An organization in the US with long, historic ties to El Salvador's left, is warning that the US government is harrassing it. The Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) has denounced a letter it received from the US Justice Department which asks CISPES to provide information about its relationship with the FMLN and the presidential campaign of Mauricio Funes so that the Justice Department can determine if CISPES must register as an "agent of a foreign principal" under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
The Justice Department letter states:
It has come to our attention through published accounts in The Washington Post and numerous online sources including your organization's public web page,... that the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN), and/or possibly its candidate for El Salvador’s 2009 presidential election, Mauricio Funes, hired your organization for the purposes of conducting a public relations media campaign to include political fundraising which may require your registration under the Foreign Agents Registration Act...
(The Washington Post article which I highlighted in a post last December never mentions CISPES at all).
Burke Stansbury, executive director of CISPES, was quoted in a piece on the website of PoliticalAffairs.net describing CISPES' response to the letter:
"Everything they have asserted in this letter is categorically false," Stansbury emphatically stated.
CISPES has a relationship with FMLN, Stansbury continued, just as it has relationships with El Salvadoran labor unions, women's groups, and campesino organizations. "But it is by no means a relationship of foreign agency, as they call it," he said.
Stansbury described the DOJ letter as politically motivated and aimed at suppressing opposition to Bush administration policies.
"I would characterize it as an attempt to focus in on CISPES as an actor in what is playing out as a pretty important political struggle right now in Latin America," he suggested.
Stansbury referred to the emergence of left-wing and social reform minded administrations recently elected to power in several Latin American countries....
"I would suggest that this letter is coming more from the State Department than the Justice Department," said Stansbury. "It's a message to CISPES and to the people in this country who would support the self-determination and the progress of these progressive movements in Latin America. It's a message that we should back off and they're going to be watching our actions."
To be sure, CISPES probably left itself open to this type of interpretation by the Justice Department. Consider this press release sent out by CISPES on December 17, 2007 in connection with Funes visit to the US. The press release describes Funes' candidacy for the presidency in El Salvador as the candidate for the FMLN, describes events at which Funes will be present, and lists the executive director of CISPES as a contact person if the press has inquiries. On the surface, this press release could be read to bring CISPES within the language of this definition of a foreign agent in the statute:
1) any person who acts ... at the ... request ... of a foreign principal...and who directly or through any other person--
(ii) acts within the United States as a public relations counsel, publicity agent, information-service employee or political consultant for or in the interests of such foreign principal; (22 U. S. C. §611(b)).
The question becomes, did the FMLN or Funes "request" CISPES to send out the press release. If it did, then arguably CISPES falls within the definition in the law. Is it harassment for the Justice Department to ask CISPES if there was a request or a contract?
CISPES responded to the Justice Department on February 19, 2008 stating that CISPES had no relationship with the FMLN which would require registration and had no contracts with the FMLN to turn over. There is no word on whether the Justice Department has taken any action since that point.
Bottom line -- there's no doubt that CISPES has a long relationship in solidarity with the FMLN and with other social organizations in El Salvador, and there's no question who CISPES wants to win in the upcoming elections. But that doesn't make CISPES a foreign agent, and it is acting within its free speech rights to tell the world that CISPES believes a president from the FMLN is best for El Salvador.