El Salvador, republic in northeastern Central America, bounded on the north and east by Honduras, on the extreme southeast by the Gulf of Fonseca, on the south by the Pacific Ocean, and on the west and northwest by Guatemala. El Salvador, the smallest and most densely populated Central American state, is the only one without a Caribbean coastline. It has a total area of 21,041 sq km (8124 sq mi). San Salvador is the capital and largest city.
Land and Resources
El Salvador consists of a central plateau, cut by river valleys and lying between two volcanic mountain ranges that run east to west. A narrow Pacific coastal belt is less than 24 km (less than 15 mi) wide. High, rugged mountains are found in the extreme northwest. The plateau has an average elevation of about 610 m (about 2000 ft). The highest point in the republic is the Santa Ana volcano, 2385 m (7825 ft) above sea level. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are common. The largest river, the Lempa River, is partially navigable.
El Salvador lies within the Tropics; the climate, however, is moderated in many regions by high elevation. The climate of the coastal strip is tropical; that of the plateau and highlands is semitropical and temperate; the mountain regions have a temperate climate. The average annual rainfall is about 1830 mm (about 72 in), and the rainy season lasts from May to October. The average annual temperature of San Salvador, the capital, is 23.9° C (75° F).
El Salvador's natural resources are primarily agricultural. Mineral deposits include gold, silver, limestone, and gypsum. Such commercially valuable trees as oak, cedar, mahogany, balsam, and rubber are found.
Plants and Animals
The mountains of El Salvador have temperate grasslands and sparse forests of oak and pine. The natural vegetation of the remainder of the country consists of deciduous trees and subtropical grasslands. Tropical fruit and medicinal plants are abundant.
The animal life of El Salvador, less varied and rich than that of other Central American countries because of the high population density, includes monkeys, coyote, jaguar, puma, and ocelot. Among the reptiles are the iguana and the boa constrictor.
The capacity of hydroelectric power plants in El Salvador increased from 50,800 kilowatts in 1956 to 713,800 kilowatts in the early 1990s. Total annual electricity production is about 2.2 billion kilowatt-hours, of which about 54 percent is hydro-generated.
More than 90 percent of the population of El Salvador is mestizo, that is, of mixed Spanish and Native American ancestry. The remainder is composed of unmixed white and Native American groups.
The population of El Salvador at the time of the 1992 census was 5,047,925; in 1995 it was estimated at 5,768,000, giving the country an overall population density of about 274 persons per sq km (about 710 per sq mi). The population density is the highest of any country in Central America. The society is primarily rural, with only 43 percent living in urban areas.
Spanish is El Salvador's official language. Some Native Americans speak Nahuatl. The principal religion is Roman Catholicism.
San Salvador, the capital and largest city of El Salvador, has a population (1992, greater metropolitan area) of 1,522,126. Other important cities include Santa Ana (202,337), a center for a rich agricultural region; San Miguel (145,000), at the foot of San Miguel volcano; and Mejicanos (101,139), a suburb of San Salvador.
Children in the elementary grades are provided with free compulsory schooling. El Salvador had about 3200 primary and secondary schools with a total enrollment of about 1,066,700 in the late-1980s. In the same period some 80,018 students were enrolled in institutions of higher education. The University of El Salvador (1841), in San Salvador, is the most prominent university. The University of Central America, a Jesuit institution, also is located in San Salvador.
The people of El Salvador are predominantly a blend of Native Americans and Spanish, and their culture reflects this heritage. In addition to a highly developed interest in classical art forms, Salvadorans have preserved the folk heritage of their Native American and Spanish ancestors. Colonial festivals from both traditions are still celebrated.
Folk music of El Salvador resembles that of other Central American countries, but some popular dances uniquely combine elements from various European countries. The danza, for instance, is an offspring of the English country dance and the Spanish contradanza.
In the early 1990s El Salvador's annual gross domestic product (GDP) was $14.2 billion. With a per capita income estimated at $2461 a year in the early 1990s, El Salvador is one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere. Inflation is chronic, and unemployment remains high. The nation's economy is dominated by agriculture and is heavily dependent on coffee. The economic infrastructure, which includes roads, electric power, and commercial banking facilities, is fairly well developed. Since the mid-1960s the country has experienced a relatively rapid development of light manufacturing industries. In the early 1990s, the estimated annual budget included $846 million in revenues and $890 million in expenditures. During the 1980s the United States spent nearly $5 billion on civilian and military aid to El Salvador.
