Beyond Solidarity

Editor’s Note: The following is a speech given April 9 by Americas Program Director Laura Carlsen at this year’s Latin American Solidarity Coalition/School of the Americas Watch Conference.

In our work, our travels, our crossborder families and friendships, we learn to transit between languages, cultures and contexts to support something deeply human?the will to assert life in the face of violence and brutality. That’s why more and more, as political analysts and activists we work alongside artists, actors, musicians, dancers and clowns?the ones who paint our rage and indignation in living color and bring joy into simple acts of resistance, to keep hope and movements alive.

But we also have to understand the nature of the threats to our lives and happiness. At a conference on militarism and Latin America the issue at the top of the agenda has to be the drug war.

The drug war has become the major vehicle of militarization in Latin America. It’s a vehicle funded and driven by the U.S. government and fueled by a combination of false morals, hypocrisy and a lot of cold, hard fear. The so called “war on drugs” is really a war on people, especially youth, women, indigenous peoples and dissidents. The drug war has become the main way for the Pentagon to occupy and control countries at the expense of whole societies and many, many lives.

Militarization in the name of the drug war is happening more quickly and more thoroughly than most of us probably anticipated under the Obama administration. The agreement to establish bases in Colombia, later suspended, sent out one of the first signals of the strategy. And we’ve seen the indefinite extension of the Merida Initiative in Mexico and Central America, and even, sadly, war boats sent to Costa Rica, a nation with a history of peace and no army.

I emphasize the drug war because I live in Mexico and have focused for years on this. I think, though, as we work on all the areas we’ve discussed over the past few days, we’re reminded of the importance of not building narrow trenches for each issue, of not allowing ourselves to feel that each cause competes with the next, and not falling into exasperation when we’re asked to care about everything. We have to care about everything because of the way all these forms of militarization join together into a violent support system for a violent economic model. We have to understand how it fits together and how it touches our own lives and others. We’ve seen how even, and sometimes especially, people most desperately enmeshed in their own struggles find tips and inspiration from others.

It’s the people’s movements in Latin America themselves that are showing the way for us to do that. Over the past decade, Latin America has been profoundly transformed. Not only because of the election of progressive or center-left governments, although that’s important?important for what it’s done for the lives of the poor, important for self-determination and important for breaking free from U.S. hegemony in the region and creating a more multipolar world.

More important, however, are the grassroots movements that brought them to power and sustain them in power. Also important are the grassroots resistance movements that are standing up to repressive and authoritarian governments in the region, like the Frente Popular in Honduras, the No Mas Sangre movement in Mexico, and the Haitians who have spoken here.

These men and women, young and old, are on the frontlines of the battle for a new way of living in society and in the world. Indigenous movements like the Zapatistas that brought to the fore concepts of autonomy and power as something from within, not above; the CONAIE and Ecuadorean movements with the idea of Buen Vivir and the rights of nature, now in the Constitution; Honduran feminists who insist that their demands form part of the resistance movements?they’re leading the way in imagining and fighting for new civilizing and inclusive philosophies.

Their movements challenge how we think about our world and our relationship to it, and provide new concepts and practices that can potentially bring us back from the multiple crises we face?the real possibility of economic, environmental and social collapse. If in the past we worked in solidarity to change U.S. policy toward a region in crisis, today we work in tandem to change the policies that have led a world into crisis.

We no longer look to Latin America to save it; we look to Latin America to help save ourselves.

This completely changes the way we think about solidarity. It’s not about us helping them. It’s about joining forces to help all of us. It’s about linking lives and minds to conceive of life-sustaining alternatives and to make space for ourselves to build them, creating physical spaces and political spaces in this all-enveloping global system.

It’s still true, especially in countries that are suffering the brunt of repression, that they need our help. As Perla de la Rosa told us, for places like Ciudad Juarez?in the grip of fear that is not just media-induced, but rooted in the violence of everyday life?we have room to act that they don’t have.

Or women human rights defenders in Mexico and Central America. Most of us have protections that they lack, and their exposure to risk must be our cue to embrace them. We also have a responsibility to act because the U.S. government actively supports the regimes that threaten them and because they suffer the consequences of military aggression and resistance doubly.

But mostly, solidarity is self-interest these days. It’s self-preservation, just not in the individualist sense pushed by neoliberalism. One of the big lessons from the Latin American experience, and especially the indigenous movement, is how to understand “self” in a collective. When we do, self-preservation?both physical and spiritual or whatever you choose to call it?is a crossborder and even planetary endeavor.

This recasts “solidarity”, the idea of supporting other movements, as building strategic alliances. We either face this together or we don’t face it.

Globalization, this devouring and dehumanizing system, has actually done us a big favor in this respect. We don’t have to convince people of our interconnectedness. We don’t have to make a case that what happens in other countries affects us.

