Letters on El Salvador
Debating Solidarity

Sabina Virgo, Ethan Young and David B. Wilson reply to
articles in El Salvador ­Presente!.

     I was profoundly angered by the article by Van Gosse
("CISPES: Radical, Pragmatic and Successful") in the April
El Salvador ­Presente! edition of CrossRoads. I was also
saddened by it.
     Gosse's perspective seemed similar to writers of
traditional histories. What they analyze might be different,
but the borders that narrow his story (and theirs) come from
the same core. It is a core that was shared by illustrators
of children's books when I was in school -- when all the
illustrations were drawn in pastel. It is a narrowness of
vision that marks both an intentional and unintentional
accommodation to white supremacy.
     In talking about the history of CISPES (and
overwhelmingly white organization in solidarity with the
Salvadoran revolution), Gosse write about his perception of
why CISPES was "successful" when other organizations
     "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 it's 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."
     Maybe Gosse is right. Maybe SDS "didn't have a national
program worth the name." But SNCC did, AIM did, the Chicano
Moratorium did. The United Farmworkers did. And they co-
existed in time with SDS.
     So did the Black Panther Party. It lived in the
sixties. It was a national organization which had a clearly
defined revolutionary class analysis -- and a ten point
program. And the Gary Convention produced the National Black
Political Agenda. And the National Black Independent
Political Party, along with signaling an important break
with the two party system, was a national party, and had a
national program.
     But none of these groups were even mentioned. They were
invisible in the political landscape Gosse painted. To Gosse
(and all those who see through his eyes), the picture was
created by applying white paint to white canvas -- and so
SDS was the standard of measurement, and it defined
left/radical politics in the mid-sixties.
     "CISPES' main virtue," Gosse continued, "was tenacity.
Given that particular, old-fashioned trait has been so
lacking on the U.S. left since 1945, this alone caused it to
stand out."
     "That old-fashioned character trait...of tenacity" that
Gosse misses so, hasn't been missing. Its just that some of
its main embodiments are dead: Fred Hampton, George Jackson,
Bunchy Carter, Jonathan Jackson, Malcolm X... or have spent
the last twenty years or so in prison: Geronimo Ji Jaga
Pratt, Leonard Peltier...
     The Eurocentrism of Gosse's statement is rivaled only
by its political presumptuousness. However long and serious
the list of sins committed by U.S. left parties (Communist
Party, Socialist Workers Party, et. al.) has been "since
1945," lack of tenacity has not been one of them. Since
1945, despite laws being passed against their existence,
despite jailing, loss of jobs and persecutions, these
parties held on.
     Gosse says that "Most of the prominent 1960s new left
organizations fell apart long before hitting a decade."
Perhaps he is right. Perhaps they did. But most of the
left/rad/rev organizations of people of color (not mentioned
in "Radical, Pragmatic and Successful") didn't 'fall apart,'
they were torn apart. They were decimated. The United States
government created COINTELPRO and spent millions of dollars
to insure their destruction. The men in Washington (and
their cousins in the boardrooms of America) understood the
threat those organizations posed to their power.
     To wit: On April 3, 1963, J. Edgar Hoover said,
"Moderate Negro youth must be made to understand that if
they succumb to revolutionary teachings -- they will be dead
revolutionaries." And thirty-eight members of the Black
Panther Party were assassinated across the country. And so
it was with La Raza Unida, the Puerto Rican Independence
Movement, and the people who occupied Wounded Knee.
     These warriors of the left, not important enough to
warrant inclusion by Gosse, were important enough to warrant
passage to the jail house or the graveyard by the powerful
men and women of color who gave their lives in the struggle
to transform and humanize this nation, makes Gosse's
statement "But instead of fading away or falling apart,
CISPES hung on" close to obscene in the arrogant whiteness
of its perspective.
     I understand that the article written by the former
director of New Jersey CISPES was a discussion of the
tactics and strategy of one organization in solidarity with
the Salvadoran revolution. I understand that it was not an
attempt to discuss and analyze the history of struggle in
the United States.
     But in writing the history of CISPES, Gosse did what
many white people do -- they make what they do and what they
see the entirety of what is to be seen and what is to be
done. And everything else is disappeared. It drops off the
vista of consciousness. Because if it didn't -- if Gosse
thought about the ANC support groups when he thought about
the FMLN support groups, if he thought about the Panthers
when he thought about SDS -- he could not have written what
he did.
