El Salvador's national reality is one of extreme economic and social inequality, marginalization, violence, and insecurity. The country's history has been a cycle of domination and exploitation which has left wealth and power concentrated in the hands of a few while the poor are increasingly pushed to the margins. Today, the majority of Salvadorans live in poverty and struggle to pay for basic necessities, a situation which has only grown worse with time, especially after the global economic crisis. Unemployment is extremely high and there are few opportunities for high school or university education. People live in fear in gang violence and delinquency. Natural and man-made disasters inflict the most destruction on those who are the most vulnerable: the poor.
El Salvador does not just happen to be a country drowning in poverty, violence, and despair. El Salvador's current national reality was created by the exploitation of its people and resources, which has been happening for hundreds of years. To understand many of the country's current problems, it is necessary to understand the fundamental causes of injustice.
In the sixteenth century, El Salvador's indigenous populations were conquered by Spanish conquistadors in search of God, gold, and glory. The indigenous were forced off their ancestral lands and forced to work as laborers for the Spanish, growing crops but never benefiting from their export. Thus began a cycle of exploitation that has continued for centuries.
In 1838, El Salvador became an independent republic. However, the reality for the majority remained the same. The foreign conquistadors were merely replaced by a local oligarchy, the Creoles, decedents of the Spanish conquistadors. The poor majority were kept in destitution, with extremely high levels of malnutrition, infant mortality, and illiteracy. There was no real democracy, as the poor were excluded from the political system.
In the late nineteenth century, coffee became the king of the international economy. Seeking to take advantage of the high price of coffee, the economic and political elites - the oligarchy - passed land decrees in 1865 and 1881, which converted the majority of arable land into huge coffee-producing haciendas. These land decrees mandated that if, on any farm, two-thirds of the land were not devoted to the production of coffee, the lands would become property of the state. In addition, any lands that were communally owned (indigenous lands owned by entire tribes, for example), had to be divided between their owners, or they too would become state property. According to the government, communal lands were "contrary to the political and social principles upon which the republic was founded."
This time was one of extreme desperation for the poor in El Salvador. As people were forced off their lands, they were also separated from their means of survival. There was extreme malnutrition; El Salvador had the lowest average caloric intake in Central America. In 1900, there was a 30% literacy rate. The poor were denied access to political processes, as the economic and political elite were one in the same. Coffee barons became presidents. The economic and political elite were united with the military to carry out their will. When the poor are so violently exploited and denied the ability to improve their situation, the result can only be explosive.
Economist Alberto Masferrer wrote about this period in El Salvador's history:
"The conquest of territory by the coffee industry is alarming. It has already occupied the highlands and is now descending into the valleys, displacing maize, rice, and beans. It extended like the conquistador, spreading hunger and misery, reducing the former proprietors to the worst conditions - woe to those who sell!Although it is possible to prove mathematically that these changes make the country richer, in fact they mean death. It is true that the cost of importing maize are small in relation to the benefit of exporting coffee, but do they give the imported grain to the poor? Or do they make them pay for it? Is the income of the campesino, who has lost his land, adequate to provide maize, rice, beans, clothes, medicine, doctors, etc.? So what good does it do to make money from the sale of coffee when it leaves so many in misery?"
La Matanza, The Great Massacre 1932
In response to horrible working conditions and extremely low wages for the indigenous, who mostly worked as agricultural laborers, the people began to organize to demand fair wages and access to political processes. The leader of this indigenous movement was Farabundo Marti, a campesino, who organized the people to protest their exploitation and demand a new government. The result was devastating. The government responded with incredible violence, massacring the area's indigenous population, even those who were not affiliated with the popular movement. In a period of a few weeks, around 40,000 indigenous were killed, nearly silencing an entire culture. Those indigenous who survived lived in fear, and as a result, denied their indigenous roots, renouncing their language and cultural heritage.
The Repression Continues
Military repression continued for decades, which instilled fear in the population but did not address fundamental causes of social unrest: social injustice, inequality, land rights, and exclusion from the political system. In the 1970s, a new movement began, recalling El Salvador's past popular movements. People began to organize – farmers, students, unions, artisans. But the government continued to respond in the way it always had, with violent repression. So-called "death squads" – off duty soldiers hired by the rich – kidnapped, tortured, and killed anyone they suspected of "communism." In 1980, all-out civil war broke out. Over the next 12 years, approximately 80,000 Salvadorans were killed. With the signing of the Peace Accords, the war came to an end, but the fundamental causes of unrest were not resolved. Political corruption still exists. Social inequality is perhaps greater than it has ever been. The gap between the rich and poor continues to grow. The disintegration of families caused by migration to the states has torn at the fabric of society. Violence continues to plague the Salvadoran population, though it has changed from the violence of a civil war to a violence associated with highly organized crime, narco-trafficing, and gang wars.
Even a brief overview of El Salvador's history makes one thing clear: the cycle of domination and exploitation has left scars. This history is not a thing of the past but a reality that has influenced life today. The marginalization of the poor, the poverty of opportunity, and the violence with which the people live are not random creations but the result of structures of social injustice which remain deeply ingrained.