The Culture of Central American Solidarity in the 21st Century
Solidarity Networks in Honduras
On June 28, 2009 the president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, was removed from his home at gunpoint and flown to Costa Rica by Honduran soldiers. Many believed the coup was triggered by the President’s left-leaning reforms, such as raising the minimum wage, favoring campesinos in land disputes, decreasing military influence, and joining the Bolivarian Alliance. Initially, the international community denounced the coup. However, within days the US reneged on this position, claiming nonintervention as its goal. Honduras now experiences a general environment of civil disorder and violence, including murder of opposition journalists and of LGBTTI, campesino, and indigenous activists. Indeed, many regard Honduras as the “most dangerous country in the world” and Tegucigalpa as the “murder capital of the world”.
In October 2011, a coalition of Honduran groups resisting the coup-installed government formed LIBRE, a third political party in a traditionally two-party system. Since taking this decision, officials of the new party have documented over 200 politically-motivated assassinations. Concerned about the ongoing crisis, a colleague and I joined a human rights delegation to observe the November 18 primary elections. We were interested both in learning more about the Honduran resistance and in studying the practices of North American solidarity networks. We prepared questions as we headed to the field: Who volunteers? How do they understand solidarity? What do international volunteers and Hondurans think solidarity work accomplishes? In short, we wanted to know how contemporary solidarity works.
Solidarity Roots and Routes
Central American solidarity activism emerged during the 1980s as an anti-interventionist movement opposed to US military influence in the region. Activists aimed to make visible the human rights atrocities committed by the US-backed Contra in Nicaragua and by US-trained and funded repressive forces in Guatemala and El Salvador. Arising out of preexisting progressive and religious peace networks, the Central American solidarity movement achieved significant visibility and support in the US, delivered over a million dollars of humanitarian aid to the region, harbored countless refugees, and successfully pressured the US Congress to cut military aid to the Contras. With the electoral defeat of the Sandinista government in 1990 and the signing of peace accords in El Salvador in 1992 and Guatemala in 1996, the immediate threat of US military intervention was removed.
In the wake of these changes the solidarity movement itself changed. Some groups disbanded. Some pursued development work in the communities where they had established ties. Others shifted their focus to liberation struggles in other regions. Some organizations drew on their regional networks and began packaging delegation experiences for potential activists. This work intersected in various ways with the education and/or service objectives of North American religious congregations and university-based academic and student life programs. Antipoverty volunteer delegations drew attention to structural violence but also risked forming clientelistic relationships with their hosts. Fact-finding delegations worked to understand and support emerging anti-imperialist political movements but ran the risk of devolving into political tourism. In short, the solidarity practices that had been successfully deployed in the political struggles of the 1980s hardened into symbolic forms that had both benefits and drawbacks. How do solidarity activists perceive and negotiate the potentially harmful consequences of their well-intentioned interventions? What role might we activist-ethnographers have in supporting greater reflexivity in the practice of solidarity?
Preliminary Observations on Resistance and Solidarity in Honduras
Prior to our departure for Tegucigalpa, my colleague and I expected that our role as solidarity activists would be two-fold. First, we would act as visible deterrents to human rights violations while in-country. Second, we would bring public attention to the political and humanitarian crisis in Honduras upon our return to Ohio. The delegation that we joined was organized by North American solidarity groups with the local support of COFADEH, a human rights NGO, and one faction of the LIBRE party. Although delegates performed the role of human rights observers, we learned that our hosts did not expect serious violations during the primary elections. Instead, they framed our visit as an introduction to the Honduran electoral process and charged us with recruiting observers for the 2013 elections, arguing that a strong international presence then would pressure an untrustworthy state to allow the democratic process to occur.
The thirty or so international delegates belonged to several unrelated groups. On the surface they appeared to share a similar understanding of solidarity, which entailed broadcasting the human rights violations occurring in Honduras to a broader public and raising awareness globally. However, it was also clear that individual delegates varied in their beliefs about their own capacity to act. Despite this difference, the group as a whole did not debate the meanings of what we witnessed or heard, nor did the group strategize about post-delegation actions. Though our Honduran hosts had created an impressive schedule, in many ways we were visitors thrown together momentarily for the delegation, sharing membership in a vague but unarticulated progressivism. No one appeared worried that our praxis might be constructing an echo chamber, preaching to the converted rather than to a broader public. As university professors, my colleague and I were able to address groups outside the solidarity network immediately after the delegation, and the two very different reactions we encountered—recognition and amazement—attest to the difficulty of rendering the crisis intelligible in a way that provokes the kind of action an activist ethnographer seeks. As our research moves forward our working questions are: How can international solidarity activists and their Honduran counterparts fulfill the expectations each has of the other? To what degree can sensitive and critical ethnographic interventions facilitate these relationships? Understanding the current culture of solidarity, its potential and its limitations, will require participant-observation and interviews with a great many more groups whose organization and practices may differ from those reported here. Yet the project offers important opportunities for reflection both on the progressive legacy of the 1980s solidarity movement, and on the necessity of seeing ourselves clearly as we engage in making visible the aspirations and suffering of others.
Katherine Borland is an associate professor in the Department of Comparative Studies and Center for Folklore Studies at The Ohio State University. She is currently involved in a multi-year project on international service and volunteering.