Social Movements, Huddle Up! El Salvadoran Youth Comes to U.S. for Dialogue

The TV screen showed hundreds of people yelling, pushing, punching and struggling. Oswaldo Nataren, a student activist touring the U.S.with CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) didn’t understand the English commentary and thought that this news on CNN was footage of people rioting at the School of the Americas protest, which was to be the following day.

He saw people fighting with passion in their eyes and assumed that they were fighting for social justice. Unfortunately, the video clip was coverage of people fighting outside a mall to buy the new Play Station. My coworker and I looked at each other silently and sheepishly acknowledged that in this country, the news is more likely to show images of people struggling to shop than struggling for justice.

Nataren is a visual arts student at the University of El Salvador and a founding member of a progressive student organization called the Roque Dalton University Front (FURD). FURD has organized recently around increased bus fare and tuition hikes, and has worked in coalition with unions and the Popular Social Block (BPS) against the privatization of water and the implementation of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).

CISPES was founded in 1980 as a national grassroots solidarity organization when Salvadoran social movement leaders strategically planned to get activists within the U.S. involved, as the U.S. funded and trained the military in El Salvador. In the 1980’s, CISPES’s work centered around U.S. military intervention in Central America. When the Peace Accords were signed in 1992, CISPES rejoiced with the Salvadoran people as they celebrated the end of the shooting war and tentatively made the transition to new battlefields of struggle. Today, post-9/11, CISPES joins the peoples of the world who are struggling against rampant U.S. imperialism, fighting against the US government’s wars in Iraq and around the world, while also fighting against the free trade policies of CAFTA, the FTAA, and the WTO.


CISPES is often asked, ‘why El Salvador?’ U.S. citizens have some responsibility for the political environment in El Salvador, as the U.S. government has a long-standing history of military, economic, and political intervention in El Salvador. U.S. military schools have historically trained and funded Salvadoran soldiers, who in turn have slaughtered thousands of their own in their bloody civil war from 1980-1992. The U.S. government is closely allied with El Salvador’s conservative ARENA political party. For the past 17 years, the two have colluded together to criminalize dissidents and youth movements, privatize water, and implement free trade policies.

Nataren explains the vigor of the repression in El Salvador, "Although the government here will try to prevent you from action in some ways, there are still some spaces, some media, some actions that are not attacked. In El Salvador, there is no way to get the message out but to take to the streets, do things to get the message out in a more powerful way. As our government claims the media, they leave fewer and fewer places to speak freely, so we have to find a more radical way to get the message across, often putting ourselves at risk."

Recently, the United States has sponsored the International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA), a training school for police from all over Latin America, similar to the U.S. School of the Americas (or the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security and Cooperation, as it was renamed in 2001), in Georgia. The School of the Americas has trained soldiers from across Latin America in counterinsurgency and interrogation techniques, psychological warfare, and sniper training since its opening in 1946 in Panama. In 1984, the school moved to U.S. soil, and continues to be located at Ft. Benning in Columbus, Georgia and funded by the U.S. government. Though ILEA trains Latin American police instead of military personnel, nevertheless, the school teaches its student the same strategies of torture and repression to be used against their own people.

CISPES also sees the El Salvador as a testing ground for the latest neoliberal strategies, and therefore emblematic of the vibrant social movements across Latin America. As Salvadoran social movement leader Santiago Flores said, "The government is sharpening its repressive tools as the only answer to continue with this exclusionary economic model and maintain power." Progressive movements growing out of the economic crisis that exists in El Salvador and much of Latin America have been met with intense military and political repression, a pattern which 2006 CISPES touree Oswaldo Nataren says demonstrates that "the neoliberal model is failing."

El Salvador is becoming increasingly militarized as well. In El Salvador, since July, a few prominent progressive leaders have been murdered every month. Most recently vocal community activist and Lutheran pastor Francisco Carrillo was killed as he locked up his church after services. Recently Salvadoran President Antonio Saca has augmented police and military troops by 2,000 troops each to combat "crime." The increasing militarization has lead some Salvadoran citizens to fear a return to the repression of the 80s when dead bodies showed up on the street every day, an outrageous and gruesome tactic of threat that the government employed to prevent more people from joining the social movement.

