there is a small Unity Movement political party based among the Evangelicals.

Education in El Salvador

Salvadoran law mandates free, compulsory elementary public schools through the 9th grade. Education through the 12th grade is available, and students completing 12 grades receive the bachillerato degree (high school diploma). However, enforcement is often lax, especially in rural areas and in urban slums, and the civil war of the 1980s damaged educational programs. El Salvador has about 3,200 primary and secondary schools with a total enrollment of 1.3 million students. But only slightly more than half of the school-age children actually attend school, and only a third finish the 9th grade. According to a 2007 estimate for people over age 15, the literacy rate was 85 percent—88 percent for men and 82.8 percent for women.

The national university is the University of El Salvador (1841), and the second-largest university is the Jesuit-run Central American University of José Simeón Cañas (1965). Both suffered from the political turmoil of the 1980s, and the government closed the national university for much of that decade because it was a center of leftist activity. The Central American University also closed for brief periods. The University of Don Bosco is located in Soyapango, a suburb of San Salvador, and run by the Salesians, a Catholic religious society. Because of closures at the major universities, many small, private colleges and universities opened during the civil war, and more have opened since. Some 115,000 students are enrolled in institutions of higher education, with more than two-thirds attending private schools. Education in public schools is free.

Way of Life in El Salvador

There is a substantial contrast between urban and rural life in El Salvador. San Salvador is a modern city, influenced by the culture of the United States and Western Europe, while rural areas and provincial towns practice more traditional Hispanic customs, including folk music and dancing. Family life is important in both areas, however, and extended family relationships play an important role in economic and political affairs; distant relatives and in-laws often use influence to help Salvadorans gain jobs, favors, and opportunities. Life was severely disrupted during the past two decades by political turmoil and civil war, which forced many families to flee from their homes to other parts of the country or to foreign nations.

Soccer is the most popular sport in El Salvador, where thousands of fans watch competitions by schools, amateur leagues, and professional teams. In the capital, Cuscatlán Stadium and the Flor Blanca National Stadium hold 80,000 and 35,000 spectators, respectively. Other large soccer stadiums are in Santa Ana, San Miguel, Zacatecoluca, and San Vicente. Many other sports, including basketball, baseball, boxing, volleyball, tennis, swimming, and surfing, also are popular in the country, as is automobile racing. The modern Formula One auto racecourse at El Jabalí, 30 km (20 mi) from San Salvador, accommodates 100,000 spectators.

Social Issues in El Salvador

Social class remains an important reality of modern El Salvador despite the growth of a significant middle class in San Salvador, the rise of important labor organizations, and increased democratic political participation. The wealthy upper class, which emerged in the late 19th century with the growth of the coffee industry, has traditionally dominated the government and economy, controlling most of the land and political offices. In the mid- to late 20th century the elite class expanded its interests into other agricultural exports, finance, manufacturing, and other economic activities. This class often has been referred to as the Fourteen Families, although the prominent families always exceeded that number and in the 1980s increased to more than 200. According to 2008 figures, the wealthiest 20 percent of Salvadorans received a share of the national income that was 57 times greater than the share of the poorest 20 percent.

Millions of poor Salvadorans, in rural and urban areas, suffer from inadequate housing, health care, and basic services. Malnutrition is a major problem in much of the country, which depends heavily on imported food. Urban poverty is especially noticeable around San Salvador, where thousands live crowded into miles of shantytowns without electricity, running water, or adequate sanitation. These extensive slums contrast starkly with the walled-in and well-guarded palaces of the wealthy in San Salvador’s elegant Escalón neighborhood.

Culture of El Salvador

Salvadoran culture reflects the native and European roots of the society, although following indigenous ways has been discouraged by the government since the 1930s. Archaeological ruins, including ancient Maya pyramids and dwellings at Tazumal and Cihuatán, highlight the heritage of indigenous peoples, while much of the colonial art and architecture reflects the Spanish influence. Religious and folk festivals are popular diversions for both large and small communities throughout the country, often featuring colorful folk dancing, more European than Native American.

Salvadoran authors have produced examples of fine poetry, literature, theater, and historical writing. Important 20th-century authors include Francisco Gavidia; novelist Salvador Salazar Arrué, whose work focused on rural life, Native American mythology and customs, and the clash of cultures in Salvadoran society; and poet and novelist Claribel Alegría, who has written on women’s struggles and the upheaval of the 1980s. In recent years the destructive civil war has limited cultural development, while North American culture has been a strong influence in music, cinema, and television.


Traditionally, the Salvadoran economy depended heavily on agriculture. For much of the colonial period in the 16th and 17th centuries, subsistence farming and ranching occupied most of the population. In the 18th century Spanish economic policy promoted new agricultural products for export, and Salvadoran indigo became Central America’s leading crop. In the 19th century indigo lost importance after the discovery of chemical dyes, and coffee replaced it as the principal Salvadoran export. A small group of coffee planters gained economic and political power, leading El Salvador to depend on international coffee markets. Coffee brought El Salvador enough wealth to build impressive new ports, railways, and paved highways, and to modernize San Salvador.