Workers know how corporations use underpaid workers in other countries to affect them. Farmers know how global imports and exports distort their markets and displace small farmers all over. Our communities are made up in large part of people forced to migrate by conflicts or land grabs generated by an economic system that grows by always taking more and leaving less.

Seeing solidarity as strategic alliances also provides a great opportunity to get rid of the vestiges of paternalism in our movements. There is still way too often a Washington-centric attitude ?even among progressives? of helping countries and peoples with their problems at the same time as we’re causing them.

It promotes a focus on supposedly removing the speck from the neighbors’ eye while ignoring the log in your own, leaving everybody blind.

Again, the drug war is a classic example. The Merida Initiative funds U.S. interests to train security forces, provide intelligence and war technology, give advice on reforming the justice and penal systems and promoting human rights?all in Mexico. The best thing we could do in the U.S. would be to reduce the demand that funds cartels through health programs and legalization, stop the corruption and money-laundering here, and, most of all, end the drug war that has ignited the violence.

The drug war is a model designed to repress populations and militarize other countries. You can’t improve it; it has to be replaced. That’s why we have to END the Merida Initiative.

Again, it’s a Zapatista idea that points the way to changing from a solidarity model to a model of strategic alliances. They said don’t just support us, don’t copy us?create zapatismo in your own communities. For example, if we began to live by the principles of Buen Vivir in the world’s most voracious consumer economy, transnationals’ markets would shrink and pressure on natural resources in poor countries would diminish. If we lived as if nature had rights; if we incorporated into our daily lives the idea that inequality is a social ill and not an individual moral failing; if we built new communities; if instead of debating different forms of intervention, we simply held our government to the Hippocratic oath of “DO NO HARM”?imagine the impact on the rest of the world.

There’s a lot of strength in this room. There is a lot of experience and knowledge and conviction. We’re faith-based organizations, student organizations, women’s organizations, we’re local groups and if we work at it we could become a new kind of organization that we haven’t yet imagined.

We have to realize though that our strength is not in this room. We gain strength by gathering like this and learning from each other, but our strength to make real change has to be built back home.

We’ve been talking about how to do that, mostly on an issue-to-issue basis. A lot of good ideas have arisen. But changing the concept of solidarity to one of building strategic alliances against a global system really turns the whole thing on its head. What if instead of asking, ‘how do we reach down to people with our issues?’ We ask: ‘how do we offer a hand to people who are reaching up? for change, for justice, for basic needs? at home and abroad?’

I think sometimes we can be as top-down as the processes we criticize, in the way we define agendas and interact with our communities. We’ve gotten much better at listening to counterparts in Latin America, but we’re still behind in listening to our own communities, especially the poor, the LGBT community, migrants, Latinos and African Americans.

When we’re talking about forging global alliances, these sectors are critical actors, and they’re on the receiving end of intense government and media campaigns to isolate, divide and foment hatred. Sometimes we rely on them for mobilizations, especially women, but we aren’t always there in their housing fights and battles for public education in our own communities because of the way our political vision has been fragmented into individual issues.

We can’t sit back and say, “I’m doing what’s right, and if the rest of you don’t join in it’s because you’re deluded”.

No, it’s because we’re not doing our job right. That kind of complacency condemns our movements for change to the backwaters of moral righteousness and utter inefficacy. It should be our job to include everybody in these new global alliances. That means seeing how our issues ? domestic and foreign?connect. Taking as the starting point the needs of the excluded, the exploited and the repressed. Making women visible and, even more important, integrating gender equity fully into a global justice agenda.

We’ve been talking about militarism as something apart from domestic policy. If ever there was a time when we had a chance to show the links between a war economy and an anti-poor people economy, this is it. Who is building the bridges between these issues? Who is standing up to say that the choice between being safe and being fed is a false one, that the real issue is who will be safe and who will be fed (and who will be killed and who will starve) if this march toward disaster keeps on?

Finally, when I say that solidarity must give way to strategic alliances, it’s not to deny the role of empathy. Not at all. I know in large part that it’s the depth of your empathy that keeps this movement alive and keeps it crossing borders.

Last January, we held a binational demonstration between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua. I asked the student organizer on the El Paso side if she was worried about “spillover violence” from Mexico. She said what I expected, that there was no evidence of spillover violence, that El Paso has one of the lowest homicide rates in the country, and that the phrase had become a media meme to promote the militarization of the southwest border.

Then she said something that surprised me. She said, but there is spillover violence. These are our families and friends in Ju?rez who are living in fear and with bloodshed. In many ways we’re one city divided by a border.

“The violence spills over into our hearts.”

The human connections between us, the ‘spillover violence in our hearts’, this necessary union between strategic alliance and empathy?this is the core and the strength of our work to reject militarization in the Hemisphere.

Solidarity may be dead, but something much deeper can be born of it. A recognition of the borderless nature of the threats we face and, also, of our humanity.

Laura Carlsen is director of the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy in Mexico City at

Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program in Mexico City and advisor to Just Associates (JASS) .