Despite its small size, El Salvador has been a big target for American foreign policy over the past four decades. For much of its modern history, the country has had to endure the rein of military juntas and right-wing governments, most of whom have enjoyed strong support from Washington, DC. Beginning in the 1960s, US military advisers began schooling Salvadoran army officers in counterinsurgency tactics and sent many officers to the notorious School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia. Human rights organizations and critics of US policy in Central America have pointed out that this military training helped infuse a brutal mentality within the Salvadoran military and those closely allied with it. From 1980 to 1992, El Salvador was ravaged by civil war between the US-backed conservative government and leftist guerillas. Since then, the country has enjoyed relative peace as the leftist rebels put down their weapons, joined in the electoral process and won seats in the national legislative body. However, the left wing has been unable to capture control of the presidency thanks to US efforts to prevent this from happening, according to organizations in Latin America. In March 2009, Salvadorans elected their first left-wing president, Mauricio Funes, who previously worked as a journalist and focused on revealing the corrupt habits of El Salvador’s previous presidents.
Lay of the Land: El Salvador, the smallest mainland nation in the Western Hemisphere, occupies a southwestern corner of Central America and is bordered by Honduras and Guatemala. The mountains and the Pacific Ocean form its natural boundaries. The majority of the country is a large inland plateau at an elevation of 2,000 feet. Active volcanoes and crater lakes dot the lush countryside.
El Salvador was originally inhabited by the Pipils, descendants of the Aztecs and the Toltecs of Mexico, who had arrived in the 12th Century. In 1524, Pedro de Alvarado landed and carried out a series of military campaigns that conquered El Salvador for Spain. It remained under Spanish control until 1821 when El Salvador gained its independence and became part of the Mexican Empire for two years. In 1823, El Salvador joined the Central American Federation, where it struggled with Guatemala for control of the federation. After the federation broke apart in 1839, El Salvador had to deal with dictators of neighboring countries, such as Rafael Carrera and Justo Rufino Barrios of Guatemala and José Santos Zelaya of Nicaragua. The following century, dictators became a common problem for El Salvadoran politics.
In the 1960s, the United States helped the Salvadoran government organize a rural paramilitary force known as the Democratic Nationalist Organization (ORDEN) and the Salvadoran National Security Agency (ANSESAL). The Green Berets sent 10 counterinsurgency trainers to help instruct the Salvadoran military. Both ORDEN and ANSESAL were formed to combat communism. ORDEN not only indoctrinated peasants about the evils of the communist system, it also operated as an intelligence network. The paramilitary operation was also blamed for numerous human rights abuses. A spinoff of ORDEN, the White Hand (Mano Blanco), was later called “nothing less that the birth of the death squads” by a former US ambassador to El Salvador.
The US imported $1.8 billion worth of goods from El Salvador and exported $2.0 billion worth of goods in 2009.
Francisco Altschul Fuentes was appointed ambassador of El Salvador to the United States in March 2010.
The choice of Mari Del Carmen Aponte as ambassador to El Salvador got the conservative blogosphere all riled up, after word got out about Aponte’s failed nomination during the Clinton administration. Back then, President Bill Clinton put forth her name as ambassador to the Dominican Republic—but had to withdraw it once rumors began to spread about Cuban spies having tried to recruit Aponte. The FBI’s interest in Aponte was dropped, but that didn’t stop conservatives from rehashing the story shortly after her latest ambassadorial appointment. Obama nominated Aponte on December 9, 2009, and she was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee April 27, 2010. However, Senate Republicans put a hold on her nomination.