Ivan's Place
In honor of the greatest moralist who never lived
Copyright © 2004 by Bill Becker

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La Marcha Introduction and Table of Contents

Encounter with Local Communities and Media Coverage
by Ron Ridenour
La Marcha Press Secretary, Group 3 organizer

Introductory Remarks by Ron Ridenour

This report was originally written just after the march for a book, which some of us from the Danish delegation wrote:
Peace Invasion: Mood pictures from a peace march in Central America, Mellemfolkeligt Samvirke, Copenhagen, 1986.)

I have rewritten it for Bill Becker's website, and have added reflections for the 20th year commemoration, December 2005.

(My thanks to Ron for his informative contribution to the site. I have reformatted his text slightly for ease of reading on a web page.
— B.B.)

Having immigrated to Denmark from Los Angeles, California, in 1980, I came in contact with the Norwegian initiators of the march idea to support the Contadora process in Central America. This group, led by Torill Eide, incorporated me to organize a Danish contingent, establish contact with potential United States groups, conduct the media work, and assist in organizing support committees in the Central American countries. The ten months I was involved—three of them full time—in preparations and in fulfilling the march were the most personally rewarding and frustrating times of my political life since 1960.

Those of us who marched will recall the internal differences and conflicts with a sour taste, but we also feel positive that we did pull it off. That reality was to the benefit, especially, of the peoples of Central America, the vast majority of whom supported the Contadora process for peace (if they knew of it).

Our solidarity efforts inspired many people in the poverty-torn, conflict-ridden Central America region. Contadora initiators were encouraged to take these reasonable and just peace proposals as far as they could. Four other South American governments (Peru, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina) joined with Panama, Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia in the Contadora process. They presented Secretary of State George Schultz, on February 10, 1986, with their demands for dialogue and peace. These governments represented 85% of the peoples of Latin America.

But majority will and just programs were not strong enough to shape reality in face of the world's mightiest military power. Unfortunately, we did not stop the Yankees from crushing the Contadora proposals, the Sandinista revolutionary government and the liberation movement in El Salvador. But today, Yankee imperialism is once again being hard pressed by many peoples and even reform-oriented governments in much of Latin America. La lucha sigue!


We involved many people from various sectors of life in each Central American land where we marched and rode in locally rented buses. Together with nationals, we had organized local and national welcoming committees, which, in some instances, took on their own life of protest against national oppression and aggressive war by the United States (especially in El Salvador).

Marchers encountered their first local committee in Panama City. It had been hastily put together just two weeks before the arrival of over 300 people from 25 countries. The committee was comprised mostly of activists in the governing Social Democratic party, socialists and the National Council for Self-determination and Peace.

There were also representatives from unions and small ethnic groups. The support committee arranged for local activities, lodgings, food and transport. Activity to engage Panamanians in the march itself was sparse. But when the march traveled to Costa Rica where it confronted organized hostility from both the government and right-wing organizations, the Panamanian support committee decided to become permanent, in order to strengthen the Contadora process, which had its beginnings in that country.

We began officially on December 10, 1985. Panama's Contadora chief spokesperson, Jorge Illueca, welcomed us in this common effort to find solutions to conflicts without war. Novelist Graham Greene, a good friend of the deceased (probably murdered by US agents) President Omar Torrijos, greeted us as well. March representatives met with the presidential administration, ambassadors from several nations and local personages. We were also confronted with right-wing subversion, such as a counterfeited leaflet put out in our name. But most of the society was with us.

In the several days we were in Panama, we had training sessions in non-violence, in local customs and monitoring, and we established a complicated but representatively democratic decision-making structure. Group 1 was all marchers divided into national groups where people discussed everything in their own language. Group 2 was made up one or two representatives from each country in Group 1. They were to take decisions and pass them on to Group 3, which was to implement them. This body of nine persons knew the Central America area and could speak Spanish, or they were march initiators without regional skills, such as Torill Eide.

