Toni Solo: Taking Sides And Solidarity
Les Mains Sales : Taking Sides And Solidarity
By Toni Solo
"Purity is an idea for ascetics and monks…. You others, you intellectuals, you toss out excuses for doing nothing, Nothing but sitting still with your arms folded. Me, I get my hands dirty, right up to the elbows, deep in shit and blood. And what then? Do you think you can govern in innocence?"
- Hoederer. "Les Mains Sales." Jean Paul Sartre.
In 1988 the social services coordinator in Cardenas on the Nicaraguan border with Costa Rica asked for help to fill in a bomb shelter in the yard of the local child care centre's refectory. The shelter had been dug in case of further attacks following a 1983 Contra incursion. We soon uncovered the boards, wet-rotten by then, that formed the shelter's roof. We threw them on the wood pile to dry for later use as fuel for the refectory's wood burning stove. It took little time to fill in the thirty-foot long trench, already partially caved in by flooding from past years' rains.
That came to mind recently talking in Nicaragua to a retired agricultural development consultant from Britain. They recalled a 1983 encounter in the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa with "a dreadful woman" who enthused about her visits to Nicaraguan Contra bases in Honduras and the great job those US funded terrorists were doing. The dreadful woman turned out to be death squad godfather John Negroponte's wife, Diana.
Cheerleading the US terrorist war in Nicaragua came naturally to someone who epitomises the Anglo-US corporate business elite and its intimate links to both governments and their intelligence services. It may be useful to recall other events from the 1980s because one tends to forget basic truths about the conflicts of those years. The Negroponte-Villiers connection is a good starting point.
Class war in the UK
As head of the state-owned British Steel Corporation, Diana's (1) father Sir Charles Villiers successfully defeated the British steel workers in the 1980 UK steel strike which was followed by over ten thousand job losses. Subsequently, with the political kudos of Britain's squalid victory over Argentina in the Malvinas, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher quickly expedited her domestic program of mass-unemployment. She had defeated the previous Labour Party government in 1979 with the cynical slogan "Labour isn't working." The official labour movement, the Trades Union Congress, divided and led by social democrats, failed to rally even to its own. In 1983, court decisions defeated the printworkers' National Graphical Association in the "Stockport Messenger" dispute. In 1984 the UK government stripped trades union rights from civil servants at the huge GCHQ intelligence listening centre near Cheltenham. These skirmishes were hors d'oeuvres for the main course, the defeat of the National Union of Mineworkers between 1984 and 1985.
During the 1984 UK miners' strike over 11,000 people were arrested and charged, almost all with public order offences. Of all those arrested, fewer than 5% were ever convicted. At the government's behest, police officers abused the law wholesale to break the strike. Mounted police with their long truncheons clubbing miners pickets at Yorkshire's Orgreave coke works became a defining image of the Thatcher era. Young politicians at the time, like Tony Blair, got the message - ruthless PR lies win elections.
US and Britain - terror and dictatorships R us
In the 1980s, the US, Britain and their NATO allies promoted terror and dictatorship around the world. The British and US ruling elites and their governments supported apartheid South Africa, helping the government in Pretoria fund, train and arm terrorist movements like Renamo in Mozambique and Unita in Angola. Likewise, they supported the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile and, until the Malvinas War, the military junta in Argentina. They abetted Israel's invasion of Lebanon and its refusal to abide by UN resolutions supporting the Palestinians. The pretext was the "war on communism" - the priority was maximising corporate profits. Likewise, they helped dictators like the Duvaliers in Haiti, Marcos in the Philippines, Mobutu in Zaire, and Suharto in Indonesia and East Timor. They provided chemical and biological weapons capabilites to Saddam Hussein in Iraq's war against Iran. In Afghanistan they trained, armed and funded fundamentalist militias to terrorise civilians loyal to the Soviet-backed secular government in Kabul. Osama bin Laden was their protege.
Most of these activities were funded both overtly and covertly. The covert operations required an illicit, multi-tentacled financial base loyal to the CIA and its sister European intelligence services. That base was the US$10 billion fraud bank - BCCI. Over a decade ago, John Kerry's US Senate investigation into the BCCI affair concluded, among many other things, that the refusal of the British government to release papers held by their intelligence services effectively obstructed their investigation.
Negroponte tipped the wink to murder. Diana cheered it along.
BCCI facilitated part of Oliver North's narcotics-tainted Iran-Contra deals, complementing John Negroponte's efforts as US ambassador in Honduras to mislead the US Congress about President Reagan's support for the Nicaraguan Contra. Negroponte forcefully supported Honduran armed forces chief Alvarez Martinez when Martinez set up the death squad Battalion 3-16. His embassy programs diverted resources to assist the Contra despite congressional prohibition on doing so.
