Latin America Solidarity Centre

20 Years of LASC

By Jean Somers

Ireland and Latin America: Deep roots

While LASC is marking its 20th anniversary this year, links between Ireland and Latin America have a much longer history, some dating back 200 years to the Latin American wars of independence. A recent conference, “Irish-Latin American Solidarity in the Context of the 1916 Rising” organised by Maynooth University together with LASC, included an exploration of these earlier links. In addition to testimony from Franciscan priest, Brendan Forde, of how Roger Casement’s human rights investigations in the Putumayo, Peru, are still remembered there, a contribution from Margaret Brehony from the Society for Irish Latin American Studies (SILAS) covered Irish involvement in Latin American independence movements, showing how the Irish were both the objects and agents of colonialism. Dermott Keogh, also of SILAS, focussed on the little known Argentine missions of Eamonn Bulfin and Laurence Ginnell to Argentina, 1919 – 1922 on behalf of the new Irish Republic. These contributions highlighted the mutual exchange involved within the Ireland/Latin American relationship over time.

Solidarity from the late 20th century

LASC sits within this broad history, but more specifically, in the more recent solidarity links forged from the last quarter of the 20th century. Following the 1973 coup in Chile, the Irish Chile Solidarity Group was founded. This was followed in 1979 by the El Salvador Support Committee sparked off by human rights abuses in the context of the struggle by the revolutionary group, the FMLN. The Irish Nicaragua Solidarity Group (INSG), active throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s mobilised huge numbers across Ireland with the aim of preventing the overthrow, by US intervention, of the revolutionary Sandinista government. By 1988 there were local INSG groups in Bray, Donegal, Galway, Sligo, Clare, Dublin, and Belfast. Central to the impact of the INSG were the brigades sent to Nicaragua between 1988 and 1993, with people from all walks of life across Ireland participating. The work brigades mainly helped with harvesting coffee, which was the main foreign exchange earner for Nicaragua. As a result of the follow up work carried out by these ‘brigadistas’ , there was widespread support at popular and political level in Ireland of the struggle for survival of the Nicaraguan government.

There was, therefore, a strong focus on a number of Latin American countries throughout the 1980s because of the revolutionary struggles underway (in El Salvador), the success of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, and countries struggling against military regimes, as in Chile. There were hopes that new revolutionary governments would provide the basis for transformation. These hopes were expressed by a young Colombian guerrilla fighter at the regional conference on debt organised by Castro in Havana in 1985: “We say to imperialism: prepare yourselves, because it is us with whom in the 21st century you are going to have to discuss the future of this continent.” Predicting the future, however, is an exact science. Four years later the world had changed radically, with the fall of the Soviet Union, resulting in the move from a world within which communism and capitalism competed, to one largely dominated by capitalism. This changed the context for solidarity with Latin America, with less hopes for the emergence of new revolutionary governments. A further factor was the gathering pace of globalisation, which led to an increasing focus from the 1990s on major international issues cutting across countries, such as trade, debt, food sovereignty, and water, where strong transnational social movements were emerging – La Via Campesina, together with trade justice, debt and other transnational campaigns. While the country focus of campaigning diminished, new solidarity groups continued to emerge. The Cuba Support Group was set up in 1993 as the US ratcheted up its sanctions in the context of the fall of the communist regimes supportive to Cuba, and the Irish Mexico Group (IMG) was set up in 1995 in solidarity with the Zapatistas’ struggle in Chiapas. They worked in particular with the Zapatista community of Diez de Abril where the IMG had a peace camp. Volunteers based at the camp acted as international human rights observers, and forged strong links with the local community.

Setting up LASC

The electoral defeat of the Sandinista government in 1990, changed the context for solidarity with Nicaragua. In this shifting environment, the INSG commissioned a study on the feasibility of setting up an Irish Latin America Centre. A coordinated approach to solidarity would enable a premises to be acquired, providing a focal point for the media and politicians, for intending activists and others. As a result of the positive conclusions of the study, LASC was established in 1996. The purpose was not to set up a top down approach with LASC overseeing solidarity work, but that LASC would support and facilitate a range of autonomous groups. Once premises were acquired, the centre was launched by Peadar Kirby and Nancy Serrano in November 1996. Central America Week which had been organised since 1986 by an ad hoc coalition of groups hosted by Comhlámh, changed its name to Latin America Week (LAW)

LASC undertook a wide range of activities, weaving together the different threads into a strong web of solidarity – campaigning, solidarity with particular countries and communities, responding to requests for support, public education, highlighting different dimensions of Latin American culture, providing a Latin American perspective to the work of other organisations, participating in broad movements, such as Bloom set up by Irish groups working for global justice, and networking with groups on a European and wider level – and this list is, probably, incomplete.

