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Social Characteristics of Poverty, Illiteracy and the Civil War in El Salvador

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| Social characteristics of Poverty, Illiteracy and the Civil War in El Salvador: | EL Salvador | | BY: Yvette Rodriguez | |

While El Salvador is the smallest nation in Latin America, it has been plagued with a myriad of issues that affect many third world countries. The social issues stem from a long history of violence and government mandated reforms. Civil unrest for decades led to a twelve year civil war, this being the most defining issue in El Salvador’s history. The affects of the war are still present today, such as high poverty rates, illiteracy, high crime rates, and public health concerns. Michael Ring, director of U.S. El Salvador Sister Cities is quoted saying;
Since the January 1992 signing of the historic United Nations-sponsored Peace Accords, El Salvador has experienced a series of dramatic changes-some contributing to peace and development, other’s threatening the lives of El Salvador’s majority.
The sociological perspective of El Salvador is formed by these effects, as that they are still prevalent today. Conflict and revolution are significant factors in shaping a national consciousness in third world countries; consequently the consciousness of the people of El Salvador is still divided. Externally, the large group of migration to the United States in the last two decades has added to the sometime rocky relationship between the U.S. and El Salvador. Aid from the United States influences current practices in the struggling nation and have proven helpful but many factions among the people deter progress at times.
The civil war in El Salvador began in 1980, marked by the death of many civilians and the FMLN being formed. FLMN, Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, now a major political party in El Salvador, has proved to be the most successful opposition to the right- wing military control. Protests date back to the late 1800s when coffee became a major crop in El Salvador; it increased the countries income greatly. However, like many developing countries, the fortune was confined to the wealthiest 2% of the population. By 1932 the Central American Socialist Party was formed, led by Augustin Farabundo Marti. It was comprised of peasants and indigenous peoples, all forming together to protest the government. The government responded swiftly to the protests and the military carried out “death squads” killing indigenous looking peoples, and anyone in suspicion of protest. This uprising by the peasant population peaked on January 22, 1932 when they gained control of many towns. Their victory was short lived; it took a mere two days for the military to overtake their rebellion, resulting in what is now referred to as La Matanza (the massacre). Approximately 30,000 Salvadorians were lured into a town square with promises of peace discussions and compromise. The civil unrest raged on for years, with countless revolts, protests, and government coups. On March 24, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero, was murdered by a military assassin for condemning the government's repression of the peasantry. Other notable events in 1980 included the government backed military and the Christian Democratic party forming an alliance, making it ever more powerful.
Frantz Fanon writes in “The Wretched of the Earth”
In these poor, underdeveloped countries where, according to the rule, enormous wealth rubs shoulders with abject poverty, the army and the police from the pillars of the regime; both of which, in accordance with another rule are advised by foreign experts. The strength of this police force and the power of this army are proportional to the maramus that afflicts the rest of the nation. The national bourgeoisie sells itself increasing openly to the major foreign companies. (Fanon, 1965, p. 117)

