Thursday, July 30, 2009

A History of Poverty

To help understand why things are the way they are down here, I think we need to talk briefly about the recent history of El Salvador. Some of this information I gathered from various readings on the internet; others came from word-of-mouth (ie. from talking to my principal, who has lived here for 3+ years).

In El Salvador, for many generations the country had no middle class. There were the land-owning elite, namely "the 14 families", who literally divided the entire country into 14 gigantic jigsaw pieces (after driving out the native Indians), and those who were landless and impoverished. To give an idea of how far-reaching the wealth is of those elite families, my principal pointed to the giant volcano that backdrops the city of San Salvador, and said that two-thirds of that mountain is still owned by a single board member of our school today! All of that land teems with coffee plantations, and one can only imagine how much money is associated with that volume of production.

As with any sort of wealth disparity comes social unrest. The country divided itself over time into two parties -- the same two parties that still exist today -- the Republican party, or ARENA, and the Socialist party, or FMLN. Locals simply refer to the latter as Frente, which literally means "Front" and refers to the idea that the FMLN came about as a coalition of smaller populist parties. Over time, both parties began to use violence -- torture, rape, and killings -- to further their cause, and by the late 1970s, the situation had boiled over to a full-blown Civil War.

Because the landless Salvadoreans were sympathizers of Fidel Castro and because this period in Salvadorean history corresponded in timeline to the U.S. fear of the spread of Communism, the U.S. administrations from Carter to Bush Sr. gave a total of 7 billion dollars in aid to El Salvador in support of the ruling elite. Sadly, since this choosing of sides was political in nature, whether it was justified remains questionable. An excerpt from Amnesty International's 1985 annual report states, "Many of the 40,000 people killed in the preceding five years had been murdered, by government forces, who openly dumped mutilated corpses, in an apparent effort, to terrorize the population." --This is not to gloss over the violence brought on by the opposing guerrillas, but simply to state that both sides were definitely violent to an extreme in this internal conflict.

In any case, in 1992 a peace accord was signed, partly because the guerrillas were running out of steam. For a period of 5 years that followed, parts of the land were re-distributed slowly to eligible soldiers on both sides under the supervision of the United Nations, and the guerrillas re-established themselves as a legitimate political party.

In June, the first ever Frente president took over in a legitimate election. It had been expected to be a landslide victory, ever since he had emerged as a popular, moderate, and charismatic candidate. But, the 6 months before the election saw a lot of rumors spreading fear that he was a Communist and was going to drive away all the business owners in the country. In the end, he won by a margin less than 3%. The jury is still out, since he is so new, but we can only hope for the best.


Some worrisome news from a Salvadorean blog I read:

The online periodical Contra Punto reports the latest homicide statistics for the first 7 months of 2009 and they are troubling. Murders are up 37% in El Salvador for the first seven months of 2009 compared with the same period in 2008. So far in 2009, there have been 2428 violent deaths, compared to 1767 in 2008. These statistics come from the Attorney General's office who asserts that the majority of these murders are gang-related.

Speaking of gangs, supposedly the rampant gang activity down here is, again, closely tied to the history of poverty in this country -- and maybe surprisingly, also related to the Salvadorean immigration to/deportation from the States.

In any case, Geoff's and my neighborhood is relatively safe. Like most of our neighbors, we have 24-hour security guards who hold machine guns behind closed gates -- not that they actually would use the guns in a time of need, but as far as appearances go, I think they give off some sort of a protective vibe, anyway. And for now, Geoff and I have given up on walking home at night, just to be on the safe side. Cab rides are only a few dollars to get to anywhere in the city, so it's really not worth it to walk even 15 minutes in the dark...


  1. Great investigative reporting on El Salvador. Keep up the good work. From my little experience in the region it seems like the story is the same for a lot of central america (ie rich land owning elite and poor working class). Maybe this election and the "coute" in Honduras will bring change to the region and

    Be safe

  2. Thanks! We will try to be safe. :) Geoff's more cautious when I'm around...

    Hope you're doing well!!