Another component of El Salvador’s anti-crime policy under the Saca Administration (with President Bush’s support) is the criminalization of the gangs, or maras, members of which have lived almost their entire lives in the United States. Because of punitive immigration policies implemented in the U.S., many young adults have been deported to El Salvador where they lack a sense of identity and community. "One of the biggest reasons that young Salvadorans are choosing to join gangs is because of the disintegration of the family caused by immigration to the United States. Many teenagers are just seeking a sense of belonging and identity that they lost due to massive migration out of El Salvador," explains Nataren.

The United States an Salvadoran governments blame crime for CAFTA’s failures, and so they have increased repression. Nataren explained that the neoliberal model is responsible for the problems in El Salvador and the rest of Latin America. He spoke at the School of the Americas protest in Columbus, Georgia, on November 18 – the anniversary of the killing of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador on November 16, 1989. Nataren warned that repression in El Salvador is not something that can be comfortably relegated to memory. "Now we are seeing a return to those same levels of repression," he said, "and we must not only stop the School of the Americas, but the greater model of imperialism whose failure calls for these levels of repression!"

Nataren called for unity, for social movements throughout the world fight the same root problem: capitalism. It has been part of CISPES’s mission since its founding to support and learn from the powerful and strategic social movement in El Salvador and to use those lessons to build upon the social movement in the United States. Resistance in El Salvador is broad and longstanding, and as Nataren explains, there are "spaces like the Popular Social Block (BPS) that looks at all the needs and concerns of the people and tries to come up with a collective solution. Within the university too, there is an attempt to bring together different groups, coming together in a common platform." While the BPS is an umbrella organization that unifies the broader social movement; there are many individual groups such as women’s organizations, youth groups and unions that work on specific social issues in El Salvador.

The Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front existed as underground radical guerrillas in the 1980s, fighting an armed struggle. With the signing of the Peace Accords in 1992, the FMLN now works as a political party advocating progressive change in El Salvador. In many ways, social movements in El Salvador are more broad and cohesive than in the United States. Nataren affirms with pride that "there is a collective vision in what we’re resisting – imperialism, colonialism, neoliberalism. There are different opinions about how to achieve it – some say only through the FMLN; some say to take up arms again – but we all know what we’re fighting against. What we have in El Salvador is a unity in action."


Nataren’s tour focused on youth resistance and organizing, and he met with high school and college students across the United States. Nataren was particularly struck by the meetings with the high school students: "Seeing their interest and excitement about what is going on was really great and important, but I was surprised by their lack of knowledge about how U.S. policies affect El Salvador and the rest of the world."

For some students, talking with Nataren brought up questions about their own history. One New York University student commented that, though he is Colombian American, he doesn’t know the political reasons behind his parent’s immigration. "As a Latino student, one of my objectives is to learn about the political history of my people. Now I know some pieces of it – fleeing failing economies and repressive governments. But as children growing up here in the United States, this history was part of the untold stories. It’s important to me to remember."

Nataren explained to NYU Oxfam organizers that one of FURD’s "objectives is to open space to identify and answer student concerns. The history of the United States and El Salvador has demonstrated that at the heart of our movements are students stepping up, not just on the University level but also in rural areas, in women’s movements, in the Civil Rights Movement…"

Meeting with youth in Washington D.C., all under 15, Nataren began by asking about the problems they face as young people, in school and in their neighborhoods. A student responded, saying, "Segregation is one problem. Between Black kids, whites, Latinos. We are in different classes, different neighborhoods." Nataren asked the students to think about who benefits from these divides in the U.S., and related racial divides in the U.S. to class divisions in El Salvador.

Students at the workshops came from diverse backgrounds, which led to a variety of reactions to Nataren’s presentation. Some of the youth he talked with were Salvadoran, and had heard about the July 5 military/police? attacks on Salvadoran student activists demonstrating for lower bus fares. Many high school and college students must commute into the city from rural areas in El Salvador, sometimes spending 20% of their monthly income on transportation to school. In the case of the July 5 protest, demonstrators were met with rubber bullets, tear gas, snipers on top of the children’s hospital, police helicopters, and government responses declaring the students to be terrorists. For some students though, the idea of such harsh repression was difficult to imagine. One D.C. student asked innocently, "Why did they attack you if you were only trying to reduce bus fare? Why were there riot police?"

