CISPES keeps solidarity with Salvadoran people’s movement alive in U.S.
Supporters of Salvador Sanchez Ceren, the presidential candidate of the ruling Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), celebrate during a victory rally in San Salvador, El Salvador, March 15, 2014. | Salvador Melendez / AP

LOS ANGELES—Back in 1980, Central American nations were experiencing vast social change. The Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) emerged that year as a support group to disseminate information about popular struggles in that country, the smallest in Central America. CISPES became ever more significant as the decade unfolded, as Ronald Reagan intensified aid to El Salvador’s extreme right-wing military. The world now knows of the many villages and farms where organized peasants and workers were simply annihilated en masse by the U.S.-trained Salvadoran military. Some of these crimes have been brought to justice, but many more have not.

El Salvador is the rare example of an armed left insurgent force that successfully pursued national self-defense against imperialism and won. When the Salvadoran military started killing nuns and priests, some of them American, and above all Monsignor Oscar Romero on his pulpit, the tide turned. U.S.-sponsored terrorism came to light and the American people protested. The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) won elections and is now the lead party in government.

Yet to be in government and to hold power are two very different things. The examples of Chile, Paraguay, Honduras, Brazil and many other countries show that winning an electoral majority is often insufficient to keep a citizenry mobilized and passionate about social change when almost all the other sectors of society are aligned against you. (In the U.S., of course, gaining an electoral majority does not necessarily even win you the election!)

The media are almost all corporate-owned and spew out a steady stream of criticism against the government. The military still maintains its ties to the fascistic School of the Americas in the United States. The church, both the Roman Catholic and the large Pentecostal evangelical movement that has proliferated in Latin America, continues to preach the total ban on reproductive rights and to criminalize abortion and even miscarriages. Business and manufacturing interests are financially linked to multinational corporations and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Sometimes even unions can be bought off.

Throw in the so-called “free trade” agreements with “El Norte” (the U.S.), and small countries like El Salvador are often close to powerless defending their mineral, water, environmental and labor rights. The neoliberal pressure to enforce harsh austerity policies can be intense. Finally, it is often the case that command central of the right-wing opposition is the office of the U.S. ambassador, who freely dispenses funding and electoral favors.

So it’s a daunting proposition to presume to govern from the left in such a small, vulnerable corner in “America’s backyard.”

CISPES held its 16th national convention last weekend near Los Angeles, and to open the event to the wider community it hosted a Friday evening (Aug. 11) gathering headlined “Beyond Trump: Resistance from Los Angeles to El Salvador.”

Welcoming the crowd of about 80 were Xochitl Sanchez of the L.A. chapter of CISPES, and Fidel Sanchez, singer, who dedicated one of his numbers to martyr Oscar Romero. Alexis Stoumbelis, organizational coordinator of CISPES, spoke of the organization as a “grassroots struggle to change this country.” Chairing the session was Angela Sanbrano, executive director of Carecen, a significant immigrant aid group for Latinx in L.A. “The big difference between our first convention and now,” she said, “is that FMLN es gobierno—the FMLN is now the government.”

The first presenter was Gabi Murillo, who recounted her harrowing journey as a young transgender youth in El Salvador all the way to forced self-deportation and arrival in the U.S., which greeted her with months in an austere detention facility. “I came to the U.S.,” she said, “not to become North American but to save my life.”

It bears noting that the leadership of CISPES, judging from this event, seems to be strong, principled women.

Three keynote speakers outlined some of the challenges ahead.

Ron Gochez is active with the Unión del Barrio in L.A. He is an American-born community organizer of Salvadoran and Mexican parentage. He pointed to success at passing a law in California disallowing the practice of police impounding vehicles from undocumented drivers, amounting to a wholesale $21 million theft of property in L.A. and some $40 million in the state. The next campaign is to legalize the work of street vendors who support themselves in modest open-air commerce and provide a service to their clients. He also pointed out that while Mexico gets attention for refusing to “pay for the wall” on its northern border with the U.S., it is working with U.S. funding to build a similar wall on its southern border to wall off immigrants from Central America.

Roger Blandino Merio is a deputy of FMLN in El Salvador. He highlighted the persistent press of the right to contain and roll back any social progress the FMLN government achieves. The battle of ideas is intensifying: The corporate media, including some 80 TV channels, are all on the same page promoting the same anti-government and anti-progressive messaging. The U.S. is trying to “reconquer imperialist hegemony in Latin America.”

Life is improving under the FMLN. Births are now 98 percent occurring in hospitals, and (with the singular exception of Cuba) El Salvador’s infant mortality rate is now among the lowest in Latin America. Every child goes to school, and there is widespread endorsement of the principle of planting native seeds, not relying on Monsanto seed which cannot be regenerated.

CISPES 16th National Convention. From left to right, Angela Sanbrano, Roger Blandino Merio, Claudia Escobar, Ron Gochez. | Eric Gordon / PW

But difficult problems remain. The power of the U.S. is felt in many ways, obliging El Salvador to do things it would prefer not to. Corruption of public officials is rampant, drugs pass freely through the country between South America and North America. Violence is endemic, and emigration is still massive. The U.S. strategically deported Salvadoran gang members back to their country in order to destabilize the country, bringing new levels of extortion, murder and rape. It is estimated that there are presently some 2.5 million Salvadoran immigrants in the U.S., whose fate is largely determined by U.S. immigration policy, which is related to the health of the U.S. economy at any given time. A bilingual conversation with FMLN then-mayor Roger Blandino about the US “War on Drugs” in El Salvador can be viewed here.

The final guest speaker was Claudia Liduvina Escobar, a Las Febes union organizer. Las Febes is the Association of Women Unionists named for Febe Elizabeth Velásquez, and focuses on improving the lives of working women and bringing a feminist perspective to the labor movement. This women-led group provides support and training for women in domestic work, maquiladoras, and sex workers who want to join a union. Already, under the FMLN, women workers have upgraded the conditions of their largely precarious employment to set hours and wages, vacations, and social security. The FMLN government has opened up these possibilities in ways the former right-wing governments never would. “Only unity allows us to advance,” Escobar said. “We cannot allow the right wing to return to power. They would wipe out all our advances and victories.”

Among the efforts women are pursuing is to change the country’s absolute ban on abortions. If approved, this reform would legalize abortions in cases of rape, incest, an unviable fetus, and when the mother’s life is at risk, returning the country to the legal framework that existed prior to 1997, when the right-wing legislature voted to ban abortion under all circumstances. El Salvador is a powerful example of the ways in which institutionalized misogyny and state-sponsored punishment disproportionately affects poor and working class women, and the working class as a whole. A similar crisis in women’s rights has also been manufactured by the right wing in the U.S., which has used its influence to curtail American support for birth control in the rest of the world as well. The Las Febes Facebook page can be viewed here.

The entire evening was translated simultaneously and a fundraiser was conducted on the spot to purchase new equipment to guarantee that all future CISPES meetings will be bilingually accessible. About 40 participants were expected to attend the convention itself during the next two days.

CISPES demonstrates how support for a progressive movement abroad is inseparably connected to the struggle for changes at home, as one people learns from the other in the common goal of making life better for all.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.