During the 1980s, Central America became of central part of US foreign policy as liberation movements sought to rid themselves of governments that were mostly under the influence of Washington.
Hundreds of people from Grand Rapids went to Central America as part of a larger solidarity movement to stand with people fighting for freedom, some participated in changing public opinion, others joined the Sanctuary Movement and many more participated in various forms of direct action against government policy or corporations profiting from the repression in Central America.
One target of direct action was Congressman Paul Henry, who represented the 3rd District in Michigan from 1985 – 1993. Henry’s name can be seen on university buildings in Grand Rapids and his name was chosen for the new highway built just south of Grand Rapids, highway 6, also known as the South-belt.
Henry is highly regarded in mainstream circles, both as a man of principle and high morals. However, Paul Henry’s voting record reflected a totally different reality.
In the 1980s one of the most contentious issues during the Reagan/Bush years was US policy towards Central America. The US was providing military aid, weaponry and military advisors to fight insurgent wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, while at the same time was supporting the Contra forces, which were attempting to overthrow the Sandinista-led government in Nicaragua.
On the matter of the US support for the Contras, Paul Henry consistently voted for military funding that allowed the Contras to attack Nicaragua from both Honduras and Costa Rica, the countries which border that Central American nation. The Reagan administration (and Paul Henry) was claiming that the Contra forces were “freedom fighters,” despite the record of massive human rights violations. The Contras were known for attacking farming cooperatives, literacy workers and other social programs, which were at the forefront of the Sandinista revolution.
There was a lively campaign in Grand Rapids to challenge Paul Henry’s position on Nicaragua and his support for the Contras beginning in 1984, with the Stop The Invasion Campaign (STIC). There were weekly demonstrations outside his office in the federal building for years and several acts of civil disobedience, where people occupied his office until they were arrested. On one occasion, a group of people put 100 crosses in the lawn of the federal building with the names of Nicaragua civilians that the Contras had killed. Despite these efforts and many more Paul Henry never changed his position on Nicaragua, even after the Iran Contra affair and the allegations that the CIA was working with the Contras to traffic cocaine to buy weapons.
In the 1980s the US was also providing massive amount of military aid to the country of El Salvador to fight the FMLN guerilla forces. Throughout that period human rights groups and many US-based church groups were claiming that the Salvadoran military and the death squads were responsible for the bulk of the human right abuses, but Congressman Henry (who support military aid to El Salvador) was staunch in his conviction that the human rights abuses were equally committed by the FMLN.
Again, people in Grand Rapids organized to oppose the US support of the Salvadoran military and Paul Henry’s office was the target of people’s rage. The largest action against Henry’s support for the death squad terror in El Salvador was right after several priests, their cook and her daughter were assassinated on November of 1989.
About 100 people blocked traffic on Michigan Avenue in front of the Federal building in Grand Rapids. After the police came, another contingent of people went into Paul Henry’s office and attempted to make a citizen’s arrest against the Congressman and his staff. Eventually, the people who were in Paul Henry’s office were dragged out and the doors to the federal building were locked so no one could get in.
Congressman Henry was a member of LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church, near downtown Grand Rapids. On numerous occasions people would protest outside his church on Sunday mornings with signs that read, “Paul Henry support, rape, torture and murder in Central America.” In the winter other activist built snowmen and squirted ketchup over them to simulate blood to draw attention to the harsh realties of Congressman Henry’s support for the Death Squad government in El Salvador.
In 1992, there was a ceasefire in El Salvador and a UN Truth Commission was established to investigate the crimes committed in El Salvador between 1980 and 1992. In March of 1993, the UN Truth Commission published their findings, which stated that the Salvadoran military was guilty of 85% of the human rights abuses during that 12-year period and that the FMLN was only responsible for 5%. Congressman Henry never admitted he was wrong or that he was mislead by the Reagan/Bush administrations.
Again, this was only one way in which people mobilized against US Policy in Central America in the 1980s. We will investigate other tactics used by people through interviews, documents and other archival material that is obtained through this project.