NACLA Navigates Shoals of Change: Includes a Steven Volk's comment

September 25, 2007

Black left NACLA two years later and his critical stance was taken up by a new recruit named Mark Fried. Fried, like Janet Shenk, started reading NACLA Report as an undergraduate. He was a 19-year-old student at Friends World College in 1973 when someone gave him a copy of NACLA’s New Chile and he found it fascinating. He was headed for Mexico and paid a visit to the NACLA office in August 1973. The NACLA people he met impressed him as “serious folks,” and he quickly became a regular reader of the magazine. He spent a few months in Mexico then a year in Guatemala and later a year in Colombia, all as part of the curriculum of Friends World College. Some 13 years later, in 1986, he went to work for NACLA as a research associate with a responsibility for Central America. Like everyone else on staff he was earning $16,000 a year.

Fried admired Black’s approach to editing. “As editor,” he says, “I felt no conflict between my role as solidarity activist and my role as editor. I wanted to put out a good magazine.” Well, he hedged, “sure there was a conflict, you have to make editorial decisions. You have to decide what’s important and what to address. All that is informed by your understanding of the situation.” Fried had become editor while NACLA’s commitment to the Central American revolutions was still strong, and it was in that context—especially, as he assumed the editorship, the context of the FLMN’s “final offensive”—that the tensions between solidarity and criticism made themselves felt. Fried wanted to reach as wide a readership as possible and felt he could do that by publishing a provocative, well edited magazine in which authors on the left were encouraged to write freely and critically. Fried’s wishes resonated with at least a portion of the staff in the late 1980s, and so at the same time, Naclistas were choosing another sensitive context in which to make use of their critical facilities: coverage of Cuba.

“In our time,” comments Bob Armstrong, “we tentatively began to question the unspoken taboo on Cuba. We had never really talked about Cuba. We were still coming out of the period when Cuba was the beacon of socialism and the new society and all the rest.... And through discussions among ourselves we came to the conclusion that we really should say something.” It was a function, thinks Armstrong, of NACLA’s emergence into the “larger world” of policy debates during the Central America period. “The larger world caused us to reflect more on what we stood for, what we meant, what were the consistencies and inconsistencies of our position, although it was never talked about in those terms. It was always this latent struggle between continuing to speak to the community of the left, the community of the movement, and trying to find a way to articulate our message to the larger unconvinced but potentially sympathetic audience.”

In August 1990, NACLA published its first-ever report on Cuba, “Cuba Facing Change,” a discussion of the difficulties facing the Revolution as the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe were collapsing. The report found—no surprise from the vantage point of a decade later—that “despite the continuing achievements of the revolution...the blind optimism of past years is gone and the potential for upheaval is real.” The Report was followed by another in October on U.S.-Cuba relations. Fried, under whose editorship the issues were published, says: “When we decided to do it a number of the old NACLA crowd said ‘Great! We tried to do it and were never able to get it together. We’re so glad you are doing it.’” Of course it was easier after the Berlin Wall had fallen and Cuba’s crisis had become obvious, but still, “there had never been enough people on staff who thought they could get away with saying something at all critical of what was going on in Cuba without feeding the U.S. war effort.”

There had been, in fact, a conscious decision not to cover Cuba. The decision emerged, in part, from the lack of any consensus on how to cover the socialist island. “There were lots of things worth looking at critically,” remembers Josh DeWind, “and there was always at least some support for the idea that criticism is a part of any revolutionary movement, but there was no consensus on how to do it and not strengthen the hands of anti-revolutionaries.” Further, many Naclistas remember a feeling on staff that if Cuba were to be covered seriously—no one favored a “fluff” piece—it would not only exacerbate divisions on staff but, no matter what the point of view of the coverage, alienate NACLA from at least some groups on the left.

“So the easiest way to deal with it,” says Steven Volk, “was not to deal with it. Whether we knew it or not, this was a self-preservation model—and I think some of us actually did know it: If we go down that road and introduce the struggles about how you construct socialism into the heart of the organization, we were going to have real problems. We looked around at the left and saw lots of conflict, lots of splitting and felt that if we could avoid some of those issues we could avoid the splitting and deal with the issues that we thought were most important for us as a magazine. ‘We are a magazine and we publish about anti-imperialism,’ we would tell ourselves. That generally got us through, but not unbloodied. Our clearest line was: NACLA does not affiliate. If we got into arguments about how to organize the left, we would get ourselves into trouble.”
By 1990, the Sandinista electoral defeat, the stalling of revolutionary momentum in El Salvador, the collapse of the Soviet model and the deepening Cuban crisis all forced NACLA to take its critical role more seriously. Through the following decade, the solidarity-criticism tension remained, was taken very seriously, and tended to be resolved with the attitude that honest criticism and analysis were the strongest, most reliable forms of solidarity. That attitude traces itself to the internal debates of the late 1980s.

