A Hundred Years of Solidarity

If we want to fight capitalism, the US left has to figure out how to confront US empire. Generations of internationalist struggles in Latin America can help us do just that.

A 1984 El Salvador solidarity demonstration in San Francisco is attacked by police. It's About Times

The United States has a long and bloody history of invasion, occupation, extraction, and exploitation in Latin America. But the history of US empire isn’t just the history of violent conquest — it’s also the history of those who fought against it.

Steven Striffler’s Solidarity: Latin America and the US Left in the Era of Human Rights surveys the history of the US Left’s engagement with Latin America. Striffler argues that “progressive forays into internationalism provide particularly revealing points of entry for understanding the US left as a whole.” The contemporary diagnosis is grim.

His sweeping research reveals an uneven history of domestic opposition to US imperialism. Tensions between notions of US empire as a fundamentally benevolent force whose excesses must be contained, or as an agent of capitalism “that delivers extreme levels of inequality and violence to the hemisphere,” have shaped US–Latin American solidarity for centuries.

Conceptions of solidarity evolved together with those of empire. In the hands of revolutionaries like Che Guevara, Striffler writes, solidarity “was rooted less in a common experience or economic position than in a series of other concerns and goals that ultimately reflected how actors see the world and envision the future.” But these other, shared aspirations of seizing state power, redistributing wealth, and restructuring production were largely overcome by the neoliberal counterrevolution.

Though it spans more than two centuries, the book’s thrust is a critique of activism in the neoliberal age, from the fragmented countercultures of the 1990s to professional human rights advocacy organizations, and a call to return to an internationalist left politics that takes state power seriously.

Striffler writes in a context of “the ongoing decline of the left,” one in which “international allies have tended to engage in . . .  defensive struggles to help Latin Americans ‘negotiate the best possible terms of their defeat.’” Happily, circumstances have shifted. The Latin American left rose to power across the continent in the form of progressive elected governments — now the target of a vicious counteroffensive — and in the United States, the heart of imperial power, a new generation is forging a militant left politics the likes of which have not been seen in decades.

In a moment of right-wing reaction in the South and budding left renaissance in the North, Striffler’s lessons from movements past are perhaps more urgent than he imagined at the time he wrote Solidarity.

Anti-Imperialism in the Age of Expansion

Over the course of the 1800s, the US imperial project took shape through westward expansion and conquest. During this period, anti-imperialism in the US evolved from mainstream opposition to European colonialism in the Western Hemisphere — often grounded in racist and paternalistic notions of benevolent US power — to a more radical, and marginalized, embrace of oppressed peoples in the Americas as comrades in a common liberation struggle.

Striffler points to support for the Haitian revolution as the first instance of US-based transnational solidarity. While most Europeans and white US citizens recoiled in horror at the news of the slave rebellion, black communities across the Americas saw Haiti a beacon of emancipation, as did a handful of white abolitionists. The ensuing Latin American independence struggles initially drew widespread US sympathy, but this soon gave way to a pervasive discourse of white US exceptionalism, as the implications of Latin American liberation’s challenge to the racialized US slave system became clear.

Radical African-American abolitionists were leaders in a broad movement in solidarity with Cuban independence in the late nineteenth century. In the end, however, the United States ensured via the 1901 Platt Amendment that Cuba’s liberation from Spain did not allow for genuine self-governance, and thereafter ceased any support for Latin American revolutionaries. The early twentieth century saw multiple US military interventions against rebels in the region as revolution there increasingly threatened US investments.

US organized labor forged militant resistance to these new forms of US empire at the turn of the century. Radical solidarity emerged in the borderlands, where the inequities and violence of industrialization, proletarianization, foreign investment, and authoritarianism were particularly pronounced. One strike at a Sonora mine in 1906, where US workers were paid up to three times the wage of their Mexican counterparts, was crushed after Mexican president Porfirio Díaz’s regime enlisted the Arizona Rangers to help Mexican security forces defeat the miners.

