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Country Profile: El Salvador

Introduction: El Salvador is a small Central American country that is suffering from a weak economy. The country lost about 75,000 lives during a 12-year civil war that ended in 1992.

Vital statistics: El Salvador, which borders Honduras and Guatemala, has an area of 21,040 square kilometers, making it approximately the size of the U.S. state of Massachusetts. Its coastline measures 307 kilometers along the Pacific Ocean. Its population of 6.35 million (as of July 2002) is growing at a rate of about 1.8 percent per year. Its gross domestic product per person is about $4,600.

History: The first people known to have lived in the area that is now El Salvador were the Nahua, a nomadic people who migrated to Central America around 3000 BCE. Archaeological evidence also shows that the Olmec had a presence in the country from about 2000 BCE, and the Maya also lived in the region, particularly in the area bordering Guatemala. When Spanish explorers and conquistadores arrived in the 16th century, the area was dominated by the Pipil, who had connection with the Nahua and were descended from the Toltecs and Aztecs of what is now Mexico. The culture showed both Mayan and Aztec influences and was advanced in areas such as astronomy and mathematics.

El Salvador mapDespite initially stiff resistance, the Spaniards quickly conquered the area, and the area became part of the administrative unit that includes what is now Guatemala. Largely because what little gold that was in the area was difficult and costly to extract, the El Salvador area never became particularly important to Spain, which granted independence to the area in 1821. In 1823, partly to prevent a takeover by Mexican forces, five countries of Central America — El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica — established the United Provinces of Central America. The federation proved to be a political failure, and El Salvador became independent in 1841.

In the coming decades, coffee exports would dominate the economy of the country, and those with resulting economic power eventually gained political and military power as well; the military was sometimes used to discourage dissent from the campesinos (farmworkers).

The repression of the military and landowners led eventually to political violence, particularly after the disputed 1972 elections. Leftists organized as the Faribundo Martí Liberation Front to oppose the government. The violence reached a climax in 1980 when a leading critic of human-rights abuses by the government, Archbishop Oscar Romero, was assassinated, apparently by right-wing forces.

During the 1980s, under the U.S. leadership of President Ronald Reagan, American military aid to the Salvadoran government was increased so it could fight the insurgency. Hostilities came to a formal end with a cease-fire, land reform and elections in 1992. Today, parties representing both the right and left are represented in the Parliament, although many of the poor don't appear to be better off than they were under less democratic rule.

The conflict destroyed much of El Salvador's economy and its infrastructure. A massive earthquake in 2001 left some 250,000 homeless and created further economic hardship.

Linguistic highlights: Nearly all people speak Spanish, although two indigenous languages, Kekchí and Lenca, are spoken by some people near the Guatemalan and Honduran borders, respectively. The Nahua language that dominated the region centuries ago is spoken by a few older residents and is nearly extinct. The literacy rate is around 60 percent.

Studying Spanish in El Salvador: El Salvador has a few language schools in San Salvador and along the coast.

Tourist attractions: Because of the civil war, El Salvador has little tourism infrastructure. The 2001 earthquake also delayed further tourism development. Travelers who are comfortable using Spanish, riding public transit and foregoing luxuries can enjoy the country's natural wonders such as beaches and volcanoes as well as precolonial ruins. A few upper-end accommodations can be found in San Salvador and along the Pacific coast, and ecotourism is a growing segment of the country's travel industry.

Trivia: A border dispute between El Salvador and Honduras led to active hostilities after a 1969 soccer match between the two countries, when Salvadoran fans harassed the Honduran players. The dispute became known as the Soccer War.

Public-domain map provided by the CIA Factbook

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