Building The Central America Movement
November 8, 1982
Laura Daigen (Black and Third World Outreach Committee), Eric Jacobson (Brooklyn Committee), John King (Press Committee), and Michael Letwin (Black and Third World Outreach Committee)
Over the last two-and-a-half years, CISPES has played a vital role in making El Salvador a nationally visible issue as part of a growing antiwar atmosphere and movement. After the interventionist fever which swept the U.S. only a couple of years ago, especially during the Iranian Hostage Crisis, this is no small contribution.
Today, however, we face an impasse. Our activity has so far helped prevent large scale U.S. intervention in Central America, but it clearly will not be enough to prevent the current escalation of the war by the U.S. or to force the U.S. out. This fact has forced to the surface the basic question: To whom and with what politics and strategy must CISPES direct its work?
Since the March 27  demonstration in Washington, members of CISPES have generally considered two opposing answers.
One position is that CISPES needs to more narrowly limit its focus to the issue of El Salvador in order to reach the “middle sectors”—the religious groups, labor leaders, liberal politicians and middle class people generally.
The other position, which we argue for in this paper, is that both the experience of the Vietnam and the situation in this country today calls for building a Central America movement first and foremost among rank and file working class and specially oppressed people (**) in this country on the basis of an independent, multi issue approach.
These two positions have surfaced in evaluating and planning CISPES activities over the last year, with the more narrow approach usually dominant.
For example the New York Women’s Committee proposal to endorse the abortion rights demonstration at Cherry Hill on July 17  was opposed and defeated (***) on the grounds that to do so would threaten our relationship with the Catholic Church.
More recently the demands and CISPES literature for the World Front demonstration (the Front itself is discussed in the related papers) didn’t address related issues such as racism, sexism, cutbacks union busting or unemployment. The coalition for the event was limited to far fewer and less diverse groups than was previously the case, with a particularly prominent role for the Peace Council/Communist Party and the leaders of the Labor Committees in Support of Democracy and Human Rights in El Salvador.
We believe that this approach has limited the actual and potential Central American movement, and that to move ahead, CISPES must broaden itself to relate to the people it needs to reach most.
1. The Vietnam Antiwar Movement Experience
The Vietnam War showed that the activity of rank and file working class people was in-dispensable, both indirectly and directly, in ending the war.
The “official” antiwar and white student movements were themselves born out of and took inspiration from the Civil Rights and Black Power activity of working class Black people. This official antiwar movement was able to stir up, and eventually legitimize opposition to the war. But it didn’t have the power to end it alone.
The liberal Democratic politicians supported by the moderate antiwar forces didn’t end the war, and some actually ran it, as in the case of LBJ. More militant activities, such as shutting down a university, holding a huge demonstration, and middle class draft resistance, were dramatic and important, but they could not bring society to a halt and so the war continued despite them.
The war was ended, under a Republican administration, only when the resistance of the Vietnamese and antiwar sentiment in the U.S. found a direct response, especially in the military, among masses of ordinary North American working class people.
Like the official Antiwar Movement, this working class response was first influenced by the radical wing of the Black Movement, which rejected the idea that the war was separate from the oppression of Blacks in this country. From 1964 on, Malcolm X, the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), the Black Panther Party—the Black revolutionaries—and eventually Martin Luther King, Jr., all played the key role of being among the first to declare widespread and militant opposition to the war.
The growing Black opposition contributed to varying degrees of Black (and white) political awareness about Vietnam. As early as 1966, Newsweek found that 35% of the Blacks polled opposed the war “because they had less freedom in the U.S.” than whites. By 1969, 56% of the Blacks polled opposed the war and one out of seven did not even “consider the U.S. worth fighting for in a world war.” (1)
This attitude had its greatest and most direct impact among Black GIs in Vietnam, who saw each other, poor white and Latino GIs and the Vietnamese killed and maimed, all despite the fact that, as the popular slogan went, “No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger.”
Black awareness was further fueled by the fact that Black soldiers were more likely than anyone else to be sent to the front lines and killed: only 11% of the general population between nineteen and twenty one years old was Black in 1961 66, but Blacks made up 25% of the casualties in Vietnam (2). The irrepressible Vietnamese national liberation movement, especially when compared to the corrupt Saigon regime, made clear that the U.S. could never win the war, and that the claim of the government to be defending “democracy” was a sham.
