A few rich landowners exploit and overwork the poor masses to grow coffee and sugar for export...the poor get upset and start organizing for their rights...the government, controlled by the military, cracks down on the uprising, forming death squads and murdering thousands...the United States, fearful of a successful revolution of the people that might hurt its economic interests, gives millions of dollars to the military in arms and training, increasing the death toll of the civil war...sound familiar?
El Salvador is Central America's smallest country and also one of its most disproportionately divided in terms of wealth and education. Even though the country as a whole has one of the stronger economies in Central America, the unemployment rate is around fifty percent and half of the children between the ages of zero and fifteen are malnourished. The vast gap between the rich and the poor is a mind-blowing! 95% of the country's income is controlled by only 2% of its population!!! Talk about unbalanced! Because they suffer from such enormous social and economic injustice, the poor in El Salvador have attempted to overthrow the government at various times throughout the twentieth century. A strong hero in the country's past is Augustin Farabundo Marti, who led an uprising of peasants and Indians in the 1930's. In what became known as La Matanza (The Massacre), the army responded by killing any supporters of the uprising and killing Marti by firing squad. Over 30,000 people in all were killed.
Probably the most well respected and remembered hero in El Salvador's past, though, is the Archbishop Romero. Even though the government was controlled by a military regime, El Salvador maintained itself as a Catholic country. The Archbishop for the country, while not having direct political power, had a great deal of influence and respect in the country and was always present at presidential inaugurations and events. During a time of such turmoil, the Catholic Church appointed Romero as Archbishop because they believed he would remain neutral and not get too involved in the controversial and ugly civil war. Fellow priests and close friends of his were directly involved in the guerrilla insurgency in the country and brought the extreme violations of human rights and torture practiced by the government to Romero's attention. Staying true to his faith and belief in equality, Romero took a controversial stand against the military in defense of the people's rights. The government soon began a large-scale persecution of people associated with the Catholic Church, calling them communist supporters of the guerrillas. They finally shot and killed Romero while he was giving mass on Sunday, March 24, 1980. The tomb of the beloved archbishop is now contained in the Cathedral Metropolitana in the city center of the capital, San Salvador.
The murder of Archbishop Romero sparked an armed insurgence that ultimately led to twelve years of civil war predominantly between the conservative ARENA party and their military and death squads, and the FMLN (Frente Marti Liberacion Nacional, named after Augustin Marti) which supported the rights of the poor. After over six billion dollars of U.S. aid to the Salvadorian government and its cruel death squads and over 75,000 people killed, a peace agreement was finally signed in January 1992. The agreement called for reforms such as the formation of a civil police in place of the death squads, an investigation of human rights violations, and a redistribution of land.
In 1994, the ARENA candidate Calderon Sol was elected president for a five-year term, but many feel that the election was rigged. Many of the proposed reforms of the peace agreement are still unanswered and meanwhile, gang warfare, unemployment, and poverty are increasing. That's why these current elections, scheduled for just three days from now on March 7, could be momentous in Salvadorian history. As of right now, the FMLN governs a greater proportion of the country's 14 departments, and a portion of the National Assembly equal to that held by the ARENA party.
It seems most of the youth I've seen in San Salvador are supporters of the more liberal FMLN party. "The army is supposed to guard the election polls to make everyone feel safe to vote, and to make sure the vote is fair," explained Frank, a student at the University of El Salvador. "Given the history of the army in this country and most people's memories of the army, we'll see just how fair it will be."
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