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U.S. Government Threatens El Salvador Solidarity Movement

By staff

An Interview with Cherrene Horazuk

In recent months the U.S. Department of Justice has sent threatening letters to the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), which works in solidarity with grassroots social justice movements and the left in El Salvador. The government is accusing CISPES of being an 'agent of a foreign power' – specifically of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), the leftist political party in El Salvador. This echoes the FBI's groundless accusations against CISPES in the 1980s, which led to a seven-year campaign of illegal U.S. government harassment against CISPES that the FBI later had to apologize for.

CISPES works to build solidarity in the U.S. with the Salvadoran popular movement and with the FMLN. CISPES has done this work since 1980, when it was formed at the start of the civil war in El Salvador, during which the FMLN led an armed struggle for liberation against the brutal U.S.-backed right wing Salvadoran military dictatorship.

The following is an interview with Cherrene Horazuk, who was Executive Director of CISPES from 1993 to 2003. She talks about the current government attack on CISPES, the history of such attacks, and some thoughts on why this is happening now.

Fight Back!: What is going on now with the U.S. Department of Justice harassing CISPES?

Cherrene Horazuk: The U.S. Department of Justice sent threatening communications to CISPES in January saying that they thought that CISPES was contracted by the FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front) to run the FMLN's electoral campaign and to fundraise for the FMLN presidential campaign in the U.S. There are presidential elections in March 2009 in El Salvador and the FMLN slate of Mauricio Funes and Salvador Sanchez Ceren has a good chance to win. The Department of Justice said they read in the Washington Post and on web pages that the FMLN had contracted CISPES to do this, so they insisted that CISPES turn in all documents relating to a contract with the FMLN or presidential candidate Mauricio Funes. They wanted documentation because they said CISPES would be required to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) of 1938.

Of course there is no such documentation because CISPES hasn't signed any contractual agreements or taken orders to do the solidarity work that CISPES does. CISPES organizes solidarity in the U.S. based on shared values with the Salvadoran social justice movement and the FMLN. It's a relationship of solidarity.

Fight Back!: What is the history of FBI and U.S. government harassment of CISPES and of the Latin America solidarity movement? Tell us about what happened with CISPES in the 1980s.

Horazuk: From 1981 to 1987 the FBI carried out one of the largest domestic spying endeavors in recent U.S. history. They investigated more than 100,000 individuals and more than 3000 groups. That included CISPES committees, Central America solidarity groups, church groups, student groups, social justice organizations and anyone that in any way shape or form was speaking out against human rights abuses in El Salvador and Central America. Anyone speaking out in support of grassroots progressive human rights groups and revolutionary organizations was investigated.

I think 52 out of the 59 FBI bureau offices in the U.S. were involved in the investigation. They started the investigation within months of CISPES's founding in 1980. It included surveillance, harassment, intimidation, break-ins to offices and houses. Some people lost their jobs as a result. The worst impact is that some Salvadorans were investigated that were then deported back to El Salvador, and the U.S. government turned their names over to the brutal Salvadoran military and those people were never heard from again.

In 1987 CISPES filed a lawsuit against the FBI because we got some files under the Freedom of Information Act. Congressional hearings were held, and ultimately the FBI was found to have carried out a completely illegal investigation, in which they found no proof of any wrongdoing on CISPES's part. All the wrongdoing was by the FBI in their illegal spying and harassment. As a result the FBI was ordered to cease and desist. That case also led to some law changes that curtailed domestic surveillance, made it harder for the FBI to do spying. Of course that was then later reversed under the Patriot Act. At the end of the lawsuit the FBI actually had to issue a statement saying they were wrong.

Fight Back!: Why was CISPES specifically targeted?

Horazuk: We were the largest solidarity organization in the U.S. We took a clear position against the U.S. government support for the right-wing death squad regime in El Salvador and we stood strongly in solidarity with the people of El Salvador fighting back against that regime. We were supportive not just of the grassroots movement, but also the revolutionary movement and the FMLN. The FMLN was fighting against a brutal right-wing death squad government that was propped up by millions of dollars of U.S. military aid. The right-wing government was shown to be responsible for countless massacres and torture and for the vast majority of the 75,000 deaths during the Salvadoran civil war.

CISPES stands up for the Salvadoran people's right to self-determination, and I think because of that the U.S. government saw the solidarity movement and CISPES particularly as a threat to U.S. policy in Latin America. This was in the early 1980s in the context of newly-elected President Reagan saying he was going to ‘draw the line’ in El Salvador to prevent a revolution there, after the left-wing Sandinistas had just overthrown the pro-U.S. military dictatorship in Nicaragua. The Reagan administration thought El Salvador would be next and were providing millions of dollars a day in military aid to stop a progressive victory in El Salvador.