In the 1940s the planter class took over more land along the Pacific Coast and expanded into other export crops, such as cotton, sugar, rice, and beef. Peasants were forced off their land, and domestic food production lagged behind rapid population growth. While the small group of landowners became richer, most Salvadorans faced hunger and malnutrition that was among the worst in the world. This economic condition led to serious social and political problems and eventually to the civil war of the 1980s. The war devastated the economy, causing an estimated $2 billion in economic damage. Investment and production declined sharply at the beginning of the war, then grew slowly. In the 1980s El Salvador relied on more than $5 billion in foreign aid, mostly from the United States.

Since the war, El Salvador has made notable progress in restoring production and investment. Recent reforms have eliminated many price controls, broken up government monopolies over agricultural exports, reduced trade barriers, maintained interest rates, and reduced the deficit. The postwar governments have worked to privatize government-owned activities and expand the nation’s roads, communication services and other facilities.

Agriculture in 2007 accounted for 12 percent of El Salvador’s $20.4 billion gross domestic product (GDP). Coffee remains the major export, accounting for one-third of export revenues, but is a declining percentage of total economic activity, as investment has widened the base of both the domestic and export economy. Manufacturing now accounts for 22 percent of the GDP. Annual growth in the GDP averaged 4.7 percent in the period 2007. The per capita GDP for 2007 was $2,972.70, but when inflation was taken into account, wages declined.

Labor in El Salvador

The labor force is estimated at 2.8 million, with 19 percent of workers in agriculture, forestry, or fishing; 24 percent in industry, including manufacturing, construction, and mining; and 57 percent in services, including trade, finance, and government. Unemployment in 2006 stood at 6.6 percent, but underemployment remains a serious problem.

The total of industrial, rural, and government workers belonging to unions is about 300,000, or less than 20 percent of the labor force. Union organization among rural workers was banned until the 1980s by the government, which was controlled by large landowners, and industrial unions were suppressed from the 1930s until 1950. Antiunion violence connected with the civil war also limited membership. The largest labor organizations are the National Peasants Union for rural workers and the urban National Federation of Salvadoran Workers.

Agriculture of El Salvador

Some 32 percent of El Salvador’s land is cultivated, and 12.1 percent more is used for plantation agriculture. Agriculture accounts for only 12 percent of the GDP but 36 percent of the country’s exports. Coffee is the most important export crop, as it has been for more than a century, but other crops include sugarcane, corn, rice, beans, oilseeds, cereals, vegetables, fruits, beef, and dairy products.

Most of the country’s valuable farmland is controlled by a few wealthy Salvadorans; about 1 percent of the landowners control more than 40 percent of the arable land. A reform program in the 1980s redistributed some land to peasants, but large-scale export agriculture still prevails. With this emphasis on growing crops for export, and El Salvador’s dense population, the country is not able to grow enough to feed its people and must import food.

Forestry and Fishing in El Salvador

Because of early deforestation and high population density, the forest resources of El Salvador occupy only 14 percent of the area and offer little actual or potential lumber production. Most lumber is imported. El Salvador, however, is the world’s leading producer of balsam, a resin from the balsam tree that is used in making medicines and cosmetics.

Commercial fishing along El Salvador’s Pacific shore has become a growing industry. Frozen shrimp is a leading export, and some tuna, mullet, mackerel, and swordfish are also marketed domestically and for export.

Manufacturing and Mining in El Salvador

Since the 1940s, El Salvador has been the most industrialized nation in Central America. The country’s first steel-rolling mill opened in 1966. Although the civil war of the 1980s damaged its industries, by 2007 manufacturing accounted for 22 percent of the GDP. El Salvador’s factories supply mostly domestic and Central American markets, although new assembly plants (maquiladoras) have begun to export beyond the region. Textiles, leather goods, clothing, processed food, tobacco, furniture, wood and metal products, and chemicals are the principal manufactures.

The civil war disrupted the small gold and silver mining operations in the country. Mineral extraction is limited to limestone, gypsum, sea salt, and other construction materials.

Energy in El Salvador

El Salvador depends heavily on electric energy, which it produces with four hydroelectric plants and with one of the world’s first geothermal plants. Petroleum imports, however, still provide half of El Salvador’s energy requirements. Electrical service began in El Salvador in November 1890.

Foreign Trade in El Salvador

El Salvador has been working to diversify its economy, which depends heavily on exports, especially to the United States, and to increase nontraditional agricultural exports, but it still imports goods worth more than twice what it exports. This serious trade deficit remains a weak point in its economy.

