El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America. After decades of turbulence and a negative media spotlight, the “land of volcanoes” is finally starting to live up to its potential. Underneath the media stories lie a people who shine in times of trouble and always maintain hope.
El Salvador has a rich tapestry of history, filled with culture, important figures, and pivotal moments. We’re about to go into the historical timeline and see why this land of mountains and volcanoes is on the rise.
The Nahuatl and Pipile (900 A.D)
The arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century was predated by the Mayan Empire from 900 A.D., which later collapsed. The Mayans had an enigmatic influence on El Salvador’s culture, and fascinating archeological sites have since been discovered.
The Spanish conquistadors who arrived during this time were met by the Pipiles – descendants of Nahuatl-speaking Toltecs and Aztecs who were both Mexican tribes. This land was called Cuzcatlán, which means “Land of Jewels,” and a Pipile capital, now known as Antiguo Cuscatlán, was built outside San Salvador.
The culture of the Pipiles was similar to that of the Aztecs, with heavy Mayan influences. The economy was supported by agriculture and grain growing, with several interconnected cities, The culture was complex and the people pursued hieroglyphic writing, astronomy, and mathematics. They spoke Nawa, a dialect related to Nahuatl.
Conquistadors and Spanish Conquest (1524)
Pedro de Alvarado was a Spanish conquistador who arrived in the area circa 1524 and founded the country’s first capital at present Suchitoto. The Spaniards battled against the locals until they finally subdued the land a year later.
El Salvador’s economy was primarily monocrop-based at the time, unlike its South American counterparts such as Bolivia and Mexico which had mineral resources. Naturally, a struggle ensued between the Spanish colonizers who were adept at exporting cacao, the local cash crop, and the locals. Later, the Spanish started growing and exporting indigo and later coffee in the 18th and 19th centuries. The were struggles over communal land and the development of Haciendas. The concentration of land led to local chiefs developing feudal relationships with the colonialists.
Independence and War with Guatemala (1821, 1851)
Hopefully, all that information isn’t too much and you don’t need to pay for essay just yet to take all that history in. In the early 1800s, Latin America was affected by growing unrest due to Napoleon Bonaparte installing his brother as ruler over Spain. El Salvador was at the center of one of the most important of these movements, led by Father José Matías Delgado, a priest who was a direct descendant of Pedro de Alvarado. The local Spanish-imposed governor was deposed on November 4, 1811, but the rebellion was short-lived. Only a few months later, troops from Guatemala put it down.
Later, Spain was taken over by liberals and Central America began to come undone from its colonizer. El Salvador moved into a short-lived union with Mexico first, and later to a federation known as the Federal Republic of Central America. Afterward, Father Delgado was one of the main architects of the new Central American constitution, and his nephew, Manuel José, became the republic’s first president.
The new republic only lasted 15 years but broke apart after 15 years in the wake of a liberal-conservative struggle that was made worse by regional economic woes. El Salvador was the republic’s last frontier, with Francisco Morazán trying to maintain the republic together. In 1839, Morazán invaded Guatemala in an attempt to restore the republic, but he was defeated by Rafael Carrera, thus ending the possibility of a united Central America. Guatemala and El
Salvador would engage in multiple skirmishes later.
The Coffee Revolution and Salvadorian Peasant Massacre (1860s to 1932)
Coffee was introduced to El Salvador in the 1850s, and from this period until the early 20th century, most Salvadorians were either large or small-scale growers. About 95% of El Salvador’s income derived from coffee exports, but only 2% of Salvadorans controlled that wealth. The land was also controlled by the feudal lords, and there was still much unrest.
Gerardo Barrios, a liberal in the mold of Francisco Morazán, tried a laissez-faire economic approach and attempted to make the Salvadoran state secular. This brought much conflict with the Catholic Church and eventually with Guatemalan rulership. Under the leadership of Rafael Carrera, Guatemala invaded El Salvador in 1863, and deposed Barrios, replacing him with Francisco Dueñas.
Duenas was deposed again from a rebellion supported by Guatemala in 1871. This led to what Salvadorans call “The Coffee Republic” era, a period that would last 60 years and only ended in 1931. During this period, a hierarchical society based on coffee exports that maintained force to keep a docile workforce was consolidated. While there was a coffee boom in this period, average Salvadorians were still living in poverty.
