Going the Distance: What Can DSA Learn from the 1980s Central America Solidarity Movement?

How can today's anti-war and internationalist activists rebuild the movement? The Central America solidarity movement of the 1980s offers lessons for the present.

The reckless assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani had one positive side effect — it generated anti-war demonstrations across the country, which may, if the hostilities continue to escalate, become the kind of mass movement that protested past U.S. military adventures in the Middle East.  Those past protest movements, important as they were, had a very serious weakness. They lacked the staying power to go the distance, as the wars they protested all outlived the movements trying to end them. As a result, the post-9/11 “forever wars” continue to grind on, even though a growing majority of the population does not support them.

The organized opposition to U.S. intervention in Central America during the 1980s was pretty small compared to the massive worldwide protests of February 15 and 16, 2003 against the impending U.S. invasion of Iraq.  But the campaigns of the 1980s did something that the much larger mobilizations of 2001-2003 failed to do – they put down roots in communities and fought on, winning some significant victories along the way, right through to the end of the Central American conflicts in early 1990s and beyond. In the process they made U.S. support for the wars in Central America the most contentious foreign policy issue of the decade. How they did it and what can we draw from those experiences for our organizing today is what I discuss in this article.

What Was the Central America Solidarity Movement?

In the 1980s, U.S. activists joined with Central American exiles and refugees to create solidarity networks to oppose U.S. intervention in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. They tried, with varying degrees of success, to give some structure and coordination to a mushrooming array of local groups doing Central American solidarity work. By 1981, the main focus of the movement was El Salvador, and a new organization called CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) kept contact with a sprawling mailing list of over 400 local organizational contacts. Each network primarily functioned to provide information to its affiliate groups, mainly about political developments in the region but also about campaigns and actions occurring in the U.S. These networks were devoted primarily to disseminating information, but CISPES in particular had a very different trajectory.

In addition to these country specific networks, organizers in the movement also created three important national formations that primarily mobilized faith-oriented activists. In 1982, the first of what eventually numbered 400 religious bodies began to declare themselves “public sanctuaries” and took in refugees fleeing the massive repression in El Salvador and Guatemala. They stood as year-round acts of civil disobedience which dared the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS, the forerunner of ICE) to arrest the refugees and those who assisted them. Refugees in sanctuary helped educate the public about U.S. policy in the region, and the sanctuary movement exposed the gross prejudice in U.S. immigration law enforcement against those fleeing countries run by murderous right-wing governments allied with the U.S. This eventually led to a lawsuit, The American Baptist Church vs Thornburgh (1991) which opened up the asylum process for Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees as part of an out of court settlement.

As the U.S. ramped up the Contra war on Nicaragua in 1983, activists organized a presence on the Nicaragua-Honduras border to deter Contra attacks. This is how the organization Witness for Peace was born. By the late 1980s Witness for Peace organized around 4,000 volunteers to put their bodies on the line on Nicaragua’s border with Honduras to protect civilians from violence.

In late 1984, fears of an imminent U.S. invasion of Nicaragua led religious leaders to call for a “Pledge of Resistance.” Thousands responded and pledged to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience or legal protest in the event of a significant escalation of the U.S. intervention in Nicaragua or El Salvador. Roughly 80,000 people signed the pledge, and they mounted hundreds of protests around the country for the next three years.

The solidarity movement did the bulk of its work at the local level. As Steve Striffler observes in his book Solidarity: Latin America and the US Left in the Era of Human Rights, “…[T]he movement was characterized by the proliferation of local solidarity organizations, most of which were sharply focused in one way or another, working on a particular country/city, organized by or around a particular group (such as nuns or students) or limited to a particular type of solidarity (such as lobbying).”  In his book Resisting Reagan, Christian Smith reports that as of 1987 there were solidarity groups in 48 states and over 70% of the groups he identified classified themselves as local.

What did these groups do? According to Smith, “64 percent engaged in political action, 95 percent did educational work, 42 percent were involved in raising and shipping direct assistance to Central America and 38 percent worked with refugees in the U.S.” Political action played an important part in the life of these solidarity groups. U.S. funding for the Contras and the Salvadoran military had to be renewed every year, so every year Central America solidarity groups joined with liberal political organizations, the peace movement, progressive labor unions and religious denominations to pressure Congress to block the appropriations.

Rapid response actions to defend people’s human rights represented a good deal of solidarity work. Many Central America activists started by protesting  against abuses by U.S. allies in the region. Activists constantly responded to killings, arrests and abductions at the hands of soldiers, police and death squads. Central Americans and others with ties to activists on the ground could provide quick updates as incidents occurred and groups set up phone trees to mobilize their members and coordinate responses. Sometimes timely mobilization actually got a “disappeared” victim released, but they often were not. The movement was successful, however,  in making the case to Congress and a large segment of the public that gross violations of human rights by U.S. allies were routine and that was reason enough to get the U.S. out of the region.

