In terms of Central American development, El Salvador falls right in the center. It is poorer and less developed than southern neighbors Costa Rica and Panama, yet it sports higher development indicators than Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.
A reflection of its stable government, El Salvador saw a smooth and problem-free political transition in 2009 when Mauricio Funes, a retired journalist associated with left-wing rebels during the Civil War and the FMLN’s (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) first successful presidential candidate, replaced Antonio Saca. Funes’ election marked the first transfer of power since the end of El Salvador’s Civil War in 1989 and served as a testament to the progress made in the country.
In spite of its political achievements, El Salvador still faces many problems; two of the most prominent of which are migration and gang violence.
El Salvador is Central America’s smallest country, yet it has Latin America’s highest population density. Land shortages and soil degradation have left many Salvadorians with few options other than migration. While the media tend to focus on Mexican migration to the United States, many Salvadorians also arrive in the United States via the Mexican border. In spite of their country’s small size, Salvadorians are the seventh largest foreign-born population living in the United States (Wikipedia). According to the Migration Policy Institute, around a fourth of all Salvadorians currently live in the United States.
In recent years El Salvadorian development has been improving. It is now on par with the world average. (National Human Development Report for El Salvador).
El Salvador receives more remittances from the U.S. than any other country in the Western Hemisphere except Mexico. Remittances composed nearly 17 percent of its GDP in 2006 (Migration Policy Institute).
For those who cannot afford to migrate to the U.S. or were unsuccessful in their attempts to do so, migration to El Salvador’s cities, particularly the capital, San Salvador, is a tempting option. El Salvador’s urban migration fuels its second major challenge: gang violence.
World map of homicide rates—El Salvador and Honduras have the highest rates in the world (UNODC).
Latin American and Caribbean countries occupy 14 of the 15 highest positions in the global chart of homicide rates. In recent years, El Salvador and Honduras have traded positions as the most crime-ridden county in the world. (Wikipedia).
As Colombia is becoming more stable, the violence associated with the drug trade is being pushed north to El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico. This displacement, along with urbanization and the deportation of gang members from the United States, have led violence in El Salvador to spin out of control.
As 9 in 10 crimes in El Salvador are not prosecuted, most criminals incur few consequences. Furthermore, El Salvador has recorded more murders of women than any other country in the world. The femicide rate, in particular, is a reflection of the male-dominated gang culture.
Similar to efforts in Mexico and Guatemala, Funes deployed the Salvadorian army to urban streets shortly after his election in 2009. Since then crime rates have failed to decline, leading to much criticism of the Funes administration’s ability to follow up on its promises to decrease violence. In spite of the administration’s failure to combat gang culture and violence, it has made strides in education and social improvement. These successes have helped Funes maintain the highest approval rating of any Central American leader (Central American Data).
When President Barack Obama toured Latin America in early 2011, he made three stops. His first two—to Brazil, Latin America’s rapidly expanding economic powerhouse, and Chile, Latin America’s richest country—surprised no one. His third and final stop in tiny El Salvador shocked many.
At first glance, El Salvador seems like an odd choice for President Obama’s trip to Latin America, especially when considering that unlike other U.S. presidential visits to the region when all of the Central American leaders were convened to meet with the U.S. President collectively, Funes was the only president to meet with President Obama on his Central American stop. Obama’s visit is a testament to El Salvador’s development and a clear sign that the United States has singled out El Salvador as a key ally in the region.
Economically, El Salvador is essentially irrelevant to the United States, but politically it is extremely important. Guatemala makes a poor choice as a U.S. ally because drug cartels control a large portion of the country—to a much greater extent than they do in El Salvador. In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega’s election earlier this year was clouted with voting fraud and his close relationship with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez means it too is a poor choice for an ally. Political fraud abounds in Honduras, which was condemned by the United Nations and the Organization of American States following a 2009 coup d’état. Stable and developed Costa Rica does not provide many opportunities for a budding relationship, and Panama is often viewed as culturally and historically tied to South America instead of Central America, as it was once part of Colombia. As a result, El Salvador figures more prominently than one might expect.
El Salvador still has a long way to go in terms of combating gang violence, and it still has plenty of room for social improvement. Gender and income equality are particularly pressing issues. Yet El Salvador has made great strides in recent years, setting itself apart as a far-from-perfect yet optimism-inspiring example of Central American social and economic development.