CISPES: Radical, Pragmatic and Successful
Radical, Pragmatic And Successful

Van Gosse analyzes the reasons for CISPES' success in
developing a fresh and tenacious approach to solidarity

     Why should I or anyone else write about CISPES? As a
national organization, it was neither famous nor large, the
usual criteria for organizational significance in this
country. Compared to the NAACP or NOW, with their hundreds
of thousands of members and name-recognition among the
general public, CISPES was an obscure, fringe group. It is
unlikely if as many as 2,000 people considered themselves
active members at any single point in its history, except
perhaps in 1981, when hundreds attended start-up meetings in
cities as different as Boulder, New York and San Francisco.
And while it certainly got into the news in the late '80s as
the target of the decade's largest FBI "investigation," the
mainstream press never paid much attention to the
organization itself.
     For that matter, the larger Central America movement,
in which CISPES sometimes played a leading role, was always
quite small, with only a vague public persona -- the
archetypal nun who'd been to Nicaragua and got on the local
op-ed page. At its peak in April 1987, with substantial
union support and important allies from the anti-apartheid
movement, the combined forces of solidarity barely managed
to mobilize 100,000 people onto Washington's streets for a
joint Central America-South Africa rally, a fraction of the
crowds regularly turned out by the decade's big pro-choice,
gay or Black-led marches. Even the disarmament or "peace"
movement within which solidarity usually operated (and into
which it was often inaccurately subsumed by observers) had
much greater recognition and numbers in the heyday of the
Nuclear Freeze.
     Nonetheless, the Central America movement was the major
expression of U.S. radical politics during the '80s, the
only explicitly "left" current that operated consistently
all across the country (in all 50 states, not just a few big
cities), with a practical commitment to revolutionary change
-- if not in this country, then close enough to matter. And
within that extremely diverse movement, encompassing
solidarity with several countries by many different sectors
of U.S. society, CISPES played a unique role. To reach and
service the up to 2,000 mostly autonomous local committees,
other groups of organizers assembled supple but porous
networks, and set up various national campaigns, coalitions,
task forces, projects and foundations.
     Eschewing the decentralized "network" model from the
very beginning, CISPES gradually -- in fits and starts over
time -- 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
     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).
     Unfortunately, too many left groups in the past
generation never really had a program to which the entire
organization held itself accountable through a voluntary
discipline. SDS, for instance, in its period of mass growth
after 1965, rarely had any national program worth the name.
That CISPES members had one, and knew it, was the source of
their strength.
     CISPES' main virtue, perhaps even its sole distinction,
was tenacity. Given that that particular, old-fashioned
character trait has been so lacking on the U.S. left since
1945, this alone caused it to stand out. As I write, CISPES
has just passed its thirteenth anniversary, and with the war
in El Salvador finally ended, it can at least claim it went
the distance, a singular feat in itself. Most of the
prominent 1960s New Left organizations fell apart long
before hitting a decade, despite the much greater space for
activism at one time. Indeed, it could be argued that one
reason CISPES has lasted so long is the "empty space" it
inhabits -- a backhanded advantage at best.
     Developing a national program and cohering as an
organization was not an easy or immediate process. Simply to
get to where it was possible for CISPES' leadership to
consciously shape their infrastructure, moving activists
around the country to plug gaps and constantly levying new
"cadre" from the strongest committees, took years of hit-or-
miss efforts, and much internal dissension lasting through
the first half of the '80s. But instead of fading away or
falling apart, CISPES hung on. And in the later 1980s --
when El Salvador largely dropped out of the public eye
except as a moral eyesore -- it came into its own as a
genuinely consequential organization, both "large" and
"well-known" in terms of left-liberal interest-group
politics. It had enough staff (about 100 paid and unpaid
fulltime organizers at peak 1988-89), enough donors (72,000
at one time or another, unfortunately never converted into
formal, card-carrying "members") and dozens of highly
visible chapters in nearly all of the major cities and key
college towns in the Northeast, Midwest and West Coast.