Groups worked publicity about human rights abuses into their extensive political education activities.  They took on the difficult task of making what were supposed to be invisible wars visible. After an initial period of alarmist bluster, when Reagan claimed that the U.S. was “drawing a line in the sand against Communist expansion in the Americas,” the administration realized that they were unnecessarily provoking opposition from a population already deeply traumatized by the U.S. defeat in Vietnam. The U.S. government switched to a strategy of “low intensity warfare” with the goal of keeping U.S. troops out of the conflicts and managing news reporting to keep stories about the routine human rights abuses committed by our side out of the mainstream media. It should surprise no one that the media largely cooperated with the government’s strategy. So local groups tried to bring a realistic picture of the human costs of U.S. policy home to their communities through educational events.

They relied on eyewitness testimonies from people who had been to the region and “people to people” aid and development projects to get the word out. The relative ease, geographically and culturally, of travel to Central America compared to the Middle East or Southeast Asia made personal witness to the struggles in the region a common experience for solidarity activists. Thousands of solidaristas visited the region and returned to educate their friends and neighbors back home. They helped put a human face on the people being attacked by U.S. proxies by bringing the terrible details of their reality back home.

Activists used the term “accompaniment” to describe these activities: delegations and tours “to hear the voices of the people,” formal and informal sister-city relationships, human rights rapid responses, fundraising for direct assistance, taking refugees into sanctuary, and much more. In this we can see the movement’s uniqueness and the basis of its staying power. Despite the geographic, cultural, and economic gulfs that separated U.S. solidarity activists from Central American revolutionaries, over the decade both sides built bonds of friendship and mutual appreciation for their roles in taking on the U.S. empire. As the historian and former CISPES staffer Van Gosse writes,

The greatest paradox of CISPES’ history as a U.S. radical organization is that in the U.S. itself it was condemned to marginal visibility… in El Salvador, on the other hand, CISPES became famous, or infamous, depending on your point of view. …  [A]nd many CISPES activists accustomed to laboring in obscurity found it a heady experience to be introduced before large popular assemblies of trade unionists or students and cheered to the rafters. 

What Did the Movement Achieve?

The Central America solidarity movement of the 1980s did not achieve its ultimate aim of ending U.S. intervention in the region. The Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations managed to keep the weapons pipeline to their clients open. The combined toll taken by the Contra war and the hardship inflicted on the Nicaraguan people by U.S. economic warfare resulted in the Sandinistas losing the 1990 election to a right-wing coalition. Later in the 1990s the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, FMLN) in El Salvador and Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity, URNG) negotiated peace settlements with their respective governments. The settlement ended the military dictatorships in those countries, but they did not displace oligarchic domination of the Salvadoran and Guatemalan economies by landlords and business elites.

Nevertheless, the solidarity movement did rack up  some significant accomplishments. It made the deployment of U.S. troops impossible, which limited the staggering carnage the three wars unleashed on the region. It forced the Reagan administration to fight through proxies and to use third-country routes to arm those proxies. It pushed Democrats in Congress to take action that significantly inhibited the imperial presidency’s war-making efforts through legislation like the Boland amendments. When Reagan responded by funneling aid to the Contras by selling arms to Iran, he set in motion the events that resulted in the massive Iran–Contra scandal.

The movement also pushed Congress to require bi-annual certification that the human rights situation in El Salvador and Guatemala was improving as a condition of aid renewal. The certification process, a sham in many ways, nevertheless compelled the Reagan administration to ride herd on the Salvadoran government to be more discrete in its war fighting and internal security policies. These were minor and largely cosmetic improvements, but it helped open space for Salvadorans and Guatemalans to organize.

In short, the movement placed important limits on the options available to the U.S. government, and as a result it had to prosecute its wars in Central America through proxies and obviously questionable arrangements like the Iran-Contra arms shipments. And as mentioned before, it went the distance.

How Can Tomorrow’s Solidarity Movements Do Better?

Future solidarity organizing will have to do better than the Central America solidarity movement on some key issues. The movement could not reach beyond the usual suspects – veterans of the anti-war movement, progressive churches, and perennial activists. Even though polls consistently showed a majority of the population was opposed to U.S. Central America policy, the movement only could mobilize certain sectors of the population. Most solidarity activists were white, college educated professionals or college students. In short, it looked mighty familiar to DSA’s demographic profile today.

There are a few reasons why this was the case. Central American immigrants had only started to immigrate in large numbers in the 1980s. They had to cope with the twin traumas of fleeing massive state violence and a lack of immigration documents, which made basic survival a higher priority than political involvement. There was some important opposition to U.S. policy from organized labor, but much of the AFL-CIO leadership, which was still on board with U.S. Cold War policies, sided with Reagan. The Reaganites also actively mobilized Christian evangelicals, which made outreach to a significant part of the religious sector difficult, and the movement didn’t do enough to reach out to Black churches. Finally, the connection between U.S. imperial domination of Latin America and job flight had not yet been as strongly planted in the mind of many working people as it has today.