Working Class Antiwar Movement
Especially after the Tet Offensive, the first major National Liberation Front offensive against the U.S. in Vietnam in early 1968, and the assassination of King in April, Black GIs, joined by Latinos and whites, created their own antiwar movement, the basic aim of which was to survive.
By the early ‘70s, heavy drug use, antiwar and Black countercultures, AWOLs, desertions, fraggings (shooting and blowing up officers), avoidance of combat and outright and some-times large scale mutiny, and an extensive GI movement around the world had made the American ground forces, soon followed by the Navy and Air Force, militarily unreliable.
As David Cortright concluded in his book Soldiers in Revolt:
“The plague of disaffection and defiance within the ranks, most dramatically evidenced in fragging, crippled the infantry and left the once proud American Army helpless, more a liability than an asset to U.S. purposes.” (3)
One of the most important effects of the GI movement was to make it more difficult to use the Army for purposes of repression at home. For example, in the summer of 1968, 43 Black GIs stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, were court martialed for refusing riot duty at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where student and antiwar radicals were protesting.
Working class vets, Black, Latino and white, brought the experience of the war home with them, and joined in organizing against the war. Vietnam veterans were able to reach people in their communities about Vietnam better than any Moratorium on television, and the impact of their accounts and the obvious toll that the war took on them continues to be an important factor in sustaining the “Vietnam Syndrome” which has so far kept U.S. troops out of El Salvador.
In addition to participating in official antiwar activity, organized groups such as Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) put on events like the dramatic Dewey Canyon III encampment in Washington in 1971. Vets and others organized their own antiwar activity in actions such as the Chicano Moratorium in Los Angeles in 1970.
Working class and Third World vets also linked up with non vets in related movements.
Many were involved in the ghetto revolts that shook the country from 1964 68.
Some Blacks, Puerto Ricans and Chicanos joined organizations like the Black Panthers, the Young Lords and Brown Berets, which at their height in the late ‘60s were among the most militant political organizations in their communities.
Perhaps most importantly in terms of where their power lay, young Nam vets fed into growing worker unrest. Groups like the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement in Detroit and other rank and file union groups organized against racism and bureaucracy in the unions and around other issues in the plants and community.
And despite the image of pro war demonstrations by white hardhats, polls from the mid and late ‘60s showed that white workers were actually more antiwar as a group than were more educated and wealthier sections of society.
The relationship between these movements of working class and nonwhite people around the war, racism, the unions and the community on the one hand, and the official antiwar and white radical movement on the other was varied.
Generally, the major official organizations of the antiwar movement directed themselves toward white middle class students and professionals, stressed a single issue approach, and periodically folded themselves into the presidential campaigns of McCarthy in ‘68 and McGovern in ‘72. Their contact with workers and the oppressed was usually limited to relations with liberal union bureaucrats who refused to seriously mobilize their members. [Now who does that remind you of today? T]
Others in the white movement, especially some from the radical antiwar and student movements, tried to seriously relate to and support the activities of workers and the specially oppressed. Alliances were forged with Black revolutionary organizations.
Radical civilians played an especially crucial role in helping to sustain the GI movement.
Some groups made ongoing attempts to connect the war with the emerging worker revolt.
At the same time, the work of many white radicals was limited by taking on a patronizing, one way, missionary approach, and by attempts to prove their revolutionary credentials by idolizing Black and other nonwhite struggles in this country and Third World nationalism abroad.
Furthermore, many middle class groups, both moderate and radical, tended to focus exclusively on the immorality of the war, without attempting to address its impact on or relationship to working class and oppressed people in this country, as articulated, for example, by the Black movement.
Sometimes this took the form of hostility and impatience toward working class people, especially whites, for fighting in the war, or working in a “defense” plant, as if they had the same options of college deferments, psychiatric exemptions, or graduate school as middle class kids.
These politics had their price.
Often, distrust of Third World people for white activists and multiracial unity, learned over decades of betrayal, was confirmed and deepened.