In reality, Group 3 had more influence than simply implementation. It contained the three spokespersons, made liaison with media and national leaders, and made proposals to group 2. But Group 3 was divided over essential questions and this confused marchers and the entire decision-making process. Most crucial for the march was the disunity over collective versus individual leadership. Although it was established in the beginning planning stages in Norway, Denmark and Vienna that there must be collective leadership, a few of the leaders often disregarded this in practice. In addition to all these groups and meetings, there were also informative general assemblies.

So we had too many meetings and a good deal of chaos; nothing happened "on time"; many people were not able to get sufficient sleep due to late night socializing by some national groups and early rising drum-beating Japanese monks. There was also internal conflict from the start about how to approach opposition, how to and who should meet the press, how to interact with local peoples, different habits and food demands, religious-pacifists opposed to Marxist-socialist march participation, feminists outraged with some men.

(Most of these differences were never fully resolved but we managed to survive through the six weeks, although some people did quit the march before completion: some because they could not take the internal dissension; some because we spent too little time in meeting with local groups. Midway in Nicaragua, we changed the decision-making process by eliminating group 1 and making all major decisions in one collective assembly—direct vote. Group 3 still functioned mainly as before but with less power. We became better integrated from Guatemala to the end, generally.)


Panama's media reported extensively on the march, and much of it was fair about our presence and goals. Even four out of the five television channels gave fair coverage, including interviews with march representatives. But some of the media slung the Traditional red-baiting diatribes at us. There were even paid advertisements with our logo but with slogans not our own. Nevertheless, the pattern was established in Panama for massive coverage throughout Central America and Europe, while editors in the United States routinely trashed most reports from their reporters-on-the-spot.


"We support the International Peace March for human rights, self-determination and solidarity with the peoples of Central America. The Peace March...seeks peaceful solutions to the political, economic and military conflicts."

This resolution was adopted unanimously by the Socialist International secretariat, meeting in Vienna, in October 1985. One of its organizations was Costa Rica's National Liberal Party (PLN). Its leader, Luis Alberto Monges, was the nation's current president. Despite this pledge, Monges caved in to the CIA and national right-wing pressure as the march got underway two months later.

They tried to prevent our entry but when we managed to negotiate a border crossing anyway, we were met with violence.

The day before we were to bus into Costa Rica, we received word that the government refused to allow my entry. I had recently been in Costa Rica to organize a national committee (CODEPAZ, Committee for Democratic Peace Organizations) and spark interest in the media.

While preparations had been initiated, and media coverage had been largely successful (until the march arrived), the national right-wing, Nicaraguan contras based there, and the CIA convinced the presidency that cutting me off the march would be a useful tactic to antagonize and split. I was the only organizer who was a professed marxist-revolutionary. This tactic did create internal dissension. Some people wanted to support my entry and others wanted me ousted. I backed out for the Costa Rica part of the march for the sake of unity and eventual permission to conduct some kind of march presence. The Panamanian committee arranged for me to fly to Nicaragua where I rejoined the march. Since I was not in Costa Rica, I recommend you read Blase Bonpane's report elsewhere on this website.


Marchers were warmly received crossing the border into Nicaragua. I met them from the Nicaraguan frontier as they were embraced by the national support committee, Conipaz, and national leaders.

We spent the longest time of the march in Nicaragua, because the undemocratic governments of Honduras and El Salvador, under influence from the United States, refused to allow our entry. We protested in front of the US embassy, and marchers met with their national embassy representatives to have them put diplomatic pressure on the governments. Many states' leaders did voice support for our march or, at least, our right to democratically protest. But the doors were closed.

Most of the time we were in Nicaragua was spent camping at the Honduran border. During the day, we sat, stood, picketed, sang, shouted, performed street theater right at the drawn line between the two sparring nations. In the evenings, we slept in tents just meters from the border.

We also held many discussions with many meanings on how to complete our mission to march (mostly ride) through each of the seven Central American countries (Belize excluded). We met with local people and some organizations throughout our long stay, but did not fulfill our objective of doing real fact-finding with specific sectors, such as unions, university students and professors, the justice system. We were too often bogged down in our own decision-making process and internal conflicts.