Future anti-Imperialist movements will have to involve immigrants from the countries in the U.S. government’s sights, something that the Central America movement of the 1980s could not do in a meaningful way. Small numbers of immigrants who had strong ties to the social movements in their homelands did play key leadership roles, especially regarding El Salvador, but not as a significant portion of the movement’s rank-and-file. During the 1980s, immigrants from El Salvador created important self-help and legal aid organizations to deal with the crises of displacement and migration. Some, like CARECEN (Central American Refugee Center) in Los Angeles, are leading important immigrant rights struggles today. But for the most part they were not in a position to lead the solidarity movement of the 1980s. Now that these groups are well-established and a second generation of youth who grew up in the U.S. are moving into leadership, linking support for immigrant rights to anti-Imperialist struggles has assumed paramount importance. This will only grow as climate and economic refugees flows increase worldwide and as the far right uses xenophobia as one of its prime political appeals.

The organizations of the solidarity movement also struggled to take leadership from the movements on the ground in the region. The left in all three countries was united in the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (Sandinista National Liberation Front, FSLN), FMLN and URNG, and few U.S. activists had concerns about the democratic legitimacy of those groups. So “taking leadership” from them was an easy decision in the abstract. However, we have seen in recent times that figuring out whose leadership to follow on the ground can present serious political difficulties. Unlike the Central American left of the 1980’s, today’s Left is fractured into a number of separate and often rival organizations in many countries today. Moreover, we often can’t agree among ourselves on whether current targets of U.S. aggression –  Nicolás Maduro, Daniel Ortega, Bashar al-Assad and others – are genuinely progressive and anti-imperialist leaders, oppressive authoritarians in their own right, or any of number of possible points in between. Such divisions are a reality in DSA today. Up to now, we have agreed to unite around opposition to U.S. intervention and agree to disagree if necessary about the political nature of groups under attack. That has to be enough for now. Perhaps a resurgence of the Left worldwide will help to clarify the issues in the future. But as residents of the U.S. empire, an anti-intervention basis of agreement needs to be where we start politically.

Lessons to Learn

As mentioned above, a singular strength of the 1980s solidarity movement was its persistence. As we rebuild an anti-war movement today, we should think carefully about how to draw lessons from that strength and apply them to our current realities. Here are a few specific items to ponder.

Size Matters: Despite its decentralized structure, the solidarity movement was geographically extensive enough to contest Reagan administration policy at the national level. Solidarity organizations existed in almost every state, and they were not confined to big cities, college towns and the coasts. The movement was broad enough to challenge policy in Congress. It could pressure sufficient numbers of congresspeople to win or at least credibly contest votes on appropriation and policy issues. As one activist told Christian Smith:

When you look at Contra aid votes, over time you see about 180 regular opponents and 180 regular supporters of the policy…How did the 180 regular opponents become so constant and loyal?….Certainly not because they were Sandinista allies…Almost all of those 180 regular opponents would say that it was pressure from the grassroots that determined their vote.

We need to add, however, that in order to effectively pressure those 180 congresspeople the movement needed effective organizational infrastructure in all of those districts and some at least minimal coordination among them. We have often not had that level of coordination in contesting the Middle East wars. DSA, with over 150 local chapters in all fifty states, can and should be the organizational  foundation for a truly national anti-war, anti-intervention movement. Barely four years in from the dramatic growth that catapulted DSA into a leading position on the U.S. Left, we have not yet seen if we can pass the test of being that kind of anchor for a renewed anti-war movement. DSAers serious about fighting U.S. imperialism need to figure out how to promote unified action across the organization if we expect to effectively challenge imperial foreign policy.

Localism is a recipe for irrelevance: Despite the achievement of unified campaigns against funding bills, the Central American solidarity movement was hobbled by, in the words of Van Gosse, “an absurd degree of localism.”

There are a considerable number of activists in all parts of the movement who believe that absolute local autonomy is the best guarantor of vitality and who resist any support to, membership in, or leadership from the various national groups…believing that national centers should provide only the necessary information on the war and perhaps cheap leaflets…that organizing drives or unified campaigns only deaden initiative through inevitable “hierarchies.”

The obsessively localist perspective that Gosse laments is quite strong in DSA today. In order to anchor a renewed anti-war movement, just having a lot of chapters on the ground is not sufficient. We need a common, nationwide organizing project. Gosse counterposes the organizing model of CISPES to the localist perspective of many other groups in the Central America movement in ways that are relevant to DSA today:

Eschewing the decentralized ‘network’ model from the very beginning, CISPES gradually … built a cohesive nationwide organization, with a stable grassroots volunteer base, local, regional and national staff, extensive training and evaluation processes and, most important, a time- and goal-specific national program.

