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    Trinidad & Tobago
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History of El Salvador

WARNING: Violence is common in El Salvador, please read this travel warning before going!

El Salvador was originally inhabited by a number of Native American people, but when the Spanish arrived in the 1500s the land was primarily occupied by just three groups: the Pipil, the Lenca, and the Lempa. The Pipil were similar, culturally to the Aztecs and Mayans and the Lempa were Mayan in origin.

In 1524 and 1525 the Spanish took control of the region and immediately named it El Salvador (The Savior). Oddly, the Spanish government placed the region under the direct supervision of Panama as opposed the neighboring Guatemala, but this changed in the 1540s when Spain solidified power and their military presence in Guatemala, putting El Salvador under their jurisdiction.

Throughout the 1600s and 1700s little changed in the mountainous country of El Salvador; the region was divided and sub-divided with borders regularly changing over time, however primarily remaining intact. This changed in 1786 when El Salvador was unified as one country and how the people identified slowly shifted from numerous meanings to seeing themselves as "Salvadoran."

From 1786 into the 1800s tensions grew between Spain and El Salvador as numerous groups within the colony sought greater freedoms up to and including independence. The wealthy settlers in El Salvador wanted the freedom to trade with anyone they wished, while the Criollo and mestizo peoples viewed themselves as subservient to Spain and wanted an independent country to represent their growing nationalism and identities.

In 1811 El Salvador revolted against Spain, but the Spanish quickly sent troops in from Guatemala to end the revolt. Just ten years later though numerous other Central American colonies joined the independence movements and in 1821 El Salvador, along with many of their neighbors gained independence from Spain.

With independence in 1821 the Central American countries formed a federation linking the countries, but this federation was faced with numerous border disputes and political arguments. In 1822 Guatemala and other countries wished to join Mexico, but El Salvador resisted, leading to a military action by Guatemala and a brief war between the two countries with Mexico backing Guatemala. This was short lived though as Mexico received a new government the following year and gave the Central American countries the freedom to choose their futures.

El Salvador's independence troubles continued in 1832 with revolts by the indigenous people against both the middle and upper classes. These struggles and arguments continued for years, however rarely did they result in violence.

In 1838 the federation of Central America was dissolved and El Salvador, along with many other Central American countries, gained full independence. Continuing in the tension between the indigenous people and upper classes, the government adopted a one-side constitution favoring the wealthy land owners. For the rest of the 1800s the constitution was continuously amended, but always maintaining power in the hands of the wealthy land owners. This subjugated both the indigenous people as well as the middle classes.

The most obvious alteration of these disagreements and the importance of arable land came with the shift of exporting indigo to exporting coffee. As indigo was no longer demanded coffee became the country's most valuable crop and the wealthy land owners abandoned some lands and took others in order to control the most favorable lands to grow the crop of importance at the time. This releasing and taking of land truly magnified the power the land owning class held.

The next example of power being held firmly and solely at the top of the economic scale came in 1931 when General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez took power in a coup. Hernandez Martinez suppressed the people to the point that the indigenous people, along with others rose up to fight the dictator. With no true support, money, weapons, or power, the reaction brought about by Hernandez Martinez became known as "la matanza" (the slaughter), killing nearly 30,000 people.

Despite Hernandez Martinez's removal from power in 1944, the country has retained little stability from 1931 to 1980. The country was ruled over by military dictator after military dictator, some of whom came to power through coups, others of whom came to power through unfair elections. This instability peaked in the 1970s when Jose Napoleon Duarte lost a presidential bid, which many claim was rigged and hence revolts began. After Napoleon Duarte was exiled by the government democratic methods of change were almost wholly pushed aside for a military uprising.

In 1979 a new government took power, with whom no group truly agreed, leading to civil war. This civil war crossed borders as the domestic groups were divided by political leanings and hence foreign powers tried to encourage their political leaning groups, essentially becoming a communist or anti-communist revolution from an outside perspective. This civil war lasted until the early 1990s, when peace was finally established.

The peace that prevailed from the war removed power from the military and put that power into the hands of the people to a greater degree. Trials also began against individuals from all groups who proved themselves to be inhuman and violators of numerous human rights during the wars, however few of these people have actually be tried or imprisoned for these crimes. This peace settlement also shifted land ownership in many ways.

Since the end of civil war the government has been working on de-militarizing and has privatized numerous institutions and companies. Although progress has been made in these areas, the economy and culture has been strained by the return of numerous Salvadorans who fled during the war. This has led to greater unemployment and the opportunity to find work as drug traffickers, an industry that is sadly growing as the country sits between the source of these drugs (South America) and the users demanding the product (primarily the United States and Canada).

This page was last updated: July, 2012