Are the days of Latin America’s guerrillas over?

While the tradition of the guerrilla has declined, electoral politics has seen Latin America’s left make huge advances, painting much of the region’s map red during the past decade

A thing of the past? Farc soldiers parading in the main square of San Vicente del Caguán, in what was then rebel-controlled southern Colombia in 2001. Photograph: Ricardo Mazalan/AP

A thing of the past? Farc soldiers parading in the main square of San Vicente del Caguán, in what was then rebel-controlled southern Colombia in 2001. Photograph: Ricardo Mazalan/AP


When the Farc guerrilla movement’s chief peace negotiator said this week that Colombia’s half-century civil war was drawing to a close, it was just the latest signal that a resolution to Latin America’s bloodiest conflict could finally be at hand.

Six months of peace talks in Cuba have already reached a landmark agreement on land reform and the decision earlier this month to allow the Farc’s political wing to contest next year’s elections boosts hopes that the government and the guerrillas can sign a final accord before the end of the year.

Any deal to end a conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands and made more than three million people homeless would also bring Latin America a step closer to consigning to history its long tradition of guerrilla warfare.

Bands of irregular fighters date back to the region’s struggles for independence from Spain, but it was with the Mexican Revolution at the start of the 20th century that the world fell in love with the ideal of the Latin rebel waging war from the mountains against a corrupt and vicious oligarchy. In an age where al-Qaeda has dampened global enthusiasm for insurgencies (as the secular rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad in Syria know to their cost), it is easy to forget that once the moustachioed, bandolier-wearing Latin guerrilla was a phenomenon much loved by political romantics everywhere.

While Europe was engulfed in the carnage of the first World War, cinema audiences in the US were captivated by newsreel footage of the exploits of Pancho Villa and his bands of Mexican revolutionaries. Foreign correspondents told of a Mexican Robin Hood, fighting on the side of downtrodden peasants against the brutal landowning class that dominated Latin American life. It was a theme that the western media and Hollywood would warm to for decades.

Robin Hood figure
In the 1920s, even as Augusto Sandino’s guerrillas killed dozens of US marines in the mountains of northern Nicaragua, Time magazine could salute him as an “arch-desperado and Robin Hood”.

As late as 1952 Marlon Brando played Pancho Villa’s great ally Emiliano Zapata in the Hollywood blockbuster Viva Zapata!, portraying him as an incorruptible rebel determined to return land to Mexico’s peasants, just two years before the CIA ousted Jacobo Árbenz for trying to do exactly that in Guatemala. The toppling of Árbenz was a pivotal moment for Latin America’s guerrilla phenomenon, radicalising the next generation of revolutionaries, among them Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Ché” Guevara.

The revelation that their revolution in Cuba was communist was a dividing of the waters. Communists had been involved in insurgencies before Castro took power in 1959 but most guerrilla movements were more patriotic than communist, struggling against a backward elite.

But after Castro and Ché turned the Caribbean island into a base for leftist movements across the continent at the height of the cold war, the Latin guerrilla became as identified with the global struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat as for social justice on the world’s most unequal continent. The militant communism of this phase in Latin America’s guerrilla wars turned many admirers in the West against Latin America’s Robin Hoods, just as it estranged it from most of the region’s middle class.

But for those members of the global left increasingly dissatisfied with the creeping bureaucratic decadence of the eastern bloc, the young guerrillas were a beacon of hope, raising the possibility of a “revolution within the revolution”, in the phrase of French intellectual Régis Debray, who fought with Ché in Bolivia.

In the 1960s and 1970s Latin America’s guerrilla phenomenon reached its apogee, its romantic appeal captured in Alberto Korda’s photograph of Ché, martyred in Bolivia in 1967. Bravely challenging reactionary governments across the region, Latin guerrillas inspired left-wing militants across the world. Only the Viet Cong could match their appeal.

By the 1980s, however, the rebels were in retreat. The reasons are various, both local and global. But the US-orchestrated reaction was fundamental to their defeat. Washington funded, trained and provided diplomatic cover for vicious counteroffensives. Tens of thousands were killed or disappeared. The collapse of the eastern bloc was another blow, setting many movements on the road to conventional politics.

The last great success of the guerrillas was in Central America when the heirs of Sandino seized power in Nicaragua in 1979. But the cost was high. Determined to avoid a repeat elsewhere, Washington helped its local clients unleash a wave of violence across the isthmus that in Guatemala ended in genocide.

Idealism gone
Several guerrilla campaigns continued throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium but much of the idealism of the 1960s was gone. They now lacked the public support previous movements had mobilised. The cult-like Maoists of Peru’s Shining Path pioneered a level of fanatical violence in its liberated zones that meant the movement was feared and loathed by the time of its collapse in the 1990s. The Farc’s policy of kidnapping for ransom and involvement in the cocaine trade leaves it with little support in Colombia today.

But while the tradition of the guerrilla has declined, electoral politics has seen Latin America’s left make huge advances, painting much of the region’s map red during the past decade. Today the elected presidents of Brazil and Uruguay are ex-guerrillas, while the former fighters of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front hold power in El Salvador.

Such political success and the increasing ability of Latin American states to project power into the remote regions where revolutionaries once found sanctuary mean any immediate revival of the guerrilla phenomenon is not imminent.

But Subcomandante Marcos and his Zapatistas still hold part of Chiapas’ Lacandon jungle almost two decades after they shocked the world with their uprising in Mexico, while the small Paraguayan People’s Army has emerged in recent years as a response to the eviction of peasants by big landowners planting soya in Paraguay.

With the world’s most violent region still deeply divided between haves and have-nots, the tradition of the guerrilla does not look set for the ash heap of history, just yet.

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