 It is this last element that made all the rest possible. Without a concrete program that is debated, planned, implemented and then assessed before starting all over again, a political organization is mostly a fiction, something waiting to happen (as opposed to a network, which typically exists for sharing of resources and information rather than implementation of a common program).

He highlights three features that distinguished CISPES approach from that of the movement as a whole: democratic development of program and election of leadership; national coordination of local initiatives to implement that program; and accountability of all levels of the organization in carrying out that program. We need to begin discussion of how we can build  similar structures in DSA that move beyond uncoordinated localist action toward a program coordinated for maximum effect across the country.

Tactical flexibility: Gosse identifies “tactical dogmatism posing as strategic vision” as another major weakness that afflicted the Central America solidarity movement. The Pledge of Resistance, for all its strengths, exclusively engaged in non-violent protest against U.S. “escalations” in the region long after the initial energy behind that vision faded and turnout toactions declined provides an important example of this phenomenon.

We can see that kind of tactical dogmatism today across the spectrum of anti-war activism. Since 2001, the movement has paid dearly for an over-reliance on street protest to the neglect of building local organization and contesting the war by mounting a serious campaign to pressure Congress to cut funding. Up to now, DSA has not put forward any alternative strategy, but we are newcomers on the scene. We need a thorough internal discussion to adopt campaigns that can materially constrain U.S. war-making and pro-corporate foreign policy and then pick appropriate tactics to accomplish them

We should organize to our right: Just as the majority of the U.S. population opposed the wars of the 1980s, most Americans did not approve of the drone strike that killed General Soleimani in Iraq. The population is largely disenchanted with the various Middle East wars we’ve been bogged down in for the last two decades.

We need to be realistic about what this opposition amounts to, but also about the opportunity it represents.  We need to recognize the public’s concern and skepticism for what it is and is not. It is not the result of the kind of deep anti-imperialist analysis that many DSAers are developing, and if we try to build an anti-war movement on that ideological basis we will get nowhere. But we need to seize the opportunity that the public’s ambivalence about foreign adventures presents. It is the opportunity to begin a relationship with a much broader section of the population than we currently have or have had in the past.

Even though the Central America solidarity movement could not sink deep enough roots in different communities to significantly alter its demographic isolation, four elements of its practice should inform us as we try to build a broader movement today. The first is local organization. Most people will not join the anti-war movement by making a trek to a demo in the nation’s capital. They are much more likely to respond if approached in their local community or in a familiar institution like their church, union, school. We need strong community level anti-war organizations that engage and activate friends and neighbors.

The second is building for the long haul. People will take action and develop politically through a sustained process that will depend on relationships with organized anti-war forces. We need organizing projects that will be around for a while so we can meet and interact with people as they move to the left.

The third is promoting people-to-people ties. We’ve seen how important this was for the 1980s movement, but as I also noted building those ties with Central Americans was relatively easy compared to other parts of the world. We need to prioritize working with immigrants and refugees in our organizing even if we can’t build actual relations with people on the ground in the countries targeted by the U.S. government.

Finally, religious, immigrant rights and labor organizations are key. We’ve seen how important faith-based organizing was for the 1980s movement, and the importance of the labor movement should be clear to democratic socialists. Many immigrants have direct experience with U.S. imperialism, and their experience provides testimony. They have the strongest ties to those under the bombs, and they have the strongest incentive to build an anti-imperialist movement.

Will any of these approaches make a difference? Until we try it we won’t know. But if we make an attempt to make a contribution to internationalist, anti-war organizing we need to enter into it with an openness to experimentation. I’ve sketched out some ways we should orient our work based on the experience of solidarity activists in the 1980s. But in many ways we have to start over from scratch. So as we move forward we need to be ruthlessly honest in asking ourselves questions about our impact, questions like the ones Gosse asks in his reflections on the solidarity movement:

How effective are [we] really? How to measure this? How do [we] actually (not wishfully) effect policy through mass action? How to build a structure which balances democratic decision-making and tactical flexibility with real accountability of all levels to common agreements? Always, or course: how to spend political capital and limited resources of money, time and organizers?

As the Bernie Sanders campaign and the growth of DSA show, we are in the midst of a once-in-a-generation upsurge not just in the level of political struggle, but of the revival of socialism as an alternative to capitalism as a whole. As socialists, we need to help millions of Americans identify not just with the working class and poor at home, but to recognize that they have more in common with the workers of other countries than they do with those who run this country. We can play an important role in building that consciousness and a movement based on it. We need to search out lessons of the past and apply them to the present – the Central American solidarity movement of the 1980s is an important place to look.