     Gosse suggests that the strategy of CISPES "should be
seriously considered in planning the future renaissance of
U.S. radicalism." I would suggest that considering,
challenging, and defeating white supremacy within the
movement for change is more critical -- because its defeat
is fundamental to our ability to build a united, powerful
movement. And without such a movement, we cannot move
     If we don't confront this issue -- if we don't wage the
struggle and don't move forward, we will be irrelevant to
the future "renaissance of U.S. radicalism" that Gosse
refers to. And when it occurs, it will occur without us --
and at a time considerably after our country explodes. --
Sabina Virgo, Los Angeles, California

     Comments by Van Gosse in CrossRoads No. 40 (April)
convinced me that it's time to take a critical look at one
of our founding fetishes: cadrephobia. Since most of the
people involved in launching CrossRoads were refugees from
various cadre groups (or left sects, or parties and pre-
parties, if you prefer), we have an understandable wariness
about the ideology and culture that pervade such groups.
There is still a lot of embarrassment about all the
stupidities committed in the name of "party-building" and
"democratic centralism." In general, CrossRoads has dealt
with this phenomenon with candor and self-criticism. But too
often wariness veers into cynicism or just comes off as the
zeal of the converted, a sort of Cadres Anonymous meeting.
We end up distorting our own history and simplistically
writing off our experience.
     Van Gosse's history of CISPES illustrates the point. He
describes Salvadoran CISPES leadership as wanting to "keep
the organized sectors of the U.S. left out of El Salvador
solidarity work," a move which he calls "opportunist" but
practically necessary because such groups (presumably he
means cadre groups and not SANE/FREEZE or the NAACP) had
proven to be unreliable and even destructive. He asks
rhetorically, "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."
     Without going into the logical contortions of that
statement, and leaving aside the question of why anyone
would want to defend a practice and call it "opportunist" at
the same time, there are still big problems with this
contention. First is the classic cadrephobic assumption that
all such groups are interchangeable and are all driven to
rule or ruin the solidarity movement. In fact, by the time
CISPES was hitting its stride, the worst excesses of
ultraleftism had already peaked. The groups that provoked
such hostility with their wrecking and splitting in the
'70s, by the '80s had either retreated from such tactics or
run out of gas. The few remaining hard-core sects were
totally isolated. It was generally agreed that outside
faction fights be kept off the turf of solidarity groups. If
some cadre groups had ambitions of taking over CISPES, they
were the exception and got nowhere.
     Van Gosse argues that critical support -- supposedly a
universal stance of cadre groups -- leads to U.S. activists
trying to impose their positions on the very people they
claim to be trying to help. Again, this was common in the
'70s, but most of the sects still around in the '80s had a
line of unconditional, not critical, support for the FMLN.
True, that position could have changed at any time. Indeed,
any number of possible events -- a split in the FMLN, a U.S.
invasion -- would have forced activists, whether cadres or
independents, to debate basic questions of the Salvadoran
struggle, whether or not this was "their business." This is
in the nature of politics in a turbulent time. And it's
preferable to following the FMLN, or anyone,
unquestioningly. That's a lesson of the solidarity movement
I wish had been explored more deeply.
     Though Van Gosse is a talented historian, his case
against allowing cadre groups in CISPES for practical
reasons is historically as well as politically flawed. Many
open members of cadre groups worked in CISPES, including
some in high positions. When I "went into" CISPES in Chicago
in 1981/82, I was know to with an "M-L" group; I was
immediately drafted to co-chair the chapter with a very
capable and intelligent member of a Trotskyist party. Cadres
were allowed in because they had discipline and political
skills that were a direct result of their training as cadres
(a factor that still attracts independents to cadre groups).
Some were jerks, to be sure, but others were hard-working
organizers who made building CISPES their political
priority. The character of the role of cadres does not just
boil down to a line or hidden agenda. Van Gosse claims
otherwise, I think, in order to pitch cadrephobia as a
principle. It reminds me of an old Dudley Moore line: "You
have to hand it to the Americans -- they know what they
stand for. They really believe in anticommunism."
     Vanguardism is not the answer, but cadrephobia (or
redbaiting, if you prefer) is just a tired old dodge. We
need to positively draw on past and contemporary experience
for better alternatives. Otherwise, sectarianism will fill
the gap. --Ethan Young, New York, New York

     Mike Zielinski's far-ranging article "Solidarity
Without Borders" (CrossRoads, April 1994) makes some
excellent points on the realities facing Central American
solidarity. But in order to accurately assess the future
direction of the international solidarity movement, we need
to look at some other factors.