About one-third of El Salvador's land area is arable. Despite several attempts at land reform, 1 percent of the landowners control more than 40 percent of the arable land. Coffee, the major crop, is grown primarily in the southern mountains. In the late 1980s coffee accounted for about 20 percent of the total annual value of exports. Cotton and sugarcane are the other leading export crops. Corn, rice, and beans are the principal food crops. Fruits grown include bananas, mangoes, pineapples, apples, avocados, coconuts, and papayas. Cattle are raised on the central plateau.
Forestry and Fishing
Because of the dense settlement, the forest resources of El Salvador have been reduced to a small percentage of the total area of the country and offer little actual or potential lumber production. Most of the building wood must be imported. Balsam trees, however, are abundant, and El Salvador is a leading supplier of the medicinal gum balsam.
Shrimp is the leading commercial fishing catch. Small quantities of tuna, mullet, mackerel, and swordfish are also caught.
Mining, Manufacturing, and Commerce
El Salvador has no significant mineral resources; gold, silver, coal, copper, and lead are mined in limited quantities. Since the early 1950s the government has assisted in developing industry. In the early 1990s manufacturing accounted for about 19 percent of the annual gross domestic product. The principal items manufactured are refined petroleum products, textiles and apparel, food and beverages, footwear, cement, fertilizers, and tobacco products. The first steel-rolling mill in the country was opened in 1966.
Chief exports are coffee, cotton, and sugar. Exports were valued at about $730 million annually in the early 1990s. Imports, valued at $1.9 billion, include foodstuffs, chemical products, crude petroleum, cement, fertilizers, machinery, and iron and steel products. El Salvador trades principally with the U.S., Germany, Japan, Mexico, Venezuela, and Guatemala. The country is a member of the Central American Common Market. In 1995 El Salvador joined in the formation of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS). The ACS comprises 12 nations bordering the Caribbean as well as the member nations of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM); the ACS works toward the creation of a free-trade zone among member countries.
The colón is the basic monetary unit (8.7 colones equal U.S.$1; 1994). The Central Reserve Bank of El Salvador is the sole bank of issue.
Transportation and Communications
El Salvador has some 10,000 km (about 6214 mi) of roads and 602 km (374 mi) of railroads. Although the country has little domestic air service, its international airport is served by several foreign airlines. The country had some 2.1 million radios, 475,000 television sets, and 250,000 telephones in use in the early 1990s.
About 40 percent of the wage labor force of El Salvador is engaged in agricultural work, 15 percent in industry, and 45 percent in commerce and other activities. Labor was permitted to organize in 1950 with the exception of the agricultural workers. In the late 1980s about 15 percent of the labor force was unionized.
The constitution of January 1962 provided for a republican, democratic, and representative government. A revolutionary junta assumed power in 1979, and most provisions of the constitution were suspended. A Constituent Assembly was elected in March 1982, and a new constitution came into force on December 20, 1983.
After the 1979 coup, El Salvador was governed under interim arrangements in which the military played a leading role. The 1983 constitution restored an elective presidency, with a civilian chief executive, popularly elected to a five-year term, serving as commander in chief of the armed forces.
Enactment of the 1983 constitution transformed the 60-member Constituent Assembly into a unicameral Legislative Assembly whose 84 members serve three-year terms.
The 1983 constitution enhanced the independence of the judiciary. The highest judicial organ, the Supreme Court, is elected by the Legislative Assembly.
Among El Salvador's major political parties in the late 1980s were the National Conciliation party, the Christian Democratic party, and the Nationalist Republican Alliance (known by its Spanish acronym, ARENA). Many former guerrilla groups are now legal political parties including the Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). In 1994 dissenters within both the ARENA and FMLN parties split off and formed their own parties. ARENA dissenters formed the Liberal Democratic party (PLD) and FMLN members formed the Renewal Expression of the People party (RDP).
El Salvador is divided into 14 departments, each administered by a governor appointed by the central government for a term of four years. The mayors of the municipalities are elected by popular vote every two years.
Health and Welfare
The Salvadoran Social Security Institute was created in 1949 to provide national health, accident, unemployment, old-age, and life insurance. The program, covering most industrial workers and employees, is supported by compulsory contributions from workers, employers, and government and is expected eventually to cover all workers.
The country maintains an army (28,000 members), navy (500), and air force (2000). Military service is compulsory for men between the ages of 18 and 30 for a period of two years.
