[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #3 in September 2006]
In 1979, when the Nicaragua Solidarity Committee of Chicago (nscc) was first organized to build popular movements around the struggles in Nicaragua, what kinds of organizations evolved doing similar work in Chicago?
In addition to the nscc, there was Citizens in Solidarity with the people of El Salvador; there was also Pastors for Peace here in Chicago, who had some relationships with people in El Salvador. We had tours and delegations that would get people acquainted with Nicaragua. Some of the most important things that people will relate to you about this work will be the stories of going to Nicaragua at that time, hearing the history, sharing experiences, and learning from the people. It influenced me greatly; I call it a life changing experience. And people who went to Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador on these trips were very effected and made some very serious changes in their life patterns as a result of it. We often say that we have gotten so much more from the people with whom we are in solidarity, than they have gotten from us.
What kinds of things would the people do as part of the network?
We had some big demonstrations in Washington DC, we had some big ones here in Chicago—people took to the streets. And things just grew from there, especially on the campuses where people were inspired by the people’s struggles of all these years. A lot of people, just as I did, came back to the US from travel to Central America with direct relationships and knowledge of what was going on. We have seen how the solidarity has gone since that period in the ’80s: a lot of positive influence has occurred through these networks.
Now, when we go to meetings in many areas of activism, we are organized in circles and in horizontal structures—that is something that I think we gained from our Latin American brothers and sisters. It was something we learned, just like we continue to learn today from the Zapatistas, who spawned Mexico solidarity efforts in the US.
The Nicaragua Network became 50 Years Is Enough!, targeting Neoliberalism’s harsh policies. Jubilee 2000 also is connected to this history, and has now been struggling to get debt off peoples backs. A lot of strength of today’s movements comes from people who started out working around Central America, and now they have 10,15, 20 years of experience that is incredibly important. It means that we are going into our second generation of people focusing on these kinds of issues specifically.
In the 1980s there was a lot of organizing put into the “pledge of resistance”—can you describe this pledge and what it meant?
Pledge of Resistance continues a strong role, from my point of view. They are largely faithbased and conduct the lonely vigils protesting war. I can tell you what I know but would refer you to 8th Day Center for Justice and Prairie Fire here in Chicago for what they have to say, as they have been principal organizers. The “pledge” many people made, as you might know, was to take to the streets to oppose the US wars in Central America. They were also among the first to initiate a stand against US war in Iraq, the first one, in 1991 under the first George Bush. Many in the solidarity movement have signed the pledge to conduct civil disobedience and risk arrest as only white middle class people can do.
In those early stages of developing solidarity relationships, what kinds of resource sharing were occurring in addition to travel-based exchange work?
A very popular form of exchange, while this is still travel, was called brigades. We gringos would go down to Nicaragua to pick the coffee and we did humanitarian campaigns of many sorts. It took us about 8 years—a long time—to learn that we were going about things all wrong. We were trying to work with them, and so our work should be based on what they actually want from us, with them directing our actions. We would go down there and declare that we were going to build a school, whether they wanted it or not. So we learned to take directions from the community, and that was a really valuable lesson of real solidarity. We operate on that knowledge now, and it is more generally acknowledged now as a good way for a movement to do solidarity work.
After that kind of transition happened for your definition of solidarity, how did it change the kind of work you were doing? Instead of the previous work, which bore a closer resemblance to charity, how has the shape of your work and your priorities evolved?
We were told by our Central American brothers and sisters: your job is to influence, you need to influence and put pressure on your government. Our solidarity movement now has components involved in lobbying, popular education and workshops in schools and labor unions about the policies of the US government in Central America. This work built an increasing number of people in political opposition to the Reagan- Bush/Culture War/Anti-Democratic policies against El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. In this process we have become much more educated and knowledgeable about global politics and Latin American history and we have built not only better analysis but also a better rapport with our Latin American brothers and sisters. In Nicaragua we have worked in support of the labor union organizing and cooperative movements. We have spread the news more and more through our own networks and through books and newsletters, always working to educate the white people in the US about their government’s policies.
By support, you mean … sharing their stories?
We have helped to share their stories. We have helped with material resources they might need and with shipping money. We have also worked to lobby the US government. The anti-sweatshop movement of today grew out of the kinds of research, education and lobbying that happened in the ’80s around labor conditions in Central America. Now we know what it is, and are very organized against it.
On that note, maybe you can say a little bit about how you started working around “fair trade” agricultural networks and economies?
When white people first set foot on this continent they started taking land and resources away from people. Throughout Central America there are millions of poor people and a few very rich. Many of the rich actually come from Spanish Conquistador families with a lineage back to Europe. Indigenous people are disenfranchised, largely by having their land taken away. Looking at the Nicaraguan government, the Somoza government had taken very large tracts of land, and the Sandinistas converted that land into people’s cooperatives. The fair trade work that we have now grows out of that history. I was recently down in Nicaragua and was talking to members of the cooperative who I work with today about their history. They said the National Guard originally owned their land and that they kicked those folks off in 1978, even though the revolution didn’t take place until summer of 1979—already they had taken their land back! That happened in many places.
The cooperative is an alternative; it is anticapitalist and does not work hierarchically. It does not primarily seek profit, profit, profit, but the well being of all people. The model of the cooperative also encourages other people to organize this way. And of course, the quality is very high! We mean it too—the conditions are right there in Nicaragua. In the fair trade arrangement, they need us to distribute their products and food that are fair trade and connect them to people who want those things fair trade. For us it’s not just about products, but a way of relating to production and consumption— making more connection between the people who use things with those who grow them.
Interviewed at the “New” Students for a Democratic Society (sds) Conference, University of Chicago 8/5/06