Latin America solidarity activists have their work cut out for them. By the time this issue of the NACLA Report is published, El Salvador may have elected a president from a party founded by leftist guerrillas, the FMLN. If that is so, 10 out of the 21 nations of the Latin American mainland will be governed by the left or center left.
El Salvador remains a touchstone for U.S.-based solidarity activists. During the 1980s, it was on the question of Central America that U.S. grassroots solidarity took a qualitative and quantitative leap, gaining new urgency as Washington poured billions of dollars into the region’s brutal counterinsurgencies.
Few at the time would have predicted today’s leftward tide. Although it has given U.S. activists cause for celebration, it also presents challenging new questions: Should constructive criticism of these left-leaning governments play a role in solidarity activism? Can this criticism be made without playing into the hands of reactionaries? Can critiques be made without paternalistic North American finger wagging?
Yes, but with an important caveat: The principal focus of U.S. solidarity activism should remain uncovering, denouncing, and fighting U.S. intervention in the domestic affairs of Latin American nations. With the Obama administration, U.S. meddling will likely become less brazen, if only somewhat less insidious. This is why the solidarity movement should also fortify what has rightly been another central aim of its organizing efforts: pressuring the U.S. government to adopt more just policies in the Americas based on respect for sovereignty and self-determination.
In the 1960s and into the 1990s, U.S. solidarity movements admirably carried out both struggles—against U.S. intervention and for just policies. Today, along with the long-standing movements in solidarity with Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua (Chile solidarity is often spoken of in the past tense), similar networks have emerged around Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. Although all oppose U.S. intervention, only the movements in solidarity with Colombia, and to a certain extent Guatemala, confront outright those countries’ governments. Meanwhile, for many solidarity groups, having “the good guys” in power represents a dramatic 180-degree turn—and, for some, a complication.
Chuck Kaufman, a national coordinator of the Nicaragua Network, began feeling the heat after the Sandinistas regained the presidency with Daniel Ortega in 2006. Two years later, Kaufman published an open letter that was widely circulated among solidarity groups. “Some think we’re too supportive of the government of President Daniel Ortega,” Kaufman wrote, “while others think we are too critical. Still others have written to thank us for what they consider to be balanced information in a highly polarized situation.” Although recognizing that the Ortega government is not “perfect,” Kaufman pledged to maintain support for the government, citing its “preferential option for the poor,” while pointing out a few of its shortcomings. The Network, for instance, condemned Ortega’s criminalization of abortion—even in cases of rape or danger to the mother’s health—as well as other government “excesses.”
Such debates are too often hushed by some solidarity activists who view them as dangerously “controversial” or “complicated.” All the left-leaning governments in power sometimes do things that deserve criticism. Latin American grassroots groups with impeccable progressive credentials make criticisms themselves, whether it’s the sidelining of non-chavista leftists in Venezuela or the repression of anti-mining activists in Ecuador. It is not the job of solidarity activists to hold these governments accountable to their own people, but activists in the North can respectfully echo these concerns in the interest of legitimate popular grievances.
In these instances, a middle ground exists between solidarity and uncritical support. Activists should not strive to resolve tensions between being “too supportive” or “too critical.” Tension is good. Some activists may feel uncomfortable critiquing a foreign, popularly elected government, but solidarity must recognize that struggles for social justice know no boundaries. This is particularly important because the mistakes made by one government working for social change will always be used to dismiss or discredit similar efforts elsewhere.
Teo Ballvé, NACLA’s Web editor, is from Argentina and lives in Colombia, where he works as a freelance journalist.