The class conflicts between the authoritarian powers and those living in poverty caused the war to be a very violent and long struggle. Tensions between the U.S and Salvadorian rebels increased in the early stages of the war when American churchwomen were raped and killed. When Reagan was elected president, the relations shifted, worries of Communism increased thus spurring the reinstating of sending aid to El Salvador. The economic and military support from the U.S. throughout the war has been criticized due to the human rights violations that occurred and the large scale violence. David Ziegler in “War, Peace and International Politics” (2000) writes: “wars occur because states’ leaders have at their disposal instruments of violence-armaments and armed forces. Without arms there could be no war.” (Ziegler, 1996, p. 134) Critics of the war say that perhaps the war would not have been so violent and longstanding without aid from the United State. James McGovern former aid to Congressman Joe Moakley during the war says, “There was an arrogance about U.S. policy that rationalized, explained away and even condoned a level of violence against the Salvadoran people that would have been intolerable if perpetrated against our own citizens.” When Ronald Reagan was elected President the fears harbored by the administration were similar to that of the “Vietnam effect” where deep involvement in Central America would be detrimental to both nations. This being said, the numerous human rights violations began well before the stated commencement of the war.
Marques writes;
Jesuit priests and church activists first promoted agricultural cooperativism in El Salvador beginning in the 1960’s. These activities were perceived as “revolutionary” by the state, and as a result, many cooperative members were killed or persecuted. This situation spanned into the 1970’s, representing a period of repression and intimidation against small farmers and cooperatives.” (Marques, 2004, p. 4)
Numerous human rights were violated throughout the 12 year war, some were illuminated and other may still be hidden. Nearing the end of the war, an appeal to the UN was created, highlighting the human rights violations by the military;
Grievance 7:
Expresses its deep concern about the persistence of politically motivated violations of human rights in El Salvador, such as summary executions, torture, abductions and enforced disappearances, and about the atmosphere of intimidation in which certain sectors of the population live (GENERAL, 1990)
The violent environment and fear that is instituted with a lengthy war affect not only those in revolt but those born within that time. Children born during the span of the civil war were brought into an environment with much inequality and few options. The extreme violence that occurred before and during the war caused many people to come to the United States in order to provide for their families. When peace talks began in El Salvador, mistrust and animosity was prevalent. In 2003 El Salvador’s government passed a “firm hand” (mano dura) reform that outlawed gang membership and spiked police power. There was noticeable decline in murders, but no decline has been seen since 2004.
Civil wars, especially those as long as the Salvadorian war, have huge affects on the development of a country. Poverty in El Salvador has been as constant as the war itself. The changing economic map of the country and the lingering ill-will towards the centralized powers, have played a large role in the unrest. Approximately 48% of the population is living in poverty, and many believe that migration to the United States would be more lucrative. A very large Salvadorian population lives and works in the U.S., some illegally. 61% of the population has no access to water piped into the home, thus causing constant protest from the lower sector citizens. High crime rates, gang violence and diminishing faith in the justice system complicate the poverty problem. The centralized power in El Salvador has caused the public to believe that their government is not focused on citizen’s issues.
The 2002 study on titled Fair Trade Networks in Two coffee Cooperatives of Western El Salvador: An Analysis of Insertion through a second level organization explained;
Coffee has lost much of the economic importance it once held in El Salvador. This sector is currently suffering not only from the price crises, but also from a significant decrease in the support it once received from the state. The majority of coffee farmers in El Salvador are small growers and farmers grouped in collectively managed cooperatives. Some of these cooperatives are tapped into alternative markets. These commercialization networks are increasing perceived as one of the few ways to survive the current price crises. (Mendez, 2002, p. ii)
The economic relationship between coffee production and much of Central America is dependent on the global economic state. When the global economy dips, as does many third world countries dependent on income from trade, this is not a new development in world history. This bears the question, is globalization of the markets in third world countries lucrative in the long term? Large infrastructure changes need to be made in order to achieve a booming global market, however many of these changes overlook the poor citizens. Disregarding education and economic enterprises that only benefit the wealthy, coupled with the internal conflict caused El Salvador to steadily have high poverty rates. Many other factors play into the high poverty rate in El Salvador, if you reference the table below, you’ll notice that much of Latin America suffers from high poverty rate. Country | % of population in poverty | Argentina | 3.7% | Bolivia | 37.7% | Brazil | 13% | Chile | 2% | Columbia | 17% | Costa Rica | 16% | El Salvador | 48% | Nicaragua | 17% | Belize | 13.4% | Guatemala | 25% |
Source: Data compiled via World Bank.

