A Meeting between Boston’s Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) and Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) highlights how American policy fails Central America, and why the need for an approach to diplomacy centered on people not profit is more important now than ever before.
Around 30 participants piled onto the Wednesday night Zoom call, some from CISPES, others DSA, some like me there out of interest or curiosity. The group was markedly diverse (at least among those with cameras and mics on) in age, race, ethnicity, and language- but one thing tied everyone together, a populist understanding that American policy has been disastrous for Central Americans going back decades, and that the time for change was now.
How could this small group change decades of decisions and fight back against corrupt and entrenched interests of the status quo? The key was in fostering awareness and education as tools to build a movement that could reckon with the lack of awareness and apathy exhibited in most Americans. The objectives of the meeting were clear: to learn about the influence of industry and business in shaping America’s role in the development of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, to stress the role of funding for police and the military as a tool to protect capitalism, and to understand that the Biden Administration’s approach to relations is, despite some progress, a continuation of the U.S.’ neoliberal economic focus.
The pathway of action relied on a historical and contemporary understanding of the situation that can then be used to captivate the public and alter public perception. This is why the meeting started off not by planning protests or electoral actions but by hitting the history books, and examining U.S. history in Central America going back to the Monroe Doctrine and through the 19th and 20th century until the 2005 Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and its devastating impact on local economies, public utilities, and natural resources across the region.
In addition to education, a main tenant of the group’s mission to combat the erosive role of American capital interest on Central America is the voices of the people closest to the pain it has caused. For Central American participants present in the Zoom it seemed to be a point of pride to be able to speak out on behalf of and advocate for the needs of the people of their country. Boston and Massachusetts are home to growing latino populations that are driven in large part by the arrival of immigrants. Many of these immigrants carry with them accounts of how U.S. policy from immigration to trade prioritizes American interests over Central American lives, and these experiences were uplifted as vital towards building change.
Instrumental to the ability of groups such as CISPES and DSA in achieving measurable results all the way from Boston is the process of building pressure and momentum. Over and over, the act of building, fostering, and growing was stressed as the key element of creating change. While some present spoke in favor of more rapid or radical pathways with little disagreement, the collective understanding was that small successes were still just that- successes. The meeting discussed one of these occurrences last May, when the Biden Administration caved to pressure from domestic and international activists and killed funding for a controversial dam in Honduras known as the Jilamito Hydroelectric Project.
Despite the promise of new drinking water and more efficient electricity, the dam was fiercely opposed by locals who witnessed firsthand how other U.S. funded hydroelectric projects in the country ruined the resources and ecosystems that relied on the river’s flow, and led to the exploitation and privatization of the public utilities the dams created. A Honduran coup in 2009, which received support from elements within the U.S. government and business groups, set the stage for the proposal with the government rolling back environmental regulations and indigenous protections in the hope of welcoming foreign investments and industry. Under the Trump Administration, the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) pledged $35.7 million to the project.
While the Biden Administration gave no official reason for abandoning the project, they were under immense pressure from land protectors and activists in Honduras, where two have been killed and many more including the municipality’s mayor arrested and charged for obstructing the project. Advocates in the U.S. such as DSA and allies of CISPES pressured public officials to oppose the dam, and a group of lawmakers led by Rep. Ilhan Omar, joined by Massachusetts’ Rep. Jim McGovern and Rep. Pressley, held conversations with the Biden Administration on addressing the issue.
Despite the loss of official U.S. support, the project has the potential of moving forward because the operations company is owned by the Honduran firm Hermacasa, which is resolute on finding the funding to get the dam built. 40% of Hermacasa is owned by Simonds International, a Massachusetts based tool company that continues to hold the position that opposition to the dam is political and without merit. Simonds President David Miles says he is actively engaged in talks and will lead on finding the best path forward.
The efforts of Simonds in engaging with this project was a major point of discussion for participants in the meeting. I feel that for many, including me, grappling with the threat posed by U.S. imperialism and exploitation was supposed to have impacts thousands of miles away, not in our own communities. Simonds’ involvement only cemented the fact that revolutionary change ran through education and community engagement though. It is paramount that Americans recognize the colonial and imperial legacy of our economic prosperity in order to fully engage in shaping our relationships with state neighbors. How to engage with Simonds and other Massachusetts forces complicit in America’s abuse of Central America was one of the main questions left for participants to ponder and organize around at the end of the meeting.
While discussing Simonds, one member with experience in defense manufacturing opened up about the disassociation he and so many other American workers in diverse fields suffered from in understanding the human impact of making ends meet. More than anything else in that meeting, this was the most memorable point for me. It is often hard to recognize your place in a system that goes far beyond you, but while it may seem the actions of the United States when it comes to our foreign relations only matters to those living outside the U.S., the dedication of groups such as DSA and CISPES prove that local engagement can in fact shape both international and local results and that engagement at a community level provides the tools to build towards change.