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Turning point for CISPES

By Cherrene Horazuk, CrossRoads, September 1995

1995 marks an historic turning point for CISPES (the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador). Hundreds of activists from as far away as El Salvador attended the organization's 6th National Convention in New York City in May to celebrate 15 years of successful grassroots organizing and to develop a strategy to confront the Contract on the Americas, North and South.

For 15 years, while working alongside the FMLN and social movements in El Salvador, CISPES has participated in creating a model for cross-border organizing that is based on political solidarity and mutual respect. CISPES and El Salavador-based organizations have developed common strategies through a joint analysis of socioeconomic conditions in El Salvador and the U.S. CISPES has made the transition from supporting an armed revolutionary organization before the cease-fire, to supporting the electoral and grassroots organizing efforts of an unarmed party.

At the CISPES national convention, chapters from across the country overwhelmingly voted to expand their work, designing an integrated strategy that more strongly links parallel movements in the U.S. and El Salvador. Specifically, CISPES will support the grassroots revolutionary movement in El Salvador, and help build a multi-racial movement in the U.S. in defense of immigrant rights.

In her keynote address, María Serrano, FMLN leader and peasant organizer made famous in the PBS documentary María's Story, said, "Our greatest challenge is to create a worldwide movement that stops the corporations from imposing their will. And we have to have great vision to link up with others in the world to do the same. In spite of the wave of repression against revolutionary movements in the world, you in CISPES have maintained your movement and solidarity spirit. Now, solidarity is even more important. You need to continue this incredible quality of solidarity work and your practice of basic grassroots organizing."


Once again, the U.S is viewing El Salvador as an experiment. Throughout the 1980s, the country was a testing ground for counterinsurgency tactics. Now it is a testing ground for neoliberalism. On June 22, the IDB (Inter-American Development Bank) and World Bank lender nations pledged the Salvadoran government $1.3 billion in grants and loans. This was a clear reward for the fast-track imposition of structural adjustment programs by President Calderon Sol. The governing ARENA party is instituting neoliberal measures: tariff reductions, privatization of essential public services, IVA (Value-Added Tax) raises, and expansion of the export-driven garment assembly.

The tax burden has shifted from multinational corporations to individuals, accompanied by a regressive redistribution of the wealth. Sound familiar? Seventy percent of the Salvadoran population is underemployed or unemployed, but the government has increased the Value-Added Tax to 13 percent, which means the prices of groceries and basic services are skyrocketing.

President Calderon Sol declared his ambition to convert El Salvador into "one giant free trade zone," continuing a trend started by past president Alfredo Cristiani. Between April 1992 and December 1994, the number of maquiladora plants soared from 120, with 30,000 employees, to 208 with 50,000 employees. Salvadoran apparel exports to the U.S. have multiplied (from $10 million annually in 1985 to $400 million in 1994), yet real monthly wages of Salvadoran workers have dropped 53 percent. Young women sew GAP T- shirts (for example) for 56" an hour -- just 0.6 percent of the retail rates in our shopping malls, while U.S. firms reap the profits of El Salvador's maquiladoras.


Multinational corporations may view El Salvador as the ideal location to impose neoliberalism, but the people of El Salvador disagree. Throughout the 1980s, the FMLN and the people of El Salvador derailed the U.S. counterinsurgency experiment, and CISPES stood in solidarity with that resistance. Today, the same groups are derailing the new experiment. Throughout the summer, public employee protest has grown, as workers resist government attempts to privatize state-run services. In the maquiladora zones, women are demanding an end to verbal and physical abuse on the job. They are unionizing to fight for decent wages and better working conditions.

Participants in the CISPES delegation program are marching side by side with their compañeras and compañeros. When the National Civilian Police use repression tactics, the CISPES rapid response network generates calls and letters of denunciation. CISPES will raise funds for the maquila organizers, and is generating publicity about their struggle throughout the U.S. The organization is also challenging the role of the U.S. government and U.S. corporations in creating repressive conditions. CISPES is working with other Central America solidarity organizations and labor groups to develop a unified strategy and campaign to support the struggles of workers in Central American free trade zones to directly confront the corporations and policy-makers.


CISPES' strategy also supports an alternative; an alternative proposed by the FMLN. According to Mar!a Serrano, "We have to be very faithful in our commitment and to the blood of all those people who died throughout history trying to create a society with profound socialist values. There are many people who have socialist values but are afraid to fight for those values. We, the FMLN, are fighting for socialism." Though the FMLN vision is not fully defined, they are clear that an alternative to capitalism is necessary and can work. The heart of their vision is fighting for the needs of the poor majority, and building support for the demands of the people being most exploited by the capitalist system.

Since spring 1994, when the FMLN emerged from national elections as the second strongest party in the country, it has been changing the face of government and the meaning of economic development in El Salvador. In the 15 FMLN governed municipalities, local residents have been setting the agenda. City Halls have been holding community meetings and forming citizen task forces. For the first time, people are being empowered to identify problems and implement solutions, creating municipal development based on people's needs and built from the grassroots.


CISPES' decision to join in the struggle for immigrants' rights comes as a direct extension of its El Salvador solidarity work. The 12-year civil war its economic causes forced millions of Salvadorans to flee their country. The vast majority immigrated to the U.S., built communities and raised families here -- only to become the victims of racist scapegoating.

As economic conditions in the U.S. have worsened, many people have blamed immigrants for job loss and low wages. CISPES' two-pronged immigration strategy entails supporting the struggles of the immigrant community, and challenging racism and xenophobia within the white population. An important task for CISPES is mobilizing the Central America solidarity and anti-intervention movement to defend immigrants' rights -- once again making the connections between U.S. foreign policy and domestic policy. CISPES activists are revitalizing tactics that have been successful for El Salvador solidarity -- postering and bannering, pickets, rallies, street mobilizations, and sit-ins. They are confronting policy makers with the immigration issue, letting them know that no human being is illegal and that they will be denounced if they support anti-immigrant legislation.

Although this is a new strategy for CISPES on a national level, it is building on the strong work of local chapters. Bay Area CISPES is a member of the Violence Prevention Coalition, and helped write resolutions that were recently adopted by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors against Propositions 187 (anti-immigrant) and 184 ("three strikes"). New York CISPES organized a dynamic subway theater that portrayed Mayor Giuliani deporting Santa for being an undocumented immigrant.

In Los Angeles, CISPES is part of a coalition organizing a community-wide forum on immigration that will feature Rubn Zamora, the FMLN's presidential candidate in the 1994 elections, and Cuauhtmoc C rdenas, the Revolutionary Democratic Party's presidential candidate in Mexico's 1994 elections. CISPES delegations to El Salvador will participate in activist exchanges with Salvadoran organizers.

Another important opportunity for bridging movements will come in July, 1996, when the FMLN and El Salvador will host the 6th meeting of the Sao Paolo Forum. The Forum convenes the left from throughout Latin America and the Caribbean to discuss common issues and develop joint strategy. The overall theme of the forum will focus on the development of the Community of Latin American Nations, a plan for political and economic regional integration. A main topic for the 1996 Forum will be U.S. immigration policy and its impact on Latin America. CISPES will support the FMLN's organizing efforts, and will send delegations to observe and participate in the Forum.

If the capitalists' global strategy is successful, the wealthiest one percent of the world's population will control even more resources, while the rest of the world's people will live in devastating poverty. Militarization of national boundaries is accompanying the globalization of poverty. We must create a transnational movement for social change that will truly challenge the neoliberal, neo- imperial world order. With one foot in El Salvador and one in the U.S., CISPES is bridging people's struggles for social justice, and tearing down the walls that divide us.