Nicaragua Solidarity Now

Against the Current, No. 32, May/June 1991

Midge Quandt

AFTER THE DEFEAT in February 1990 of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), the Nicaragua solidarity movement in the United States went through a period of confusion and disarray.

Some people left the movement, especially those whose concerns had been mainly humanitarian. Many sister cities organizations faced with Nicaraguan municipal governments now controlled by UNO (the victorious U.S.-backed electoral coalition of Violeta Chamorro), were adrift. Funding fell off.

Although problems of money and morale have not disappeared, the mourning period is clearly over and the movement has entered a new and challenging phase. Activists are regrouping with a renewed sense of commitment; most sister cities projects are finding ways to do their work and everywhere debate is taking place about where we have been and where we are going.

Since Spring 1990, solidarity groups have been asking themselves a number of questions about politics, strategy and new directions. These discussions are happening in Central America and Nicaragua solidarity organizations in sister cities projects and most recently at the December conference sponsored by the Nicaragua Network.

Building on the past strengths of our work, the debate centers on three concerns: support for the FSLN; the need for a broader movement; and the merits of a more coordinated strategy.

Support for the FSLN?

Given the political climate in the United States, open support for the Sandinistas has always been problematic. In the past, prudence has usually dictated a careful avoidance of partisanship—the “Marxist-Leninist” label pinned on the FSLN being enough to induce caution.

With changed circumstances, however, the debate over siding with the Sandinistas has taken on a somewhat different complexion. As Patty Lee Parmalee of the Upper West Side New York City/Tlpitapa Sister Cities Project observes:

“While the Sandinistas held state power we said we were in solidarity with the people of Nicaragua. Look at the names of our organizations—do any of them use the word ‘Sandinista’? The merging of party, state and nation there allowed us to blur our ideological commitment not only for potential donors but even for ourselves … The situation is different now.”

With the FSLN out of power, we feel impelled to clarify our commitment to the party and its political project. Some activists want to refine the distinctive people-to-people approach that worked so well for us in the 1980s, one that combined support for the revolution with delegations, projects and material aid. Others question the value of that formula as long as it is not harnessed to a more sharply defined political position.

Those activists who advocate people-to-people work instead of political advocacy put forth a number of arguments. Some are averse to “meddling” in what they see as none of our business. “We can’t have it both ways,” insists Paul Doughty of the Gainesville/Matagalpa Sister Cities Project. “If we think Bush should stay out of Nicaragua, we’ve got to be consistent and stay out of its internal affairs.” (As if there were a level playing field out there.)

Others have reservations about backing the Sandinistas—or at least throwing too much of our weight behind them: Either their economic mistakes were too serious to overlook or the party is too authoritarian for unqualified support. According to this view, we would do well to support an array of projects, including non-partisan, humanitarian ways.

Even if movement activists wanted to come out of the closet and publicly back the Sandinistas, many are dubious about this maneuver. Mayee Crispin, former National Coordinator of the Nicaragua Network, contends that in the 1980s ‘the emergency nature of our work prevented us from building the foundation for a credible defense of the FSLN today,” adding that “at no time did we have the luxury of studying the Sandinista principles of political pluralism and a mixed economy.”

Yet the crisis mentality to which Crispin alludes, however much it seemed forced upon us, was not inevitable, and has had some unfortunate consequences for our work. More on that later.

Finally, the movement’s reluctance to cheerlead for the FSLN can be attributed to an understandable concern about alienating supporters in the community. Identifying not with the FSLN but with the values of the revolution, as the New Haven/Leon Sister Cities Project does, is one way of dealing with this problem. Project member Patty Nielsen comments: “We don’t openly support the Sandinista Front because the principles of the revolution are bigger than the party.”

In refusing to take sides, the solidarity movement has been insistently pragmatic. Doubtless it draws strength from this stance—putting concrete solidarity work with Nicaragua ahead of political advocacy (or progressive movement-building) is a strategy with much to recommend it. Our work is practical, its focus immediate, its loyalties clear, if it slights a more inclusive political analysis, so be it.

As Liz Chilsen, former Executive Director of the Wisconsin Coordinating Council on Nicaragua remarked: “It’s easy to have 20-20 hindsight and accuse the Movement of tunnel vision now that the crisis of the contra war is behind us.”

True enough, but it is not obvious that this observation lets us off the hook. In appealing to the immediate and the reformist, pragmatism always makes other goals look unattainable, sometimes with insufficient reason. As we zeroed in on what was most pressing, the practical impulse made us retreat from advocacy, tone down our message and postpone organizing around a larger set of issues—maybe unnecessarily.