     What did all this infrastructure mean in terms of
program? At the beginning of the '80s, before any of the
above had yet been put in place, CISPES embodied a wave of
militant anti-Reaganism that sent an unmistakable message to
the administration that re-fighting Vietnam in El Salvador
would carry a definite cost in terms of radical mobilization
here. In the decade's latter half, CISPES kept El Salvador's
civil war alive in the conscience of liberal and radical
America. Besides a steadily rising tide of protest actions
from 1988 on which were quite explicitly tied to the FMLN's
offensive strategy, it developed (or borrowed, really)
techniques of constructing "people-to-people" bridges
between concerned citizens in this country and the reviving
"popular movement" in El Salvador of unarmed civilian
organizers: walk-a-thons and "work-a-days" raising millions
of dollars in humanitarian aid in small donations; telex
banks to respond instantly to arrests and disappearances;
constant delegations of grassroots activists that in El
Salvador assumed considerable public importance. In fact,
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 by the national media's conviction that
it would not repeat the mistakes of the '60s by giving
"undue" attention to leftists; in El Salvador, on the other
hand, CISPES became famous, or infamous, depending on your
point of view. It was regularly denounced by Salvadoran
officials, including President Alfredo Cristiani, and 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
     What made all this organizational and programmatic
expansion possible, besides sheer stubbornness, was that
CISPES defined a new model for what a single-issue left
organization can be -- both very radical and very pragmatic.
CISPES emphatically was not just another liberal lobby, yet
it could not be marginalized by either aboveground political
actors or the moderate forces in the "anti-intervention"
wing of the solidarity movement. Why? Because its immediate
goals were always eminently reasonable in the terms of
radicalized post-Vietnam liberalism: cutting off all U.S.
funding of a government responsible for massive state
terror; pursuing a negotiated end to the civil war; sending
humanitarian aid to desperate peasant communities for their
clinics and schools; instituting a human rights "rapid
response network" to save the lives of trade unionists,
student leaders and shantytown organizers. Instead of
spurning mainstream politics (you know: the two parties are
exactly the same, you'll get dragged to the center, you'll
be forced to sell-out and compromise, you'll get used, and
so on), CISPES embraced the rough-and-tumble of this
country's political system. On occasion, it was the
proverbial skunk at the garden party. But more often it
worked to reward its friends and punish its enemies like any
other competent single-issue organization.
     It's important to be clear about what CISPES was, and
what it was not. Its claim to be on the leading edge of
what's left of the U.S. left is based on purely operational
criteria rather than any ideological cohesion, other than
explicit "solidarity": anyone looking for the words
"capitalist," "socialist" or "imperialist" in its direct-
mail appeals, its newspaper Alert! Focus on Central America,
or its voluminous internal program mailings, would be
severely disappointed. CISPES was not some miraculously red-
flag-waving, Leninist embryo that prevailed despite its time
and place.
     In fact, it struggled very hard to avoid becoming a
place of regroupment for the stray fractions of the U.S.
socialist tradition. As anyone familiar with the past 30 or
more years well knows, to become that common ground is to
invite sectarian "interventions," infighting and paralysis.
It would be more accurate to say that CISPES was an escape
or even an end-run around the dead end that U.S. socialism
had sadly become. With no pretence to any more generalized
leftist -- let alone Marxist-Leninist -- politics among its
volunteers and staff, it built its donor-base among liberals
and appealed to many new campus activists in the late Reagan
years precisely because of its lack of ideological
     The exception to this get-the-job-done, number-
crunching instrumentalism was CISPES' unequivocal but
usually reasoned, non-dogmatic public support for the FMLN.
This stance, often criticized as an unnecessary deterrent to
potential supporters or allies outside the left, was a
crucial element in the organization's success. It provided
CISPES with an unequivocal benchmark against which to
measure itself, and great internal elan; it also required
that people think about the ethical and moral implications
of their solidarity. The short-term costs were real, but the
longer-term gains were profound in establishing that it was
possible to be both unflinching supporters of a group deemed
"terrorist" by the U.S. government, and at the same time,
familiar and accepted faces within liberalism's various
enclaves of power, from Congress to many city halls.
