Quixote Center: Hewing Marxist Agendas and Forging Mayors Since 1976

[Original post, September 24, 2013, Updated September 26, 2013 - see below]

Okay. Not really. However, Bill de Blasio, the Democratic candidate for mayor of New York City, did work at the Quixote Center in 1987-88. I’ve never met him (I did not start at the Center until 2001) but it is certainly interesting to see an alum from a place I cherish making headlines. Of course, the Quixote Center is not the same place it was in 1988, and de Blasio is not the same person – we all grow and change. Does this matter for New York City in 2013? The New York Times decided it was important, and well, that is certainly okay with us.

Yesterday the released an article on Bill de Blasio’s early days as a “leftist” activist working in solidarity with the people of Nicaragua. It was fascinating to read. Javier Hernandez presents his case that

a review of hundreds of pages of records and more than two dozen interviews suggest [de Blasio’s] time as a young activist was more influential in shaping his ideology than previously known, and far more political than typical humanitarian work.

So, de Blasio encountered "democratic socialism" as a young man and apparently inhaled. O.M.G.

This may be true, of course. Having worked in the solidarity movement for over twenty years now, I can say that everybody I’ve met who travelled to Nicaragua during the 1980s was impacted deeply by the experience. If this was an op-ed presenting this claim, I’d have little to disagree with.

But this was a “news” piece, based on "hundreds of pages" of reading, and yet, sadly flawed for all the space it gives to innuendo and unidentified source material. Alex Pareene at Salon.com covers much if the silliness in an insightful he posted yesterday. There is no need for me to repeat all of that here. But there is a clarification to be made about the Quixote Center’s history presented in the piece.

In addition to "hewing Marxist agendas" (according to unnamed critics) the Quixote Center was also investigated for smuggling guns. Gasp!!

Only, not true. [see Update]

The Quixote Center delivered humanitarian aid to Nicaragua, as the article notes. However the full story is that the campaign de Blasio worked on was one of many of the Center’s. It was called the Quest for Peace, and it had a specific aim: to match or exceed the amount of money the Reagan administration spent trying to topple the Sandinista government with an equivalent amount of donated humanitarian supplies and volunteer labor used to help keep people alive, while also working in Congress to stop the policy. In 1985 the United States declared an embargo against the government of Nicaragua; the Quixote Center’s shipments were in possible violation of the embargo. We did it anyway. The importance of this history leads to me to the point of misinformation in the article. Hernandez writes:

In the mid-1980s, the Treasury Department investigated whether the center had helped smuggle guns, but the claim was never substantiated, and the group’s leaders said the inquiry was politically motivated.

There is not a source for this claim, and for the people who were at the Quixote Center during the mid-1980s, the NY Times article yesterday was the first they had heard about an investigation into “gun-smuggling.” Because the Center was shipping humanitarian aid in possible violation of the embargo, we were investigated. Federal agents knocked on the door one day, asking for our records, including donor lists and financial information. We did not provide the information. The investigation was called off after we contacted members of Congress in Maryland, and also consulted with the Center for Constitutional Rights.

The Quixote Center shipped hundreds of cargo containers of aid, and never had a single shipment seized by customs. The "investigation" was a harassment, but we were lucky. At least they knocked. Other solidarity groups had their offices broken into, files and hard drives taken by Federal agents in the 1980s. CISPES was a particularly of these 1980s COINTELPRO-style operations.

In any event, within the grand narrative being woven in the article, this seems a small point - though I doubt de Blasio appreciates the Times suggesting he worked at a place once investigated for gun running. Perhaps someone Hernandez interviewed suggested that the investigation involved an accusation of gun smuggling and he ran with it. Maybe he has a document from Treasury that indicates there was such an investigation (I'd love to see it if that is the case) and the Quixote Center staff was simply never aware. It is hard to know since he makes no reference to any source. I know he did not talk to any of the “leaders” of the organization about a gun smuggling investigation.

Certainly it is fascinating to see how people become politicized. These stories, when truthfully told can even be inspiring. The Times, however, went for the partisan snipe, whereby someone's youthful idealism is selectively tested and reinterpreted through the lens of an election twenty-five years removed from the events being discussed. Lhota is already trying to capitalize on the article, claiming that de Blasio is playing with a "." Really? On the upside, we had a lot more traffic on our website yesterday, and I guess we can thank the New York Times for that. However, we would encourage the editorial staff to be a bit more careful with the details.