Salvadoran exports totaled $3,953 million in 2007, while imports totaled $8.6 billion. These figures were up from 1993 exports of $731.7 million and imports of $1.9 billion. Principal exports were coffee, sugar, and frozen shrimp, sold primarily in the United States, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Germany. Nearly half of El Salvador’s exports now go to the nations of the Central American Common Market (CACM). El Salvador’s imports consist mainly of petroleum and other raw materials, consumer goods, and capital goods from the United States, Guatemala, Mexico, Japan, Venezuela, and Germany.

El Salvador’s trade deficit was partially offset by substantial amounts of economic assistance and credit from the United States and other Western countries and by about $800 million in payments sent from Salvadorans living abroad to their families. El Salvador had an external debt of $2.2 billion at the end of 1994, equal to about one-fifth of its GDP.

El Salvador is a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and is participating in talks with the United States, Canada, and Mexico on creating a free-trade association in the Western Hemisphere. El Salvador was a founding member of the Central American Common Market in 1960 and in the 1990s has been a leader in rebuilding the Central American Economic Integration Movement (SIECA). In 1995 El Salvador joined in the formation of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS), which works to create a free-trade zone among member countries in the region. In 2006 El Salvador became part of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), after ratifying the agreement in 2004.

Currency and Banking of El Salvador

El Salvador adopted the United States dollar as its official currency in January 2001.

Transportation in El Salvador

El Salvador has a well-developed highway system, with paved roads accounting for 20 percent of its 10,029-km (6,232-mi) system. The civil war prompted new road building, contributing to the rapid growth of the transportation network. Railroads, on the other hand, are in declining use. The country has 603 km (377 mi) of narrow-gauge tracks, but some sections are abandoned or in ill repair. The major ports are Acajutla, La Libertad, La Unión, Puerto Cutuco, and Puerto El Triunfo. El Salvador has 106 airports used mainly for private or military aviation and crop dusting. It has one international airport, near San Salvador, which is served by Transportes Aéreos Centro Americanos (TACA), a privately owned airline chartered in El Salvador, and several foreign airlines.

Communications in El Salvador

By 2005 El Salvador had 141 telephone mainlines for every 1,000 people. Private companies provide cellular telephones and paging service. The government’s Administration of Telecommunications (ANTEL) has installed advanced technology for modern communications development in the country, including Internet connections, microwave-radio relay systems, and international satellite communication.

There are 103 commercial radio stations plus 1 government station. The government also maintains 2 shortwave stations. There are eight commercial television channels, one government channel, and one religious channel. Television now reaches all areas of the country. In 1999 there were 504 radio receivers and 213 televisions for every 1,000 residents. Three companies now provide pay-television service, made up largely of U.S. programming.

Four national newspapers are published daily in San Salvador: La Prensa Gráfica, El Diario de Hoy, El Mundo, and Diario Latino. There are also several weekly newspapers. Foreign magazines are popular in the country, but there are few Salvadoran magazines. One notable Salvadoran monthly is ECA, which provides commentary on Salvadoran politics, society, and economy. It is published by the Jesuit-run Central American University.


El Salvador’s 1983 constitution—the 23rd in its history—provides for a representative government with three independent branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. It mandates universal suffrage for all citizens over the age of 18. Despite the republican and democratic provisions of its constitutions, a small, elite group of landowners and military officers has historically dominated government in El Salvador. Since the civil war of the 1980s, however, more-democratic procedures have been adopted, including reforms of the electoral system and inclusion of former leftist guerrillas in the political system. More people in other social classes have participated in government.

Executive of El Salvador

The president is popularly elected and must receive a majority of the votes. Although limited to a single five-year term, the president in El Salvador has great authority, and the executive branch has historically dominated the government. The president appoints his ministerial cabinet with the advice and consent of the Legislative Assembly.

Legislature of El Salvador

The Legislative Assembly has one chamber of 84 popularly elected deputies who serve three-year terms and may be reelected. This legislature enacts laws, advises and consents on major executive appointments, and elects the members of the Supreme Court.

Judiciary in El Salvador

The Supreme Court is the nation’s highest court of appeals. Other civil and criminal courts are provided in each of El Salvador’s 14 departments (geographic regions). The Salvadoran legal system is based on civil and Roman law, with traces of common law. The Supreme Court provides judicial review of legislative acts and also recognizes, with reservations, the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice in matters of international law.

Local Government of El Salvador

Local town councils and officials are popularly elected, but in practice the national president and the military have exercised great authority in local government.

Political Parties of El Salvador

El Salvador was dominated from the 1860s to 1944 by the Liberal Party, which represented the elite class of coffee planters. More modern parties representing middle- and working-class interests then began to emerge. But from 1944 to 1979 two ruling parties—first the Party of Democratic Revolutionary Unification (PRUD), then the Party of National Conciliation (PCN)—continued to represent the powerful landowners and military elite.