“It’s shooting yourself in the foot always to stress the lowest common denominator,” argues Greg Tewksbury of the Brooklyn/San Juan de Rio Coco Sister City Project, “because you invariably neglect the big picture.”

According to this view, we could have done the Congressional work around contra aid and still educated our communities about the Sandinista Front But we did not do that, so that when contra aid ended yet the war continued, adds Guy Burton of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), “there was not enough political muscle up here to back the revolution.”

What about today? Those who want to take sides, including the Nicaragua Network, urge us to back the Sandinista Front (and the grassroots organizations associated with it), in order to strengthen its hand and help us reconnect with its revolutionary project.

These same people are likely to advocate building a broader solidarity movement that addresses U.S. “geopolitical’ goals and at the same time links up with domestic problems and politics. Perhaps because the less politically inclined have largely dropped out of the movement, this position seems to be gaining ground. Increasingly, those activists who remain are arguing that helping Nicaragua in the long-term requires nothing less than a new political order at home.

A Broader Movement?

In an effort to come to grips with the new situation in Nicaragua and the changes in U.S. policy, solidarity activists are asking a new set of questions. Should our anti-intervention work be more hemispheric in its focus? Should it deal more pointedly with economic issues? And should this new initiative be linked to questions of domestic politics? (These questions are being posed anew in the light of the Gulf War.)

As the U.S. Empire switches tactics, we seem to be entering a period of low-profile, malign neglect in Central America. Meanwhile in Nicaragua and the region, Washington is using economic aid to implement a neoliberal model of development under U.S. hegemony. In the new international climate—the Soviet Union retrenching, competition with Europe and Japan intensifying—the United States is redoubling its efforts to consolidate its hold over Latin America.

Many movement activists are talking about ways to approach the issue of hemispheric imperialism in this period: how to get a handle on it in our own groups; how to organize around it in the community; and how to connect it to economic and social problems here at home (and to the war in the Gulf).

Yet the hesitation about wading into the chancy waters of radical argument that has pervaded the movement in the past still hampers our efforts to arrive at a more comprehensive understanding.

Alan Wright, Paula Kline and Lee Cruz of New Haven/Leon speak for many when they maintain: “Using what seems to the average North American ‘inflammatory language’ at the outset may damage rather than advance our objective. When I asked, “What about later?” Cruz replied that even now his six-year-old Sister City Project does not engage in discussion or education about imperialism, preferring to rely on the “personal transformation” of its members.

In a paper that caused much discussion at the December Nicaragua Network conference and prompted the New Haven “Response,” David Barber and Rhonda Collins of the San Francisco Bay Area Nicaragua Solidarity Coalition reopened the question: “The Nicaraguan revolution is an anti-imperialist revolution, [but] the debate as to whether we would build an anti-imperialist solidarity-movement and how we would go about building such a movement has never been held in public. This discussion is past due.”

The desire to broaden the movement’s perspective by embracing the issue of imperialism is matched by the impulse to expand in another, though related, direction. At the conference there was strong sentiment in favor of linking U.S. domination of Central America to our domestic troubles, organizing around that linkage, and reaching out to other groups on the basis of our mutual self-interest and shared ideals. Many felt that the solidarity movement was ready for this step.

One obstacle to moving in this direction has diminished: the now necessarily attenuated “romance” with revolutionary Nicaragua. Writing in Z Magazine last spring, Peter Bohmer commented:

“Our overestimation [of the revolution] comes from our idealization of the Nicaraguan reality—caused by projecting our need for an ideal revolutionary movement onto the Sandinistas. The Nicaraguan people are not superhuman and cannot substitute for our inability to build a base for fundamental social change here at home.”

Now that the FSLN has been partially displaced from state power and the revolution is on hold, that idealization is difficult to sustain, at least in the same way. As a result many movement activists, though no less committed to Nicaragua, are looking more closely at U.S. politics, searching for ways to connect the struggles in Nicaragua with those at home.

In the conference workshop on “Fighting Back Against U.S. Attempts to Destabilize Nicaragua,” these concerns came to a head as participants hammered out the start of a possible three-pronged strategy. Facilitator Patty Lee Parmalee sums up the strategy thus:

1) Trying to change the way the United States distorts the economies and politics of poorer countries through so-called aid policies, focusing mainly on the Agency for International Development (AID) and other “aid”;

2) Direct material aid to projects in Nicaragua that promote independence and show what real aid should be;

3) Organizing around target groups in our own communities affected by the same policies that are squeezing the Nicaraguans: cutbacks, privatization, union-busting and so on, not to have separate programs In each of these areas but to find programs that address all three.