     First of all, we should recognize that the prospects
for organizing international solidarity have never been
better. Last fall's elections in Russia prompted President
Clinton to admit that neoliberal reforms haven't worked
there, while the disappearance of the "Evil Empire" makes it
impossible for the right-wing here to rally popular support
against the Red Menace. The appearance of the Zapatistas in
Mexico shows that peasants and indigenous people can resist
the new "unipolar" world order. The Cuban economy -- long a
beacon of hope to those resisting imperialism -- is showing
signs of recovery. And as Zielinski points out, the struggle
against NAFTA brought US workers together with workers in
the Third World to an extent never before seen.
     Internationalist activists in the US have largely
ignored the complexities of the struggle against
neoliberalism, and the increased necessity for making common
cause and coalition. As Nicaragua and El Salvador
disappeared from the mainstream press, most of the
solidarity community's attention has turned to Cuba, with
the same focus it had in the 1980s: material aid
(essentially charity) and lobbying Congress to convince them
that lifting the blockade is in the interests of US
business. Meanwhile former Sendero Luminoso supporters rush
to embrace the Zapatistas without bothering to digest the
EZLN's pro-election, internally-democratic reality. These
currents remind one of the old joke: "The more things
change, the more the Left remains the same." Another large
sector of the peace and solidarity movement finds itself
reluctantly supporting the use of US troops and bombers in
places like Somalia, Bosnia and Haiti.
     It's time to face the fact that many people joined the
solidarity movement because they feel helpless about making
fundamental social change in the United States.
Unfortunately, our experience has shown lasting peace will
not come to any part of the Third World until there are
fundamental changes in the developed countries. The best we
can accomplish with a one-country strategy is to compel the
US government to pick another target: when we were
organizing on El Salvador, they invaded Grenada; when we had
turned public opinion against the contras, they invaded
Panama, with the result that most US residents couldn't
remember which "dictator" was Ortega and which was Noriega.
This will continue as long as we pick one country at a time
to defend rather than work from a true international
perspective. Representatives from the Sandinista Front often
answer the question "what can we do to support you?" by
saying, "overthrow your own government."
     Real international solidarity isn't just helping to
heal the damage that US foreign policy does, but also
stopping the US from doing further damage. The difference
between genuine solidarity and Third World revolutionary
romanticism is the realization that we need to work with
revolutionary movements so that we can bring their lessons
back home.
     One of the chief lessons of the Central American
experience is that a mass movement is composed of
individuals collectively solving their own problems, taking
charge of their own lives. We in solidarity can change our
mentality from "helping others" to using the organizing
tools we now possess to take on the social system that
confines us all. But first we need to bring the different
groups in solidarity with this country or that country
together, following the example of the Sao Paulo Forum,
which combines progressive forces from across Latin America
to build a common struggle against a common enemy.  The
majority of the US public is no longer benefiting from the
plunder of the Third World; a large part of the public's
opposition to NAFTA was on that basis. We don't need to wait
for anything else to happen before we build a mass movement.
     A good place to start rallying the solidarity movement
is with the US government's doctrine of "humanitarian
intervention." This is the same "humanitarian intervention"
that occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934, that invaded the
Dominican Republic in 1965, that has killed uncounted people
in Iraq.  Yet many on the Left haven't heard any progressive
voices opposing intervention in Bosnia or Haiti; it seems
like the only humane thing to do. While activists agonize,
the forces of capital organize: The Catholic Church in
Nicaragua has already called for UN "Blue Helmets" to
resolve the current instability there. We who have witnessed
firsthand the destruction caused by the US military have a
special responsibility to inform the US people -- who are
generally inclined against wasting US money meddling in
foreign countries even without our help -- about the bloody
cost of the international capitalists' brand of
     With the possibility of progressive presidents being
elected this year in Brazil and Mexico, our job should be to
stir up enough resistance here at home that the ruling class
won't be able to pay attention to what's going on outside
the U.S. Zielinski is correct that we have much to learn
from Central America's social movements. But we must apply
that knowledge in this country if we are to have a real
impact on the US policy that affects not only Latin America
but also Africa, Asia, Europe and those of us who live in
the United States. --David B. Wilson, New York, New York