Nacla: A 35 Year Retrospective

September 25, 2007

In this anniversary issue of NACLA Report we have decided to tell the story of NACLA’s life—a life in solidarity with Latin America; a life on the left. It is a story that begins with NACLA’s founding in the wake of the outrage generated by the 1965 U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic, and runs through our attempts to respond to the causes and consequences of the relentless neoliberal globalization of the early 21st century.

It has fallen to me to write this story, and I would like to offer a few words of explanation up front. While I carefully read through the extensive NACLA literature and documentation that has been collected over the years in a variety of settings—an extra-special thanks to Fred Goff at the DataCenter in Oakland, California for helping me track most of it down—this narrative draws primarily upon long talks I have had over the past six months with 16 former and present Naclistas. Their names appear in the text and I thank them all for their time, memories and careful corrections of the first draft. As they will all readily confirm, the errors that remain are mine.

Last May, I spent about a week in the San Francisco Bay Area, interviewing some of the many NACLA veterans who had settled there. It quickly became apparent that NACLA’s story was not simply a one-dimensional chapter of the “good fight” for freedom, justice and equality, but a much more interesting tale filled with conflicts, contradictions, wrong turns, dead ends and the good fight. In fact, perhaps the most instructive, even inspirational part of the story is the way NACLA has continually confronted and overcome the kinds of internal and external difficulties that have destroyed so many similar small organizations on the left.

In this history, I have tried to capture the high points as well as the difficult moments in NACLA’s 35-year lifetime. I have told a few stories, about individuals and the organization, that I thought were emblematic of that history, and that place it within the larger story of U.S.-Latin American relations of the past four decades. This is not, therefore, an exhaustive account of NACLA’s accomplishments. My apologies to those who have been omitted from this brief version of the story.

My own trajectory as a NACLA staff member ends with the publication of this anniversary Report, as I leave to work as a reporter in Mexico; I have worked here since 1992, first as editor, then as director. Since I have left myself out of the narrative, let me take a few lines here to tell you a bit about who I am, how I got here, and why a few biases may unintentionally seep through the lines of this story:

I came to NACLA in the spring of 1992, a radical economist and long-time activist with some experience in what was once called “underground journalism.” My background in Latin America was pretty informal. I had spent two years in Caracas in the late 1980s, teaching economics at the Central University of Venezuela, and back in the 1960s I had spent part of an undergraduate year in Mexico City. That was it.

But as an activist around New York, I had known NACLA for two decades. As someone with one foot in academia and the other in activism, NACLA had always seemed to me a model of honest, satisfying work. I had come out of the radical pacifist wing of the antiwar movement of the 1960s and early 70s. I had been active around the War Resisters League and in a draft resistance group called simply “The Resistance.” In the early 1970s, my then-wife Nancy and I moved to an upstate village to work with a pacifist group called the Workshop in Nonviolence (WIN) that was publishing the biweekly WIN Magazine.

It was through WIN that I first came in contact with the NACLA collective. It was early 1973 and an attempted coup against Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity (UP) government had just failed. At WIN, we decided to cover the U.S. role in the destabilization of Allende’s government; I was assigned the story and my first thought was to talk with the experts at NACLA. So I made an appointment, took the Trailways bus to Manhattan, spent about half an hour in NACLA’s super-active office, and listened as a compañera gave me a rundown of the tense situation in Chile. And I felt as though I didn’t quite deserve to be there. For about half an hour she talked about the armed struggle of the group called the Left Revolutionary Movement (MIR), which had just broken with the Allende government. I considered myself a well-informed leftist and a compañero in the struggle but I had to admit—to myself but not to the NACLA compañera—that I had only the foggiest idea what the MIR was and that I had honestly thought the crucial conflict was between Allende’s socialist government and the Chilean right backed by the Nixon administration. I felt out of my depth, but thanks to NACLA’s recently published book New Chile, I learned all I needed to know to write the piece for the non-cognoscenti who read WIN.

My next encounter was more straightforward and self-affirming. Nancy and I signed up for a Christmas 1980 NACLA tour to Nicaragua. The trip was led by Judy Butler and Janet Shenk and in every sense provided a fascinating education. It was a year-and-a-half after the Sandinista triumph, the Revolution was attempting to consolidate itself and so was the opposition. Butler and Shenk arranged for us see most of war-and-eathquake ravaged Managua and to talk with people from all sides in virtually all parts of the country. We prepared for the trip by reading the recent NACLA Reports on Nicaragua and some contrary material as well. It was a model of an honest, informative fact-finding tour, and brought me close to NACLA for the first time.

Since I joined the staff in 1992, there’s been a lot of on-the-job learning. Putting this brief history together, I got to appreciate not only what the NACLA compañera was talking about back in 1973—and you will too if you keep reading—but also that over the years, NACLA has spoken with many points of view and with many tones of voice, and has managed to hold together a very broad community of progressive activists, to provide information and analysis in the service of the struggles for a just, free and nonviolent world. And I’ve learned that that, all along, has been one of our strengths.


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