Like so much of Latin America, the tiny Central American nation of El Salvador (8,000 square miles, 7.2 million population) has had a violent history, ruled in oligarchic fashion by people willing to use any means necessary to maintain the extreme inequality from which they benefited, generally with the acquiescence if not active support of the United States.
In the 1970s, resistance to the El Salvadoran regime increased, leading to greater and greater repression, both from the government and from the private “death squads” with which they were allied.
In March 1980, the right wing death squads added the most prominent name yet to their murder victims, that of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Romero was one of the most beloved figures in the country, but he had angered the wrong people by using his radio show to denounce military and death squad violence and call for reforms.
Massive demonstrations at the Archbishop’s funeral degenerated into violence, with television footage beamed around the world of security forces firing into a crowd of unarmed demonstrators on the steps of the National Cathedral.
The reputation of the regime in El Salvador and the death squads that operated partly independent of it took another blow around the world and even in many quarters in the United States when four visiting American churchwomen joined the ranks of the right wing’s rape, torture, and murder victims in December 1980.
Both President Carter and Congress tried to juggle the twin goals of preventing any further leftist governments emerging in Latin America, and expressing disapproval for excessive human rights violations, thus American aid to El Salvador became more hit or miss, and had more strings attached. However, the election of President Reagan and a shift rightward in Congress allied the United States more firmly with the regime in El Salvador.
But the situation had broken down sufficiently in El Salvador by early 1981 that a coalition of groups on the Left decided the time was right to launch an all out offensive to seize control of the country. What had already been a situation of oppression and flashes of horrific violence now became an out-and-out civil war.
Despite some early successes, the rebel offensive soon ran out of steam without having garnered the level of support from the population that had propelled rebels in Cuba and Nicaragua to victory in earlier Latin American revolutions. With a great deal of support from the United States, the regime fought off the military challenge. They were not, however, able to eliminate the rebels, so the war continued.
It continued, in fact, until 1992. During the years of the civil war, the regime is estimated to have killed upwards of 70,000 civilians. The rebels never again came very close to toppling the regime, yet they remained a credible threat, and the violence on both sides did not let up.
Finally in 1992 the international community stepped in. Under United Nations auspices, the El Salvadoran government and the left wing rebels agreed to a truce. The rebels turned over their weapons to U.N. forces. 102 Salvadoran military officers were dismissed. The constitution of El Salvador was amended to make it harder for the military to involve itself in domestic affairs. A subsequent Truth Commission revealed additional information about various of the worst atrocities that had taken place during the war.
El Salvador had a great deal of rebuilding to do after a decade of civil war, and additional decades before that of internal strife. Much of the country’s infrastructure lay in ruins, thousands of families had buried their breadwinner, fear and distrust remained understandably widespread. Many Salvadorans had fled the country as refugees from war and economic devastation, to surrounding nations and to the United States.
In the years since, though, things in El Salvador have gone better than most people likely would have predicted, and it has been heralded as perhaps the most successful instance of the U.N. stepping in to resolve a conflict. Rather than failing outright or achieving only a temporary respite followed by renewed war, the 1992 accords held reasonably well.
While the country is hardly an ideal of civil tranquility, El Salvador’s human rights record since the peace accords has never returned to anywhere near as low as its terrible level of the 1970s and 80s. The military has been lauded for much reduced corruption and for not reinserting itself into political matters, and in fact has been greatly reduced in size. The country has seen a limited land reform to partly alleviate some of the worst inequality and injustice. The poverty level, which stood at 66% at the time of the accords, has gradually been reduced by roughly half over time. Employment and agricultural production have similarly seen gradual improvement from horrific to at least mediocre for the region. El Salvador now maintains peaceful diplomatic and trade relations with all of its neighbors, which has certainly not always been true in its history.
The political system in El Salvador has opened up considerably. Elections have generally been freer and fairer than in the country’s, or the region’s, past. Leftist candidates have been able to participate in the political process and have won a substantial number of seats in the legislature, culminating in the first ever election of an El Salvadoran president from the Left in 2009 in the person of journalist Mauricio Funes.
It takes a long time for a country to recover from the sort of sustained brutality that El Salvador endured in its civil war and before, and by no means is El Salvador’s recovery complete. But certainly much progress has been made, and there is reason for hope.
“Background Note: El Salvador.” U.S. Department of State.
“El Salvador Civil War.” Global Security.
“El Salvador: Civil War.” PBS.