Central American Solidarity, Then and Now: An Interview With Jenny Atlee

March 22, 2012

In the 1980s, as the U.S. government under President Ronald Reagan supported repressive governments and covert wars across Central America, U.S. citizens responded, refusing to allow their tax dollars to fund violence and U.S. intervention. Churches played an integral role as a new Latin America solidarity movement grew. Groups like Witness for Peace were born, bringing over 10,000 people to Nicaragua during the 1980s.

By 1987, 100,000 U.S. citizens pledged to resist U.S. intervention in the region. The same year, the Central American movement helped to pass an amendment in Congress that denied aid to the Contras.

The Central American wars were eventually resolved, but two decades later, the region is again covered in violence. Among the most disturbing cases is Honduras, which in June 2009 suffered Central America’s first coup d’état of the 21st century and now has the highest homicide rate in the world. Since the coup, thousands of human rights violations have been documented, and according to human rights defenders it is only getting worse. Although the United States briefly suspended military assistance to the coup government, it has since increased support. Defense Department spending in Honduras has more than doubled since 2007.

Jenny Atlee worked for Witness for Peace in the 1980s, leading delegations and documenting the impact of the U.S.-backed war in Nicaragua. She has lived and done solidarity work in Central America ever since. With the 2009 coup, Atlee and other solidarity activists began to lead delegations to Honduras to learn, as they had in Nicaragua, from the realities on the ground and to address U.S. policy in the region. She currently works for the Nicaragua-U.S. Friendship Office, coordinating the Honduras Accompaniment Project (friendshipamericas.org). Since the coup, her organization has led 12 delegations to the country. This interview took place on January 17, 2012.


How do you see things in Central America currently?


The region as a whole is awash in violence. Some of it is drug related, some of it is related to organized crime, some of it is related to human trafficking, some of it is related to gang violence, and it’s a violence that is very chaotic. It’s violence that terrifies people, that really traumatizes people. In some cases structures that were created and put in place during the counterinsurgency wars in the 1980s are engaged in that violence. But there is a different set of actors and dynamics.

It’s more complex in some ways than it was in the 1980s, when it was more straightforward in terms of a very clear popular movement, struggles for justice and equality that were being repressed by military dictatorships or governments backed by the United States with funding and equipment. Now there’s this much more chaotic situation, with many facets to the violence, but at the same time there’s a very familiar level of targeted political violence that is growing. And it’s very complicated to track it all and to sort out where and whom it’s coming from.

For example, in the 1980s it was really explicitly clear in Guatemala and El Salvador what the structures were and who the government actors were designing the policies and carrying out the repression. It was very clear that the United States was funding the Contras and that they were waging the war against people working for social change in Nicaragua.

Now in Honduras it’s much more complicated because the structures that are actually carrying out the sort of targeted political violence are hidden within the government. They’re not acting openly, so you have to research and dig and find out who they are and how they’re operating. Meanwhile, the government will both deny any involvement in repression and justify it by saying the victims are involved in drug trafficking or organized crime or have arms. There’s just many more layers of violence that things can be attributed to in order to deflect attention from the actual actors.

Thirty years later, the patterns and policies and structures that create economic injustice and concentrate wealth and power are still in place. They continue to generate dynamics of extreme poverty and human suffering, and people organize and try to find solutions and try to resist and create a better reality, and the response is repression and an attempt to criminalize those efforts.


A lot of the focus of your work today is on Honduras. Can you talk about what you’re working on there?


Honduras is very similar to the rest of the countries in the region, except that in the 1980s the United States had a real stronghold in Honduras in terms of physical presence and military bases. It was a real intelligence hub and the place from which it launched its counterinsurgency operations into the other countries. This really marked the resistance movement in Honduras, because the concentration of wealth and power generated unrest. The resistance movement organized and tried to press for social change, but it never reached a point where it posed a really serious challenge to the powers that be as the popular movements did in the other countries in the region.

After the wars, what we saw was this whole roll-out of neoliberal economic policies, and Honduras was a real attractive sight for the maquila sector. It moved in with full force, and that generated another wave of social unrest because the conditions were so extreme in the maquilas. Organizing and consciousness raising began to push for government reforms and for policies that could create living conditions that were more manageable and that ended up triggering the coup d’état in June 2009.