In the early 80’s agrarian reform, which was anticipated to aid tremendously cause more internal conflict .The World Bank indicated “The agrarian reform corrected the sharpest inequality in the distribution of assets in the country” however, the distributions were exploited and the investment was low.
Until 1970 the economy of El Salvador was strongly dependent on the foreign exchange generated by coffee exports. The situation changed drastically in the 1990’s when the coffee price crises was further exacerbated by a shift in government investment from the agricultural sector towards the industrial export industry. (Mendez, 2002, p. 3)
Agrarian reform, in theory is a lucrative idea for third world countries however like the division of the land during colonial periods, it was not equally applied.
Some of the key factors that influence pro-poor growth are: macro instability, public spending policies, rural development, remittances, labor market conditions, and gender policies. Macro instability leads to insecurity which, like inequality, impairs growth and poverty reduction, as it deters investment. Insecurity about future employment and income also directly and adversely affects welfare because most households and workers care not only about the level of their standard of living, but also about its security. El Salvador was subject to intense volatility in consumption, wages and employment during the first part of the 1990s, as a consequence of the adjustment process. (Marques, 2004, p. 11)
Finally, dollarization in 2001 and the later the economic downturn in the United States, the nation’s main trading partner, have made economic growth difficult. USAID and other North American based organizations make efforts to strengthen civil organizations and address societal concerns. With the United States being the leading trading partner with El Salvador, the shift to importing apparel and textiles as opposed to agricultural products has proven difficult in the 2000’s since they are competing with much more efficient nations in Asia.
Triggered by the high poverty rates and violence, illiteracy and inadequate education is prevalent. Illiteracy fluctuated throughout history in El Salvador. Many of the issues with education date back to the times of revolt when citizens attempting to educate themselves were seen as a form of resistance. The University of Central America was taken over by the Salvadorian military in 1981, as that the university was a place for antigovernment sentiments to grow. Fifty students were killed there the previous year, causing it to stay closed for many years. High dropout rates influenced by the economic status of the students, makes educational reform difficult. Migration to the United States to earn keep for their families not only shapes the economy of the nation, it also affects the educational standard of its citizens. Those who have received higher education are a small population who have either moved up in the social strata or moved out of the nation. The current education system is broken into primary school ( 3 cycles of 3 grades) and secondary education. Education in rural areas is rarely consistent and poorly managed, causing the people to leave in hopes of finding work. The economic reform in third world countries is most times followed by education reform. Students were massacred in Mexico in the 60’s, in an attempt to quell the anger, big education reform was implemented. Education reform has always been praised as a way to lift a country out of poverty, provide social mobility and obviously educate its citizens. High quality education is associated with a self sustaining population; however access to this education is not always easy. Education reform calls for decentralization of powers to lower sectors, leaving the responsibilities to localities, which are sometimes not equipped for the task at hand. Education reform was implemented in 1991 in El Salvador; decentralization occurred and power was given to localized community education groups. Much of this fell through due to the constantly changing environment and the remaining social issues from the war.
In conclusion, the sociology and perspective of El Salvador is dense with issues dating back to colonial periods. The current state of the nation provides a reprieve from the bloody history. However, despite a changing and evolving political system, educational reform, and a relatively less violent environment, much of the population still suffers from extreme and poverty and illiteracy. Clean, piped water to homes is not common in rural areas and education reform is still in the beginning stages. Citizens’ Access to Labor Justice for CAFTA-DR and the support of NGO’s assist the nation to achieve its requirements under the Fair Trade Agreement between Central America, the US and the Dominican Republic. Focus on labor improvement for marginalized groups of industry workers and women greatly aid in the development of the local economies. Infrastructure change is ideal and is in progress however lower level changes make the daily lives of citizens more bearable. By empowering the individuals through education and better health, the ground work for a stable community expands. While the nation’s economy has been better off than its neighboring Central American countries, the changes have not been significant enough to produce high quality results. The current administration in the U.S. has established a better relationship with Salvadorian government and continued work with aid organizations are keeping the nation’s progress going.

Works Cited
Fanon, F. (1965). The Wretched of the Earth . France: Grove Press.
GENERAL, D. (1990). 45/172. Situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms in.
Marques, J. S. (2004). Operationalizaing Pro-Poor Growth The Case of El Salvador. Washington DC: World Bank.
Mendez, V. E. (2002). Fair Trade Networks in Two Coffee Cooperatives of western El Salvador: An Analysis of Insertion through a Second Level Organization. Colorado State University/DESAL/FORD Foundation , 26.
Ziegler, D. (1996). War, Peace, And International Politics . Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman & Co; 7th edition.

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