We also had difficulties with our local committee, Conipaz, which, in reality, amounted to two or three paid persons assigned to be with the march. They were not very open for cooperating in the informative and debating process. They would sometimes reject certain proposals with no explanation. I think they were overwhelmed by the sight and noise of so many nationals jabbering in so many languages and from so many differing viewpoints. We marchers were a burden for them and local people, who were suffering a brutal aggressive war, in which the United States trained contra-revolutionaries systematically tortured peasants and captured Sandinista soldiers in the most horrible of ways. People were quite naturally on edge, yet they were generally very friendly.


Stuck on the border with a march planned to start in El Salvador by Salvadorians waiting for us, we had to find a way forward. If we, mostly whites from the "first world", were not present, the Salvadorian military and death squads would certainly injure, kill and jail local marchers. It was imperative that we were there. I came up with an idea to take local launches from Potosi, a little town on the northwest coast of Nicaragua, across the Gulf of Fonseca to La Union, on El Salvador's southeast corner.

Some people thought this would be too dangerous, in part, because the boats were too "primitive". These six-meter long, narrow dug-outs with motors were used daily by Nicaraguans and El Salvadorian peasants and workers. Why couldn't we survive the four-hour trip as well? Some marchers thought El Salvador's militarists and/or Nicaraguan contras might fire upon us. They considered the idea too "bizarre", "adventurist", "provocative". I seriously doubted that the U.S. would itself, or would allow its puppet government and its contras, to fire upon the media. Blase Bonpane cited the Gulf of Tonkin incident, a Johnson administration concocted provocation to invade Vietnam, as an argument against the idea.

But there was no media at the Gulf of Tonkin. Blase was the U.S. delegation leader and, along with Torill Eide, a spokesperson-diplomat, while I was a spokesperson for local arrangements and media contact. I had arranged for major press and television, including CBS, AP, Reuters, to come with us on the launches. Media coverage would help advance the cause of the march, show up the lack of democracy in El Salvador, and the U.S. disdain for peace.

But before we put the idea to a final vote, Group 3 sent me to investigate further. I made contact with launch operators at Potosi. They would take us and we agreed to a price. I got a North American marcher to come there for last minute preparations. Then I tried to find the meeting place where the nation's leaders were gathered to ask their opinion. Conipaz representatives were opposed. I could only contact one of the nine leaders. He thought the idea was, "just what you need to get out of this stagnation". But he could not guarantee how the diplomatic side of leadership would view it.

I came back to our camp and told people what I had learned. We held contentious national and then mass meetings. The alternative put forth by Blase was to abandon the "media gimmick" and the El Salvador part of our march. We could not just abandon El Salvador. The vast majority voted for the launch plan. Over half the marchers signed on to do it. We loaded onto buses and headed toward Potosi.

In the end, Nicaragua's national leadership decided to stop us as we were en route. This was understandable given that El Salvador's government contacted Nicaragua's government with the harsh message that it would not permit our launches to land, and would consider it a provocation by the Nicaraguan government. The undertone was militarily threatening. Nicaragua was under fire from Honduras, the contras, and the United States directly and indirectly. One more nation actively against them was not defensible.

(I add a personal note here, because some thought of the idea—and me—as being out of touch with reality or reason. I believe that taking risks is often necessary to advance solidarity and justice. I was not naive. I had extensive background in Latin America, having lived in several countries for many years. I knew Nicaragua well for a foreigner, having covered some of the war of liberation from there and Costa Rica, in 1978.

After the victory, I worked as a solidarity worker and journalist in the new Nicaragua. In 1984, I worked in public relations for the Sandinista Association of Cultural Workers. I also conducted interviews with several US citizens who had lived and worked in Nicaragua both during the dictatorship and with the Sandinista revolution. I was informed during the march that the manuscript was accepted by Curbstone Press (Connecticut). The theme had much to do with what our march was all about. Nicaragua's minister of culture and priest Ernesto Cardenal and Graham Greene were among those who wrote endorsements for: Yankee Sandinistas: Interviews With North Americans Living and Working in the New Nicaragua.)

Now most of us were in Managua and many marchers were trying to find funds from home bases to fly some marchers into Honduras and El Salvador as tourists. We succeeded.