“New” Solidarity Groups

While there were changes in the nature of solidarity over the decades, solidarity with particular countries or communities continued as a strong thread. From 2005, a cluster of new solidarity groups began to emerge. A Haiti Action Group was set up in 2005 following the ousting of President Aristide. The group held protests at the Brazilian Embassy in opposition to the UN Stabilisation Mission, which was under Brazilian leadership. Solidarity was renewed from 2010 in the context of the devastating hurricane which hit the country, to support Haitians in their struggle against foreign intervention and a repressive domestic government. A Venezuela Support Group was set up in 2006, resonating with the earlier INSG – to support the ‘Bolivarian Alterative’ policies introduced by President Chavez, to oppose US or other outside intervention, and to influence Irish foreign policy in this direction. Following the visit by members of the Kankuamo community in Colombia for LAW 2005, a Kankuamo Action Group was set up to support the community in opposing the threats to their culture posed by mining and hydro-electric dams. The group gathered signatories to a petition calling on the Irish Government to stop financing projects that damaged the Kankuamo community. The group later changed their name to “Raíces” (Roots) with the aim of working in solidarity with all indigenous people in Colombia.

Campaigns

Campaigning has always been central to LASC’s work. It would, however, be impossible to outline even a representative sample of the range of campaigns undertaken or supported by LASC over the last two decades. Campaigns supported particular groups experiencing human rights abuses by governments, and exploitation and abuses by multinational companies, and also challenged proposed EU free trade agreements with Latin American countries.

Smurfit: One long running campaign, whose origins preceded LASC, was targeted at Smurfit in Colombia. The Company was accused of destroying Colombian rainforest, the unfair dismissal of trade unionists, and the displacement of Colombian small farmers. In 1995 a range of concerned people bought shares in Smurfits, and attended AGMs. In 1998, these concerned shareholders sent a delegation to Colombia, at Smurfit’s invitation, to investigate the complaints being received about the company’s activities. Subsequent to the publication of the delegations’ highly critical report, LASC organised a public meeting in 1999 to present the findings. In 2001, Nestor Ocampo, an environmental activist from Colombia visited Ireland and attended Smurfit’s AGM. Smurfits had taken – and lost – a case against him because he accused the company of destroying cloud forest. Pressure on the company was also applied by mobilising grass roots activity in Ireland.

Coca Cola Boycott: LASC, together with the Colombia Support group, participated in the high profile international campaign to boycott Coca Cola from 2003, in support of the Colombian food and drinks union, Sinaltrainal. The union was suing the multinational for its alleged use of right wing paramilitary death squads at its plants in Colombia. A number of trade unions supported the boycott – Unison, NIPSA and the TUI – and the UCD Students’ Union won a referendum to ban Coca-Cola from their campus. The leader of Sinaltrainal, Edgar Paez, was invited to Ireland by LASC to address trade unions, and a delegation from Ireland visited Colombia to get first hand evidence of the situation.

Resisting Neoliberal Free Trade Agreements: From the 2000s when activists from Latin America visiting LASC were asked to name the most crucial global issue facing them, their response was free trade agreements (FTA). As free trade is a major force driving the pace of globalisation, proposals for bilateral and regional free trade agreements had begun to proliferate, particularly following the defeats suffered by the WTO at its 1999 and 2003 ministerial meetings. Given the neo-liberal agenda promoted through free trade, FTAs were – and continue to be – strongly resisted by social movements. LASC became centrally involved in opposing the EU – Andean Community (Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador) free trade agreement. Among concerns were: the demand that markets in water, energy and transport be opened up, proposals on intellectual property and the drive for agribusiness and mega-extractives. This campaign represented a shift in the nature of solidarity, as European governments were now central to the problem. LASC together with partner organisations in Ireland, and Europe, targeted the Irish and other EU member states and the EU institutions, while groups within the Andean area struggled with their own governments against the FTA. When opposition from the Ecuadorian and Bolivian government led to the failure of the proposed regional FTA, the EU began to negotiate bilateral FTAs with Peru and Colombia. Working with Trócaire, ICTU, Christian Aid, Grupo Raíces and Justice for Colombia Ireland, LASC’s opposition focussed particularly on the EU- Columbia FTA. Pressure was mounted on Irish politicians to oppose the Agreement because of the Colombian regime’s appalling human rights record, and the effects the FTA would have on the standard of living of the population. Human rights and trade union speakers from Colombia addressed Oireachtas Committees. While this resulted in the Committees on Foreign Affairs, and European Affairs coming out in opposition, eventually Ireland ratified the agreement in 2015.

Human Rights

Responding to the numerous requests for support for groups suffering acute human rights abuses – threats to the lives of individual activists, communities threatened with displacement from their lands, and/or suffering attacks from the military – has been an on-going focus of LASC. Among the most poignant situations has been where activists who visited Ireland were later murdered. Marcos Verrao leader of the Guarani-Kaiowa community in Brazil visited Ireland in 2000, looking for support to repossess their ancestral lands stolen by cattle ranchers. Two years later, LASC received the shocking news that Marcos had been murdered by a wealthy land owner gang. Vigils were organised at the Brazilian Embassy, and LASC also organised an event to mark Marcos Verrao’s life. Equally shocking was the murder of Bety Cariño, who had been active in the movement for food sovereignty in Oaxaca. She visited Ireland in 2009 as one of the speakers for LAW on the theme of food sovereignty. The following year, Bety was part of a humanitarian caravan bringing food and medicines to the besieged autonomous community of San Juan de Copala in Oaxaca. The caravan was ambushed by armed paramilitaries, and Bety and Finnish international observer who was accompanying her, Jyri Jaakkola, were murdered. Protests were immediately organised outside the Mexican Embassy, condemning the State Government’s absolute refusal to take action on the murders. A number of LASC members set up the Justice for Bety Cariño, as part of an international campaign.

