El Salvador is often the forgotten nation of Central America. Mexico is the guiding political power, Costa Rica and Belize are famed for their natural beauty, Panama for its canal and Nicaragua (unfortunately) for its troubled past and history. Yet El Salvador has all the above; beautiful landscapes defined by volcanoes, beaches and tropical rainforests; a complex and varied history and an economy that is growing rapidly.
What has made El Salvador stand out is that it is the only nation in Central America not to have a Caribbean coastline. It is a country solely focused on the Pacific Ocean and within a region where so much attention is focused on the development of the Caribbean this has distinguished the nation.
So why has it been ignored in the discourse and media attention of Latin America. For the most part this is because they are fighting for attention in the region. Costa Rica is arguably the most well know country, outside of Mexico, within the region and other have used their similar history and geography to attract tourists, business and the world’s media. El Salvador has often been outside of this focus in Central America and this has meant that few people have great knowledge of the nation. These are four reasons why El Salvador should be better known:
- It has a fast growing economy that has already outstrips many of its more famous neighbours.
- It is, ecologically, one of the most bio-diverse nations in the world.
- It saw one of the bloodiest civil wars in Central American history from 1979-1992.
- Ethnically it is the only Central American country that has no visible African population today, which has distinguished it from other nations in the region.
El Salvador: Pacific Power
As previously stated El Salvador is a Pacific nation with an economy that has tended to focus on the Americas as a whole, rather than simply on the Caribbean. It is an economy that traditional was rooted in industrial output, often being referred to as the most industrialised nation in Central America. However following the Civil War much of this industry was damaged and the country has fought hard to climb back up to a position of economic prominence. Arguably it has achieved this, only sitting behind tourist hotspot, Costa Rica and business orientated Panama in regional rankings.
With both those nations there are big, world known factors that have resulted in their economic rise; for Costa Rica it was the promotion of tourism and for Panama it was the trade of the Panama Canal that bought them riches. However El Salvador has progressed with very little understanding of what it produces. The key to El Salvador’s economic successes may be in the diversity of its export economy. Manufacturing in textiles, electrical product and agricultural products all participate in building a El Salvadorian economy and the government has been constantly exploring new ways to achieve economic growth.
A Scar on its History: Civil War and Martyrs
El Salvador has been at the centre of the world media but that was often for the negative impact of a Civil War that tore the country apart, resulted in the deaths of thousands of people and made martyrs of many leading opposition figures, who have become symbols of the new El Salvador.
In 1979 conflict erupted between the US-backed military government and the left-wing coalition of guerrilla groups known as the FMLN. It was a conflict that involved a coup d’etat, the repression of Native ethnic minorities, death squads and widespread repression that resulted in the disappearance of thousands of El Salvadorians.
It was one of the worst internal conflicts in the history of Central America and resulted in the death of over 75,000 people. Lasting for over twelves years there were widespread human rights violations by the Salvadoran military and security forces that continued at high levels during the 1980’s. Thousands of individuals were kidnapped by both sides, becoming part of a legacy of the ‘disappeared’ of Latin America and leaving lingering memories for the people of El Salvador.
But the conflict was more than violence, it created a global figurehead for El Salvador, someone who represented the path towards building a peaceful future. In 1980 Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated, it is believed on the orders of a death squad led by Major Roberto D’Aubuisson. He had been an advocate for the poor and repressed in El Salvador, calling on the US to end their support of the regime that had begun widespread persecution of the state, including the Church.
His assassination created a martyr out of Archbishop Romero, a figure who has now come to represent support for the oppressed and poor of South America. He is undergoing the beatification and cannonisation process and has been accepted as the unofficial patron saint of El Salvador and the Americas. Worldwide he is referred to alongside other religious figures and martyrs, including Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, adding further validity to his position as an El Salvadorian icon.
The El Salvador of the Future
El Salvador has great potential for the future; for economic development and political progress. The nation has been looking to boost their economic growth further by increasing diversification and tourism has been touted as a possible industry to expand into. It has the volcanoes, ecological diversity and beaches that have attracted tourists to the other nations of Central America. Now it has entered a period of stability it has been offered as an alternative to the criminality and conflict that has been characteristic of other nations in the region, such as Nicaragua, Honduras and even Mexico.
The people have sought to establish a future that moves beyond the civil war and uses the legacy to build a new society in El Salvador. This new El Salvador is proud of the progress it has made since 1992, when the civil war finally ended, and has used the figure and legacy of Oscar Romero as a basis to build on.
Like the Spanish explorers who discovered El Salvador and the Pacific coast in the 16th century, the leaders of the nation are looking out across the Pacific Ocean looking towards the future and endless possibilities for the nation, looking to explore uncharted opportunities and make a name for themselves.
If you want to explore this further this is a good video from the Martyrs Project looking at the life of Oscar Romero: The Project: “Romero”