The Great Depression was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, and coffee prices collapsed. The situation escalated into a coup that brought Maximiliano Hernández Martínez into power because the armed forces were upset about not getting paid in 1931. Eventually, things came to a head with civilians matched against the armed forces in an insurrection led by Augustine Farabundo Martí, a founder of the Central American Socialist Party. This led to “La Matanza” or “The Massacre.” where more than 30,000 indigenous people were killed.
General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez (1935)
Between 1932 and 1948, El Salvador was ruled by a succession of military generals whose chief concern was to maintain order and protect elite interests. In particular, General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez led the country under repressive rule between 1931 and 1944.
In the years following La Matanza, El Salvador’s indigenous and rural communities continued to face oppression and marginalization. Many peasants and indigenous people lived in poverty, lacking access to education, healthcare, and basic services. Land ownership remained concentrated in the hands of a few powerful landowners, while the majority of the population struggled to make a living.
Various political and social movements began to emerge, seeking to address the longstanding issues of social inequality, poverty, and lack of political representation. Among the notable figures was José Napoleón Duarte, a military officer and politician who later became a prominent leader in El Salvador. During the 1960s and 1970s, the country witnessed a growing awareness and activism, with labor unions, student groups, and leftist organizations becoming more vocal in their demands for social and political change. This was met by repression and violence.
The Salvadorean Civil War (1980 to 1992)
The confrontation between guerrillas such as the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the army eventually came to a head in the late 1970s. Full-scale conflict followed between 1980 and 1992, later known as the Salvadoran Civil War, and which had devastating consequences for the country.
There were complex and brutal human rights abuses, including the infamous El Mozote massacre in 1981, where hundreds of civilians, including women and children, were killed by the military. The war caused significant suffering, displacement, and loss of life.
We’ve already covered much content on El Salvador’s history. This serves as a great starting point if you’re a student working on an essay on this topic. Visit a site like payforessay.net to get a proper essay outline, or to explore more specific themes on El Salvador’s history.
Let’s move on to modern, contemporary El Salvador and its political reforms.
The Chapultepec Peace Accords (1992)
The ending of the Civil War and the signing of the Chapultepec Peace Accords in 1992 reshaped the nation’s political landscape. As a result, El Salvador transitioned to a more democratic system, and the FMLN became a legal political party.
In the post-war period, El Salvador faced numerous challenges, including efforts to address the root causes of the conflict, promote economic development, and improve social conditions. Political instability and violence persisted, with the country facing issues like the rise of MS13 gangs and widespread crime.
Post-War and the Rise of Nayib Bukele (2009 to Present)
El Salvador achieved a historic milestone in 2009 when Carlos Mauricio Funes Cartagena, a former journalist, became the first leftist party candidate to win the presidency. This marked a departure from traditional right-wing governments that had long dominated the country’s political arena.
In 2019, a new era was ushered in El Salvador, as Nayib Bukele, a charismatic Millennial leader with no previous political affiliations was voted in as president. His election marked a significant shift in the country’s political scene and a move towards a modern El Salvador.
Simultaneously, the government launched a massive crackdown on criminal gangs such as MS13, that had long plagued the country and given it a bad rep abroad. For the first time, San Salvador, the country’s capital fell off the list of the world’s 50 most dangerous cities.
Bukele’s popularity continued to soar during his presidency, backed by his distinctive communication style and innovative approach to governance. The legislative elections during his tenure would prove to be a turning point, as his party, Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas), secured a supermajority in the Legislative Assembly.
In an unlikely move, El Salvador adopted Bitcoin as legal tender in September 2021, becoming the first country in the world to do so. While the decision was viewed as controversial, Bukele’s government urged citizens and businesses to make use of the new facility, and the government invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Bitcoin.
This historical timeline has shown the makings of a great albeit small nation. El Salvador’s history is marked by political transformations, the rise of a new generation of leaders, and innovative approaches to governance.
With new governance in place and endemic problems such as gang violence being tackled, Nayib Bukele’s government has one of the highest approval ratings in the world. As El Salvador moves into a new phase in its history, its people are ready to face the challenges of a new world with confidence.