Prior to the arrival of the Spanish in the early 16th century, El Salvador was inhabited by several Native American tribes. The Pocomam, Chorti, and Lenca were related to the Maya of Mexico, while the dominant group, the Pipil, were related to the Aztec civilization. The Pipil name for the land that became El Salvador was Cuscatlán, ("Land of the Jewel").
After the conquest of Central America in the mid-1520s by Pedro de Alvarado, the lieutenant of Hernán Cortés, El Salvador formed part of the captaincy general of Guatemala, which successfully revolted against Spain in 1821. For a short time El Salvador was under the domination of the Mexican Empire established by Agustín de Iturbide. In 1823, when that empire was dissolved, El Salvador became one of the component states of the United Provinces of Central America (which included Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica as well).
First Century of Independence
El Salvador gained independence on January 1, 1841, after the breakup of the federation; during the remainder of the 19th century the history of El Salvador was a turbulent one. Periods of domestic turmoil alternated with armed conflicts with neighboring states. The early 20th century was a rare period of relative stability, and the economy made considerable progress. The production and export of coffee became the leading industry. A railroad network was built, and extensive port facilities were developed at La Unión. The progress benefited only a small number of landowners, however, and the vast majority of the people remained poor.
From 1931 to 1944 the country was under the dictatorial rule of General Maximiliano Hernández Martinez. Although his regime had friendly relations with the German and Italian dictators in the late 1930s, El Salvador cooperated with the United States and its allies during World War II and became a charter member of the United Nations (UN) in 1945. The country joined the Organization of American States when it was formed in 1948, and in 1951 it signed the charter of the Organization of Central American States. This was followed in 1958 by the formation of the Central American Common Market.
Deeply Troubled Country
Beginning in the late 1940s, the demands of the submerged classes for economic and social reforms became more urgent. They were met with little response, however, from the series of military and civilian juntas that held power. In January 1961 a directorate instituted the first of many economic reforms that were attempted during the next two decades, all of which were either half-heartedly made or thwarted by the large landowners. In 1969 the resulting tension spilled over into Honduras, where thousands of Salvadorans had migrated, and flared up in a brief war between the countries. This war became known as the "Soccer War" because it began shortly after the two countries met in the World Cup soccer tournament. In 1972 the declared election of Colonel Arturo Armando Molina was protested as fraud by his civilian opponent, José Napoleón Duarte, who soon fled the country. Similar charges followed the election in 1977 of General Carlos Humberto Romero. By then the situation had deteriorated, and street assassinations by leftist and rightist forces alike were common.
Further descent into chaos followed. In 1979 a military junta overthrew President Romero. The junta tried to carry out agrarian reform, and it nationalized banks, but its popular support remained weak. Duarte, back from exile, joined the junta and assumed the presidency in December 1980. As his government, with U.S. support, battled the guerrilla insurgency, Duarte called elections for 1982, leading to the formation of a right-wing government. His party failed to win a majority and a right-wing coalition came to power. A new constitution was enacted in 1983. In the presidential elections of May 1984, Duarte was restored to office. The following March his Christian Democratic party won a majority in legislative elections.
An earthquake caused severe damage in San Salvador in October 1986. In the 1989 elections the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance won a majority in the Assembly, and its leader, Alfredo Cristiani, succeeded Duarte as president. In September 1991, with UN mediation, Cristiani and rebel leaders agreed on a framework for peace. The signing of a treaty in January 1992 ended the long civil war, in which an estimated 75,000 people were killed, most of them civilians. It provided for, under UN supervision, a formal cease-fire in February, disarmament, an approved commission to investigate human-rights violations, dissolution of military-intelligence units, and the creation of a national police force that would include both government and rebel personnel. In 1993 the United Nations-sponsored Commission issued a report blaming right-wing death squads and the military for most of the human-rights violations and civilian deaths. Although Cristiani initially agreed to abide by the commission's recommendations to dismiss those army leaders charged with violations, he later granted amnesty to many of the accused. UN-observed elections in March and April 1994 precipitated a runoff vote between the rightist candidate, Armando Calderón Sol of ARENA, and the leftist candidate, Rubén Zamora. Calderón Sol won the runoff vote by receiving nearly double the vote for Zamora. In September 1994 a UN report stated that land and housing promises made to former FMLN rebels were not being carried out in concordance with the 1992 peace treaty. In protest of this delay 500 former FMLN soldiers occupied the Legislative Assembly and called for the full completion of the treaty. The soldiers left peacefully two days later after receiving assurances from the government.