Beginning in the 1960s, the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) and the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) challenged the governing PCN, drawing support from workers, students, and Catholic clergy. But when the two parties formed a coalition and appeared to win the presidential election of 1972, they were suppressed by the PCN government, and their leaders were exiled. A left-wing guerrilla movement, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), then emerged to oppose the government. The clash of these political factions, representing a broad spectrum of the Salvadoran people, culminated in the civil war of the 1980s. With support from the U.S. government, the PDC became a major force in the government. Right-wing interests then formed the National Republican Alliance (ARENA) in 1982, and by 1989 it gained control of the government.

With the end of the civil war, the FMLN became a political party in 1992, serving as the leading group in a leftist coalition. Many other political parties also formed, and the splintering of political parties has become characteristic of modern Salvadoran politics. ARENA maintained control of the government in the 1990s. It lacked a majority in the legislature but was able to govern through an alliance with the PCN, which was still an active party. In the legislative elections in 2000 and 2003, the FMLN won a plurality, but in both cases ARENA was able to maintain control of the legislature with the support of the PCN. ARENA easily won the presidential elections in 2004, but in 2009 the FMLN won its first presidential contest.

Social Services in El Salvador

The Salvadoran Social Security Institute was created in 1949 to provide national health, accident, unemployment, old-age, and life insurance. Compulsory contributions from workers, employers, and the government support the program, which in theory covers most industrial workers and employees. The system is far from comprehensive, however, and El Salvador’s millions of poor lack adequate medical care, housing, education, and other basic services. The deterioration of social services during the civil war of the 1980s left much of the Salvadoran population in desperate straits. Although economic recovery has been expected to ease this situation, by the mid-1990s there was little evidence of significant improvement in health or welfare for the majority. Such hardships continue to encourage poor Salvadorans to leave the country.

Defense of El Salvador

El Salvador in 2006 maintained a military with 15,500 personnel. Branches consisted of an army (13,850 members), navy (700), and air force (950). These forces are relatively small, especially since the conclusion of the civil war, and defense expenditures in 2003 were 0.7 percent of the GDP. Two years of military service is compulsory for men between the ages of 18 and 30, but with more than 75,000 males reaching military age annually, the government calls relatively few to service. El Salvador sent a small military force to Iraq following the United States invasion and occupation of that Middle Eastern country in 2003, but El Salvador withdrew all of its forces by February 2009.

The army, along with other security forces, has historically played an important role in Salvadoran politics, and during the civil war the armed forces aided the government in repressing dissidents. The peace agreements implemented in 1992 called for decreasing the armed forces from the wartime high of 63,000 to 32,000, a goal that had been surpassed by 1995. The Treasury Police, National Police, and National Guard were abolished, and the intelligence service was transferred to civilian control. A new civilian police force replaced the discredited National Police, including former guerrillas from the FMLN among its members.

International Organizations in El Salvador

El Salvador is a member of the United Nations and its many subsidiary organizations. It is also in the Organization of American States (OAS), the Organization of Central American States (ODECA), and other Central American cooperative organizations within the Central American Economic Integration Movement (SIECA). El Salvador has also ratified the OAS-sponsored San Salvador Protocol, signed in San Salvador in 1988, which guarantees the exercise of economic, social, and cultural rights without discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, or economic status.


Early Inhabitants and Colonial Period

Native American peoples related to the Maya inhabited present-day El Salvador from an early date. Several notable archaeological sites contain dwellings and other evidence of daily life 1,400 years ago; these were found preserved beneath 6 m (20 ft) of volcanic ash. The sites include Tazumal, San Andrés, Cihuatán, Quelepa, Cara Sucia, and Joya de Cerén. Maya groups, including the Pokomam, Lenca, and Chortí, remained in the area, but in the 11th century AD, Nahuatl-speaking people related to the Aztec, including the Pipil and Ulua, migrated along the Pacific coast from Mexico to El Salvador (see Aztec Empire).

Spaniards first appeared in the area in 1522, when an expedition headed by Andrés Niño entered the Bay of Fonseca. The Spanish conquest of Cuzcatlán, the Land of Precious Things, as the native peoples called it, began in 1524. It was led by Captain Pedro de Alvarado, a daring conquistador who had accompanied Hernán Cortés to Mexico and then directed the conquest of Guatemala in early 1524. Diseases brought from Europe preceded the arrival of the Spanish forces, decimating the native peoples and making the conquest easier for the Spaniards. Yet after a month of bloody combat, Alvarado, wounded, retreated into Guatemala. His brother Gonzalo and cousin Diego completed the conquest, and Diego established the city of San Salvador in 1528 near the present town of Suchitoto. The Spaniards moved San Salvador to its present site in 1540.