Awareness Raising – Mutual Understanding

For LASC solidarity is “an expression of empathy and common purpose with those in struggle for social justice, equality and genuine freedom” . Educational activities have therefore highlighted our common oppressions and struggles, with a special focus on what we in Ireland can learn from Latin America. Latin America Week (LAW) has been the Centre’s highest profile annual activity. Speakers invited from Latin America for the week travelled around the country, speaking at public events in Limerick, Galway, Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Derry, Dundalk, and Portlaoise. Equally important were the direct exchanges organised with local groups which enabled deeper understanding between the speakers and those groups. From 2000 LAW gained a further dimension with the Latin American Film Festival organised each year by LASC member Tadhg O Cruadhlaoich. A list of the themes of CAW and LAW are provided at the end of this article.

As a small organisation, with very limited resources, LASC managed to maximise its impact by taking advantage of visitors from Latin America, and the return of Irish residents, to organise informal talks – a vast range of issues have been covered over the years. The year 2002 stands out in particular, as an astonishing 27 talks were organised, and sometimes people had to be turned away because of lack of space. In addition to more formal public meetings, LASC developed an accredited Latin American Course which has run for many years, from which new activists have emerged. Building relationships with particular sectors through ongoing educational activities, was an important anchor for LASC. Working with the youth sector, LASC provided training for trainers together with workshops on a range of issues relevant to Latin America. Follow-up initiatives included murals produced following sessions in 2008. Specially designed courses were delivered to the travelling community, focussing on Latin American themes particularly relevant to them. LASC’s educational work also made a significant contribution to deepening the understanding of Latin America in the wider global justice, and community sectors. Workshops on Latin American issues were provided at other organisations’ events, and LASC trained trainers for other groups in the design and delivery of workshops with a Latin American focus.

Transformative Power of Culture

Recognising the potentially transformative role of the arts, cultural linking has been another strong thread. This goes back to the visit of the Nicaraguan Héroes and Mártires music group in 1984, whose tour around Ireland was supported by musicians from Comhaltas. It is beyond the scope of this short article to cover the depth and breadth of LASC’s cultural activities – salsa parties, samba gigs, capoeira classes, food awareness days, Latin American crafts, the variety of film showings in addition to the Latin American film festival accompanying LAW, and of course, the very successful Cinco de Mayo Mexican festival organised over recent years, together with the Dublin Food Coop.

Regular events over the years were the popular Club Sandino, originally set up by INSG, where people could listen and dance to music from around the world, and the annual Che Guevara Quiz organised by Cuba Solidarity together with LASC. One event which stands out, is the celebration of the life of Víctor Jara, on the 30th anniversary of the Chilean coup. Music, poetry and song at the National Concert Hall in 2003, featured: Cormac Breathnach, Donal O’Kelly, Michael D. Higgins, Tomas McSimoin, Joan Mc Dermot, Hada to Hada, Tommy Sands, Jayro González, Eric Fleming….

A really striking example of art and solidarity interacting, was the mural produced by the Saol project for the Taniperla community in Chiapas. A mural produced by this community showing the Zapatista vision of a harmonious daily life, was destroyed during an army incursion into the community. Moved by what they learned about the struggles of indigenous people in Chiapas, the women at Saol, which supports women recovering from drug use, decided to reproduce the mural for the community. They were supported by members of the Irish Mexico Group. As sending the mural itself at that time (2000), might have jeopardised the safety of people in Taniperla, a video produced by Muireann de Barra, documenting the making of the mural, was sent to the community as a message of solidarity.

Reflections

LASC has had a vibrant history, building on the rich weave of connections going back many years. A feature of all social movements, however, is that action waxes and wanes – sometimes in response to outside events or trends, and sometimes due to changes within the organisation. External factors which gradually affected solidarity with Latin America in the l990s was the lessening of international focus on Central America which had dominated in the 1980s. Attention moved on to new areas and struggles. Energy within organisations can also ebb and flow, as maintaining commitment over the long term is challenging. In what social movement writer Clifford Bob has called “issue-attention cycle”, public interest in problems rises and falls regardless of whether these are solved. LASC has weathered these challenges, by maintaining a core of long standing activists, attracting committed volunteers, having employees with a record of solidarity with Latin America, and, of course, attracting new activists, especially with the rise of the left in Latin America from the late 1990s.

Postscript: This article is based on reviewing documents, and my own personal experience. Documents, however, never tell the whole story; the voice of those actively involved are essential. This article has only dipped a toe in the ocean of the solidarity, commitment, political ties and friendships forged, difficulties overcome, and also compañeras and compañeros tragically lost, over decades of solidarity with Latin America. In this anniversary year, we invite all of you who have memories of particular events, campaigns, of solidarity visits, or who have comments to make, to let us have your accounts. Our history is not the just the past, it’s part of what motivates us as we move forward into the future.