El Salvador was one of the great, ancient Central American civilizations,inhabited by a number of Amerindian ethnic groups. When the Spanish invaded in 1519, El Salvador was controlled by the Pipil, who were related to the Aztecs through their Nahuat language. The country was then called Cuzcatlán, Land of Jewels. Already far more densely populated than Canada today, El Salvador was an organized state with laws, taxes and temples. Its trading routes extended over two continents; Salvadoran astronomy and mathematical systems were more advanced than those of Europe.

As in other Central American countries, Spanish colonialism destroyed much of the native culture. The Spanish created large plantations for cotton, balsalm and indigo (a plant used for making blue dye), and used the indigenous peoples as labour; many died under Spanish rule. Today, 95% of Salvadorans are partly or wholly of Amerindian descent.

On September 15, 1821, El Salvador gained freedom from Spanish domination, but the land was still controlled by a wealthy elite. In 1856 El Salvador separated from the federation of Central American states under the leadership of Jose Manuel Arce, El Salvador's first president. For 70 years, a succession of governments passed laws transferring ownership of land to the wealthy and powerful. During this time, El Salvador’s indigo industry was replaced by coffee. Attempts by workers to unionize were met with severe repression. In 1932, unable to tolerate their extreme poverty and the loss of their land, peasants revolted under the leadership of Farabundo Martí. Government responded with mass killings, including the murder of Martí. The first of a succession of military dictatorships was established, supported by a select group of coffee plantation owners.

Anti-government unrest continued and attempts to elect progressive governments proved impossible. In 1979, civil war erupted between the socialist, revolutionary guerilla army (collectively known as the Farabundo Martí Nation Liberation Front, or FMLN) and government-controlled military forces receiving funding from the U.S. government. The government created death squads to quash left-wing activity; thousands of peasants and many religious, political and union leaders, including Archbishop Romero, were murdered.

In 1990, after repeated calls for peace talks from the FMLN, the government agreed to negotiations mediated by the United Nations, and on January 16, 1992, a ceasefire agreement was signed. El Salvador now has legitimate elections and an improved human rights record. The FMLN has become an opposition party, and in March 2000, won the largest block in the legislative assembly. While the current president, Francisco Flores, is a conservative, the FMLN have gained the majority of municipal elections throughout the country.

  Did you know?
Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero gained enormous popularity in El Salvador as an outspoken leader in human rights. He was nominated forthe Nobel Peace Prize in 1980. The well-known film, Romero (1988), dramatizes his life.