Working class people of all colors, many of whom participated in the war, were hostile toward a movement which seemed to be made up of privileged and often arrogant college kids who ignored, preached to, and sometimes even blamed them for the war.
The Women’s Liberation Movement, which emerged from the Black and Antiwar movements, remained suspicious of the male dominated moderate, radical and Third World organizations which often refused to acknowledge or support the Women’s Movement. Gays and lesbians felt even more alienated from the established movements.
The result was that unity between the movements was difficult to achieve or maintain and therefore antiwar activity never went as far or as soon as it might have.
One of the most important limits was that working class people never used their power at the workplace where they could have ended the war in a matter of weeks by shutting down all or even parts of the economy. This didn’t happen spontaneously because after McCarthyism and relative prosperity, the organized working class of the ‘60s lacked a tradition of using its economic muscle for much of anything, let alone to end the war. However, this weakness was reinforced by their distance from the official antiwar movement.
Moreover, the inability to build a united movement around a variety of issues led to the collapse of the official antiwar organizations after U.S. troops were withdrawn in the early ‘70s.
When new imperialist adventure arose, such as the U.S. intervention in Angola in 1975 76, and the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979 80, there were no mass mobilizations.
Today, the struggles against draft registration and intervention in Central America have to be built from scratch, within the context of a racially and class segregated set of movements.
And none of the movements gave rise to a general movement against the system of capitalism responsible for the war.
The last antiwar movement, therefore, leaves us two legacies to choose from.
The least effective was a single issue approach focused on middle class people alone.
The most effective was that which attempted to relate to the movements of working class and specially oppressed people with as few illusions as possible, and which succeeded in linking to and mobilizing them around the war through a multi issue approach.
2. The Antiwar Movement Today
In some ways, despite the intense turmoil of the period, the 1960s wasn’t the easiest time for mobilizing a large, active antiwar movement among working class and specially oppressed people. Much of the working class came out of the 1950s without an independent political tradition or strong union, let alone socialist, organizations.
The postwar period was one of unprecedented prosperity, especially, but not only for white workers. Except among Blacks, working class people, by and large, still believed in the system. Racial divisions were strong. Yet, large numbers of working class people were reached and mobilized against the war and around related issues to the point where the war had to be ended.
Today, there are in many ways much greater possibilities for building an antiwar movement among workers and the specially oppressed. Vietnam, racism, sexism, Watergate, and the decline of the economy, due in part to job export to Third World countries, has created wide-spread disillusionment and cynicism with the system among nearly everyone.
There is a diverse, sudden, and uneven political reawakening directly linked to Reaganism and the economic crisis. There is a small though steady increase of activity among Blacks and women and a growing if largely disorganized rank and file worker opposition to “concessions” as seen in the recent auto industry contract rejection at Chrysler. The Disarmament Movement has found widespread support.
There is also a climate of opposition to U.S. intervention abroad, especially in Central America. This is reflected not only in the polls, but in the fact that hundreds of thousands of young people have refused to register for the draft.
Small numbers of organized working class people have also taken some direct steps against U.S. intervention in Central America. The West Coast longshoremen have refused to load weapons bound for El Salvador. Numerous union locals have passed resolutions demanding U.S. withdrawal. Black, Latino and Women’s organizations have addressed the issue. These movements in general, and the activity of working class and specially oppressed people in particular, show great promise for opposition to U.S. intervention in Central America, particularly if the U.S. sends troops into Central America.
This promise is especially great among Third World people in the Armed Forces. As the recent Brookings Institution study put it:
“That black soldiers would prove unreliable should they be called upon to take up arms against their “brothers” in either a domestic civil disorder or a foreign action . . . has long been the subject of speculation.” 
One important and positive difference between the wars in Vietnam and Central America is that this time around, there is a large Latino population in the U.S.; Chicano, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Central and South American; with a direct sympathy for the Central American revolution.
At the same time, we face serious barriers.
The widespread alienation that exists among working class and specially oppressed people is still largely confused and hasn’t reached the level of class consciousness or action.
There is little unity between the various emerging movements. The anti militarist movements and organizations, including that around Central America, remain confined almost totally to white, middle class people who, as during Vietnam lack the power to end the war.
