On July 19, 1979, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) toppled the U.S.-supported Somoza family dictatorship that had ruled Nicaragua for nearly a half century. Later that same year, a coup of seemingly progressive “young colonels” overthrew El Salvador’s military government only to turn repressive and exclusionary themselves. A year later, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN)—an alliance of leftist guerrilla groups—was formed in El Salvador and seemed poised to overthrow that increasingly repressive junta along with the country’s long-standing military-oligarchic despotism.
By the early 1980s, Sandinismo was leading the construction of a “new Nicaragua,” and Salvadorans were organizing popular movements and base communities, revolutionizing their ways of life. In Guatemala, guerrillas were mobilizing a long-suffering peasantry and entering into their own turbulent period of armed struggle. All things seemed possible as Central America edged toward fundamental social and political transformation.
Around the United States, small groups in solidarity with the region’s revolutionary movements had sprung up; they craved a deeper understanding of events; NACLA was one of the very few places they could turn to for information. Over the following decade, NACLA became so preoccupied with Central America that the rest of the continent took a distant second place in its coverage. Indeed, over the next decade, no fewer than 21 NACLA Reports—one-third of the total—were dedicated in their entirety to some aspect of the situation in Central America. This compares with only three Central American reports, all written principally by Susanne Jonas—two on Guatemala and one on Nicaragua—during NACLA’s first decade.
In November 1978, following a major Sandinista insurrection, NACLA published a report on the deepening Nicaraguan crisis written by Alejandro Bendaña, a young doctoral student, later to become Nicaragua’s Ambassador to the United Nations. In a richly detailed analysis of the political moment, Bendaña dissected the multilayered, multiclass opposition to the Somoza regime and laid out various scenarios for the country’s coming transformation. Then, over the following decade, NACLA carefully traced the trajectory of the Nicaraguan Revolution. Successsive reports written by Roger Burbach, Tim Draimin, Judy Butler and George Black covered the early days of the Sandinista government, the internal and external challenges to the regime’s attempt to bring democracy and development—and perhaps socialism—to Nicaragua and inevitably, the Reagan administration’s attempts to drive the Sandinistas from power. Finally in 1990, following the Sandinista electoral loss, Carlos Vilas, George Vickers and Trish O’Kane analyzed the meaning of the defeat in a report called “Nicaragua: Haunted by the Past.” A similar narrative progression followed events in El Salvador, beginning with two 1980 reports put together by Robert Armstrong and Janet Shenk on the revolutionary ferment of that year, and continuing through coverage of the decade’s bloody conflicts, the duplicitous U.S. role in the region and finally the negotiated peace process of the early 1990s.
The hopes engendered by the Sandinista Revolution and the Salvadoran insurgency rejuvenated the NACLA project. “To a certain extent,” says Volk, “Nicaragua saved NACLA. It focused our energies and our attention; it made us understand what we were there for. It took us away from the split-up of the offices; it gave us a new readership and new staff members. It saved NACLA in part by resurrecting a progressive anti-imperialist movement that was not deeply invested in party-building. It had a big impact on the campuses. It solidified certain ties in the labor movement...and motivated the very successful tours that Janet Shenk led to the region.” Further, by the Central America period, says Volk, “we had a history, experience, historical memory, credibility.”
And the individuals within NACLA had their own historical memories as well. Roger Burbach, for example, like many of the U.S. activists working in Chile during the Allende period, had returned home vowing to become a more effective anti-intervention activist. “And that,” he says, “is how I got involved in Nicaragua. It was actually because of Chile. When the Nicaraguan Revolution happened, I knew the United States was going to screw it over as much as it could, based on what happened in Chile. I did it out of anti-imperialist solidarity.”After the dramatic September 1978 uprising that seemed to augur a Sandinista victory, he went to Nicaragua and began working closely with editor Judy Butler on the unfolding Nicaragua story. As the Sandinistas came to power, he also wrote a piece for Monthly Review, he remembers, “countering James Petras’ point of view that this was just a bourgeois revolution. I think all of us at NACLA took the revolution seriously as a potentially major transformation.”
Janet Shenk, one of the mainstays of Salvador coverage, came to NACLA in 1975. She had seen a copy of the NACLA Newsletter back in 1970 during her undergraduate junior year abroad in Switzerland. “It was completely eye-opening to me that there would be a publication that seemed to reflect the views I was shaping in a very incipient way at the time.” She lived and worked for a few years in Ecuador where she read NACLA regularly, and when she came back to the States in 1975, she knocked on NACLA’s door. Résumé in hand, she explained to the NACLA staff that she was entering graduate school in New York, interested in Latin America, an ardent reader of NACLA and looking for work, even volunteer work. “I remember everybody sitting in a circle and grilling me—for volunteer work!—just grilling me. I was receiving a small stipend to go to graduate school and for NACLA that meant ‘oh, then you don’t need a salary.’ Then there was a bit of a discussion about my having received a Fulbright [fellowship] and whether that made me suspicious or not—quite a serious discussion.”
