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
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.
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.