In 1974, a group of Latin America activists braved an increasingly repressive political climate to found Servicio Paz y Justicia (Service for Peace and Justice or SERPAJ). This gospel-inspired movement is dedicated to building "a just and fraternal society,...rooted in an option for the marginalized and impoverished" through active nonviolence.
Today, the network includes national chapters in 11 Latin American countries. SERPAJ has consultative status at the United Nations, and one of its leaders, Luis Prez Aguirre, is special adviser on human rights to U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Increasingly it is recognized as a key Latin American organization in the ongoing struggle to promote and defend human rights.
In a post-Cold War era, with military dictatorships replaced by struggling democracies, SERPAJ faces a new set of challenges. The "disappearance" of political activists at the hands of security forces is no longer a daily occurrence. Today the key threat is the increasing disappearance-right off the economic map-of the region's poor majority.
Structural adjustment programs imposed by international lending institutions and other elements of the "free market" model pushed by the United States and other countries are robbing the marginalized of the opportunity to participate as either producers or consumers. In numerous countries, more than half of the population lacks stable employment. And access to such basic services as health care and education is being reduced as government budgets shrink in accordance with International Monetary Fund dictums.
Denouncing existing wrongs is easier than proposing viable economic alternatives. However, SERPAJ points (without offering pat models) to several elements of such alternatives that have emerged from the struggle of the poor. Basic human needs must be prioritized and the promotion of consumer desires that can only be fulfilled for a few must be rejected. Economic development needs to be community-based and sustainable, in contrast to an unaccountable global economy. And economic alternatives that defend and expand the space for popular participation in decision making help to overcome the limitations of what SERPAJ refers to as the "formal" democracies in the region.
The national chapters of SERPAJ represent a remarkable diversity in terms of the problems they face, the resources they have to draw on, and the programmatic responses they have developed. In Mexico they may work with Indian peasants in Chiapas, in Nicaragua with prison inmates, in Bolivia with shantytown dwellers, and in Uruguay and Ecuador with public school teachers.
The values of human rights and active nonviolence lend a commonality to otherwise disparate experiences. And just as the situation of the marginalized is the starting point in each case, so too their emergence as the subjects, the makers, of their own history is a shared objective.
CURRENT PROGRAMS include a central emphasis on education to promote a better understanding of the full range of human rights, including social, political, and economic rights. Training is provided in nonviolent action and community conflict resolution to empower people for democratic participation. And demilitarization initiatives aim to shrink the long shadow that the military continues to cast over weak democratic institutions.
The Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and the Resource Center for Nonviolence have worked over the last dozen years to promote collaboration between SERPAJ and U.S. groups. Such efforts include speaking tours of SERPAJ leaders; Voluntarios Solidarios, which places U.S. volunteers with SERPAJ and other organizations in Latin America; the Campaign for a Free Panama, a joint effort of FOR and SERPAJ Panama to ensure the withdrawal of U.S. military bases in Panama and their successful economic conversion to benefit that country's poor majority (a delegation will visit Panama in May); and an urgent action network that supports nonviolent organizing initiatives in Latin America.
The solidarity generated by such programs is a two-way street that nourishes and sustains activists in both North and South. For more information about SERPAJ or about these programs, contact: SERPAJ, Casilla 8667, Guayaquil, Ecuador, or FOR Task Force on Latin America and the Caribbean, 515 Broadway, Santa Cruz, CA; (408) 423-1626.
PHILIP MCMANUS is Latin America Program Coordinator at the Resource Center for Nonviolence in Santa Cruz and chair of the FOR Task Force on Latin America and the Caribbean. He is co-editor of Relentless Persistence-Nonviolent Action in Latin America (New Society Publishers, 1991).