Under the Spanish colonial empire, El Salvador was part of the Kingdom of Guatemala, which governed most of Central America. The kingdom was a division of the huge administrative region known as the Viceroyalty of New Spain, based in Mexico City, but officials in the Guatemalan capital made most decisions for the kingdom. El Salvador was part of the province of Guatemala until the late 1700s, divided into administrative areas known as alcaldías mayores around the towns of San Salvador, San Miguel, San Vicente, Santa Ana, and Sonsonate.

The region produced little for export until the 18th century, when the Spanish government encouraged it to increase its production of indigo, needed by European textile manufacturers. Salvadoran indigo became the leading export of the Kingdom of Guatemala, and in 1786 Spain established San Salvador as a separate political unit within the kingdom. With this increased economic and political status, Salvadoran Creoles (colonists born in the Americas but of Spanish descent) resented the continued dominance of Guatemala’s merchants, colonial administrators, and church officials, and began to feel a sense of Salvadoran nationalism.


Salvadorans’ resentment of Guatemala strengthened when European wars restricted trans-Atlantic trade after 1793 and contributed to a downturn in Salvadoran indigo exports. By the time Spain’s control over its colonies weakened as a result of these wars, San Salvador had become a center of liberal opinion, where Creoles advocated greater political and economic freedom from Spanish rule. In 1811 a Salvadoran priest, José Matías Delgado, led a rebellion of Creoles, the first open expression of Salvadoran sympathy for independence from Spain. Conservative forces from Guatemala, which remained loyal to Spain, ruthlessly crushed this uprising, increasing Salvadoran hostility.

Central American independence from Spain came suddenly and without a struggle. In September 1821 a council of leaders in Guatemala decided to accept the Plan of Iguala, which created an independent Mexican Empire under the Creole General Agustín de Iturbide. That month Creoles in San Salvador issued their own declaration of independence from Spain. They did not want to remain dominated by Guatemala or to join Iturbide’s empire.

Civil war resulted. Led by Manuel José Arce, Salvadoran forces defeated a Guatemalan army and consolidated control over El Salvador. Then, in 1823, a Guatemalan-Mexican army under Mexican General Vicente Filísola captured San Salvador. Arce fled to the United States. In the meantime, however, Iturbide’s government in Mexico fell, and Filísola allowed the Central Americans to convene a congress.

The congress declared absolute Central American independence on July 1, 1823, and formed the United Provinces of Central America, a loose federation of the five Central American states that promised each a high degree of sovereignty. But upper-class Central Americans were divided by regional rivalries and split between liberal and conservative factions, which disagreed over political, economic, and religious policies. Liberals generally sought to limit the role of the Catholic clergy and promote capitalism, while conservatives favored the traditional power structure, controlled by large landowners and a powerful church.

Under the federation’s liberal republican constitution of 1824, Arce won a hotly contested and disputed election to become the first Central American president in 1825. But Arce alienated his Salvadoran supporters when he failed to separate El Salvador from the Catholic diocese of Guatemala, another symbol of El Salvador’s subordinate status to the capital of Guatemala City. Arce increasingly found himself forced into alliance with Guatemalan conservatives against both Salvadoran and Guatemalan liberals, and he finally resigned. Guatemalan conservatives then took over the federal government, leading to renewed civil war from 1827 to 1829. Although all the states became involved to some degree, the fighting occurred mainly between Guatemala and El Salvador. Liberal forces won the war in 1829, and their leader, Honduran General Francisco Morazán, became the new federal president in 1830. El Salvador regained a prominent role in the Central American federation, whose capital was moved in 1834 to Sonsonate, in western El Salvador, and in 1835 to San Salvador.

However, the federation’s liberal government faced continued challenges. As part of Morazán’s economic policies, the government took land from Native Americans, other rural groups, and the church and turned it over to private landowners. When some of these projects threatened the Pipil way of life, these native people rebelled in 1833. Morazán defeated them, but his weakened forces then faced a rural uprising in Guatemala, led by Rafael Carrera, who overthrew the liberal Guatemalan government. Carrera then routed Morazán in battle at Guatemala City in March 1840, and the federation collapsed.

Although El Salvador became nominally independent after 1840, it was dominated by the conservative Carrera, who ruled Guatemala until 1865. Military leaders installed by Carrera often controlled El Salvador, which did not formally declare itself a sovereign republic until 1856.

In 1856 and 1857 Salvadoran troops joined other Central American forces to drive a U.S. adventurer, William Walker, out of Nicaragua, where he had taken power. The commander of the Salvadoran forces in that struggle, General Gerardo Barrios, served as provisional president of El Salvador in 1858 and again in 1859 and 1860. After becoming president in 1861, Barrios launched liberal economic reforms, encouraging coffee production through land grants and tax cuts, and tried to limit the role of the Catholic clergy by requiring priests to pledge obedience to the state. This brought him into conflict with Carrera, who invaded El Salvador and eventually defeated Barrios, installing a more conservative president, Francisco Dueñas.