In 1986 the International Court of Justice found the US guilty of organising terrorist attacks against Nicaragua. It was the terror policy fomented by John Negroponte, among many others in the Reagan administration, that they condemned. Equally, when the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found Honduras guilty of forced diappearances in 1988, the crimes they condemned resulted directly from actions approved by John Negroponte. When former Sandinista hero Eden Pastora's ARDE Contra battalion attacked Cardenas in 1983, they were machine gunning and mortaring families with children and infants who took shelter wherever they could among the wooden shacks that lined the town's sandy streets. Cardenas was lucky. Absurdly outnumbered, the town's lightly-armed civilian militia held off the attack long enough for the Sandinista army to come to their aid.
In 1986, Angela, a teacher from Cardenas, recalled another 1983 attack where people were not so lucky. She had been assigned to Pantasma, a small rural town in the northern Jinotega department. In 1983, a Contra force overran Pantasma, murdering dozens of its inhabitants, wrecking farm machinery, targetting public facilities like the clinic and school. Angela survived unhurt by fleeing to hide in woodland on Pantasma's outskirts.
From Ouradour to Fallujah......
Pantasma and Cardenas were just two of the thousands of attacks in the terror campaign Diana Negroponte rooted for during the Nicaraguan war. Against cruelty and ruthlessness such as this, what constitutes a reasonable response? Is it possible for resistance to such forces ever to be completely morally clean? The humbling example of Rachel Corrie might suggest so. Few could contemplate such self-sacrifice. In fact, most people in the United States were completely unmoved at her murder by the laughably named Israeli Defence Forces.
Brave and principled members of organizations like Peace Brigades International and the International Solidarity Movement or Witness for Peace can attempt to accompany and protect innocent civilians and most certainly save lives through their work. But is Israeli ethnic cleansing any less fierce today? Is government aggression against people in Colombia any less violent? Did US aggression ease in Nicaragua thanks to all the determined endeavours of peace activists?
The perennial question recurs. What can conscientious non-violent activism achieve against people capable of war crimes small and large : Ouradour, Vercors, Deir Yassein, My Lai, Sumpul, Pantasma, Sabra/Chatila, Jenin, Fallujah...... Many peace and solidarity activists base their moral position on a radical move promoting grass roots solidarity with ordinary people while rejecting traditional political allegiances. Their arguments carry moral authority, but also political contradictions.
Blind to our own agenda?
The moral connections they make undercut cynical and hypocritical claims by murderously repressive governments to be defending "democracy" in wars "on drugs" or "on terror". But many peace and solidarity activists necessarily do more than limit themselves to the moral aspects of their commitment. It may be inevitable that while appearing to base their arguments on moral claims, they get caught up in local politics whether they like it or not. In any case, foreign activists are blessed with at least the appearance of choice. They are better able to choose whether to put themselves at risk, or not. That is a privileged class position that renders much behaviour and argument around solidarity issues schizophrenic. The priority is to define in practice a set of political and moral ideas by accompanying people resisting conflict and injustice - people who are usually very different.
Peace and solidarity activists want to be part of something of which we can never really be part in quite the way we want. Culture and politics get in the way. For outsiders, it may be impossible to know what people in resistance have experienced and the effects their resistance has on them, just as it is almost impossible to know what it is like to be a bat.
So when one reads sharp criticisms by foreign activists regarding recent FARC attacks that killed civilians at Toribio in Colombia or of Haiti's President Aristide, or of the leadership of the FSLN in Nicaragua, one stops short. The assumption that it is possible to be politically clean that underlies such criticisms ultimately plays into the hands of the John and Diana Negropontes of this world by tending to paralyse processes of practical reason.
Was it rational of the FLN in Algeria to bomb French Algerian civilians in response to French government bombings of Algerians? Were ZAPU and ZANU justified in their campaigns against Rhodesian colonialism to liberate Zimbabwe? Should the Vietnamese fighting from Hanoi and their southern allies have thrown up their hands in surrender rather than engage in a conflict involving thirty years of inconceivable death and destruction in order to free their country of foreign intervention? The aim of the imperial elite is to make their victims pay such a pyrrhic price for freedom that they'll give up and take servitude instead. That happened in Nicaragua in 1990. It's what they tried to make happen in Venezuela from 2002 through to the recall vote in 2004. That's the policy too in Haiti, Colombia, Iraq and in Palestine.
It may or may not be possible to suspend one's class identity and stay morally clean without taking sectarian political sides. Experience suggests not. Humanitarian and human rights conventions, developed out of centuries of human experience of horror, exist as a guide for judgements on specific abuses and patterns of abuse. It is there that foreign activists feel most sure. But when it comes to local political and legal structures we should perhaps be more acutely aware of our own contradictions.
