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A brief history of El Salvador

Native American peoples related to the Maya inhabited present-day El Salvador from an early date. Several notable archaeological sites contain dwellings and other evidence of daily life from 1,400 years ago. Spaniards first appeared in the area in May 1522, when an expedition headed by Andrés Niño entered the Bay of Fonseca. The Spanish conquest of Cuzcatlán, the Land of Precious Things, began in June 1524. It was led by Captain Pedro de Alvarado, a daring conquistador who had accompanied Hernán Cortés to Mexico. Alvarado’s brother Gonzalo and cousin Diego completed the conquest, and Diego established the city of San Salvador in April 1528. Under the Spanish colonial empire, El Salvador was part of the Kingdom of Guatemala, which governed most of Central America. Under the federation’s liberal republican constitution of 1824, Manuel Jose Arce won a hotly contested and disputed election to become the first president of the United Provinces of Central America in 1825. Then in 1827 Guatemalan conservatives took over the federal government, leading to renewed civil war from 1827 to 1829. Liberal forces won the war in 1829, and their leader, Honduran General Francisco Morazán, became the new federal president in 1830. From 1871 to 1944 various liberal presidents were elected who continued the reforms that former Gerardo Barrios had begun. This began a long period of liberal rule that saw the transformation of El Salvador’s economy, political structure, and society.

After 1885 Salvadorans were finally free from Guatemalan control. The governments that followed concentrated on economic growth and improving the country’s basic facilities. However, this progress benefited only a small group; most Salvadorans remained poor. General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez ruled El Salvador as a military dictator from 1931 until 1944. In the years that followed, military officers continued to control the government, but new political parties and labor unions were allowed to form, giving the urban middle class an opportunity to participate in politics.

The Party of Democratic Revolutionary Unification (PRUD) governed until 1961, when it was replaced by the similar Party of National Conciliation (PCN). Led by General Julio Rivera, the PCN ruled until 1979. In October 1979 military officers took over the government in a coup.

José Napoleon Duarte’s government initiated social and economic reforms, including a plan for land reform, and tried to control abuses by the armed forces. But the military chiefs still controlled the nation. Right-wing death squads carried out political assassinations to intimidate their opponents. On the left the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a coalition of guerrilla organizations, declared war against the government. In 1989 ARENA’s presidential candidate, Alfredo Cristiani, won the election to succeed Duarte. The following year, peace talks began between the government and the FMLN, which resulted in the disbandment of the FMLN forces and the government army.

Recovery from the ravages of the war began slowly, but after 1992 the Salvadoran economy improved significantly. The new civilian police force was deployed in all departments by mid-1994 and reached its full strength early in 1996. The first postwar elections took place in March 1994. The FMLN established itself as the leader among the leftist opposition parties.

Despite improvements in El Salvador’s export economy and balance of payments, most of the serious social and economic problems that existed before the civil war remain.

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