What happened in response was something nobody saw coming: a spontaneous outpouring of people into the streets demanding respect for the democratic process and a restoration of the president. And that huge outpouring of people into the streets didn’t go away. They stayed there and they kept demanding that the coup be undone. The military began suspending civil rights, declaring a state of siege, declaring curfews, rounding up people and putting them in stadiums, illegal and arbitrary detentions, massive repression. The social movements were very concerned about where this was going. They began to see similar actors put in high-level positions in government who had been involved in the counterinsurgency in the 1980s, which sent a real clear message to people working for social change in Honduras.

People called for help and they called on the international community to be present and to be concerned, to come into the country to try to document and break the media blackout and tell what was happening and provide accompaniment. We responded first by trying to take delegations on a regular basis with the idea that we would evaluate as we went along to see how things resolved, thinking it would be a short-term effort. Far from being resolved, the situation has become much more extreme and the needs and requests for international and human rights accompaniment are growing and are long term.

We have a team there that works with Honduran human rights defenders and social movement leaders who are at risk. So that’s one of our major focuses and much of our ability to provide that kind of accompaniment in Honduras is because of our experiences in the 1980s working in the war zones of Nicaragua where the Contra war was having an extreme impact on the civilian population. Churches in Nicaragua put out a call to people in the United States to come and be present and to document and witness what U.S. policy was doing on the ground in Nicaragua, and so for many years in the 1980s Witness for Peace had a steady flow of delegations in and out of this country into the war zones. Out of that experience, we learned a tremendous amount and were able to quickly respond and move in with lessons learned to accompany the people in Honduras in a context that is very, very complex and in some ways much more dangerous than even the war zones during the 1980s. So that’s one of our major focuses in Honduras.

The other piece is to again educate people in the United States and try to break the media blockade about what’s happening in Honduras. Unfortunately, far from learning from the tragic policies of past decades in Central America that are very clearly documented now through truth commissions and years of advocacy work, we see the United States repeating the same patterns and policies, justifying repression of legitimate expressions of dissent.


How is it that in some areas of Honduras, things are even more deadly than they were in war zones in the 1980s?


It’s very chaotic. In the war zones the crossfire was somewhat more navigable. It was pretty clear who was doing what to whom and where it was coming from. In Honduras today there’s this whole sort of hidden apparatus carrying out a dirty war targeting people for political assassination, and it’s not clear where it’s coming from. So that makes it very dangerous. In addition there’s this overlay of drug trafficking and organized crime, which changes all the rules of the game.

In the 1980s, the United States’ massive amounts of military aid to the counterinsurgency wars created a political space for a group like Witness for Peace to work in the region. In Nicaragua, while it was acceptable for Nicaraguan casualties to mount, it was not OK for U.S. citizens to be harmed. We saw this in the tragic case of Ben Linder, who was the first U.S. citizen to be killed in Nicaragua during the Contra war. He was a water engineer working on a project up in the mountains to create hydroelectric energy and he was killed by the Contras.

The fallout from that killing was huge in the United States, because there was a huge solidarity movement and the government heard from that movement loud and clear that this was yet another impact of U.S. policy. Afterward the United States was very cautious about making sure there were no U.S. casualties; it was too politically costly in the United States. Right now in Honduras with all of these other layers of violence, some of those dynamics are not as clear.

The other thing that’s very different today is that sectors of the resistance movements in the 1980s in Central America, after many years of exhausting all efforts and mechanisms for change, had adopted armed struggle as a way of social change. The armed sector provided some counter-balance to the violence of the military. In this current context, the popular movements and the resistance in general in the region, and particularly in Honduras, is choosing nonviolence as a method of social change, so they are totally vulnerable and unprotected.


How has U.S. solidarity with Central America changed since the 1980s until now?


In the 1980s what stands out for me is the sheer volume of people who were coming in and out of the region year after year. I remember being with Witness for Peace in the early 1980s. We had a large team, and we would have several delegations in the country at a time and they would be back to back. One large delegation would come in, you’d drop them off at the airport, and the next one would be arriving. We don’t see that kind of large volume anymore, and particularly not in Honduras; it’s very hard to get delegations in general to go there. While there are large numbers of delegations coming into the region, often they’re more focused on development efforts or in general education—sort of first exposure to the region rather than a delegation that’s really coming in to focus and grapple with U.S. policy in a very strategic way.

