The Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), illegally targeted in the 1980’s by the largest FBI Internal Security investigation of the Reagan era, has in recent months again received threatening communications from the U.S. Department of Justice. Citing the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938, a letter sent to CISPES in January questions the organization’s relationship with the leftist Salvadoran political party known as the Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation, or FMLN. CISPES received similar inquiries in the 1980s which eventually led to an illegal FBI investigation into its activities.
The letter cites the organization’s website and an article published in the Washington Post – which does not mention CISPES – following the December 2007 visit of the FMLN’s presidential candidate Mauricio Funes. It states that, “it has come to our attention… that the FMLN, and/or possibly its candidate for El Salvador’s 2009 presidential election, Mauricio Funes, hired your organization for the purposes of conducting a public relations media campaign to include political fundraising…” The Department of Justice gave no other evidence to back up the claim.
According to CISPES Executive Director Burke Stansbury, “CISPES has never had a contractual agreement with the FMLN or Mr. Funes, nor have we taken orders from the party to do publicity work in the U.S. Rather, we have a solidarity relationship based on shared political values that goes back to the struggle for democracy and economic justice that the people of El Salvador fought against a brutal U.S.-backed military regime in the 1980s.” CISPES was founded in 1980 at the height of the civil war between the US-backed Salvadoran government and the FMLN, at that time an internationally recognized guerrilla force.
“That the Department of Justice would wrongly evoke the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) to target this organization at this particular moment demonstrates the Administration's fear of progressive change sweeping Latin America . It is an effort to intimidate and stifle solidarity groups in the U.S. who oppose the Government's efforts to install puppet regimes against the will of the people of Latin America,” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, a lawyer from the Partnership for Civil Justice who is part of the team of attorneys assisting CISPES in this matter.
The Salvadoran FMLN and its candidate Funes have gained broad support 12 months ahead of the 2009 election, in large part due to the failure of U.S.-supported neoliberal policies like the U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).
“This shows that the Bush Administration is terrified of another Latin American country electing a Left party,” said Stansbury. “People in the region want fair and transparent elections, free of outside intervention, and such actions by the Bush Administration show a dangerous tendency towards once again disrupting the electoral process of a sovereign country.” In 2004, the last time the FMLN had a chance to win the presidency, U.S. government officials issued statements showing clear support for the right-wing ARENA party and threatening to cut off money sent from Salvadorans in the U.S. to their families should the FMLN win.
In 1981 FBI investigated CISPES for allegedly acting as a foreign agent of the FMLN. When that claim proved baseless, the Department of Justice launched a full-scale investigation based on the claim that CISPES was a front for the “terrorist” FMLN. The FBI campaign of surveillance, harassment, and intimidation of CISPES lasted until 1987 and ultimately became a major embarrassment for the Bureau when CISPES and the Center for Constitutional Rights forced the release of FBI files under the Freedom of Information Act. Subsequent Congressional hearings showed the FBI to have conducted numerous illegal operations, led to an internal inquiry by the Bureau, and curtailed the scope of domestic surveillance activities which were later expanded again under the USA Patriot Act.
“In the 1980s the Department of Justice set out to intimidate and repress the powerful Central America solidarity movement,” said Angela Sanbrano, CISPES Executive Director during the FBI investigation of the1980s. “That infamous witch hunt was a complete failure, and yet the Bush Administration has the nerve to return to the original tactics of using an ambiguous law – FARA – to threaten CISPES again.”
CISPES has continued its work of supporting real democracy and human rights in El Salvador by taking delegations of elections observers to El Salvador; touring prominent Salvadoran labor leaders and human rights advocates in the U.S.; and working to prevent a repeat of past U.S. political intervention. CISPES has opposed the opening of the U.S.-sponsored International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA), claiming that it has served to export repressive U.S. policing tactics – including harassment of political activists from opposition groups – to Latin America.
“It’s no coincidence that the Bush Administration is targeting CISPES now for our solidarity with movements in El Salvador,” said Sha Grogan-Brown, CISPES’s Development Director. “As more and more progressive forces take power in Latin America, the State Department is looking for ways to bolster its few remaining allies and to thwart the rise of parties like the FMLN. But their dirty tactics of harassment and intimidation will not stop our solidarity work, as we refuse to submit to their pressure.”