As much as students were inspired by their exchange, Nataren also took inspiration from his visit. In San Francisco, when Nataren was given a tour by San Francisco CISPES leaders through the Mission district, he was particularly interested to see the murals depicting many different images of revolution and struggle on the walls and buildings of the neighborhood. Nataren said that his time in San Francisco strengthened his desire to start a revolutionary community mural program in El Salvador. He hopes to use the murals not only to engage Salvadoran youth communities but also to preserve the nation’s historical memory.


Though Nataren focused on youth organizing and solidarity, he stressed the importance of memory, history, and intergenerational activism. The FURD, Nataren’s organization, talks about recapturing historical memory, and tells these stories through many workshops and murals. The party takes its name from Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton, who, although exiled for his politics, helped frame the nation’s political movement and communicated El Salvador’s struggle to the world through his stories and poetry. For Nataren, there is a vital connection between past and present political organizing, "History is the greatest tool for learning about the present day struggle," he said. "One of the tools that students have is the weapon of history. That’s where we come from, that’s our past. The more that we get our real history out there, the more we further the movement."

During his tour with CISPES, Nataren recognized some Salvadoran history-makers at an intergenerational gathering of Salvadoran activists in Long Island. He met with Juventud Farabundista, a student chapter of the FMLN, as well as long-time FMLN members who have immigrated to the United States during or since the civil war. Nataren gave a salute los viejos, those who have been in the movement for years, saying, "The University of El Salvador was bombed four times during the war and was occupied by the military. Student leaders were murdered and exiled, and the University was the main urban site of rebellion during the war. I am so grateful for those of you here who laid the groundwork for our present day struggle."

Reflecting on his tour, Nataren said that the "participation of the older generation has been really wonderful. Every big event that I’ve done so far has had the older generation who has lived in or been politically active around El Salvador. They are asking tough questions and remembering their experiences, wanting more information and reminding us of the importance of solidarity." He recommended that young U.S. activists work with the older generations and learn from their experiences.


At George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Nataren addressed the importance of working together across borders. "Everywhere you look in Central America, governments are trying to put in place the neo-liberal model, with CAFTA, with corporations moving in. This model is failing, and the people are resisting the neo-liberal model and then being oppressed by their governments in strikingly similar ways. We have no other choice but to unite our struggles. Because this model is global we now have more common ground than ever before in history, and we have to come together to coordinate our organizing."

After spending time with Nataren, San Francisco CISPES member Alexis Stoumbelis noted that people are facing similar struggles against displacement in both California and El Salvador. For example, in the Bay Area, community members are organizing to save Bayview-Hunter’s Point, a primarily black neighborhood, from being destroyed in the name of ‘redevelopment.’ In El Salvador, people’s homes are being threatened by the construction of the Northern Highway and other industrial developments. "We had this moment where I realized that what we are doing is not just about solidarity for solidarity’s sake. From the U.S. to El Salvador, we are so often put in the same position, but we can’t always see it when we don’t have the opportunity for exchange and discussion. We all stand to lose the same things, and our unity is the strongest force we have!" Stoumbelis said.

Despite the similar threat posed to poor people in both nations, Nataren observed that "organizations and movements in the U.S. all have different visions and purposes. There is no collective vision even of what the problem is. In El Salvador, we aren’t unified in all ways, we have our differences and problems, but we’re in the streets together." Nataren has written a call for unity for student movements across the Americas, rooted in resistance to our common enemy:

It is possible to give a name to all of the oppression that we struggle against: neo-liberalism. This is the root of homophobia, poverty, racism, militarism and the oppression of immigrants. Everyone who has a vision, whether as an organization or as an individual, everyone who believes in real democracy, should come together to resist neoliberalism. The problem is far-reaching, and if we can all define ourselves in terms of resistance to a common enemy, then the coalition, the movement, will be broad and powerful.

Jacoby Ballard is the National Organizer for CISPES in New York, as well as a radical herbalist and yoga teacher. He had the splendid opportunity to travel with Oswaldo Nataren to the School of the Americas protest at the end of Oswaldo’s 2006 Fall Tour with CISPES, where they conducted a workshop together and spieled and spouted with other organizers.