The other difference is the churches, which in the 1980s were central to the movement. They had a really strong prophetic voice, providing sanctuary for refugees. They played a really prominent role both in the region and back in the United States. That role is not as prominent today, and we hope that changes. I think we’re all working hard to re-engage the churches and the major denominations.


What other kinds of parallels do you see between Central America now and the past in regards to U.S. foreign policy?


Unfortunately, U.S. policy continues to pursue practices and patterns that concentrate wealth and power and generate poverty and inequality. That dynamic inevitably generates dissent, and the U.S. responds to that dissent with military solutions—to crack down, to criminalize, and to demonize. That hasn’t changed from the 1980s. In some ways it’s become more extreme now, because in addition to supporting military responses, it’s also all couched in this war on terrorism. So countries are required to pass anti-terrorist laws, and legitimate expression of dissent is considered terrorist activity. That’s a new dynamic, and it’s a very dangerous one in terms of eroding the efforts to create democracy in the region and to strengthen civil rights and liberties in this post-war period.

Also the policies in the 1980s left this enormous legacy of human casualties and suffering, and there’s this huge level of collective trauma that has never had the opportunity to be appropriately healed. When, for example, there’s a coup in Honduras and people like Billy Joya—who was a death-squad leader famous for disappearing the children of social movement leaders—is put into a very high level of government, which the United States immediately steps up to recognize, that sends a chilling message to people throughout the country that reactivates the trauma from the 1980s. There’s a real explicit intent to use terror to try to subdue people by retraumatizing them.

The one other thing that the United States learned in the 1980s was to distance itself from the violence by using proxy forces like the Contra. They were still being funded by the United States, so there was complicity and responsibility. Today it’s more complicated because military operations have been privatized through military contractors or security companies that are local, distancing the linkages. This reduces accountability, and we have to work much more harder to follow the money and track the military aid and where it goes and how it ends up, than we did during the 1980s, when it was going directly into the government or directly into the military.


Do you think that this was a conscious shift on the part of the U.S. government to intentionally reduce accountability?


I think so. I think it was one of the lessons learned from the 1980s. To lessen their accountability to make it harder to trace it back to them.


Are there any positive lessons to be learned from the legacy of the 1980s?


One thing that really stands out is that there’s a real palpable difference in Nicaragua in terms of levels of violence and security than anywhere else in the region. If you look at what’s called the Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras—and then up into Mexico, there’s a similar dynamic where those countries are awash in this chaotic mix of organized crime, drug violence, trafficking, and then this whole other layer of targeted political persecution. You also see, in the three Central American countries, actors that were involved in massive human rights abuses and counterinsurgency during the 1980s still active today.

In Nicaragua, it’s dramatically different. Nicaragua has the highest indexes for citizen security and for drug interdiction in the region, and it is one of the poorest countries, with the lowest-paid police force. Yet they’ve been able to keep crime rates down, keep a good level of security in the country, and keep drug traffickers at bay. Nicaragua is the only country where the abusive structures, created, trained, and financed by the United States to prop up the U.S.-backed military dictators, were totally dismantled with the Revolution. The National Guard was dismantled, the very feared and repressive EEBI [special operations] forces, which terrified the population, were dismantled and eliminated. That didn’t take place in any of the other countries, and it created a whole other legacy here, it created a space that is much more healthy and safe and secure. People here trust the police. They are not afraid of the military. There was just a poll in Nicaragua in which the head of the police, Aminta Granera, came out as the most respected person in the country. I think it’s a real testimony to the need for real structural change and one of the lasting legacies of that huge struggle on the part of the Nicaraguan people.


What can people in the United States do to help?


I think it’s essential that people look for alternative media sources, to read and educate and find out what’s happening in the region, to come to the region, to come on delegations, to join accompaniment efforts, to be present here, like we did in the 1980s. To see and hear and know what’s happening and come back and share with their communities, with their churches. I think it’s essential for church leaders to come here and see what’s happening and be grappling with these issues. There’s also policy makers who have been around since the 1980s and have that historic memory, and they get it immediately and see the connections. But we need to be there in their offices, we need to be talking to them, and they will respond.



Michael Fox is the editor of NACLA Report on the Americas. More of his work can be found at his website, blendingthelines.org. This interview was transcribed for NACLA by Jesenia Dolmus.






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