My life long friend Chema Mendez passed away on Thursday, after a lengthy battle with cancer. I first met Chema in 1980, at a meeting in Miami held by the AFL-CIO’s Labor Institute, where we both worked during the civil war years in Central America. I guess you could say it was love at first sight. There was something about him that told we would become fast friends. In 1983, at the height of the civil war, I moved to El Salvador to run the Institute’s Labor program, and Chema served as my right hand man, giving legal and political counsel to the brave union leaders who were trying to implement a bold Land Reform program that polarized the country and provoked a murderous right wing back lash that claimed the lives of many of our colleagues. While there were many Salvadorans who distinguished themselves for their bravery during those times, Chema was one of the most valient. I remember one time we published a denunciation of the right wing efforts to reverse the reforms and its attack on our trade unionists . Fearing repraisals, no one wanted to sign it. Chema took up a pen and provided the lead signature, giving others the courage to follow suit.
After the war years, when we created FINCA, Chema helped me establish the program throughout Latin America, and, eventually, the rest of the world. I couldn’t have done it without him.
Chema had his share of dark times. He was picked up and tortured once for his unwavering support of the downtrodden and disenfranchised peasant farmers and workers. His infant daughter was kidnapped by a criminal gang, but fortunately recovered. He had a somewhat disorderly life, living in his times without much concern for hiw own financial or familial stability.
With time, history’s hand has blurred the edges of our causes and battles, and left some hard questions, above all was all that blood and sacrifice worth it? Undoubtedly, El Salvador is a better, more just country today because of people like Chema. Politically, former guerrillas have moved into high office and the right wing groups that would have surely murdered them decades ago have disappeared. What will live in my memory is Chema’s valor and riotous sense of humor that saw me through so many challenges during those tumultuous times.
But right now, I’m having trouble imagining this world without him.