Solidarity, if it is to mean much, must exist not merely in a white-hot moment. It must extend across the arc of history, at least until damage wrought in a particularly dark time is undone.
Certainly, it matters when Americans express their momentary concern for victims of particularly egregious U.S. policies in foreign lands, as millions of U.S. citizens did when the Reagan administration was funding Contra armies, death squads and dictatorships across Central America. But when the focus of policymakers in Washington shifts from one troubled location to the next, it is often the case that the attention of American activists moves with them to the next “hot spot.”
One group that has refused to ignore the wreckage left behind by the Reagan administration’s misdeeds of the 1980s, and the corporate misdeeds that have followed in their wake, is the U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities Network. The group provides a model of solidarity across the decades. Its 25 chapters in the United States have continued to work with the Salvadoran communities with which they partnered 20 years or more ago, promoting sustainable development, opposing free trade agreements and raising the alarm when corporations take advantage of those agreements to exploit workers and the environment in a country that has suffered far too much exploitation.
An example of how the U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities Network’s solidarity model works will be seen Friday at the annual shareholders meeting of Au Martinique Silver Inc., a Canadian-registered mining exploration firm that is promoting development of a gold mine in the Salvadoran department roughly equivalent to a state of Chalatenango. The mining scheme has stirred broad opposition in Chalatenango, where farmers fear that waste from the mining operation will pollute local rivers and water supplies with arsenic and cyanide.
Fifteen mayors in the department and the overwhelming majority of parish priests in the heavily Catholic region have expressed opposition to the project, arguing that it would devastate local agriculture and fisheries. So strong is the opposition that, last year, 300 residents of remote communities in the region formed a human chain to block Au Martinique teams from entering their towns.
Unfortunately, there is little media coverage of development disputes in rural El Salvador. So Au Martinique continues to tell its shareholders and potential investors in the mining project that the company is working “hand-in-hand with the local communities to assure a partnership in economic development and good environmental stewardship.” At the same time, the company is signaling that even if the locals don’t want to walk “hand-in-hand” with the multinational corporation, the project will advance because, in the words of an Au Martinique prospectus, “the Republic of El Salvador has one of the lowest risk profiles for investment in all of Latin America” a reference to the fact that El Salvador’s conservative government is more willing than most to do the bidding of foreign corporations.
In Chalatenango, sentiment toward Au Martinique’s exploration project has been anything but welcoming.
“The people in the communities aren’t in favor of the mining project,” explains Esperanza Ortega, a nominee for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize who lives in the community of Arcatao in Chalatenango. Ortega argues that it is exceptionally “important to talk to the investors, talk to the people funding this project and tell them if they come into this zone they are going to have a lot of problems. …” But, of course, it is not easy for residents of a mountainous region that is far even from the Salvadoran capital of San Salvador to get that message across to the investors and funders.
That’s where the U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities solidarity commitment comes in. Some of the group’s strongest partnerships are located in Chalatenango. For instance, the based Madison-Arcatao Sister City Project has formalized the relationship between Madison, Wisconsin, and the municipality of Arcatao in Chalatenango to such an extent that mayors, city council members and legislators regularly travel back and forth between the communities. Working with the University of Wisconsin and local hospitals in Madison, activists here have helped their partners in Arcatao develop clinics and a host of local services. They have also successfully lobbied their members of Congress to oppose trade agreements that would harm workers and the environment in El Salvador and other Latin American countries.
“Our relationship with Arcatao was rooted in mutual opposition to U.S. military policies in the ’80s, but we have recognized for a long time that exploitation of the region by corporations that do not respect the needs of the people can be just as devastating,” says Marc Rosenthal, a Madison nurse and union activist who has regularly visited the region over the past two decades. “The people in Chalatenango have real fears about what this mining project will do to the region, and everything I’ve seen tells me that those fears are well grounded. So we’re going to make sure that they are heard.”
When Denver-based Au Martinique convenes its shareholders meeting on Friday, organizers and activists with the U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities Network will be there. “Since the company has not informed its shareholders about the local opposition, we have decided to bring the Chalatenango anti-mining campaign directly to the directors and shareholders of this company,” said Dennis Chinoy, a U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities Network activist from Bangor, Maine. “Investors need to be aware that this is a very risky project and that we will continue our campaign until the company has respected the wishes of the local communities and withdrawn its investment.”
For those who recognize “solidarity” as something more than a slogan, the determination of the U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities Network to make sure that the voices of protest from El Salvador continue to be heard in the corridors of corporate and political power provides an inspiring reminder that there are activists who still understand both the meaning and the duty of the phrase la lucha continua.
To learn more about the U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities Network, visit http://jeffbogdan.net/usessc/index.php