A Solidarity Without Borders

Against the Current, No. 54, January/February 1995

Mike Zielinski

THE ZAPATISTA-LED uprising in Chiapas was not the beginning, nor will it be the end. The climax of the Cold War leads not to the establishment of a Pax Americana, but to intensified economic and political conflict between the North and South.

The Central America solidarity movement in the United States has a vital role to play in confronting the new economic order, but must adapt to changed political realities. Activists no longer take to the streets spurred on by the urgency of stopping U.S.-financed wars. If the U.S. no longer directs a brutal counterinsurgency campaign in El Salvador or trains a surrogate army in Nicaragua, U.S.-dictated structural adjustment programs continue to take a deadly toll in Latin America.

These new forms of economic warfare must be countered by new approaches from the solidarity movement. In making the necessary links we must take into account the strengths and weaknesses of the solidarity movement and some of the difficulties we face.

State of the Movement

The solidarity movement is affected by the lack of momentum which characterizes the entire U.S. left. The Central America movement is no longer able to bring out the larger constituencies which took to the streets to stop contra aid or the bombing of El Salvador.

With much of the country’s political agenda media-driven, including the left’s response, Central America is barely visible. Many progressive activists are no longer motivated by a sense of urgency when it comes to solidarity organizing.

At the same time, the Central America movement did sink roots in the progressive movement and the larger society. At its height, the solidarity movement linked the U.S. left to a cross-section of society through sister unions, sanctuary churches and synagogues, community groups, elected officials and sister cities.

Tens of thousands of activists participated in work brigades and delegations to Central America, cementing their political commitment through personal contact with people creating new societies. Significant numbers of people came to identify with the revolutionary alternatives led by the Sandinistas and the Salvadoran FMLN. Unlike the Vietnam antiwar movement, Central America solidarity groups created structures which outlasted the shooting wars.

Experience shows that a strong solidarity movement can be instrumental in holding the U.S. government accountable for its actions. Countries like Angola and Mozambique, which did not benefit from highly visible and organized solidarity campaigns in North America, have had less recourse against U.S.-backed economic and military aggression. On the other hand, movements in solidarity with South Africa and El Salvador exerted significant pressure, helping to force constraints on U.S. government policy.

The U.S. left must not allow the momentum built through fifteen years of solidarity organizing to be lost. A new partnership between the U.S. and Latin American left should be at the heart of the struggle to revitalize socialism. Yet any assessment of the prospects for left alternatives must face up to some stark realities: No socialist model is going to take hold any time soon. The global economy will be dominated by transnational capital for the foreseeable future.

Electoral results in El Salvador, Mexico, and Brazil indicate the enormity of the barriers which block the left’s advance. In each case, highly organized left movements fell short of expectations. The Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT) and the FMLN won a share of parliamentary power, but control of the state and major economic institutions remains securely in the hands of longtime ruling parties.

Elites in El Salvador, Mexico and Brazil showed greater sophistication than in the past, relying more on forms of technical fraud than ballot box stuffing.

In Brazil, government officials skillfully manipulated the economy to create the illusion of prosperity, blunting PT candidate Lula’s call for fundamental economic change. ARENA and the PRI monopolized the Salvadoran and Mexican media, warning voters that left victories would lead to instability and social unrest.

The left cannot hope to compete with the right at this level. There will always be a chasm when it comes to resources and media. The left’s partial electoral setbacks indicate the need to transcend traditional political parties and build grassroots organizations which have an identity independent of electoral politics.

From Gunboats to Banks

North and South, the left must also confront the new global context for organizing international solidarity. NAFTA is just the initial wedge as the Clinton administration forces open a hemisphere-wide “free trade zone” dominated by U.S.-based corporations. In the post-Cold War world the means — but not the ultimate ends — of U.S. policy have shifted.

Following the crash of Eastern bloc dominoes U.S. elites are more concerned with spreading markets than stopping the spread of communism. In Latin America, U.S. policy has moved from the creation of free fire zones to the promotion of free trade zones. Just as Central America served as a testing ground for U.S. counterinsurgency in the 1980s, Latin America continues to be a key battlefield in the economic wars of the 1990s.