UPDATE: September 26, 2013

After posting the original article, I decided to do a bit more digging. I wasn’t really sure why this one vignette was chosen among all of the stories about the Quixote Center that could have been told, good or bad, but it was hard to believe it was just made up. Yesterday, I received copies of files related to the Custom’s inquiry from the Quixote Center archive which resides at Marquette University and reviewed them. It would seem that Hernandez’s characterization of an investigation about gun smuggling is not really wrong – but is, absent context, a bit misleading.

Here we go:

On December 12 two Customs agents delivered a subpoena to the Quixote Center (with the wrong address and back dated). The subpoena required the Quixote Center to turn over all records relating to cargo containers shipped to Nicaragua or Costa Rica since the U.S. embargo had been put into place the previous May. The subpoena makes no reference to guns and does not specify any violation of any kind. One of the Customs agents did inform a staff member that they were looking for “munitions.”

Counsel felt like this was a fishing expedition, using the Custom Agency’s authority to review all documents related to exported items from the United States – and seemed politically motivated. There was never any formal accusation from the Treasury Department or from Customs I could find that the Quixote Center was shipping weapons, just a comment from the one agent among many other things said. The Center was never even searched.

All of the shipping documents were turned over to the Customs office in Baltimore (the Center staff refused to hand over information on donors and other non-shipping information requested by the agents, but not included in the subpoena). By February of 1987 the inquiry was closed, Customs found that shipments complied with the humanitarian exemptions in the embargo legislation.

The Treasury Department would make additional requests for documents for transport of “unlicensed” items later in 1987, again simply requesting shipping documents. Counsel referred them to the Customs investigator for the relevant documents.

What about the guns???

In a February 1, 1987 Quest for Peace newsletter, Quixote Center staff did highlight the agent’s comment about looking for munitions:

On December 12, 1986 two customs agents, outdated subpoena in hand, knocked on the Quixote Center door. Saying that they were looking for arms, they demanded all shipping records, correspondence, financial records, transportation records and personnel files pertaining to the Quest for Peace. They wanted to move quickly and “wrap things up by Christmas. We received the subpoena and turned them away.

The Quest newsletter was an “emergency appeal” and was encouraging people to step up the collections efforts; to expand the work, rather than be intimidated. There was also a concern that the document request was a step toward shutting humanitarian shipments down by reading the exemptions in the legislation in the most restrictive way. For example, Oxfam and Catholic Relief Services had recently been hassled by Customs and with shipments of agricultural supplies to Nicaragua blocked. The Quixote Center had even had a shipment containing pencils questioned in Costa Rica customs because pencils did not qualify as humanitarian aid. The shipment made it through.

It is worth reporting here that the Quixote Center and other groups participating in the Quest for Peace National Tally surpassed $100 million in humanitarian assistance collected and delivered between July 1986 and September 1987.

Back to guns: In a follow up newsletter from June 1987, Quixote Staff also discussed the Custom “hassle” in a bit more of a mocking tone, now that it was over:

The Customs Service, after barreling in just before Christmas looking for “gun shipments to Nicaragua” closed its review of our humanitarian shipments in February, finding no fault.

So, it seems that the gun smuggling characterization came from the agent’s comment, and staff reference to that comment, snarky or otherwise, in newsletters.

Probably, the real goal was simply to get access to as many files as possible, and as Custom’s authority to review would be limited to transportation documents, the agents talked about munitions in to get more information than what was contained in the subpoena. Once the Center for Constitutional Rights and a member of Congress inquired the matter was dropped.

Was the Quixote Center investigated for smuggling guns? It is certainly one way to characterize what happened. And if you are summarizing in a sentence I can’t really say it is wrong. So, my apologies to Javier Hernandez for suggesting otherwise.

However, I do wonder why of all the things that could have been mentioned about the Center ($100 million in humanitarian aid collected and delivered in one year is a pretty good tidbit as well) this was the item chosen. Indeed, it was so marginal in the Center’s history that, as noted above, none of the co-directors from back in the day that I talked to even remembered the agent talking about guns.