The national Sandinista media reported extensively and favorably. The right-wing, pro-Yankee media, such as the major newspaper "La Prensa" either ignored our existence or reported gleefully on our setbacks, such as in Costa Rica, and being stopped from entering Honduras and El Salvador. Somehow, the refusal to allow viewpoints other than those of the warring governments was a boost to "democracy", according to "La Prensa" and the Catholic church radio stations. The international media was heavily represented: AP, UPI, Reuters, Tass, Ritzau (Denmark), Prensa Latina (Cuba), CBStv and many regional news bureaus, newspapers and radio stations. They made many reports and conducted interviews, but little was printed or broadcasted in the United States.


We succeeded "infiltrating" a small delegation of unionists. A local committee, CCOP, took care of them. They were able to visit a prison where most inmates were poor peasants, some had tried to organize collective purchasing and distribution of food, and there were a couple strike organizers. Clearly, the "democratic" government did not want people to organize themselves. There were meetings with specific groups of people: women's organizations, union leaders, peace groups, but no march could be conducted as earlier planned.

The US had a dozen bases with Green Berets, CIA operators and Cuban counter-revolutionaries training many thousands Nicaraguan contra-revolutionaries. The national military was also aggressive against Honduran peasants and workers and Nicaragua. The nation was besieged with militarism and torture.


Instead of only hostile coverage, there were many reports critical of the government's denial to admit us. There were also some interviews.


We applied the same tactic here. A dozen of us (not me) made it in and participated in the most dangerous of marches held in Central America. The national organizers, Committee for Dialogue and Peace, conducted it despite the fact that the international march as a real entity could not participate.

The committee was composed of unionists, mothers of disappeared and prisoners, and church groups. A key goal was to pressure the government to engage in dialogue with the armed liberation forces, FMLN-FDR. Five hundred people—the majority women and children—started the march from the capital city, and were followed by national and international media. A few hours out of the capital, the 14 buses were stopped by the military.

The next day, a 60 year-old peasant marcher, Brígido Beltran Sanchéz, was taken prisoner. This was an act of pure provocation aimed to split our ranks and set the media against us for being adventuristic. Beltran and his wife (they had eight children) were religious followers of Bishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, who had been murdered by a Salvadorian death squad in 1980.

Beltran was imprisoned for two weeks and tortured (hung up for many hours on end, given electric shock, narcotics, beatings), but the international attention we were able to muster—even prime ministers and royalty telegrammed protests from Europe—and media attention succeeded in getting him released.

After Beltran's arrest, the march's buses were repeatedly stopped and controlled by the military. We couldn't accomplish much. Marchers were protected by the archbishop, housed in a church cellar. But the brave people did not give up. On the last day, 2000 demonstrated before the Presidential palace, completely surrounded by military. But no one was injured or arrested.

There was some foreign criticism of the march for putting local people in jeopardy. But the local people organized their own groups and insisted on the march. They told us, time after time, and in several countries, that they are always in danger. In El Salvador and Guatemala, for instance, murdering priests and nuns is a national pastime for the military and their associated paramilitary death squad torturers. The fact that white "first world" people were on their side and marched in dangerous areas could be protection. It was also possible that once we left, some local people close to us would be endangered. But they wanted to take that risk.


Coverage was extensive throughout the nation, region and internationally, except the United States again. National media's coverage of the march was biased, of course. We were usually charged with being communists, even the march's initiator. Torill, ironically, was known for the opposite. She was an outspoken moderate social democrat and anti-communist. Nevertheless, some El Salvador media painted her as a KGB agent. But the very fact that there was some sort of march was seen as positive in the eyes of most international media.


The newly elected president, Vinicio Cerezo, desired to give the impression that Guatemala would now be democratic so he permitted us to enter. This was a victory for us and an expensive one. Since we could not drive from Honduras or El Salvador, we had to fly from Nicaragua. Participants called home to local support groups, unions and humanitarian foundations (namely, Denmark's Peace Foundation) and collected enough money so that, along with marchers' own reserves, we could all fly into Guatemala.