The Coffee Revolution

After Dueñas, however, liberal presidents were elected who continued the reforms Barrios had begun. This began a long period of liberal rule, from 1871 to 1944, that saw the transformation of El Salvador’s economy, political structure, and society. The major factor behind this change was the development of a coffee industry as the economic mainstay of the nation. This produced a new, wealthy ruling class and deepened the gulf between rich and poor Salvadorans.

After 1885 Salvadorans were finally free from Guatemalan control. The governments that followed concentrated on economic growth and improving the country’s basic facilities, such as roads and ports. Indigo exports, which had provided much of El Salvador’s income, declined after chemical dyes were developed in 1856. But coffee rapidly replaced indigo as an export crop, bringing El Salvador such prosperity that by the early 20th century it was considered the most progressive of the Central American states. New ports and railways were built, and El Salvador became the first nation in Central America with paved highways. In San Salvador, impressive public buildings were constructed, including a new national palace, national library, and military school. Upper-class residents built lavish private homes, and the city’s streets were paved and lighted. The population increased, and a small but growing middle class emerged to staff the government bureaucracy and to work in other businesses that grew up around the coffee boom.

However, this progress benefited only a small group; most Salvadorans remained poor. Land was taken from rural residents and Native Americans and devoted to coffee growing, decreasing the amount of food that could be grown. Prices for food, much of it imported, rose, but wages remained low and the population increased rapidly. The elite group of coffee planters, often called the Fourteen Families, dominated the government as well as the economy. Between 1885 and 1931, members of these families presided over the government, while the armed forces maintained order.

Criticism of the governing elite grew during the 1920s. Alberto Masferrer, a Salvadoran intellectual whose ideas led to the founding of the Labor Party in 1930, called on the elite to take responsibility for the welfare of El Salvador’s poor. He advocated moderate social-welfare programs and the right of workers to form unions and strike. More radical opposition came from Agustín Farabundo Martí, who began to organize rural workers into Communist Party cells. Martí sought a revolution that would overthrow the government and give peasants control over the land.

The worldwide depression that began in 1929 paved the way for the election in 1930 of the Labor Party candidate Arturo Araújo as president. Araújo was a member of the planter elite, but the upper class would not permit him to enact the social reforms he and Masferrer had proposed. After a year of strikes and disorder, on December 2, 1931, the military removed Araújo from office and replaced him with his vice president, General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez.

Military Rule, 1931-1979

Almost immediately, Martí led a revolt of farm workers, Native Americans, and other rural Salvadorans, armed mostly with machetes. Hernández Martínez directed the army to put down this insurrection, which was defeated within days. The military then executed between 10,000 and 30,000 rural Salvadorans. This event, known as La Matanza (the massacre), became a turning point in El Salvador’s history. Before the uprising, the governing elite had tolerated some dissent and allowed labor organizations to form. But after the rebellion, the terrified elite turned to the military to maintain their power. The 1932 revolt also destroyed indigenous culture in most parts of El Salvador, for Native Americans had been especially targeted during the massacre. To survive, the remaining native people adopted mestizo dress and customs.

Hernández Martínez ruled El Salvador as a military dictator, suppressing dissent, until he was overthrown in 1944 by students, workers, and progressive military officers. In the years that followed, military officers continued to control the government, but new political parties and labor unions were allowed to form, giving the urban middle class an opportunity to participate in politics.

After World War II ended in 1945, the economy became more diversified as new crops were grown for export, which helped increase the size of both the elite and the middle class. But poverty grew more widespread among the lower classes, especially rural Salvadorans who were forced off their land by the expansion of export agriculture. More export crops meant less land available for growing food, and Salvadorans became among the most malnourished people in the world.

The Central American Common Market (CACM), established in 1960, increased trade among the Central American states and helped Salvadoran industry to expand. Much of the industrial development resulted from investments by the same powerful families who had developed the agricultural exports, but for the first time foreign investment also became important to the Salvadoran economy.

The Liberal Party that had dominated Salvadoran politics since the 1860s disappeared during this period, but new parties that were also controlled by the coffee-growing upper class and the military continued to hold power. The Party of Democratic Revolutionary Unification (PRUD) governed until 1961, when it was replaced by the similar Party of National Conciliation (PCN). Led by General Julio Rivera, PCN ruled until 1979. However, other parties became important, drawing support from a wider segment of the population. The most effective were the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR), led by Guillermo Ungo, and the Christian Democratic Party (PDC), headed by José Napoleón Duarte. Backed by students, workers, and many Catholic clergy, Duarte was elected mayor of San Salvador in 1964.