The Nicaraguan Case
One doesn't have to sympathise with the hardened old patriarch Hoederer in Sartre's play and the character analogy can obviously be applied to figures in many countries. But one has to confront Sartre's basic point, made somewhat differently decades earlier by Orwell in "Homage to Catalonia". In Nicaragua, international solidarity and peace activists played a significant role in challenging mainstream images of the revolution there and in highlighting the effects of the US terrorist war, despite legitimate criticisms of Sandinista policies, for example in Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast.
After the US electoral coup in 1990, plenty of disillusioned foreigners left Nicaragua to devote their energies elsewhere. Many have not given up, feeling they have both a debt to the Nicaraguan people and a stake in their future well-being. What is disappointing about solidarity criticisms of the FSLN Sandinista party is the level at which they are pitched. One hears plenty about Sandinista leaders enriching themselves.
So what? Are they supposed to base their lives and their political activities on hand-outs from foreigners? Is it not a more serious criticism politically that Tomas Borge was probably responsible for the Sandinista daily newspaper "Barricada" folding? Or one hears that Daniel Ortega's wife Rosario Murillo likes buying fancy cars. One might equally hear about the good work Murillo does for sick children.
Ortega's foreign critics generally exaggerate his failings and under-rate his achievements and popular support. This level of discussion has tended to replace substantive political argument. The irony is that many foreigners who accuse Daniel - as even his critics tend to call Ortega - of distorting internal democracy within the FSLN, aggressively propagate their own anti-Ortega political line, generally based on non sequiturs and inaccuracies.(2)
That was very clear in debate around the case of sexual abuse that Daniel Ortega's step-daughter Zoilamerica Narvaez brought against him. While it's significant that Narvaez and her supporters were unable to make the case stick in court, that may just be par for the course in a patriarchal legal system profoundly skewed against women. Perhaps what's more significant is that Narvaez was unable to mobilise wider grass roots sympathy. Could it be that most Nicaraguans are wiser and more just in their judgements than the foreigners who judged Ortega so quickly?
NGOs - the flattering mirror
The reason for that could be quite straightforward. Even solid politicians like Victor Hugo Tinoco, Herty Lewites and Alejandro Martinez Cuenca have been unable to build a political base strong enough to out-manoeuvre Daniel Ortega and his supporters inside the Sandinista FSLN party. This may be because most of the internal FSLN opposition to Daniel Ortega comes from a relatively small managerial class of people with bases in foreign funded NGOs.
Almost by definition, foreign solidarity and peace activists tend to operate as a managerial class dependent on our ability to fundraise and network with other people like ourselves. So it's perfectly natural that such a class of people generally reflects the views of Daniel Ortega's critics rather than Ortega's supporters. The political nitty gritty is that none of the challenges to Ortega so far have had the support, resourcefulness or determination necessary to achieve their common objective.
That may be good or it may be bad. It is certainly the case. On the other hand, as events develop in Central America, ordinary people are going to mobilise to improve their appalling conditions of material life. In Nicaragua, the FSLN has so far been slow to accompany that mobilisation decisively. Perhaps before too long politicians of all parties will simply get left behind by events.
"...And what then?"
One may not like the political leadership of a given anti-imperialist movement. But it is foolish to ignore fundamental local political realities. If one wants to get really dirty one can try and change those realities. Though it may not be a good idea, since it's impossible to control events such interventions may set in train.
But if one does not want to get quite that dirty, what profit is there in preening oneself like Narcissus on one's moral beauty? Who cares? One can argue that one is affirming one's own identity. That is not a trivial argument. But given the totally lopsided material advantages solidarity activists generally enjoy, at what point does affirmation of one's identity change into imposing one's own identity on others?
Popular movements in Latin America over the last decade, using a wide range of strategies, have thrown out corrupt US-client regimes in Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay and Ecuador. Peru and other countries may be not far behind. They have done that independently of international solidarity, however helpful such solidarity may have been along the way.
One can cooperate in a determined way on tasks within that continent-wide popular movement. In places like Colombia and Haiti where violence has been imposed for decades by local US-aligned politicians, promoting humanitarian and human rights norms is fundamental. In either case, it should be possible to acknowledge and accept diverse perceptions of the many people committed to resisting imperialism in their countries, without wishful thinking about what might be if only those people or circumstances were different.
1. Villiers met John Negroponte in the 1960s while visiting her uncle Sir Peter Wilkinson in Vietnam where he was Britain's ambassador.
2, For example in a recent piece in Counterpunch, Joe deRaymond, asserted that last year's FSLN/Convergence triumph in Nicaragua's municipal elections was no different to their performance in the previous municipal elections in 2000. In fact, unless my sums are wrong, they did far better last year, increasing their control of local government alcaldas from 53 to 87 out of a possible 152.
toni solo is an activist based in Central America - contact via www.tonisolo.net . A Spanish version of this article appeared in Rebelion last week