It is clear that despite the possibilities, a unified, active, mass opposition to U.S. intervention in Central America will not grow automatically. Whether, and at what pace it develops, its ultimate depth, and its internal unity, will depend on three interrelated things:
1. The way in which events in Central America unfold;
2. The development of a general, political radicalization of middle and especially working class people and the oppressed around a wide variety of related and immediate issues in this country; and
3. The willingness and ability of the existing Central American movement to build the greatest possible ties with an antiwar resistance among working class and oppressed people.
To play the most effective possible role, CISPES must develop a politics and strategy which makes central the attempt to build a Central America movement based among rank and file working class and specially oppressed people. To do so would include the following:
1. In all our work, our main orientation should be toward the rank and file.
In working with unionists, for example, we want to relate most to people fighting around immediate issues such as condition in the workplace and the unions. The same applies to all communities, since, although support from officials of major organizations can be useful, it is the activity of ordinary working class people, many of them in constant conflict with their leaders, who will have the greatest interest and potential to act effectively against the war.
2. Maintain Independence from the Democrats and Republicans.
Liberal politicians and congressional opposition to the war is important. But the Central American and anti war movements should remain completely independent from the politicians and their parties, for their overall goals are fundamentally different from ours.
Where we stand for complete self determination for Central America, the liberal capitalist politicians oppose the Reagan policy in favor of a more indirect form of U.S. control, through agencies such as the International Monetary Fund, in which direct U.S. military means plays a less important and obvious role.
But even this level of opposition is uncertain, since if they be-come convinced that military intervention is the only way to hold onto U.S. control of the region or prevent the spread of revolution, say, to Mexico, or that their opposition should be toned down to strike a deal with their colleagues on some other issue, their role will change.
Remember that it was under the “human rights” era of Carter that U.S. military aid to El Salvador was dramatically increased in the beginning of 1981.
Therefore, the greatest pressure on the major parties and their candidates is a movement from the’ left which, because of its militance and independence, threatens them as well.
Once they can count on our endorsements and votes on the grounds of lesser-evilism, whatever leverage we have is gone and the more likely it is that the liberals will become more like the conservatives, as they did during Vietnam.
Likewise, even conservative politicians will oppose U.S. intervention if they feel that independent mass opposition is a strong enough threat. Richard Nixon presided over the U.S. defeat in Vietnam.
3. A political analysis and line of argument which shows why it is necessary for working class and specially oppressed people in this country to care about and act against the war in Central America.
Vietnam showed that moralism, appeals based only on the injustice of the war as it affects its Central American victims, cannot by itself motivate large numbers of people from any class into active opposition to U.S. intervention.
Most middle class people acted against Vietnam only when the draft began to threaten them directly.
Working class people began to act against it, usually in uniform, when they saw their buddies, sons, brothers and fathers die or get maimed in a war they began to associate with racism and the rich, and as it became clear that the war was directly harmful to the economy and the poverty programs.
The only way that the still passive antiwar sentiment that exists today can be mobilized is when people see that the immediate problems they feel, mammoth unemployment and permanent de industrialization, rampant inflation, crime, massive social service cuts, union busting, racism, sexism, and homophobia; in a word their overall position in society; is directly related to a war like the one in Central America.
This isn’t because people don’t have morals or principles. They do. But most everyone feels powerless and overwhelmed with their day to day problems. They will act only when they feel they have to.
Therefore, our most important argument is that it is in the immediate and long term self interest of working class and oppressed people in North America to oppose the war for the following reasons:
A. It is working class people, especially Blacks and Latinos, who face not only the draft but also economic and racial conscription, who will have to fight, kill and die in the next Vietnam in Central America, putting down nonwhite people like themselves who desire only to be free. Blacks, for example, are now 33% of the Army and 22% of the Marines enlisted forces, and are likely to suffer between one third and one half of the initial combat fatalities in the next war. As the Brookings Institution concluded, “If that happened, the 20 percent casualty rate of Blacks that provoked charges of racial genocide in the mid 1960s could appear small.” (5).