We were met by a few Guatemalans but we had not organized a national committee since military-death squad brutality was so omnipresent. Nevertheless, brave members of GAM—family members of "disappeared" persons—demonstrated with us for the Contadora dialogue and peace process as Cerezo was sworn into the presidency, January 14, 1986. These oppressed human beings took an enormous risk with their lives that day. (The war for liberation was not ended until 1994 when an accord for a mutual cease-fire was reached.) Here were Indians confronting former CIA director and current Vice President George Bush, who was in attendance at the presidential ceremony. The CIA and US military were training, financing and arming the Guatemala military and death squads.

Many officers had been trained in torture at the US's School of the Americas, in Fort Benning, Georgia. This center for torture and subversion had been established in 1946 at a US base in Panama. But the government (backed by military head General Manuel Noriega) kicked the base out, in 1984, under terms of the Panama Canal Treaty. President Jorge Illueca, who had spoken to us in Panama, called it, "the biggest base for destabilization in Latin America." A Panama daily dubbed the SOA, "School of Assassins".

(Roberto D'Aubuisson, the El Salvadoran founder and leader of death squads, who murdered Bishop Romero, was trained there, as was General Noriega. The Guatemalan military structure, with full US backing, was deemed responsible for 93% of the 160,000 killings and murders and 40,000 "disappearances" committed during the three decade-long war for liberation, according to the 1999 United Nations report, "Memory of Silence".

The daily brutality, applied especially against the 22 indigenous groups, was so horrendous that for the first time in history a US president came to the country (March 1999) to apologize for that "shameful" chapter in American history. While Bill Clinton said this "wrong" behavior should not again occur, he did not apologize for the fact that the US began the long tortuous years by overthrowing Guatemala's truly democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, in 1954, and establishing a fascist-military dictatorship under General Carlos Castillo Armas.)

Many of the Guatemalans who demonstrated that day shed tears of joy (and, perhaps, fear) as the entire march sang, "The whole world is watching," while militarists were whipping up a frenzied atmosphere. They threatened to jail Guatemalan marchers. But after a while the military left. It was not convenient to attack the marchers when the new president was being sworn in in front of so many foreign dignitaries and the international media. Police escorted the march through the streets and nobody was arrested.

The march continued the next day further north on the way to Mexico. It stopped at several places, including Quetzaltenango where we were greeted quite unexpectedly by the mayor; and in Huehuetenango, Indians joined the march.


Coverage was extensive and mostly positive in lands far away. But Guatemalan media, along with El Salvador and Honduras, made it look like it was GAM that was the provocateur. Some media noted that it had not been expected, after the defeats in El Salvador and Honduras, that we would be allowed to come into Guatemala. This fact, in itself, was viewed by commentators and Latin American experts as a victory for peace and fellowship.


Blase and I did not make Guatemala, because we were sent to Mexico where the national committee was in serious trouble. I had received a call from a key coordinator of the 75-organization umbrella support committee. He said I must rush there because some of them were insisting on taking up national issues in the march. Issues such as: regional strikes, a local guerrilla group demands, internal repression, refugees from Guatemala living in Mexico. We had earlier agreed to focus only on Contadora proposals, on respect for human rights, non-intervention and self-determination. Group 3 made a wise decision in sending Blase with me, because whatever solution was finally reached would then have fuller support than if I were there alone. We flew together as the marchers were on their way to Guatemala.

Blase and I met with more than 100 representatives of the many organizations. Some raised these contentious demands while others took the march's line. Blase and I were united in insisting on the original accords. It seemed that the meeting ended in accord and Blase returned to the hotel. I stayed. There was a phone call from the Interior Minister, Manuel Barlet Diaz, who asked me to come to his office late that evening. I insisted that leaders of the major organizations and political parties attend as well. Among the committee's delegates were leading members of minority parties with representation in parliament. I asked them to choose their leaders and call members of parliament not in attendance to appear at the Minister of Interior building. We must stand united.

It was one of the most dramatic moments in my life walking into the huge salon of a major repressor, a CIA favorite, with about 25 leaders of the Mexican minority parties and leftist organizations. This was a showdown. We negotiated and did not lose anything essential. I showed the minister that we would obey the long-held decision against incorporating l ocal-national issues of contention. He had not wanted us to demonstrate in Tehuantepec but agreed when I called upon each leader present to state that he would assure him that each group would abide by the accord. Even for a repressive militarist, a man's word is p urposeful to a Mexican.

