H-Diplo Article Review 1171: Keeley on Riley, “Solidarity and the City"

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H-Diplo Article Review 1171

23 March 2023

Keith Riley. “Solidarity and the City: U.S. Municipal Politics and Salvadoran Revolution.” Diplomatic History 46: 5 (2022): 901-928. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/dh/dhac059

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Thomas Maddux | Production Editor: Christopher Ball

Review by Theresa Keeley, University of Louisville

In “Solidarity and the City: U.S. Municipal Politics and Salvadoran Revolution,” Keith Riley shows how US solidarity organizations worked “collaboratively” with local government officials to not only raise awareness of US foreign policy toward El Salvador, but also to mobilize local support for El Salvador’s leftist revolutionary project (903). In doing so, activists and politicians sought to transform local people’s way of thinking about international issues. Riley focuses on efforts in Berkeley, California, and especially the sister city relationship it established with San Antonio Los Ranchos, El Salvador, in 1983. By 1986, other cities had followed Berkeley’s lead, adopting sister cities and sending support to revolutionary communities in El Salvador’s Chalatenango region. Riley links this 1980s activism back to the 1960s and nods to how activists later used similar models to support efforts in Nicaragua, in South Africa to oppose apartheid, and in Palestine. To support his claims, Riley engages with scholarship on Central America activism and broader Third World solidarity efforts,[1] and he incorporates interviews he conducted with key players, including former Berkeley mayor Eugene “Gus” Newport.

As Riley explains, many activists became involved with local government after the late 1960s, so that by 1980 progressive, and even socialist, leaders held elected office. In Berkeley, Mayor Newport was a former member of Malcolm X’s Organization of Afro-American Unity. He was first elected in 1979 with the backing of the progressive Berkeley Citizens Action (BCA) group. In 1984, eight of nine city council members were part of BCA. Berkeley was not unique, as socialist Bernie Sanders served as mayor of Burlington, Vermont from 1981 to 1989.

Leaders like Newport shared the desire of activists to use local government “as a site of power that could be projected beyond the United States” (902). During the 1970s, activists and city council members advocated for “city provisions endorsing South Vietnam’s Provisional Revolutionary Government and US student activists’ collaborative peace plan known as the ‘People’s Peace Treaty,’ and allocating city funds towards rebuilding North Vietnamese hospitals” (906). This approach of “supporting revolutionary allies” was a precursor to Berkeley’s relationship with San Antonio Los Ranchos (906).

Outside of government, organizations such as CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) pursued solidarity efforts. Like many of the activists-turned-local government officials of the 1980s, many CISPES members had been involved with international solidarity politics, including the anti-war movement. Formed in 1980, Riley explains, CISPES began as a US-based effort to build support for Communist guerrilla fighters in El Salvador. CISPES had 300 US chapters and one of its notable campaigns of 1982-1983 involved ballot measures, including one in San Francisco, calling for an end to US aid to El Salvador. The goal was to build a movement by raising awareness, not necessarily for the measure to be approved.  

These common interests among politicians and activists were evident in support for El Salvador. Since Mayor Newport’s early days in office, CISPES had shared close ties with Berkeley Citizens Action. There was membership overlap between CISPES and BCA. Oakland/Berkeley CISPES organized campaign phone banks and door-to-door visits for Newport’s reelection, while Berkeley Citizens Action “endorsed CISPES’s demonstrations” (910). In 1983, a CISPES organizer in Berkeley founded NEST (New El Salvador Today) to raise money for zones of local popular power (PPL), “a system of governance defined by resident-led Popular Assemblies and the collective sharing of community resources” (901). NEST saw its material aid as a way of “laying the groundwork for a future, more egalitarian El Salvador” (916). It worked with Mayor Gus Newport to establish a sister city relationship with San Antonio Los Ranchos in July 1983. Newport later served on NEST’s board, continuing the links between the mayor, and by extension BCA, and Salvadoran-focused solidarity organizations.

But the sister city relationship was soon called into question, as residents abandoned San Antonio Los Ranchos. In August 1983, a month after the sister city relationship was formed, Salvadorans fled San Antonio Los Ranchos in search of safety from the air war. NEST, however, did not share the news with Berkeley residents until seven months later, in March 1984. Some people were disappointed, especially knowing that $14,000 had been raised, but others recommitted to the relationship. The mayor called for a Congressional investigation into the bombing of civilians, while “hundreds gathered in downtown Berkeley” in a show of support (919). The City Council “reaffirmed its sister city relationship” (919).  

The following year, Newport and three activists, one from NEST and two from CISPES, traveled to Chalatenango to highlight the war’s impact on civilians. Although a military attack prevented the group from reaching San Antonio Los Ranchos, the four heard first-hand accounts of the war during their week in El Salvador and their “trip received widespread press coverage” (922). The move showed continued solidarity, especially as it occurred a month after Berkeley voted to become a sanctuary city. Two years later, in 1987, the sister city relationship continued to evolve as Salvadorans began to return from refugee camps to repopulate Chalatenango, including San Antonio Los Ranchos.