In 1969 El Salvador’s economic and social problems contributed to the outbreak of war with neighboring Honduras. The so-called Soccer War began as rioting among fans during World Cup soccer playoff matches between teams from the two nations. But the fundamental underlying cause was the condition of the poor in overpopulated El Salvador. About 300,000 Salvadorans had migrated into more sparsely populated Honduras, taking over land and jobs. Large Honduran landowners and workers who felt threatened by the Salvadorans campaigned to have them expelled, and in 1968 the Honduran government enacted an agrarian reform law that forced thousands of Salvadorans back to their country.

These tensions, along with long-standing border disputes between the two nations and conflicts over trade, flared into military action after riots at the June 1969 soccer match. On July 14 Salvadoran troops launched an invasion, driving about 120 km (about 75 mi) into Honduras. Honduras responded by launching damaging air strikes against Salvadoran ports. The Organization of American States quickly negotiated a cease-fire, and Salvadoran troops withdrew on August 3. (A peace treaty was not signed until 1980, however, and it took until 1992 for the International Court Of Justice to resolve most of the border disputes between the two countries. The final border questions were settled in 1999.)

El Salvador’s troubled economy worsened as refugees from Honduras poured back into the country, where land and food were already scarce. Opposition to the military-led government increased, while Duarte’s popularity rose. In 1972 Duarte ran for president at the head of a coalition of the PDC and MNR, with Ungo as his vice-presidential candidate. Duarte’s coalition appeared to win the election, but the government declared its candidate, Colonel Arturo Molina, the winner. Duarte and Ungo were arrested, then exiled. During the next seven years, the repressive military government clung to power against rising public defiance, and El Salvador became known for human-rights abuses. Protests by students, workers, and peasants were often met with violence by the police or army. Government security forces and right-wing terrorist groups known as death squads were held responsible for the disappearance of union activists, priests, and others who opposed the government. Left-wing guerrilla movements formed, aiming to overthrow the government.

The nation’s serious social and economic inequities continued to worsen, as rapid population growth exceeded economic growth. Even as San Salvador became a modern, urban center, poverty and malnutrition continued to rise.

Civil War

While these problems haunted El Salvador, a revolution in neighboring Nicaragua, led by the Sandinista guerrilla movement, overthrew the Somoza dynasty in July 1979. El Salvador’s military feared a similar uprising, as public protests continued to grow against the government, and in October 1979 military officers took over the government in a coup. The officers wanted primarily to maintain the power and reputation of the military, but they offered concessions to moderate and leftist groups, giving them seats on the ruling junta. The junta ordered the feared paramilitary death squad, ORDEN, to disband, but other death squads soon appeared to continue the political assassinations and torture. Nearly all the civilians on the junta soon resigned in protest over the continued repression. This crisis ended in January 1980 when the Christian Democratic Party agreed to collaborate with the military to form a new junta. Duarte returned from exile and became leader of the new junta, with the support of the United States.

Duarte’s government initiated social and economic reforms, including a plan for land reform, and tried to control abuses by the armed forces. But the military chiefs still controlled the nation. Right-wing death squads carried out political assassinations to intimidate their opponents. In 1980 San Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, a critic of the military government, was murdered during a religious service, several Christian Democratic leaders were assassinated, and three U.S. Catholic nuns and another church worker were raped and killed. Five members of the Salvadoran National Guard were later convicted of murdering the churchwomen.

On the left the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a coalition of guerrilla organizations, declared war against the government. These revolutionary organizations conducted military campaigns, but also carried out assassinations, kidnappings, bombings, and sabotage. In regions they controlled, the guerrillas demanded payments from landholders and business owners. As violence escalated on both sides, many innocent civilians were caught in the middle.

Major Roberto d’Aubuisson, who was accused of taking part in the assassination of Archbishop Romero, organized a new right-wing political party, the National Republican Alliance (ARENA), to challenge Duarte. In the election of 1982, the leftist parties refused to participate, and Duarte’s Christian Democrats won a plurality of the seats in the National Assembly. However, a coalition of ARENA and the PCN won the majority of the seats. D’Aubuisson became head of the Salvadoran Constitutional Convention, which wrote the constitution of 1983. This constitution returned the government to an elected, civilian presidency and enlarged the assembly to 84 members.

Duarte won the presidency in the 1984 election, but he was unable to end the destructive civil war. To add to his problems, a massive earthquake destroyed much of San Salvador in 1986, while he himself was dying of cancer. However, by signing the 1987 Central American Peace Accord (known as the Arias Plan), Duarte began a process that would eventually end the civil war and restore peace to the war-torn country. His party, meanwhile, was accused of corruption, and the nation’s economy suffered from low prices for its exports. With the population exhausted by years of warfare, ARENA won broader support and took control of the legislature in 1988. In 1989 ARENA’s presidential candidate, Alfredo Cristiani, won the election to succeed Duarte.

