The CISPES Solidarity Model
The CISPES Solidarity Model

Diane Green introduces the central organization of the
movement in solidarity with El Salvador.

     Four years ago events in El Salvador rocked the Western
Hemisphere. On November 11, 1989 the Farabundo Martí
National Liberation Front (FMLN) launched a major military
offensive that included assaults against military strong
points all over the country and the occupation by FMLN
forces of half the capital of San Salvador.
     In retaliation, government forces escalated repression
against mass organizations, human rights activists and
church leaders critical of the regime. The victims of this
murderous repression included six Jesuit priests, their cook
and her daughter, and hundreds who lost their lives in
bombings of urban areas of the capital by the Salvadoran Air
     Though the FMLN was eventually pushed back to the
hills, their strong military showing convinced the U.S.
government that a military victory in El Salvador was
impossible and ultimately forced a negotiated solution: the
U.N.-brokered Peace Accords that were signed in January 1992
by the FMLN and the government of Alfredo Cristiani.
     Here in the U.S. thousands responded to the wave of
repression and the death of the Jesuits by taking to the
streets. Some 50,000 activists took part in a wide variety
of demonstrations in over 100 cities. These activists were
from CISPES, the religious community, labor, men, youth,
senior citizens and among them were many who had never come
out to demonstrate before. Their tactics included everything
from street demonstrations to sit-ins in congressional
offices. Local coalitions developed across the country and
numerous groups pooled their efforts and worked in unison.
In some cities there was at least one action every day for
two weeks. Thousands were arrested. Three thousand people
spontaneously shut down Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the
White House following the murder of the Jesuits.
     This was the high point of the El Salvador solidarity
movement as it developed in the 1980s and as it continues
today in the 1990s.
     What made this kind of response possible?  What
structures, coalitions, organizations made El Salvador into
a household word in the U.S.? How was the solidarity here
built into a movement with national presence and
     The El Salvador solidarity movement was made up of many
organizations, coalitions and individuals. Central to this
movement, however, was CISPES -- the Committee in Solidarity
with the People of El Salvador.
     CISPES at its height consisted of over 300 chapters and
affiliates all over the country. It was organized by city,
region, country, and in some cases by state, sub-region and
congressional district. Many of its chapters and affiliates
were organized as Central America groups and were also
members of Guatemala and Nicaragua solidarity networks.
     CISPES carried on an active correspondence with the
popular movement in El Salvador and in particular with the
FMLN, with whom it developed a particularly close working
relationship. It often worked in conjunction with
organizations of Salvadoran refugees, and its chapters
included a broad cross-section of the U.S. progressive
community, from the secular left to Church activists.
     Though a single-issue organization in terms of its
focus, at critical junctures CISPES played a strategic role
in helping to organize a national response in the mid-1980s
to events as they developed in Nicaragua with the Contra
war, and in 1991 to the war in the Persian Gulf. Because of
its participation in the broader struggles of the left in
the U.S., CISPES reaped the twin rewards of membership
growth, and relations of respect from the larger progressive
     Three major factors contributed to the success of
CISPES as a solidarity organization. The primary one was
that CISPES based its program on the needs of the people of
El Salvador, not on the priorities of political struggles
here in the U.S. There was consultation with Salvadorans and
direction taken from them but CISPES still remained an
independent U.S. organization. Secondly, CISPES developed
its programs by first making a thorough and careful analysis
of the situation in El Salvador, Central America and the
U.S., then formulating specific objectives and a
comprehensive political strategy. The kind of program that
would eventually be adopted flowed directly out of those
objectives, strategies and analyses.
     The third factor in CISPES' success was the use of an
active, systematic and rigorous methodology of outreach.
That methodology was based on the idea that people do things
because they are asked to do them. In practice that meant
thousands of phone calls, and person-to-person recruiting.
CISPES chapters, in other words, didn't just wait for people
to come to them, but actively went out and organized people
in their own communities.
     CISPES' ability to respond so quickly to dramatic turns
of event was in part due to a decentralized structure of
grassroots activists organized into hundreds of chapters
around the country. This structure, combined with national
and regional "administrative committees," allowed for
considerable flexibility in the development of tactics and
strategy and for rapid response to events in El Salvador and
to shifts in the focus of U.S. foreign policy. Overall
coordination was carried out through a process of decision-
making which was surprisingly coherent in spite of the
difficulties in creating a centralized democratic process
for such a vast network.
     Within this structure regional offices concentrated on
information distribution, individual and organizational
political development, and training programs in basic
organizing and specialized campaigns in which the whole
organization participated. The Regional Administrative
Committee (RAC) and the National Administrative Committee
(NAC) met regularly, often several times a year to plan
strategy and develop campaigns. By the mid-'80s, CISPES was
holding national conventions every two to three years,
holding national elections and determining policy and
programs in open debates between delegates from chapters all
over the country.
     Financing this national structure was not easy. Like
many left organizations, CISPES attracted members with a
great deal of political acumen and organizational ability,
but very little financial expertise. Nonetheless, at its
height CISPES was able to raise enough money to finance
scores of full-time organizers at the national, regional and
local levels, and also send millions in material aid to the
popular movement, the FMLN, and community development
projects in El Salvador.
     Over the years CISPES worked in conjunction with
numerous foundations (NEST, Inc., SHARE Foundation), think
tanks (Center for Democracy in the Americas), people-to-
people aid efforts (Sister-City and Sister-Parish Networks),
rapid response networks (Pledge of Resistance), and lobbying
groups (Central American Working Group, National Agenda,
Neighbor to Neighbor), in its efforts to participate fully
in a broadly-based movement for peace and justice in El
Salvador. In spite of clear differences, CISPES worked
closely with both the church sector and labor in national
mobilizations against intervention in Central America and
racism in South Africa.
     The legacy of good relations with a broad range of
organizations and sectors has left CISPES in a strong
position to meet the challenge of solidarity with El
Salvador in the '90s. This challenge will depend on a
qualitatively different kind of solidarity than was seen in
the '80s. Changing circumstances in the world and in El
Salvador have dictated a dramatically different context for
the work of solidarity activists: Anti-intervention
strategies have been replaced by strategies of support for
democratic rights; material aid to refugees has been
replaced by material support for sustainable economies and
community development; training programs in door-to-door
canvasing have been replaced by seminars in registering
voters and monitoring elections.  CISPES' latest program, a
product of years of internal discussion, is called
"Solidarity without Borders," and is designed to address the
concern of how to fight racism, sexism and homophobia both
internally and externally. Its objective is to dismantle
oppressive behaviors in all aspects of society.
     Behind these changes, however, a common thread can be
found: a commitment to serve the needs and interests of the
people of El Salvador at whatever stage of struggle they are
engaged. This commitment has not wavered in the last 13
years of CISPES history and will continue to be the guiding
principle of the organization in the years to come.