As these solidarity-criticism tensions were playing themselves out, NACLA was beginning to face up to its perennial financial problems, and beginning to connect those problems to the group’s organizational structure. Through his work with the Central America solidarity and human rights movements, Bob Armstrong had begun to collaborate with Washington-based groups like the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), and began to think that NACLA could learn something from these more traditionally structured groups. “I knew the Washington world better than the other NACLA people. I think Janet and I could both see what that might mean in terms of making NACLA more influential in the debates and at the same time increase the resources available to us so that we weren’t always struggling, impoverished people just preaching to the choir.... In order to get to the next tier of foundation support in New York you had to demonstrate that you were doing something in Washington. Janet was particularly good at that. Without the fundraising work she had done we would not have been able to survive those critical years.”

Shenk also came to respect the Washington groups. “The difference between the Washington-based Latin America groups and the New York-based groups like NACLA was enormous. We had very little contact and very different modes of operation. That was a revelation to me once I started taking the train to Washington in the course of the El Salvador work. And I think NACLA would have benefitted from having had more contact with colleagues who came from a different point of view but with whom we shared values. We could afford to be much more shrill and categorical in our analyses because we weren’t trying to convince policymakers. We were trying to inform and motivate an activist audience. So our language was just completely different.”

This all left NACLA with some tricky waters to navigate. The point, of course, was to leave NACLA’s mission and politics intact, while creating a sounder financial footing. NACLA had had an official board of directors since its incorporation in the 1970s but it had mostly stayed out of the way of staff decision-making. Now the board began to feel that NACLA’s fundraising needs required it to intervene in order to help create a structure that would make NACLA look more like other nonprofit organizations. To get “real money” the group had to create an internal structure of accountability, and the board asked Armstrong to become the first executive director. “It was a ridiculous position because I had no authority to do anything and it didn’t work. But after I left, the money crunch became really grave and everyone began to see that something had to be done.”

In the midst of NACLA’s most crucial—and successful—attempts at political outreach, the internal situation had reached crisis proportions. At the same time the solidarity movement that had supported NACLA through the 1980s, in the midst of ambiguous politics and endless negotiations, was beginning to burn itself out. “Everyone was terribly overworked and underpaid,” remembers Fried. “There was a bit of angst over collapsing income, falling subscriptions, a shrinking movement. It all manifested itself in people not liking each other.” In 1987 the Board decided to downsize and they asked Fried to become interim director. There was a lot of back and forth on the staff and between staff and board—not all of it friendly—about what to do.

The Board, dominated by former staff members, stepped in and demanded a reorganization. They laid off most of the staff and moved the office to smaller quarters. The editor at the time, Martha Doggett, chose to leave and Fried became editor in the spring of 1988. “There was a great internal struggle that culminated in 1987 at the spring LASA conference,” says Armstrong. “The board, such as it was, gave me authority, acting as a volunteer, to reorganize the staff. It was painful and it completely burnt me out. The idea was to create a classical non-profit organization with a real executive director and lines of authority. It was a messy process and I still feel bad about it. But I also feel it was necessary for the survival of the organization.”

The crisis, painful though it was, gave birth to a more sustainable organization, and NACLA re-emerged ready to do battle with the newly proclaimed New World Order of George Bush I.

“What I think is our most important achievement is that we stayed alive. We stayed there. There was enough clear-headedness and ‘let’s put in the hard work’ to realize that NACLA’s project—which ultimately is its ability to pass on information to a fairly large audience—that that project was much more important than any of our individual projects. And that we would try to do what we could to keep the organization alive. And the fact that it’s alive doesn’t shatter the world but, I think, signals a lot in terms of the fact that you can have a group that is quite persistent in its views; that continues to change the staff without changing the fundamental project; that can survive a lot of difficult times both financially and politically and be around to play a very active and important role when issues like Central America come up. We have managed to be there. It could easily have gone the other way.”

Steven Volk, interviewed September, 2002

Tags: NACLA, leftist politics, newsletter, division

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