President: Jose Napoleon Duarte.
Economy: GNP per capita US $650 per year.
Main exports: coffee, cotton, textiles.
People: 4.7 million
Health: Infant mortality 75 per 1,000 live births
Culture: Overwhelmingly mestizo as a result of Spanish-Amerindian intermarriage. Pockets of Hispanicized Amerindians remain. Most Salvadorans are Roman Catholics although Christian revivalist sects are becoming more influential.
Source: World Bank 1983
A steamy summer’s night in San Salvador. Bright neon lights flash their message in the wide and busy avenue. Families throng the open air cafes to eat pupusas, the delicious fried corn pasties. The atmosphere in the entertainment area near the affluent suburb of Escandon is exuberant.
Nearby, in the poor area of Los Mejicanos, a station wagon cruises slowly along a shabby street. It is full of armed men in civilian clothes. They make no effort to hide the machine guns and pistols they carry. Instead they flaunt them, greatly amused by the frightened reactions of the passersby. They disappear into the night. By the following morning, several more people have been dragged from their homes. Several more tortured and bullet-ridden corpses have been found on city streets and rubbish dumps.
Such startling contrasts are commonplace in strife-torn El Salvador. A small clique of landowners popularly known as ‘the fourteen families’ has enriched itself at the expense of millions of impoverished peasants. In 1932, the peasants rebelled.
Fed up with being squeezed off their land and intimidated by the big landowners, they demanded land reforms and better living standards. The military regime responded by massacring an estimated 30,000 people.
Until full-scale war broke out in 1979, the military ran the country uninterruptedly for nearly half a century. fighting amongst itself for the presidency.
El Salvador became Central America’s most highly industrialised nation, thanks to American investment. A rigged electoral system gave a semblance of democracy.
Brave voices spoke out against the plight of the peasants. Foremost amongst them were the Catholic Church and the Jesuits. Many priests and peasant leaders were murdered. El Salvador’s leading churchman, Archbishop Oscar Romero Arnulfo was gunned down at the altar of his city centre cathedral whilst holding mass in 1979.
By then, guerrilla operations were well under way. A coalition of several guerrilla groups - named after Augustin Farabundo Marti, a student revolutionary leader shot in 1932 - had started co-ordinating joint action.
Shortly before his assassination, Archbishop Romero had acknowledged them as ‘freedom fighters seeking social justice for an oppressed people.’ Six years on, the social justice seems as elusive as ever.
The recent election of the moderate Jose Napoleon Duarte to the presidency is unlikely to stem the deep-seated, institutionalized violence. About 50,000 Salvadorans have been killed in the last five years. And many more of these warm, courageous and inoffensive people are likely to lose their lives in the future.
There seems to be no end in sight to the monotonous thump, thump, thump: of the best of the music in San Salvador’s plush night clubs; and of the mortars and field guns in the ravaged countryside.