Under a regime of “low-intensity democracy” in most of the hemisphere, economic power is concentrated in a modernizing, neoliberal right wing which is replacing the traditional rule of oligarchies and generals. This right serves as a junior partner to transnational capital.

A privatization mania grips the Western Hemisphere. Social spending — never substantial to begin with — is being slashed, while state-owned industries, natural resources, and public utilities are auctioned off to the highest bidder in a real life game of monopoly.

Throughout the hemisphere the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank serve as unelected and unaccountable co-governments.

A small sector of local elites profit from these arrangements, while the poor are battered by IMF-imposed austerity measures. As many as 240 million Latin Americans are living in poverty, double the number of poor in 1980. Joblessness and underemployment affect more than half the labor force in most countries. Meanwhile cholera — a disease bred by poverty — sweeps across the hemisphere like a plague out of the Middle Ages.

With income distribution increasingly skewed, public services vanishing in the scramble to privatize, and hopes for a job at even a subminimum wage largely a fantasy, a backlash against neoliberalism is inevitable. The growing immiseration of Latin America places the region on a collision course with U.S. policy. Social explosions have rocked the hemisphere in recent years, from food riots in Argentina to the Zapatista uprising in Mexico.

The same neoliberal noose that strangles Latin America is being tightened in the United States. The outpouring of rage from South Central Los Angeles in 1992, sprangs from the same source as rebellions in Latin America. Policies first implemented in the Third World — from “enterprise zones” where businesses pay below the minimum wage to the privatization of public education–are being brought home.

The globalization of capital also means the globalization of poverty. The establishment of hemispheric free trade agreements means the exploitation of maquiladora workers in Guatemala cannot be separated from unemployment in Detroit. The policies inflicted on Latin America have direct domestic counterparts — the gutting of health and safety standards in industry, cuts in basic social services, union-busting, and the expanded use of contract employees and permanent replacement workers.

Ecological, economic, and health crises spill across frontiers. The dividing line between foreign and domestic polices has dissolved. We must create a solidarity without borders, inspired by a vision of change across the Americas.

Towards An International Civil Society

Popular power cannot be reduced to elections. Key to building power is strengthening “civil society” and supporting emerging social movements. The Latin American left is adopting new organizational forms, exemplified by an explosion of grassroots organizing.

Throughout the hemisphere there is a growing recognition of the importance of a network of social movements and sector-specific organizations, which operate outside the authority of the state and without the centralized structures that have marked the region’s
revolutionary political-military organizations.

Resistance to the rightist dictatorships of the `60s and `70s gave birth to Latin America’s civil society. Denied even token access to official institutions, people went outside the state and sought to create new forms of power. New political actors include residents of the shantytowns ringing every major Latin American city, women’s movements stretching across the traditional dividing line of class and race, environmentalists, indigenous peoples and human rights groups.

The social movements also draw on many of the same forces that provided recruiting grounds for Central America’s revolutionary movements, including militant trade unionists, landless peasants, slumdwellers and adherents of liberation theology.

Ever since the 1973 overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile Latin America’s social change movements have been acutely conscious that electoral results can be reversed — a lesson reinforced by the recent experience of President Aristide in Haiti. Emerging forms of popular power seek to go beyond the partial reforms offered by electoral politics, while avoiding the seeming dead end of armed struggle in a unipolar world dominated by U.S. military might.

These new social movements — along with the fall of the Berlin Wall — have challenged revolutionaries in Latin America to rethink vanguard organizational conceptions. Traditional left parties are beginning to break with top-down structures.

Within the former Soviet bloc Communist parties controlled mass organizations, choking off initiative; in the U.S. there has existed a “movement of movements” lacking coherent structure or vision. In Latin America, we see a most promising development — left parties and autonomous social movements forging a new relationship, offering hope for dynamic change, which may serve as a model for the international left.

Our Perspectives

Building on its solidarity with revolutionary parties like the FMLN and the FSLN, the U.S. solidarity movement should link itself to this emerging process, a step toward creating an “international civil society” capable of confronting national governments and transnational capital.