CISPES organized delegations to El Salvador throughout the war for people from the U.S. to go see for themselves what our government was doing there. Thousands of people from the U.S. went with CISPES to El Salvador during the war and saw what was really going on. President Reagan was saying there were no massacres, no bombings, but people went and talked to survivors of bombings and massacres. People saw that our government was lying, it was a huge learning experience for a whole generation of activists.

In addition, people who went on CISPES delegations also saw that there was a resistance movement fighting back, an alternative. People traveled to the FMLN's liberated territories and saw a different vision of a better society. People came back to the U.S. and rededicated themselves to the fight against injustice and oppression, to the fight for fundamental change in El Salvador and here at home.

This is some of the context of the FBI's harassment of CISPES in the 1980s.

Fight Back!: Why do you think this harassment is happening again now? There's not an armed struggle or a war going on in El Salvador now – why do you think they're interested in CISPES again all the sudden?

Horazuk: I think what the Department of Justice is doing is a clear attempt to intimidate El Salvador and Latin America solidarity activists, who know very well the history of the FBI investigation into CISPES in the 1980s.

There's not an armed struggle in El Salvador right now, but there's a growing wave of left-wing governments in Latin America and a growing wave of support for leftist policies in the region by the people.

The Salvadoran presidential elections are coming up in March 2009 and the FMLN has a good chance of winning. The U.S. did a lot to try to manipulate the last Salvadoran elections in 2004, using scare tactics and misinformation. The U.S. told Salvadoran voters that if the FMLN won then the U.S. would cut off Salvadorans living in the U.S. from sending money back to their families in El Salvador. These 'remittances' that Salvadorans in the U.S. send to their families in El Salvador are the only thing keeping many Salvadoran families from starvation and keep the Salvadoran economy from total collapse. I think this harassment of CISPES is part of the U.S. government trying again to prevent support and visibility in the U.S. for the people's movement in El Salvador.

It's important to understand that the right wing ARENA government in El Salvador isn't just any old government. It is one of the U.S. government's closest allies in Latin America, and does whatever the U.S. government tells it to do. El Salvador is the only country in Latin America that still has troops in Iraq as part of the U.S. occupation forces, even though over 70% of the Salvadoran people oppose their troops being there. El Salvador is used as an experiment for U.S. foreign policy. The implementation of free trade, privatization, dollarization, all these policy initiatives, they use El Salvador as a testing ground.

The U.S. is opening up an international ‘police training school’ called ILEA in El Salvador. ILEA is just like the School of the Americas but for training police forces instead of military forces. The ARENA government maintains El Salvador as a subservient U.S. puppet in the region. The U.S. administration doesn't want to lose that. So they are trying to create a situation where they can guarantee that El Salvador will remain a U.S. ally. They really don't want to see a grassroots popular opposition to that, and they don't want to see a government elected in El Salvador that will put people before profits.

The FMLN is committed to creating a different society. It's a society that does not say that there should be a race to the bottom. Instead it's about making sure people have adequate food, health care, education, housing, that people in the countryside have land to grow crops on, that labor policy would not be to just open more free trade zones and pay people pennies to manufacture good to ship to the U.S. The U.S. government considers it a huge threat for people to see there's an alternative. And people in El Salvador want that alternative.

Fight Back!: What can people do?

Horazuk: I think people should follow closely what's happening in El Salvador. Presidential elections are coming up in March 2009 and the right forces are likely to commit fraud and possible violence to try to hold on to power. The ARENA party is run by the richest people in El Salvador and has been in power 19 years now. The founder of the ARENA party, Roberto D'Aubuisson, is the founder of the death squads in El Salvador and was the mastermind of the assassination in 1980 of Archbishop Romero, which sparked 12 years of civil war. ARENA is not likely to give up power willingly. And unfortunately until now they have been able to count on the full support of the U.S. government.

But the Salvadoran people are ready for a change. In the election itself there will be a need for people to be aware of right-wing fraud and violence and to denounce that. There will be a call for international election observers before and during the elections.

People should do what you can to support CISPES and to support progressive movements in El Salvador. The CISPES website,, has the latest campaigns and action alerts that you can help with.

Throughout Latin America the people are showing that another model is possible besides the U.S.-imposed model. Those of us here in the U.S. have a responsibility to oppose the oppressive things our government does in our name with our tax dollars in Latin America. And we should also learn from and support those that are fighting back.

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