The most important facts on the history of El Salvador

The History of El Salvador

Joel Walsh ( has written for numerous web sites, in addition to the Let's Go: Mexico travel guidebook, and translations for a Venezuelan human rights NGO. At university, he studied Spanish literature and the history of Spanish-speaking countries, spending his final semester at the University of Havana.

General overview on the history of El Salvador

El Salvador stands in the middle of the extremes that mark Central America. Its beautiful landscape has regularly played host not only to earthquakes, but massive oppression by the ruling elite and devastating rebellions and waves of repression. While the history of El Salvador has not been quite as poor or bloody as neighboring countries such as Guatemala and Nicaragua, it has suffered more than its share of misery.

The Land of Precious Things: El Salvador before the Spaniards

Tiny El Salvador has been home to some of the greatest civilizations of Mesoamerica (present-day Mexico and Central America).

A giant stone sculpture of a head, called the Olmec Boulder, shows that the great Olmec civilization was here at least as early as 2000 BC.

The Maya came not long after but they made their place in the history of El Salvador as they inhabited the western part of the country for over a thousand years. They left step-pyramids at Tazumal and San Andres.

The eastern part of the country was inhabited by the Chorit, Lenca, and Pokomam.

The last pre-Colombian civilization to dominate the area was the Pipil. They spoke a Nahuatl language, and were descendents of the Toltecs and Aztecs, both of Mexico. The Pipil probably came shortly after the final collapse of the Mayan empire in the 11th century.
Their culture, heavily influenced by the Maya, included writing, astronomy, and mathematics, and was based on corn farming>
They called their homeland Cuzcatlan, the Land of Precious Things.

Spain Turns the Land of Precious Things into a Giant Plantation

The first Spaniards did not arrive until 1522, and the first conquest was not attempted until 1524. But the Spaniards’ diseases preceded them. When Pedro de Alvarado swept down from his conquest of Guatemala to take over Cuzcatlan, he found a people badly weakened by disease.

Still, they fought back for a month, forcing Alvarado to retreat. Alvarado’s brother Gonzalo and cousin Diego came back to finish the bloody job not long after. Diego established the present capital, San Salvador in 1528, which was moved to its present site in 1540.

El Salvador was made part of the Kingdom of Guatemala, itself a part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain (Mexico).

The Spanish turned the landscape into plantations for growing balsam, cotton, and indigo. The area was a quiet backwater until the 1700s, when Spain encouraged the production of indigo, which was used to dye the fabric streaming out of the new European textile manufactures.
Enslaved indigenous peoples and Africans farmed the land while fourteen families essentially controlled the economy.

In 1786, Spain made San Salvador a separate political unit within the kingdom of Guatemala. As El Salvador became more important, the wealthy local Salvadorans came to resent the dominance of Guatemala.

Independence from Spain

A bloody experience in the history of El Salvador

In the early nineteenth century, the badly weakened Spanish Empire faced a series of uprisings in its American colonies. Father Jose Matias Delgado led a revolt in 1811, but Guatemalan forces loyal to Spain brutally crushed it.

When Mexico achieved independence in 1821, Central America went with it. The Central American Federation was formed a year later, but it broke up in 1841, making El Salvador an independent country. In 1833, Anastasio Aquino led an unsuccessful revolt of indigenous peoples against the few families who controlled El Salvador.

During the nineteenth century, coffee replaced indigo as El Salvador’s main export, accounting for 95% of trade income. But since the bulk of that income went to a small group of coffee elites, there were constant popular uprisings, each one followed by violent repression.

The popular resistance came to a head after the 1929 stock market crash and subsequent crash in coffee prices. In January 1932, the military hunted down people who appeared to be indigenous or who were suspected of supporting the uprisings, killing 30,000 people. This was one of the most bloody event in the history of El salvador.

The twentieth century: another bloody and warlike period in the history of El Salvador

In the coming decades, El Salvador’s economy stayed bad even while its population skyrocketed. Many Salvadorans left the country, most to neighboring Honduras.

Huge resentment against Honduras, which was supposedly mistreating the Salvadoran immigrants, led to the Soccer War. During the 1969 World Cup match between the two countries, anger against the country rose to the level that the government used it as an excuse to invade Honduras and bomb its airports. The war lasted less than a hundred hours, though relations with Honduras were badly damaged.

The history of El Salvador is hurt by another military coup in 1972. As a consequence the country’s political situation disintegrated to the level of its horrible economy. Guerillas, chief among them the FMLN, fought the dictatorship. The dictatorship formed death squads to hunt down guerillas, their supporters, and thousands of average Salvadorans.

In 1979, the opposition movement, including the FMLN, formed the Federacion Democratica Revolucionariawhich will mark the recent political history of El Salvador through its tough opposition to the government.
Meanwhile, the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua encouraged many Salvadorans to fight the dictatorship in an armed struggle. The 1980 assassination of the popular archbishop, Oscar Romero, increased their resolve.

The international intervention

Once again the history of a Central American country (here the history of El Salvador)is influenced by The US intervention who, led by Ronald Reagan, propped up the brutal regimes that ruled El Salvador over the next twelve years with a total of $6 billion. During that time, around 75,000 people were killed.

From 1990 to 1992, the United Nations negotiated a ceasefire between the FMLN and the sitting regime. The death squads were officially ended and there were to be improvements in land distribution and human rights, in exchange for the rebels laying down their weapons.

A democratically elected government took power in 1994, amid allegations of election fraud.

Today, many Salvadorans doubt whether they are any better off than before. Poverty and massive violence plague the country. Emigration has skyrocketed; one in five Salvadorans now lives outside the country.

At present you know more about the history of El Salvador, learn more about the geography of El Salvador
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History of El Salvador
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