The U.S. solidarity movement can contribute to this process by forging stronger people-to-people ties among women, youth, labor and ecology groups in Latin America and their counterparts in the United States. People-to-people ties can be fostered through delegations, cultural exchanges, work brigades and tours.

The U.S. solidarity movement must participate in larger challenges to the global economy, promoting campaigns for fair trade to guarantee a just price for the resources and labor of the Third World. The coalitions formed to oppose NAFTA point the way: Progressive opposition to NAFTA brought together working people from the United States, Mexico, and Canada, as well as environmental, human and civil rights groups.

Activists need to confront the anti-democratic international financial institutions like the IMF and the World Bank. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Bretton Woods conference, which created the framework for the post-1945 international economic order. Organizers of the “50 Years Is Enough” campaign are challenging structural adjustment programs and advocating sustainable development.

CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) is initiating discussions with a range of international solidarity organizations on how best to confront neoliberal economic policies, emphasizing the need to build mutual support networks which link organizers and social movements in the Third and First Worlds. Through a process of education and action, CISPES hopes to help revitalize an international solidarity movement committed to achieving economic justice at home and abroad.

CISPES also participates in the Peace and Solidarity Task Force of the Committees of Correspondence, seeking connections to activists involved in a wide range of issues, organizations and movements.

No to “Humanitarian” Occupation!

While breaking new ground in pushing for international economic justice, we must continue to expose and oppose U.S. efforts to militarize Latin America under the guise of providing “humanitarian” assistance. In addition to the occupation of Haiti, U.S. troops are carrying out “civic action” programs in Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, working side by side with local militaries.

These programs are a continuation of the hearts-and-minds campaigns which served the Pentagon’s low-intensity conflict strategy. Their goal is to increase the military’s legitimacy and strengthen its hold on civil society.

The international solidarity movement needs to look within our own borders as well, standing up to the rise in anti-immigrant racism and government polices which encourage xenophobia. Recent immigrants — many uprooted by U.S.-financed wars or driven from their homes by the inequities of the global economy — are under increased attack. The Clinton administration’s new budget calls for a 22% increase in funding for the INS’ border enforcement program and the deployment of more than 1,000 new agents along the Mexico-Texas border.

One of the solidarity movement’s goals should be to contribute to the defense of immigrants’ rights by participating in coalitions like the one formed to stop California’s recent ballot initiative stripping immigrant families of social services and civil rights. As the largest grassroots solidarity organization in the United States, CISPES is uniquely positioned to help forge these links.

At the same time, the need for solidarity with El Salvador endures. While confronting the new economic order CISPES will also be working to challenge the specific programs of USAID (Agency for International Development) in El Salvador.

Brian Atwood, the head of AID, recently acknowledged AID’s devastating impact on Central America in an interview broadcast over National Public Radio. According to Atwood: “We did meddle. We caused a lot of deaths…We created a lot of the problems these countries face now as they try to achieve some degree of economic growth.”

Apologies aside, AID continues to play politics with funds designated for El Salvador’s reconstruction. The agency, in collaboration with the ARENA government, has delayed the release of funds for projects in communities where the FMLN won power in last spring’s elections. Furthermore, AID has failed to pressure ARENA to speed up AID-funded land reform programs intended to benefit ex-FMLN combatants and landless peasants. Less than a quarter of the land slated for redistribution has been handed over.

CISPES is organizing pressure campaigns on the U.S. and Salvadoran governments to help ensure that these land transfers and community development projects receive reconstruction funds. CISPES also is organizing work brigades to El Salvador in the coming year, recruiting activists to help build alternative economic projects, including reforestation programs, community markets, and recycling centers.

While some of the solidarity movement’s certainties of the past have given way to a complex future, solidarity with Latin America remains a vital component in the push for economic justice. Building solidarity that consciously connects struggles across borders will be a formidable challenge, but we must face the future not with fear or despair, but with determination and a vision rooted in the socialist ideals which continue to animate us.

ATC 54, January-February 1995