Much work needs to be done here: clarifying the issues, educating ourselves, devising a campaign behind which we can unite, if indeed we decide on a more coordinated strategy. The workshop was a serious start.

Too Little Strategy

Although as substantial number of solidarity activists, including many who did not attend the conference, would like to create a more inclusive movement, the legacy we have inherited stands in our way. An important aspect of this legacy is the limited, particularistic nature of our goals.

Like other post-1960s movements, the Nicaragua solidarity movement is leery of theories of total transformation and the ethos of large-scale organizing that accompanies them. As one organizer put it “Our Nicaragua work has to be single-issue worlc if we connected it to hopes for basic change in the United States, we’d wait forever.”

In addition, activists have worried that our focus would be blurred if we got sucked into a strategy of comprehensive transformation historically associated with the left.

These doubts account for much of our antipathy to long-range, systematic planning for social change and political power. For if you seriously engage in such planning, you have to think about building a movement that transcends the local and the specific.

Yet it is this very specificity that many activists see as our strength. Given our commitment to Nicaragua and our people-to- people way of working, it appears heartless and disloyal to compromise these for some grand strategic perspective. “Do we want to be right, do we want to have the ‘perfect analysis,’ or do we want to help Nicaragua?” is the way one organizer phrased it.

But this way of posing the question has its problems. For one thing, it makes theorizing and long-term strategic thinking vaguely suspect—too self-indulgent, too obsessed with political correctness. Then too, by substituting sermonizing for analysis, this mindset prevents us from thinking in a systematic way about the larger aspects of our work.

The anti-strategic posture of much of the movement has another consequence. It encourages a vision of change that relies on the transforming power of Individual—and by extension, collective—commitment to humane ideals, starting at the local grassroots level and moving outward.

What’s striking about this thinking is its abstract, amorphous quality, either by-passing altogether the question of organizing for structural transformation or placing it so far down the road that it disappears from sight. And when we indefinitely postpone forming a strategic perspective, we reinforce the suspicion that only the immediate counts, that everything else is divisive or utopian.

Unless we overcome these doubts, however, we are going to be stuck with vague formulations about political change and with the limitations of event-to-event organizing.

A More Coordinated Strategy?

Discussion has also opened on a third front the persistent localism of the movement. Until now it has consisted of a multitude of unaffiliated groups that go their own way.

The Nicaragua Network has a national presence and has done important work lobbying Congress, organizing delegations and work brigades, supplying information. It has also launched campaigns, such as the Let Nicaragua Live campaign of material aid. But these did not become national efforts, and fragmentation continues. Much debate at the conference concerned whether the Network should have a stronger leadership role in the future.

In the past, the majority of activists have favored local autonomy, seeing the creation of a more coherent organizational structure as the enemy of creativity and vitality at the grassroots. Even when activists press for more organization and less spontaneity, there is considerable concern about “top-down organizing.”

Much of the conference discussion about organization was stimulated by the Barber and Collins pamphlet, Not One Step Back For them, the “laissez-faire, do-your-own-thing structure is not suited to serious solidarity.”

By contrast, the New Haven “Response” supported the notion of local diversity and autonomy. Localism works best, it argues, because it “vanquishes the very cynicism which is so crippling to people of good will. By allowing people to define their contribution we may lose the concentrated impact of a single national effort, but we gain by drawing on the vast array of skills and motivation which exist in the U.S.”

Grassroots empowerment and large-scale organization, however, need not be mutually exclusive. Good organizing always takes account of local interests and the talents of different sectors, notes New Jersey CISPES Director Van Gosse. But to think that whatever goes on at the grassroots is an adequate strategy is misguided, in his view, there being no substitute for formal structures in a country of this size.

The preference for localism that Gosse criticizes reflects, in fact, antipathy to large organizations as inevitably bureaucratic, alienating and undemocratic. It is a mindset that characterizes not only our Nicaragua solidarity movement but important sections of the peace, feminist and environmental movements as well.

According to Julie Dow of the New England Central America Network (NECAN), much talk about our locally based vitality” is rooted in a distrust of leadership that affects the larger society as well as progressive organizations. If the movement is to move forward, we need to work through this problem.

Because of the Gulf War and the contribution of our anti- interventionist perspective to anti-war organizing, progress is being made in this regard. The Nicaragua Network is giving to local committees a guiding framework that brings together the war, Nicaragua and domestic politics.

Clearly many activists think that the time is ripe to connect U.S. issues with Nicaragua issues, to turn our attention to putting our own house in order while we continue to do our solidarity work.

May-June 1991, ATC 32