This case study illustrates El Salvador’s progress in governance. The story describes the nature of the progress, analysis of the factors that have contributed to progress and lessons for policy makers.
From 1980 to 1991, a violent and destructive civil war raged throughout El Salvador, rooted in more than a century of systemic social, political and economic exclusion of large segments of the population. From the latter half of the 19th century, the country had been ruled by an oligarchic alliance of a small wealthy landowning class and the military, which maintained its grip on power in a context of overwhelming inequality through the use of physical force. The formal institutions of government in El Salvador were little more than a facade.
These historical divisions were compounded by changes in the geopolitical context. In the Cold War era, Latin America was one of the major battlegrounds in the war between capitalist and communist ideologies. El Salvador was no exception: during the, war the US provided more than $1.1 billion to the right-wing government in an attempt to contain Cuban- and Nicaraguan-backed revolutionaries. The result of this unfortunate conjunction of historical injustice at home and geopolitical conflict on the world stage resulted in a war that led to the deaths of 75,000 people and the displacement of more than a million others.
And yet, from this challenging and complex point of departure, El Salvador has achieved significant progress in developing a system of governance that provides incentives for the state to act in ways that promote the wellbeing of the population in general, rather than merely that of an elite. The country has progressed from a state of affairs in which physical violence was an accepted form of political contestation to a norm of non-violent political activity.