We agreed not to visit Guatemalan refugees. That was an intra-national hot potato. He agreed not to send uniformed policemen or military with the march, which he preferred. We agreed to accept a handful of civilian clothes security agents, for "our own protection"—which, in fact, turned out to be the case. This was a unique experience for me, trusting paid agents of a repressive police force, but it worked.


This was the third time that the entire march crossed a border and the first time that it actually marched across a border. Blase and I waited on the Mexican side as two hundred international marchers crossed the line, and were embraced with cheers and open arms by Mexicans at Cuauhtémoc. Relief, Joy, Exhaustion and No Problems.

The national support committee had pulled off excellent organizing work, which included several local arrangements, the distribution of 200,000 leaflets and brochures for the final march, placards everywhere, and modern buses, large and comfortable enough that we could sleep as we traveled to the capital city. We boarded the Mexican buses and drove to San Cristobal de las Casas where we were met by hundreds of people, including Bishop Samuel Ruiz. We were lodged in a Catholic school with clean water and showers. We did not visit the nearby refugee camps as agreed but we made our presence known by walking on nearby hillsides.

Driving further, we stopped at many small villages and cities: Tuxtla Gutierréz, Juchitán, Tehuantepec, Puebla. We were always met with warm hands and warm homemade food. The short marches we conducted in some cities grew into the thousands, such as in Tehuantepec and Puebla. There were gala dancing parties every evening, and also meetings, including yet another with splitting overtones.

When we came to Mexico City, we were met by thousands of people with colorfully homemade banners, flowers and white flags. Fifty thousand people marched on the last day, January 23. The largest demonstration in many years in Mexico. We marched from Juarez Monument to Chapultepec Park to the Monument of Niños Heroes where Archbishop Mendéz Arceo held the concluding speech. It felt like the whole world was in agreement: peace now!

Among the demonstrators were many members of parliament and leaders of some of the nine political parties in parliament. The entire parliament, from left-wing to right-wing, had endorsed the march in a resolution of support passed unanimously on December 22, 1985.

There was very little trouble. Only a couple times did some extremists try to enter the march with slogans, which we had agreed would not be tolerated. And the civilian-clothed security people were loyal to our agreement. They let our monitors deal with the situation. When we reached the US Embassy, I stopped and shouted "murderers". It seemed like the whole march joined in. Mexicans' lungs vented their more than century-long history of suffering under the Stars and Stripes' heel. We recalled the rape of the nation in 1846-8 when the US invaded and simply stole half the country, turning it into "American" states: Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, California. That day, all 50,000 of us spoke the same language: Yankee Go Home! Peace, dialogue and fellowship in the world! One of the Danish marchers, Birte Nyholm, expressed the feeling best:

"We do not know one another's name. We all have the same name: Human Being...The march reached its goal—absolutely not because we loved one another, but because we came to love the same hope. For me the march was just the first step."


In no other country was there such tremendous media coverage, and Mexico has more press media than any other country in the world. During the week we were in Mexico, the 14 daily newspapers brought daily reportage and interviews. We were on television and radio every day. The march ended with a huge news conference in the Parliament's protocol salon.

The international media, generally, took up the march. and in this way the world's eyes were focused on the violence, injustice and poverty in Central America. The nordic media covered it extensively, as did most other countries in western and eastern Europe, Cuba, Canada, Australia, Japan. The Danish home committee had collected 100 newspaper articles on the march printed in local and national media. As earlier stated, the United States "free press" was an exception. I heard from US reporters how disappointed and even sad they were about this, not the least for themselves and their profession.

We had awakened more people about the plight of Central America, and some of our own participants continued working for justice and peace in the area. Some even returned to live and work on specific projects for months or years. We turned more people into activists. That is what it takes to change the world: action!

The End

( Note: About 16 copies of Ron's book, Yankee Sandinistas: Interviews With North Americans Living and Working in the New Nicaragua, were available through Amazon.com at the time of uploading this page. —— Bill Becker)

La Marcha Introduction and Table of Contents

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