During this period, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) collaborated with the Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM), organizing workers on both sides of the border. Prominent US radicals from Eugene Debs and Big Bill Haywood to Emma Goldman and Mother Jones rallied in defense of PLM refugees in the United States. These leftists understood that US support for the Díaz regime benefited US capital but hurt workers, as US businesses sought to both export their goods into Mexico and import cheap labor to the United States. This was a solidarity “that understood imperialism not in terms of direct colonial rule, but in terms of the broader impact of foreign capital.”

Caribbean Occupations

The early twentieth century was a time of aggressive US military action in the Caribbean basin. Some ten thousand troops were involved in the occupations of the Dominican Republic (1916–1924), Haiti (1915–1934), and Nicaragua (1912–1933). These events had far-reaching implications for both the future exercise of imperial power in the region and the nature of its domestic opposition.

A wide political spectrum in the United States opposed the occupations. African Americans were “among the earliest, most consistent, and most vocal opponents” of these interventions. When the US military imposed Jim Crow segregation and forced labor in Haiti, black leaders in the US exposed the occupation’s violence and supported Haitian liberation movements. Some US sectors actively supported Sandino’s insurgency in Nicaragua. Dominican nationalists galvanized US moderates against the military’s brutality, centering liberal notions of democratic self-determination.

The eventual US withdrawal from the Caribbean, though the product of hard-fought transnational resistance, was no revolutionary victory. In the Dominican Republic, the occupation prepared the conditions for the subsequent thirty-year Trujillo dictatorship. In Nicaragua, “the United States placed the Guardia Nacional in the hands of a loyal ally, Anastasio Somoza, who would insure that US military intervention was no longer necessary.” Somoza assassinated Sandino and launched a fifty-year dynasty of US-backed dictatorship.

Focused as they were on ousting US troops, the anti-imperialist campaigns of this period tended not to foreground the “underlying political and economic structures,” a tendency that only increased as the US left was decimated by the Cold War. At the same time, the United States turn to proxy dictators helped dilute domestic resistance to regional foreign policy: “the physical absence of US troops from Latin America proved quite effective in blunting US-based anti-imperialism.”

It was a lesson the United States learned well. With a few key exceptions — Granada, Panama — subsequent US interventions in Latin America were largely executed through proxies or covert operations; these shadowy actions proved more challenging targets to organize against.

Rising Reaction and the Early Cold War

After World War II, mainstream US anti-imperialism evaporated. After the war’s end, Striffler writes, “the US political establishment refashioned the struggle against fascism into one against communism.” Liberals embraced the anti-communist campaign at home and abroad, weakening left forces everywhere.

Black leftists were marginalized and repressed, as black liberals fighting for civil rights accepted the premise that the United States was “the legitimate leader of the free world” and used that discourse to demand liberty, democracy, and equality at home. Martin Luther King Jr and Bayard Rustin struggled to introduce an analysis of US imperialism and global capitalism to the movement, and “the silencing of an earlier generation of leaders such as Du Bois and Paul Robeson” left subsequent radicals like the Black Panthers a truncated legacy to draw from.

For much of organized labor, “solidarity — and particularly international solidarity in the Americas — came to be defined as solidarity against communism.” As the radical left was purged from the US labor movement, Latin American workers faced terrible repression as well. Far from critiquing US imperialism, mainstream US labor — the AFL-CIO in particular — became an active agent of empire: “An important potential link in the solidarity chain was not simply absent or silenced. It was playing for the other team.” When the United States overthrew Guatemalan president Jacobo Árbenz in 1954, “the silence was deafening.”

The Cuban revolution was explosive in this context. Cuba became a critical site of solidarity and radicalization for the black liberation movement and emergent New Left. As early as 1961, Cuba gave sanctuary to NAACP leader Robert F. Williams, who fled FBI persecution for organizing armed self-defense from KKK violence, and would remain a haven for black revolutionaries like Angela Davis and Assata Shakur.