B. The elimination of jobs and decline in wages, union busting and “concessions” in this country are all due, in part, to the fact that especially in the current depression, U.S. backed repression in Third World countries makes it much more profitable for companies to set up shop in places like Central America where unions and political activity are stamped out. Therefore, by supporting the organization, power and freedom of workers and peasants in Central America, workers in the U.S. are also defending their own jobs and working conditions by undercutting a haven for runaway shops.
C. At home, working class and oppressed people also pay for war spending with the destruction of social services and the deterioration of the economy as a whole.
D. It is possible that this or another war in the Third World will provide the spark for nuclear confrontation.
E. Success for the U.S. government and the racist, sexist, anti working class system it represents in Central America strengthens the bonds of the oppression and exploitation of working class and oppressed people in this country.
Every U.S. victory abroad gives those who hold power additional confidence to press ahead with the attack on us in this country, particularly by making us pay for their economic crisis.
Moreover, the ideas used to whip up support for U.S. intervention in Central America are a weapon against us at home.
Workers face the destruction of their unions in the name of the same “patriotism” rolled out for the war in El Salvador.
Black and Latino people are the victims of a racist system and offensive which depends on calling and treating nonwhite people as less than human, just as they do in Central America. Women, lesbian and gay people are the special targets of the ultra patriotic New Right.
On the other hand, every successful blow against the U.S. by the Central American revolution weakens our common enemy.
So working class and oppressed people in North America have no common cause with North American capitalism and imperialism. Rather it is the workers, poor and oppressed of Central America who are our allies.
4. Support for all legitimate struggles of working class and specially oppressed people and others in the U.S., and a multi issue oriented Central America movement.
Just as the Black movements of the ‘60s gave rise to the antiwar movement among both middle and working class people as they gained self confidence and were radicalized, so today will those organized around related issues move into action more quickly around the seemingly more remote issue of Central America. This opposition, and a healthy relationship between it and existing Central America groups such as CISPES, will be greatest if we can connect with and support those immediate and related struggles.
So, while maintaining a clear primary focus on Central America, we must conceive of ourselves as part of a broader alliance of all legitimate struggles and movements: those among unionists, Blacks, Latinos and other Third World people, women, gays, lesbians, youth, and with middle class dominated movements such as Disarmament, that against the Draft, and those in solidarity with other international struggles.
First of all, this means giving our concrete and consistent support to such struggles and movements by mobilizing our members and base, whether for abortion rights, a union battle, or around racism, as we did during the demonstration which followed the murder of Black transit worker Willie Turks in Brooklyn last July. Secondly, our propaganda and activities around Central America must connect with related issues through the inclusion of sub demands, speakers, and coalitions which reflect and address those movements.
The argument is often made that this approach would make the Central America movement too narrow by requiring that opponents of U.S. intervention also agree on a wide range of other political issues. This is an understandable fear. Some people will object if we address and support related issues, even if they are not put forward in the largely rhetorical and disconnected way that they were, for example, on March 27 .
But CISPES can’t afford to accept the logic of this argument.
First, because it is precisely our ability to relate to and support the immediate and related struggles of working class and oppressed people that will make our movement “broad” among them, and in doing so mobilize the most important forces against the war.
Undoubtedly, some people will act on Central America because they already see its immediate relevance. The vast majority, however, from whatever class or community, do not. The isolation of CISPES and the issue of Central America from the day to day consciousness and activity of most working class and oppressed people, and the legacy of disunity and distrust among the movements, can in general only be overcome by bending over backwards to link our activity and arguments to the related struggles and concerns of the day.
The other reason it is necessary to address these issues and movements at home and abroad is that they have a direct effect on the situation in Central America. As an FDR representative recently pointed out, introduction of U.S. Marines in Lebanon set a precedent for the U.S. to send “peace keeping” troops into Central America.
Conversely, the success of the Palestinian struggle will have a tangible impact on the spirits of both the U.S. government and the Central American revolution.
The same holds true for the balance of forces at home. A victory of the Right against abortion rights, unions or Third World people only emboldens it in its intervention abroad.