A major FMLN offensive in 1989 succeeded in capturing large areas of San Salvador before the guerrillas retreated again. The following year, peace talks began between the government and the FMLN, mediated by the United Nations (UN). After long, difficult negotiations, the two sides reached an agreement, known as the Chapultepec Accord, in January 1992. Under the agreement, much of the FMLN forces and the government army was disbanded; the old security forces and the National Police were abolished; and a new civilian police force was formed that included both former National Police and FMLN members. A UN commission assisted the Salvadorans in implementing the agreements in the areas of human rights, military, police, and elections.

The civil war took a terrible toll on the country’s people and property. At least 75,000 people died in the conflict. Thousands more were wounded, and an estimated 550,000 were displaced from their homes. Hundreds of thousands more fled the country. A United Nations Truth Commission investigated the most flagrant cases of human-rights abuses committed during the civil war and reported its findings on March 15, 1993. It recommended reforms of the armed forces and the judiciary and urged that individuals guilty of human-rights violations be removed from office and from the military. The Legislative Assembly gave amnesty from criminal prosecution to all those implicated in this report, including officers suspected of murdering six Jesuit priests at the Central American University in 1989. However, the legislature implemented the reforms, purging many officials from office and retiring hundreds of officers from active military duty. The Legislative Assembly elected a completely new Supreme Court in July 1994, complying with the Truth Commission’s recommendation that none of its justices be allowed to continue in office.

El Salvador After the Civil War

Recovery from the ravages of the war began slowly, but after 1992 the Salvadoran economy improved significantly. The new civilian police force was deployed in all departments by mid-1994 and reached its full strength early in 1996. The first postwar elections took place in March 1994. The FMLN, which became a legal political party in December 1992, joined with other leftist parties in a coalition supporting Rubén Zamora for president. ARENA’s candidate, Armando Calderón Sol, benefited from Cristiani’s successful peace negotiations and improvement in the economy, and in a runoff in April 1994 defeated Zamora with 68 percent of the vote. The FMLN established itself as the leader among the leftist opposition parties. In elections in March 1997, the FMLN gained significant political influence, winning 27 seats in the Legislative Assembly, just one fewer than ARENA. FMLN candidates also won mayoral races in many Salvadoran cities, including the capital, San Salvador.

The government, in collaboration with international organizations, has resettled many of those displaced by the war and also provided land, jobs, and credit for many former members of the military and the guerrilla forces. These efforts have gone more slowly than planned, however, and many difficulties remain. Despite reform efforts, poor land distribution continues to be a serious problem. Poverty is widespread in the cities and rural areas, and both poverty and lagging food production cause continued malnutrition. Despite improvements in El Salvador’s export economy and balance of payments, most of the serious social and economic problems that existed before the civil war remain.

In late 1997 business leaders in El Salvador and Honduras agreed to a proposal to construct a highway that would be an alternative to the Panama Canal. It would connect a Honduran port on the Caribbean Sea with a Salvadoran port on the Pacific Ocean. The Panama Canal has begun to experience problems with congestion, and these problems are expected to grow. Presidents of both countries have agreed to support the project.

In March 1999 ARENA candidate Francisco Flores, a former speaker in the Legislative Assembly and a former philosophy professor, was elected president. ARENA lost to the FMLN for the first time in the 2000 legislative elections, with the FMLN winning 31 seats to ARENA’s 29. ARENA was able to maintain control of the legislature with the help of its ally, the Party of National Conciliation (PCN), which came in third place. The same pattern occurred in the 2003 legislative elections.

A major earthquake struck the coast of El Salvador in January 2001, killing more than 800 people and devastating tens of thousands of homes. Thousands of aftershocks rattled El Salvador after the initial quake, including a large tremor in February that killed several hundred more people.

In the presidential elections in 2004, the ARENA candidate Antonio Saca easily defeated FMLN candidate Schafik Handal, a former guerrilla leader. Saca, a former sports broadcaster, became a wealthy businessman after developing a chain of radio stations. He promised to continue the policies adopted by Flores, including the pursuit of free trade agreements and close cooperation with the United States.

The FMLN won its first presidential elections in March 2009 as its candidate, Mauricio Funes, defeated the ARENA candidate, Rodrigo Ávila, with 51 to 49 percent of the vote. A journalist and former television reporter, Funes was the first FMLN candidate without a guerrilla background. Funes promised a moderate leftist government along the lines of the Brazilian government headed by Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, which has rejected many conservative economic policies but has still managed to attract foreign investors. Funes promised to remain part of the Central American Free Trade Agreement and to retain the U.S. dollar as El Salvador’s currency. However, he was also expected to seek investment from Asia and Europe to reduce El Salvador’s dependency on the United States, which accounts for 60 percent of El Salvador’s exports.

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