Distinctive proof of this special role came on March 18,
1989, the night before the Salvadoran presidential elections
and near the civil war's climax, when ABC News Nightline had
CISPES Organizational Director Michael Lent go mano a mano
with arch-Reaganite Elliot Abrams.
     The distinctly pragmatic orientation of CISPES, based
in its self-definition as the "North American front of the
Salvadoran revolution" rather than the "Central American
wing of the U.S. left" (to repeat a formulation from its
1985 National Convention where these two options fought it
out, with the former scoring a decisive victory), points
towards the original source of CISPES' political direction
and organizing methodology: the Salvadorans themselves.
CISPES came out of a particular historical conjuncture, and
a series of powerful lessons about U.S. politics that had
been learned during the 1960s and '70s. It may be ironic or
hard for some to accept that those lessons were best learned
by people outside the U.S., and then "imported" back in via
small groups of exiles, but there it is.
     It should be evident to all North American activists
that U.S. politics in the past 20 years have been, in a deep
sense, post-Vietnam politics. Yet we have often failed to
appreciate the depth of opportunity this presents. If during
these two decades anyone among us had described the U.S. as
a rich and fertile terrain for anti-imperialist solidarity,
he or she would have been derided as a dreamer, so great was
the legacy of alienation following the war visited upon the
peoples of Indochina and assorted other imperial debacles.
     Certain Salvadorans did not see the U.S. in the same
way. They looked at the example of the antiwar movement
crippling this world-hegemonic power at home, and made a
strategic decision long ago that the U.S. was not only their
natural antagonist, but also the best possible "rearguard."
If hindsight is correct, as long ago as 1976 activists in
the Bloque Popular Revolucionario, linked to the Fuerzas
Populares de Liberacion (one of the five political-military
organizations that in 1980 formed the FMLN) began their
patient work here, not only in the expanding refugee
communities in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and
Washington D.C., but also focusing on the recruitment of
unaffiliated young North Americans to their cause.
     Key to the development of everything that came later,
from CISPES' founding in the same week as the FMLN in
October 1980 through the Peace Accords of January 1992, was
the political milieu within which these Salvadoran exiles --
some few dozen people spread around the country, many of
them still hard at work -- found themselves. A self-named
"Latin American solidarity movement" had slowly began to gel
in the late 1960s out of militant New Left anti-imperialism
and the return of many radicalized ex-missionaries from all
over the hemisphere. In the '70s this movement, focused on
Chile and Puerto Rico but encompassing much of the Southern
Cone and the Caribbean, was both quite successful and
seriously crippled by sectarian intrigues. These rivalries
stemmed from the open disunity of most of Latin America's
left movements, at home and in exile, which combined with
the factionalism endemic to the "party building" phase of
the post-New Left.
     The Salvadorans who initiated CISPES and continued to
work closely with it and related organizations over the next
13 years (and who were the main, though not the only, FMLN
tendency among the Salvadoran exile community throughout)
drew clear lessons from the political conditions of the
1970s. They did not accept at all the then widely-held
proposition that the first task of "solidarity" was to
construct internationalist links and a common struggle
between the oppressed in the U.S. and other countries. They
did not believe that building a revolutionary movement in
the U.S. was any of their business, nor did they care to
have U.S. political organizations, "revolutionary" or
otherwise, involved in their business. To put it bluntly,
they wanted to keep the organized sectors of the U.S. left
out of El Salvador solidarity work, because they had little
confidence in the political maturity or the organizing
capacity of that left. Who can blame them?
     Did these Salvadorans exclude and marginalize some U.S.
activists because of their politics? Yes.
     Was this a "narrow" conception of what solidarity could
be? Yes.
     Was it, to use one of the old epithets,
"opportunistic?" Undoubtedly.
     Were the Salvadorans and the North Americans in CISPES
who were their close collaborators arrogant towards much of
the U.S. left and peace movement on occasion? Absolutely.
