Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES)

Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES)


The Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) is a national, U.S.-based organization that high-ranking Salvadoran Communist Party (SCP) members and Cuban intelligence officials (operating out of the United Nations) established in October 1980 to oppose American intervention in the Salvadoran civil war. From its inception, CISPES was closely affiliated with the Soviet-controlled World Peace Council. The principal organizer of CISPES was Faris Handal, brother of SCP general secretary Shafik Handal. Another key player was Sandy Pollack, a member of the Communist Party USA‘s central committee and an “international solidarity coordinator” with the U.S. Peace Council.

The Salvadoran war pitted that nation’s existing elected government against the FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front), a coalition of Marxist-Leninist guerrillas. In an effort to stem the tide of Communism in Central America, the Reagan administration backed El Salvador’s government with financial aid and military equipment. According to CISPES, this was one of the numerous “dirty wars” that the U.S. was supporting around the world.

When thousands of refugees fled the violence in El Salvador and migrated illegally to the United States, CISPES advocated for their right to receive sanctuary there. The Committee also attempted to influence American public opinion through what it called “a frenzy of mass protest and visibility campaigns” coupled with disinformation initiatives, even as it raised money for the FMLN guerrillas who it said were “fighting for a democratic revolution.”

In September 1981, the FBI launched an investigation into whether CISPES was acting as an agent (or a front) for the FMLN or other Salvadoran rebel groups, and thereby violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Ultimately, the Bureau could not prove that CISPES was controlled by a foreign entity, and the case was closed in February 2002.

In March 1983 the FBI opened a second investigation of CISPES, which by then had grown to include more than 300 regional chapters. This time, the focus was on whether CISPES was providing any type of support for terrorist activities by the FMLN and its affiliated Revolutionary Democratic Front. The new investigation hinged mostly on information supplied by a Salvadoran informant named Frank Varelli, who told the FBI that CISPES had been giving money, food, clothing, medicine, and military assistance to the FMLN. Moreover, in 1984 Varelli wrote: “During my investigation I discovered and duly reported several well- planned efforts by some members of CISPES with world-wide Communist coordination to make an attempt against the life of President Reagan at the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas.” On another occasion, Varelli stated: “CISPES is a Russian KGB ‘active measures front’ founded by Farid Handal, brother of Shafik Handal, the Secretary General of the Communist Party of El Salvador. Both are of Palestinian ancestry and closely related to the PLO of Yasser Arafat. The Communist Party USA played a key role in the founding and direction of CISPES.”

But Varelli eventually changed his story, telling CBS News in 1987: “CISPES is nothing of what the … FBI had said. CISPES is a group of religious individuals … that want, because of religious reasons… to help the Salvadoran people.” Ultimately the FBI concluded that Varelli was an unreliable source, and that it could not prove CISPES to be a terrorist group.

In 1988 the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a lawsuit on behalf of CISPES against the FBI, for the latter’s infiltration and surveillance of CISPES. That same year, CISPES’s Chicago chapter initiated a separate lawsuit demanding that its FBI records be sealed. After almost ten years of litigation, the FBI agreed to discard its CISPES-related files and paid $190,000 to cover the plaintiffs’ attorney fees.

In the 1990s and onwards, CISPES continued to spread disinformation designed to discredit America and help the Communist cause in El Salvador, such as the allegation that U.S. military advisers in that country were training their allies in the use of torture techniques.

Since its inception, CISPES has sent more than 2,000 activists on delegations to El Salvador to engage in a wide variety of activities—e.g., to march in labor demonstrations; camp out at politically significant sites; mourn at funeral vigils honoring “martyrs from the popular movement”; and observe political elections. Within the United States, CISPES activists have: disrupted posh receptions for Salvadoran government representatives; blocked a Salvadoran presidential motorcade at the United Nations; shut down the Federal Building in Los Angeles; driven CIA recruiters off of a college campus in Colorado; reenacted (in New York) alleged death-squad assassinations; marked government buildings in Chicago with bloody handprints; blocked freeway traffic in Seattle; disrupted congressional debates in Washington; blockaded a Naval Weapons Station in the Bay Area; added a “bomb” balloon to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York; and blocked all entrances to the Pentagon in 1988.

Condemning U.S. efforts to “expand their economic war against the poor of the Americas” and “increase militarization to guarantee corporate interests,” CISPES today “joins the peoples of the world who are struggling against rampant U.S. imperialism [and] fighting against the U.S. government’s wars … around the world, while also fighting against the free trade policies of CAFTA, the FTAA, and the WTO….”

A noteworthy former member of CISPES is Lori Berenson, who was with the organization from approximately 1989-91.

For additional information on CISPES, click here.

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