Shenk’s focus on the Salvadoran conflict began, she recalls, “when Bob Armstrong walked through the door in late 1979 and said ‘you’ve got to start looking at El Salvador; there are some really interesting things happening.’ He was a godsend because he’d been in the Peace Corps and he knew an enormous amount about the country. We had nobody on staff who knew anything about El Salvador, and in walked this person who was committed and passionate and knowledgeable and willing to put in the work.” Shenk’s introduction to El Salvador was as Armstrong’s editor, “but I really started to learn about the country through his eyes and then started traveling frequently to the country.”
Armstrong, now an actor and housing lawyer in New York, had been a Peace Corps volunteer from 1967 to 1969, working with a group founded by a Jesuit priest to build low-income housing. Later, from New York, he kept in touch with his Salvadoran friends and co-workers and began to learn about the rise of the death squads and the attacks on the Jesuits. “I decided I wanted to do something about this so I tried to figure out a way to form a human rights group. I attached myself to some people in the Salvadoran community here in New York and over the next three years or so we published a little newsletter that followed events in the country.... So I gradually came to understand what El Salvador was all about and around 1979 or so I began writing about the country for [the New York-based leftist newsweekly]The Guardian.... I think it was through The Guardian that people began to know who I was, and I started to talk to people at NACLA.”
When the military-civilian coup occurred in El Salvador in 1979, Armstrong was one of the few people around the U.S. movement who knew anything about the Central American nation and the NACLA staff asked him to write what became the March-April 1980 report, “El Salvador: Why Revolution?” Soon, he joined the NACLA staff.
Within a few years a significant percentage of NACLA’s staff had come to NACLA from the Central America solidarity groups, and there was growing sentiment that NACLA should begin to function as a solidarity organization. The most immediate problem with that sentiment was that both Nicaragua’s FSLN and El Salvador’s FMLN were broad “fronts”—coalitions that included groups with fairly distinct long-term visions of social, economic and political development. These differences have become clear in Central America’s postwar environment, but even during the war years, neither of the armed coalitions “spoke with one voice” except about military strategy and perhaps about the hostility that emanated from Washington. This meant that many members of U.S.-based solidarity groups tended to side with one or another of the fronts’ constituent groups in the frequent internal political debates of the time; this had the potential to divide NACLA just as the Chilean UP/MIR debate had.
In any case, NACLA’s editor in the mid 1980s, George Black, had always made it clear that he wanted to publish a critical magazine, not a solidarity organ. This in itself raised questions and generated some conflicts: How critical should one be of the Nicaraguan Revolution? of the FMLN? Did the Sandinistas have a coherent plan of development? Was their rule becoming more personalistic than democratic? How severe were the internal conflicts within the FMLN? And was any of this worth reporting in the face of the Reagan administration’s ferocious onslaught against both revolutionary processes? What are the editorial limits on a magazine that seeks to be the research and informational arm of the radical movement—by the 1980s, the solidarity movement.
On November 2, 1984, just after the Nicaraguan presidential elections that were won by the FSLN, boycotted by the principal opposition and undermined by Reagan administration intrigue, Black wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times, decrying the U.S. role in pressuring the opposition to boycott the election, but also laying part of the blame on the more intransigent members of the FSLN leadership. The FSLN directorate, argued Black, had an opportunity to create the conditions for opposition electoral participation—and hence greater legitmacy for the Revolution—and failed to act on it. The op-ed created an uproar in the NACLA community, in part for what it said and in part because Black had not cleared it with the rest of the staff. In an open letter to the NACLA community sent out later that month, and in a subsequent “Taking Note” editorial column, Black acknowledged his failure to submit his piece to the rest of the staff for “collective review.” The episode threw into sharp relief the tensions between solidarity and politics on the one hand, and critical scholarship and journalism on the other.
While the open letter “reaffirmed” the principle that “NACLA staff members are encouraged to express their opinions freely inside the organization and in outside forums,” it implicitly drew the line at publicly expressed opinions that could play into the hands of the forces of repression: “We are painfully aware of...writing this letter as the Reagan administration escalates its war against Nicaragua. We support the aspirations for a more just social order embodied in Nicaragua’s revolutionary process. And we abhor the actions of our government in denying Nicaragua its right to self-determination and national sovereignty.” Because the political moment was especially tense, and because the venue was the New York Times, the conflict was forced into the open—into the larger world—much more so than the 1977 “Boss and Bureaucrat” conflict which had remained largely behind closed doors. “People on the left,” remembers Bob Armstrong, “were furious. People in Nicaragua were not happy. It was seen by some as a betrayal, by others as simply inappropriate. But others held that it was important to have an organization that allows its writers to say those sorts of things. It strengthens the integrity of the organization.” The conflict once again raised the questions: Who can write in the name of NACLA? Does NACLA speak with one voice? What are the political limits beyond which one cannot venture?