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El Salvador: After the War

Unjust economic, social and political relationships within El Salvador and between El Salvador and the world's economic powers contribute to hunger, violence, poverty and environmental destruction.  A large percentage of Salvadorans still struggle to meet their basic needs, while the country's historically skewed wealth distribution has worsened.-Michael Ring, director, U.S. El Salvador Sister Cities

Mozote monument
Monument to those who died in
the Mozote massacre
© Mike Oso

Turmoil in El Salvador has been replaced with peace. The agreement brokered by the United Nations, has generally been a success. Land has been transferred to citizens, human rights violations investigated, death squads have been dismantled, a national civilian police force has been put into place, and formerly armed revolutionaries - the FMLN - have become integrated into government and civilian life.

While many of the reforms outlined in the United Nations Peace Accords were successfully implemented, many Salvadorans consider their current situation to be no better now than it was before the civil war. Half of the six million Salvadorans are unemployed. Poverty and the proliferation of guns have led to high homicide rates - 12 times higher than murder rates in New York *. Lack of environmental protection laws has resulted in pollution, trash and sewage problems. Less than three percent of the country remains forested due to the heavy cultivation of coffee, sugar and cotton.

Life in El Salvador

posters on wall
Maria, founder of Committee of Mothers of the Disappeared (COMADRES)
© Mike Oso

Indirectly we're responsible for a lot of damage that's been done in that country.... We've spent $6 billion down there helping to destroy the place... we should spend a couple of dollars putting it back together again.
- Congressman Joe Moakley

By the 20th century, 95 percent of El Salvador's income came from coffee exports, but only 2 percent of the population controlled that wealth.

The people live as appendages to coffee growers. During coffee season everyone goes out to harvest coffee. Children wake up and go off with their mothers, fathers, uncles, brothers and sisters into the coffee groves. A family will cooperate trying to fill up the 25-pound bags that are called "arobas." They might get six colonnes, maybe $0.70, for filling up a 25-pound bag. On a good day they could fill up maybe eight or ten of those bags, and that would be an extraordinary amount of money. What would that be? Well, it might be seven dollars.... The problem is that this coffee season might last six or eight weeks, and then the rest of the year is a scramble.
- Father Dean Brackley

Coffee picker
Man with an "aroba" filled with coffee beans
© Steve Cagan

Today El Salvador's major industries, other than coffee, are: textiles, sugar, beverages, petroleum, chemicals, fertilizer, textiles, furniture, light metals and cotton. The largest source of income however, is money sent from Salvadorans who have left the country. Approximately 20 percent of Salvadorans now live abroad. With harsh immigration laws in North America, many have lost their lives in the process of emigrating.

El Salvador has the highest level of environmental damage in the Americas, leaving its lush, volcanic beauty and the health of its residents in jeopardy. The disastrous flooding from Hurricane Mitch in 1998 was primarily a result of erosion due to deforestation. Many of the country's river systems suffer from pollution, and some experts fear that at the current rate of destruction, the country will run out of drinking water in less than 15 years.

At a polling station

In 1994, El Salvador held its first elections that included candidates of the FMLN and other parties. The ARENA party, originally formed by rightist military officers and landowners, won the presidency. In 1997, in El Salvador's second free and open elections, the FMLN won 45 percent of the popular vote and leadership of key cities including the capital San Salvador, thus becoming the second most powerful political party in the country. In 1999, El Salvador elected another president from the ARENA party, Francisco Flores, a former professor of philosophy who vowed to tackle the country's two most daunting challenges: economic development and crime.

On March 13, 2000, the FMLN won 31 seats in the single-chamber parliament against the ruling ARENA's 29. This was the first time in its 11 years in power, that the rightist party was defeated in legislative and municipal elections. The FMLN also kept the capital, where Mayor Hector Silva was reelected. The FMLN's supporters rose to the occasion, holding the biggest celebration by the left since the end of the bloody civil war.

Former Defense Minister Jose Guillermo Garcia and former National Guard chief Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova were cleared November 6, 2000 of responsibility for the deaths of the four American churchwomen who were raped and killed by soldiers in 1980. Tried in the U.S., a federal jury in Florida said there was not enough evidence linking the retired generals to the slayings.

The United States returned to El Salvador in 2000 establishing an anti-drug trafficking military base at the international airport in Comalapa to replace facilities lost when the U.S. left the Panama Canal in 1999. The FMLN opposed the action, fearing U.S. intervention in the country's internal affairs.

For more on El Salvador today, read Michael Ring's perspective.

*, June 1, 1999

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