For embattled older radicals and the emergent New Left, “Cuba became a useful site to think through questions of racial inequality, socialism, radical democracy, women’s liberation, revolutionary transformation, and international solidarity,” writes Striffler. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Black Panthers, Students for a Democratic Society, the Young Lords, the Socialist Workers Party, and the Communist Party USA all looked to Cuba during the 1960s and ’70s.

Striffler highlights the Venceremos Brigade, which brought US delegates to Cuba to volunteer their labor in service of a cross-border revolutionary project. Combining witness, service, and political education, the brigades deployed diverse young radicals from Quakers to Weathermen to aid in the massive sugar cane harvest of 1969 and pioneered a model for future solidarity. Critically, they radicalized participants in a bid to strengthen the US left. In this framework, “solidarity was conceptualized not in humanitarian terms, as privileged northerners helping marginalized allies in the global South, but as socialists working with fellow socialists to advance a shared struggle.”

Human Rights

Striffler writes that in the wake of the Vietnam war, “opposition to US foreign policy was now mainstream, producing a liberal-left bloc that rejected the basic premises of the Cold War and was willing to contest US efforts to contain popular movements overseas. As a minority partner, the left’s challenge was to push anti-interventionism towards a deeper left internationalism.” It failed.

The 1970s inaugurated capital’s counteroffensive, a period of reaction across the hemisphere. Recession signaled the collapse of the Keynesian postwar political economic order; the response was a massive restructuring process that spawned neoliberalism. It was a time of heightened repression.

In the US left, Striffler charts a shift from the militant anti-imperialism inspired by Third World liberation movements, which drew from communist, pan-Arab, black internationalist, and other revolutionary left traditions, to a politics of international solidarity dominated by an increasingly depoliticized “human rights” framing.

In South America, much of the Left was suppressed under US-backed military dictatorships. Beginning in the 1960s, small solidarity groups led by Latin American exiles and radicalized former US missionaries formed in the United States to oppose these regimes. Some, like NACLA, forged a committed left anti-imperialist analysis. Many sought to pressure dictators by publishing testimony from torture survivors and political prisoners, demanding respect for human rights.

Interestingly, Striffler notes, the humanitarian framing was not easily embraced by all Latin American movements, who preferred the framework of class struggle and imperialism to situate their repression. Uruguayan leftists, for example, “assumed that occasional arrests, brief stays in prison, periodic exile, and certain levels of state violence were fundamental features of being active in the left.” Marx, dismissive of “the pompous catalogue of the ‘inalienable rights of man,’” would likely have agreed, noting that “between equal rights, force decides.”

But as liberal human rights organizations gained traction internationally and repression escalated locally, human rights became an increasingly effective means to respond to crises, at least in the short term. Indeed, the turn toward human rights in solidarity circles was, in Striffler’s account, largely a product of the Latin American left’s defeat. Under Pinochet, Chilean faith-based organizations’ appeals to human rights soon became the only remaining means of contesting the regime.

As a result, an increasingly narrow focus on torture and prisoners developed. A human rights framework helped US allies mobilize moral outrage at the atrocities that sustained Latin America’s authoritarian regimes. But left internationalism had no place in the emerging international human rights landscape dominated by groups like Amnesty International. Professional human rights organizations’ legitimacy was grounded in their perceived neutrality. In this world, salaried lobbyists, not mass movements, were the agents of change, and advocates were indifferent to the political projects of the victims they defended.

Mainstream human rights work displaced left internationalism with a discourse that “was openly antithetical to political projects or visions rooted in notions of collective emancipation,” or “solidarity without politics.” Whether leveraged strategically to respond to emergencies or adopted blindly by liberal humanitarians, the consequences were serious for the Left.

“This is an anti-interventionism that moves beyond the politics of the Cold War by ignoring it, in effect declaring traditional politics irrelevant and left solidarity obsolete, undesirable, or anachronistic,” Striffler writes. It was the beginning of the end of history.