“Solidarity and the City” makes several key interventions. First, Riley’s article contributes to the understanding of the influence of the 1960s. Scholars such as Van Gosse and Robert Surbrug have linked Central America solidarity activism to the 1960s.[2] Riley widens the scope of those shaped by earlier activism to include elected officials. He also analyzes how this shared experience with international solidarity fostered cooperation between organizations and politicians in the 1980s regarding El Salvador.  

Second, Riley demonstrates the importance of local activism in both Central America solidarity efforts and progressive politics in the 1980s. Riley’s approach contrasts with scholarship that centers Central America policymaking and lobbying in Washington, DC.[3] Rather than looking to Congress or the State Department, Berkeley residents used local means to foster international solidarity and make international connections. Efforts like Berkeley’s sister city project not only highlight the vibrancy of local activism, but also complicate a 1980s narrative of politics dominated by Reagan electoral victories. As Riley contends, during the decade “a patchwork of small college towns and medium-sized cities became bastions of international, progressive politics” (906).  

Despite the collaboration between activists and officials Riley emphasizes, I wonder about the power dynamics between Californians and Salvadorans. Riley argues that the campaigns to support resettlement in Chalatenango and other areas of El Salvador “emerged not out of pity, but rather out of political support for the inspiring projects of El Salvador’s progressive communities” (927). Despite the best efforts of Berkeley residents not to engage in a charity campaign, isn’t it possible that a desire to support a revolutionary project could have also involved some aspect of paternalism?

Riley’s work also piqued my interest in Berkeley’s other sister city relationships and the city’s involvement in foreign affairs, two topics that fall beyond the scope of the article. How, if at all, did the motivation to connect with San Antonio Los Ranchos influence Berkeley’s later sister city relationships? Did this activist-politician collaboration play a role in later activism, such as Berkley’s sanctions on Burma in 1995? How would Riley compare Berkeley’s relationship with San Antonio Los Ranchos to other state officials’ foreign engagements at the time? While Berkeley residents and politicians initiated a sister-city relationship to foster El Salvador’s revolutionary project, state officials in Florida traveled to Haiti and sent “bureaucrats and business executives” in the hopes of creating jobs and thereby discouraging further immigration to the Sunshine State.[4]  

With “Solidarity and the City” Riley makes an important contribution to the understanding of Central America solidarity efforts, collaboration between activists and politicians, and the use of local politics to engage people on international issues. Scholars of Central America, Third World internationalism, and local politics will find much of interest in the article.


Theresa Keeley is an associate professor of the US and the World at the University of Louisville. Her first book, Reagan’s Gun-Toting Nuns: The Catholic Conflict over Cold War Human Rights Policy in Central America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2020) won the 2020 Juan E. Méndez Award and the 2021 John Gilmary Shea Prize. Her work has appeared in publications including Diplomatic History, Gender & History, U.S. Catholic History, and the Washington Post. Her current project examines how doctors and activists used medical aid to children to challenge US foreign policy on moral and religious grounds. Before entering academia, she was a human rights activist and attorney.


[1] Christian Smith, Resisting Reagan: The U.S. Central America Peace Movement (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996); Sharon Erickson Nepstad, Convictions of the Soul: Religion, Culture, and Agency in the Central America Solidarity Movement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); Roger Peace, A Call to Conscience: The Anti-Contra War Campaign (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012); Theresa Keeley, Reagan’s Gun-Toting Nuns: The Catholic Conflicts Over Cold War Human Rights Policy in Central America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2020); Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, Radicals on the Road: Internationalism, Orientalism, and Feminism During the Vietnam Era (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013); Sean L. Malloy, Out of Oakland: Black Panther Party Internationalism During the Cold War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2017); Johanna Fernández, The Young Lords: A Radical History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina 2020).

[2] Van Gosse, “‘The North American Front’: Central American Solidarity in the Reagan Era,” in Mike Davis and Michael Sprinker, eds., Reshaping the U.S. Left: Popular Struggles in the 1980s (New York: Verso, 1988): 11–50; Van Gosse, “‘El Salvador Is Spanish for Vietnam’: The New Immigrant Left and the Politics of Solidarity,” in Paul Buhle and Dan Georgakas, eds., The Immigrant Left in the United States (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996): 302–329; Robert Surbrug, Jr., Beyond Vietnam: The Politics of Protest in Massachusetts, 1974–1990 (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009).

[3] For discussions of a DC-centered story, see Cynthia Arnson, Crossroads: Congress, the President, and Central America, 1976-1993, 2nd ed. (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993); William M. LeoGrande, Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977-1992 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000). 

[4] Art Harris, “Boatlift Bloat Sends Angry Florida Officials into Tropical Politics,” Washington Post, December 22, 1981, A2.