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El Salvador

El Salvador

new internationalist
issue 246 - August 1993

Country profile: El Salvador

Where is El Salvador? Church bells pealed throughout El Salvador. Crowds danced and sang in every town and village. Fireworks burst across the night sky, where once there had only been tracer bullets. The bitterness of one of Latin America's bloodiest conflicts was temporarily forgotten, as government and rebels of the Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation (FMLN) on 16 January 1992 signed a peace treaty to end the country's 12-year civil war.

The ceasefire came into effect on the first of February 1992. The commanders of the five political-military groups which make up the FMLN flew back into the country and openly addressed a rally in the centre of the capital, San Salvador.

Nothing like it had been seen since 1980, when a million people demonstrated in support of opposition demands for reform.

What will peace now bring? Almost half of the 55,000-strong government forces and all of the guerillas have been demobilized. The most notorious of the security forces have been disbanded and replaced by a police force under civilian control. The FMLN has transformed itself into a political party. But the peace accord does not address the root causes of the war: landlessness, poverty and repression.

El Salvador's economic élite has always relied on repression and terror to hold down any threat to its monopoly of land. During the war right-wing death squads and the armed forces murdered over 75,000 civilians, among them the country's crusading Archbishop, Oscar Romero. Virtually every family has lost someone. Almost a million people fled their homes. Yet terror - and aid from Washington which made the country the world's sixth biggest recipient of US military aid - failed to defeat a peasant guerilla army for whom land reform was vital for survival. The two armies fought themselves to a shifting but continuing stalemate.

It was the toll on the economy that finally convinced the more pragmatic members of the élite to make peace, over protests from the army.

In their efforts to survive, poor communities found a new self-reliance and had their first experience of participatory democracy. People created and elected their own village councils in the guerilla-controlled zones during the mid-1980s.

But the popular movement and non-governmental organisations have been ignored in the reconstruction plans. The private sector and the free market are centre stage. The economy is unlikely to find jobs and land for all the demobilized combatants and returning refugees.

In May a demonstration by disabled veterans from both the army and the guerillas was fired on by the National Police, killing two people. The revolution of the 1980s was not the first - there was a brief uprising, brutally suppressed in 1932. There could yet be another.

Neil MacDonald / Larry Boyd


LEADER: President Alfredo Cristiani

ECONOMY: GNP per capita US$ 1,070 (US $21,790)
Main exports: coffee, cotton, sugar

PEOPLE: 5.4 million

HEALTH: Infant mortality 55 per 1,000 live births (US 9 per 1,000).
Percentage of population with access to: health services 58%; safe water 39%; sanitation 60%.

CULTURE: Overwhelmingly mestizo as a result of Spanish-Amerindian intermarriage. Pockets of Hispanicized Amerindians remain. Most Salvadorians are Roman Catholics, although Protestant sects have increased in influence.

Sources: World Bank 1991 and UNDP 1992

Last profiled in September 1984



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INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown]
Civil war has worsened an already unequal distribution. The poorest 40% earn one third of the average income.

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LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Officially 72% (women 69%), though functional literacy may be much less.

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SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
US military and economic aid propped up wartime regime. Much reconstruction aid needed.

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FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
End of war has improved situation, but security forces remain very powerful.

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POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Machismo strong, though women have gained stature in the struggle to survive the war.

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LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
64 years (US 76 years). Killings should diminish but poverty-related deaths may increase.

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Politics now

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President represents pragmatic wing of far-right.


NI star rating

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New Internationalist issue 246 magazine cover This article is from the August 1993 issue of New Internationalist.
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