September 15th is Central American Independence Day, the day that the Republic of Central America declared independence from Spain in 1821. Over the course of the next several decades, the Republic began breaking up into different countries. There was a group of people who were proponents of a single Central American republic, and many of those people were concentrated in the area now known as El Salvador. But the forces of division were stronger, and by 1859 El Salvador was the last chunk of Central America that hadn’t broken off – hence its tiny size – and that year El Salvador declared itself an independent, free, and sovereign nation.
Independence Day is an ironic holiday though, because many of us argue that El Salvador never really achieved independence, and certainly is not functioning as a sovereign nation today. Ever since its independence in the 19th century, El Salvador has been at the mercy of the economic whims of the world’s super powers. In the 1870s, Central America saw the construction of the first railroads, which made it possible for agricultural products to be easily transported to the Atlantic coast and exported to Europe, where the thirst for coffee was insatiable. These railroads were built with money mostly from England, a project that made millions for English investors in coffee and the handful of Salvadoran coffee plantation owners, while stripping the population of lands and indigenous identity.
Then in the 19th century the United States emerged as a superpower, and took on the role (which we still maintain today) as international police and powerhouse of all the Americas. The US built the Panama Canal – another major project of economic interest – and needed to protect their dominance in the Central American region so they could keep getting richer off the exportation and transportation that their new canal enabled.
The US dug its hands deeper into the pockets of El Salvador by giving loans to the government that were paid by the country’s import and export tariffs, and began buying off the railroad and mining companies that formed the backbone of trade and wealth in El Salvador. In that way, the gringos managed to get their hands on great power in El Salvador, and with the support of the Salvadoran government.
See, it’s been the same story for centuries now: the people who control business and most of the land in the country are those who are in political power, and it is in their favor to maintain strong ties with the United States because their businesses and products benefit from the US market or the loans given by the gringo government or institutions. But the problem is that this kind of relationship has historically only been beneficial to that small group of people who maintain political, social, and economic power. In theory, the way international politics works is that each country is looking out for its own best interest, and will make policies and agreements that favor their national interest. But the flaw in that theory is that countries with less power – like El Salvador – are often handed over by their own leaders to the whims of the global superpowers so that a few can benefit.
So, according to theory, can you really blame the US for looking out for its own best interest? But in practice, can you really expect countries with a weaker economy and less development to stand up to an economic power like the US?
Here are some of the examples of how El Salvador is not operating as a sovereign nation today:
- Even though El Salvador is a country of agricultural production with capacity to produce all the basic grains consumed within the country, increasing percentages of basic grains (including corn and beans) are imported, and mostly from the US.
- Infrastructural development – like roads, electricity, and water – depends on projects funded by organizations in other countries. The Salvadoran government is easily manipulated by the governments of those countries, who might say something like “if you want the $$ to build these roads, you should probably pass ____ law…”
- Most of the major products consumed by this increasingly consumerist society are made by mega international companies that dominate the market and make the emergence of Salvadoran companies for Salvadoran (and international) consumption impossible
- Free Trade policies that enable more powerful countries to benefit from cheap labor in El Salvador – which perpetrates poverty instead of ending it – while making it easier for already wealthy international companies to dominate the Central American market as well.
- A Canadian mining company is trying to sue the country of El Salvador for refusing to allow them to mine gold in El Salvador, due to the detrimental environmental and humanitarian effects. El Salvador should have the right to deny foreign companies from getting rich at the expense of Salvadoran wellbeing.
So this Independence Day perhaps what we are celebrating is the struggle for independence, the struggle that began long before 1840 and continues today.