The Central America solidarity movement of the 1980s offers some important caveats to this trend. Propelled by the leadership of exiled Central American revolutionaries, US radicals mobilized to defend the Sandinistas’ victory and support Guatemalan and Salvadoran struggles against US-backed dictatorships. The movement that emerged was united around its demand to halt US aid to the military regimes and Contra forces, but it hosted a broad political spectrum, including those actively supporting armed left insurgencies: “the breadth of debate, alliances, and forms of organization was impressive in what was always a very decentralized movement.”

At its best, the movement forged a solidarity of “complicity and comradeship,” as historian Van Gosse has documented, fighting an explicitly anti-imperialist battle in the courts, the legislature, and the streets, and creating enduring transnational bonds between individuals and organizations. But notions of solidarity that foregrounded privilege were also pervasive, and, as Striffler notes, “often contained a degree of humanitarianism and assumed hierarchy, whereby one group ‘gives’ and another group ‘receives’ solidarity.”

Furthermore, the movement “relied on crisis as its fuel.” When the wars ended, the urgency of the organizing dissipated, and “what was left was a multiplicity of relatively small, professionally run organizations that by and large had not been built for, nor were equipped to, engage in a long-term struggle for political power and economic equality as neoliberalism descended over Central America during the 1990s.” US solidarity organizations were only as strong as their Central American counterparts; the neoliberal offensive diminished both.

Neoliberalism and the State

The 1980s debt crisis and structural adjustment left the Latin American left in shambles. In the United States, what remained of the solidarity movement in the 1990s turned to economic struggles against neoliberalism, or, as it was broadly and perhaps unfortunately characterized at the time, “globalization.”

One such project was the failed battle against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). This struggle was led by a coalition between the Alliance for Responsible Trade, comprised of progressive unions like the Teamsters under its reform leadership, the UAW, the CWA, and the UE, together with a host of grassroots solidarity organizations and fair trade NGOs, and the better-funded AFL-CIO’s Citizen’s Trade Campaign.

The anti-NAFTA fight roused long-dormant sectors of US labor, but it also revealed their contradictions. The AFL-CIO advanced a narrative of US “job loss” to Mexicans that stoked divisions among workers rather than laying blame at the feet of the capitalists propelling an international race to the bottom. This nationalist framing  continues to haunt US political discourse.

But it was a logical response to an enemy defined as “globalization,” a misleading term that obfuscates the heightened antagonism between workers and transnational capital, suggesting instead a vague opposition of the local to the global. And anti-NAFTA organizing failed to put forward an “alternative model of economic integration.” Striffler attributes this shortcoming to the Left’s embrace of a pervasive “anti-statist” ideology that prevented it from conceiving of the state as a positive agent for working people.

This conceptual limitation also characterized the “fair trade” movement of the 1990s, which sought to bypass the state altogether. As Striffler explains, the goal was to foster “egalitarian relations between Northern consumers and Southern producers while campaigning to transform conventional trade practices,” but the ensuing certification efforts remained firmly within the existing market system.

Indeed, fair trade was quickly accommodated by capital as another niche for an increasingly identity-based politics of consumption: “For the global North, fair trade reinforced the idea — prominent during the period — that social change could be brought about by individual consumers acting alone on the supermarket aisle.” This was a comforting but deeply misguided and demobilizing message.

In such a dispiriting landscape, the 1994 Zapatista uprising — launched January 1 to coincide with NAFTA’s implementation — was a gasp of air for a suffocating left. Discursively, “the Zapatistas offered an anti-neoliberal, anti-imperialist internationalism that presented itself as a global project.” Despite many of the trappings of revolutionary peasant armies of decades past, however, the EZLN was not seeking to spark a nationwide insurrection for state power. The Zapatistas’ uncompromising demand for autonomy from a repressive state deemed utterly illegitimate was, to Striffler, “perfectly understandable, even heroic.” But as leftists from around the world were drawn to their struggle, “the Zapatistas would help define and justify an anti-neoliberal struggle that was rooted in the retreat to the local.”