     But consider it from another point of view: Was there
any current example of a cohesive, united solidarity
movement built by U.S. left organizations? No.
     Did Marxist-Leninist "parties" in the U.S. try, once
again, to take over CISPES as part of their never-ending war
of position? Of course; an undercover volunteer from a
Trotskyist organization helped set up the first CISPES
National Office in 1980 before being discovered.
     Would any organized group on the U.S. left have been
willing to put the extreme and immediate needs of the
Salvadoran revolution first, not just for a month or two,
but for as long as it took? Never.
     At root was the view, which I share, that it was their
revolution and they had the right and responsibility to
determine the most appropriate forms of solidarity. The '70s
post-Vietnam phenomenon of North American leftists
evaluating and adopting various stances of "critical
solidarity" towards this or that revolutionary movement,
offering approval and aid as a bargaining chip, was to
virtually everyone in CISPES a repellent memory -- or more
often, a distinct shock if and when they heard about it.
Indeed, it is safe to say that to a considerable extent
CISPES embodied a rejection of much of the recent New
Leftist past, especially for the ex-adherents of various
Marxist tendencies who were drawn in one-by-one and, so to
speak, unlearned old habits.
     To at least a few "CISPESistas," its organizing
practice resembles much more the mass organizations of the
1930s and '40s Popular Front left, with the obvious
difference that there was no party integrating this
particular struggle into a more universal vision of social
transformation in this country.
     The bulk of this essay has been devoted to explaining
the success of CISPES' aggressive, flexible and "presentist"
strategy, with the implication that this history should be
seriously considered in planning the future renaissance of
U.S. radicalism. I will stand by that conclusion, but I
would not want to leave the reader with the impression that
this was a flawless trajectory, moving steadily from one
success to another over the years of Reagan and Bush; far
from it, CISPES typically learned how to do things well by
doing them badly at first, sometimes more than once. How
could it be otherwise, given where it came from and its
attempt to break new ground with a new methodology? To put
it another way, to the extent that CISPES embodied a
vanguardist approach, these were the flaws in any emphasis
on voluntarism and what a leader of NISGUA, the Guatemala
solidarity network, once described as CISPES' intense
reliance on the "subjective factor," on organizing and
motivating itself.
     What this meant in practice was that CISPES' mainly
young, inexperienced activists often remained ignorant to
the point of disrespect concerning other radical traditions,
whether Christian or Communist -- theirs was a pragmatic,
nonideological species of sectarianism -- and had
considerable difficulty appreciating the diversity of the
greater Central America movement, and the success of other
organizing models like the faith-based networks.
     The organization as a whole never developed a
comprehensive approach to working in coalition, and at its
otherwise dynamic national conventions was usually reduced
to juggling laundry-lists of all the different "sectors" it
would work with at some future unspecified date.
     In the late 1980s CISPES Executive Director Angela
Sanbrano became a recognized leader of the mainstream "peace
and justice movement" as Co-Chair of the largest U.S. peace
organization, SANE/FREEZE and a confidante of Jesse Jackson,
culminating in her acting as emcee for the main Washington
DC protest against the Gulf War in January 1991.
Unfortunately, her experience was never incorporated into
the training regime at the base level.  Certainly, most
CISPES chapters around the country built their own
coalitions and alliances, but in this one area they were
more like than unlike the rest of the decentralized,
pluralist solidarity movement. In one city, CISPESistas
might have excellent relations with City Hall and various
Members of Congress; in some other cases, they boasted of
their prowess at street-fighting, though the latter was
hardly the norm.
     A certain arrogance and disinterest in everything that
came before, and an enthusiasm for one's own special
newness, are deeply rooted cultural traits in this country,
hardly unique to CISPES. The above critique, or self-
critique, reflects some distance from the post-student
milieu that has always characterized CISPES, and should be
understood as such. Its weaknesses were inseparable from the
strengths I have attempted to describe -- the energy,
tenacity and discipline that allowed this particular
organization of North Americans, along with others, to make
a distinct contribution to the liberation of the Salvadoran
people from a regime of feudal barbarism.