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Solidarity Without Borders

Keys to effective cross-border campaigns

Organizing globally is the challenge of our time. Whether you're trying to reform capitalism or abolish it, to organize labor or community, you're struggling against the power of concentrated, politically connected capital. The justice organizer’s task is to connect and collaborate across borders with others who are also rooted in local struggle—that is, to organize locally and globally, just as social movements organized locally, nationally and internationally a century ago. 

Such cross-border organizing is going especially well in Latin America. The region’s nation-states share a 200-year history of U.S. imperialism and national resistance, and that shared history supports a strong critique of neoliberal economic policy. Twenty years of structural adjustment has shown Latin America that neoliberalism doesn't work. For that reason, further negotiations to expand the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) into a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), has generated effective counter-coordination across borders.

But analysis of these trends is only the beginning. Next, anti-corporate globalization activists have to identify the constituencies that those trends affect, then reach and mobilize them. In this year's fight to stop the Central American Free Trade Agreement or CAFTA (which, as of this writing, had been signed by Bush, but not yet sent to Congress), three of those key constituencies are civil society networks in Central America, Central American immigrants, and solidarity activists in the United States.

Popular Education Leads to Action
Across Central America, civil society groups have come together in fights against structural adjustment, the agricultural crisis and privatization. Central America’s struggles against neoliberalism and war spawned a type of a hybrid organizer in the United States—the solidarity activist—who melds North American resources with Central American perspectives and organizing. Meanwhile Washington's military and economic policies have pushed the third constituency, millions of Central American immigrants, into the United States.

The potential power of these three sectors is tremendous. How can that power be actualized? By organizing politically. We help foster that organizing at United for a Fair Economy (UFE) through popular education workshops in Spanish ( and English ( Popular education is only a first step in organizing, but a crucial one because it allows the people who are most affected to articulate an analysis and organize on their own terms.

One example comes from an anti-FTAA workshop we led in Miami (which drew Mexicans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans, among others) as the 2003 FTAA summit meeting was approaching. A Mexican woman who is now living and working in Florida asked whether the FTAA and other agreements were similar to NAFTA. Another woman answered yes, and told her story. She had owned a small business with six employees that sold tortillas. In 1992 in Mexico, she explained, there was a lot of publicity about the importance of NAFTA for farmers and small business owners. Yet, she said, “nobody imagined the disaster that was coming. As soon as NAFTA took effect, Mexican white corn was exported to the United States and we got the yellow corn produced in the United States. Our tortillas were not white anymore, but yellow, and nobody wanted to buy them. My business failed. The six people that worked with me lost their jobs. I had to sell my little house to survive and in the end I had no choice but to come to the United States. Here we continue to suffer and have needs. I hope that people in Latin America take notice in time to stop these free trade agreements that only benefit rich people and corporations.”

That same year, a Mexican organization was making sure that Latin Americans did take notice. The Mexican Network for Action Against Free Trade, which is the Mexican affiliate of the Hemispheric Social Alliance, traveled repeatedly to Central America to talk about NAFTA’s disastrous impact. Then a network of Central American non-governmental organizations and grassroots groups that work against structural adjustment soon came together to oppose CAFTA. On Columbus Day, 2002, they coordinated anti-CAFTA actions in every Central American country. The protests and actions raised awareness about CAFTA, connecting it to national fights like El Salvador’s yearlong health care strike.

In the United States, Central American solidarity organizations played the same role. Their protest on March 24, 2002 in Washington, D.C. pulled together an anti-CAFTA coalition, which placed ads in Salvadoran newspapers while President Bush was campaigning for CAFTA there. That fall the coalition created a Latin American anti-CAFTA statement and turned it into a hemispheric “People’s Declaration on Trade,” which over 200 organizations in Central America and the United States have signed.

Meanwhile, Central American immigrant organizations in Boston asked UFE to start educating their members about CAFTA. A temporary coalition was formed among worker, religious and global justice groups. Having the shared goal of stopping CAFTA helped us set specific tasks and a common agenda.

In mobilizing against CAFTA, Central American immigrants discovered their unique binational power. It didn’t take them long to break through feelings of isolation and take new steps. Salvadorans organized weekly call-ins that jammed the local consulate's phone lines. Hondurans called radio stations back home and told their compatriots the truth about free trade. Guatemalans swarmed a "mobile consulate" that was conducting a blood drive and asked, “What about CAFTA?” Organizing joint lobbying visits to Congress with other coalition members helped them build a sense of power.

Cycle of Solidarity
How did an issue as specialized as CAFTA rise to the top of social movements’ agendas in the United States and Central America? Coordination is a big part of the story—coordinated protests across borders, as well as networks coordinating both Central American and U.S. groups.  The public demonstrations, lobbying and educational events of 2002 and 2003 were synchronized, making them more powerful and visible.

Who created the coordination? Three constituencies that, because of their histories, have internationalist perspectives and ongoing cross-border relationships. Hemispheric strategy meetings, like the one in Havana, Cuba this January, and popular education help renew their commitment. In creating UFE's Free Trade workshops, we borrowed heavily from popular materials developed in Central America. Now the workshop materials are being downloaded and used throughout Central America as well as by all three key constituencies in the United States. The cycle continues.

By working with people directly affected by free trade agreements and their allies, we have learned that social justice groups in the United States and grassroots organizations in other parts of the world have no choice but to coordinate their work. All of us exercise influence nationally, but groups in the United States have considerable freedom of expression and power in the main country that's driving corporate globalization.

Mike Prokosch coordinates the global economy program at United for a Fair Economy, where he designs workshops and leads trainings for unions, congregations and community organizations. He co-edited The Global Activist’s Handbook (Nations Books).

Jeannette Huezo is education coordinator and lead trainer at United for a Fair Economy. Originally from El Salvador, Jeannette has more than 20 years of experience as a community organizer and popular educator working for justice and social change.