Because of these concerns, it is dangerous to support some struggles while refusing to openly support abortion rights, for example, because some members of the Catholic Church might object. We should try to work with the Catholic Church and anyone else around Central America. But it is doubtful that its opposition to U.S. intervention in Central America is so weak that it would be compromised by a position that we take on abortion. Moreover, the defense of the Women’s Movement against our common enemies is necessary both to build unity with the Women’s Movement, which can’t be done by selling it out when it seems convenient, and to oppose the growth of the pro interventionist Right.
A multi issue approach does not mean a wholesale sacrifice of people currently active around Central America. The best middle class and student activists will see its logic, as has already been shown.
The demonstration on May 3, 1981, drew over 100,000 people largely around El Salvador precisely because it addressed a wide range of people in its demands and tone. The March 27  El Salvador demonstration was successful in it size partly because of the same thing.
Since then, however, more narrow El Salvador actions have been less broad, and although much of the blame lies with the lack of media coverage of El Salvador, we have not taken the opportunity to make connections that may have made the activities more successful.
Nor does a multi issue approach mean that we should only work with organizations around Central America if they agree with all CISPES politics. CISPES can’t be the entire movement against U.S. intervention in Central America. However, we should be part of the left wing of the movement and fight consistently for a genuinely broad linking up with related issues and movements.
The bottom line is that when a choice has to be made between appealing to politicians, labor and church leaders by narrowing the movement, and to ordinary Third World, Women or rank and file workers by broadening it, our priorities are clear.
5. Change the Composition of CISPES
CISPES is today overwhelmingly white and middle class. Some members of CISPES have argued that this is acceptable, and that is wrong for a predominantly white middle class organization to make the attempt to integrate itself by class, and particularly by race.
While acutely aware of the history of class prejudice and racism within white middle class organizations and movements, we believe that CISPES cannot remain segregated by class and race if it wants to contribute its resources to reaching and mobilizing workers and the specially oppressed against the war in Central America.
We cannot again afford to build an antiwar movement seen as alien by those with the greatest interest in and ability to support the Central American movement, and it is only by building an organization that includes workers and Third World people that we can effectively organize in working class and Third World communities.
In light of this, opposition to the building a multiracial movement and organization, even if in the name of recognizing the leadership of Third World organizations, only avoids the difficulties of resisting white racism and class bias and reaching out to both whites and nonwhite around Central America where it can be done best: In building a multiracial Central America movement and organization.
But by insisting that CISPES must remain white and middle class, Black and Latino people who want to organize against U.S. intervention in Central America as full members of the main Central America organization are effectively excluded, if not officially then by a refusal to orient toward their communities or by a membership which isn’t seriously challenging the difficulties of becoming multiracial. New York CISPES has already lost Black members and potential members because it hasn’t addressed this issue.
A multiracial Central America organization is not in conflict with recognizing the need for and importance of independent organizations of Third World people, with whom we need to build and strengthen coalition work. In fact, an integrated CISPES will probably give rise to caucuses of Third World people inside the organization, which we should welcome. But the existence of independent Third World organizations cannot serve as a convenient substitute for creating a racially diverse membership in CISPES itself, for to do so deprives us of the invaluable and day to day input of Third World people at all levels of the movement. There is a place for both independent Third World organizations and a place where activists of all colors can learn to work together in the process of actual work.
1. Robert Mullen, Blacks in America’s Wars, NY: 1973, p. 64.
2. Martin Binkin and Mark J. Eitelberg, Blacks in the Military, Washington: 1982, p. 32.
3. David Cortright, Soldiers in Revolt, Garden City: 1973, p. 47.
4. Binkin, op. cit., p. 108.
5. Binkin, op. cit., p. 78.
[*] This paper was written by members of New York City CISPES. It is one of a three part discussion which also addresses, in separate sections, 1) CISPES and Central America and 2) CISPES Internal Functioning.
[**] “Specially oppressed” in this context includes Blacks, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans, women, gays, lesbians, and others, all of whom have in common the fact that they are not only exploited economically and oppressed generally as workers, but that in addition, they face special oppression because of their race, sex, and/or sexual preference.
[***] In fact, 68% of the members voting on the issue in New York City CISPES supported the endorsement, but the previous vote had required that all controversial endorsements be agreed to by 75% of the vote.