This local turn assumed a global expression in the “movement of movements” that convened annually in World Social Forums. The Global Justice Movement began with the Zapatistas’ first international Encuentro and came together in the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle. But while raucous and creative protests soon became a mainstay of World Bank, IMF, G8, and other gatherings of the international guardians of capital, these mobilizations did little to shift global political economy. Striffler concludes that “the Zapatista-inspired strategy of confronting neoliberalism wherever you are . . .  was simply not up to the task.”

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, international solidarity in the United States took the shape of fragmented, defensive responses to “a multiplicity of crises and causes connected to the consequences and symptoms of neoliberalism.” Another current focused on US corporations, building on the human rights advocacy tactic of “name and shame” campaigns. Groups like the National Labor Committee and UNITE, and later United Students Against Sweatshops and the Workers Rights Consortium, targeted US companies for labor violations and sought to enforce voluntary codes of labor conduct through independent monitoring systems.

Campaigns targeting abusive firms helped reveal the unequal nature of global production chains, but the overwhelming power of militarized neoliberalism in the region limited any single victory. These projects tended to “de-emphasize or bypass ‘the base’ altogether, often seeing workers as one ‘stakeholder’ among many within broader campaigns that were increasingly run by professionals.”

Striffler writes that “the high-profile nature of such campaigns led many to the conclusion that this was the path forward for building working-class power, when in fact it was more a reflection of how far the labor movement and the left had fallen.” In the Latin American solidarity context, this tendency combined with human rights framing to further distance the movement from an international project of building popular power.

In assessing these projects, Striffler makes an important argument about the Left’s failure to understand the state as “a central site of struggle.” In so doing, however, he frames neoliberal counter-reform as the “destruction of the state,” whose “anti-statism” permeated the very movements that sought to oppose it. This characterization of neoliberalism is common, but it misses the point: the state is central to the neoliberal project, both because it is the agent that implements and enforces neoliberal policies of deregulation, privatization, and trade liberalization; and because, as Striffler himself recognizes, the neoliberal state requires a formidable repressive apparatus to impose and maintain such a fundamentally anti-democratic endeavor.

Nevertheless, his point is well taken. As David Broder wrote recently in Jacobin, “Capital need have no fear of isolated countercultures.” Ultimately, Striffler contends, the Latin American “pink tide” governments “rooted in an older political model that had been deemed outdated by many in global justice circles” were able to mount a more meaningful challenge to neoliberalism than the Global Justice Movement ever could.

Solidarity Forever

Striffler’s sobering account is one of diminishing horizons of struggle, in which the Left is progressively reduced to marginal autonomous spaces, professional NGOs, or consumer choices. But it also contains exuberant reminders of past solidarities: from the Wobblies and the Venceremos Brigades to the Central American Solidarity movement, US radicals have overcome the formidable ideological and material structures of empire to join their Latin American comrades in struggle.

With these histories as a foundation, Striffler’s work reminds us of the importance of connecting short-term campaigns to broader anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movement-building. US left internationalism, he writes, “can not only be part of the global fight against capitalism, but also part of the process through which the left, including its domestic and internationalist expressions, is reconstituted.”

Today, the curtains have been swept back on the US political spectrum for the first time in decades. The emboldened far right now must contend with a previously unimaginable rising left — one that might even have a shot at the presidency. Left internationalism is and will be fundamental to countering our opponents, who cloak themselves in nationalism as they threaten workers everywhere.

Growing attention to foreign policy, the founding of the Progressive International, the Sanders-led vote against the US war in Yemen, and rising critiques of the US relationship with Israel give us reason to hope. But the US left’s timidity in the face of the imperialist assault against Venezuela shows how far we have to go. If we want to pose a real threat to capitalism, we’ll have to confront its principal global agent: US empire.