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In January, 1959, when Fidel Castro led his triumphant forces across Cuba and into Havana to seize power, his victory was cheered throughout Latin America, and many experts predicted it was just the beginning. The conservative governments dominating Latin America would never make reforms fast enough to satisfy the rocketing aspirations of the masses. The inevitable result: a chain of popular explosions that would resound throughout the hemisphere.
Almost nine years have passed, and though there have been guerrilla attempts in several countries and a bloody uprising in the Dominican Republic, the fact is that nowhere in Latin America has a new popular revolution, through guerrilla warfare or other means, been successful.
What could be more symbolic of this fact than the death of Ché Guevara? Supposedly the master guerrilla of them all, Ché was one of the oldest veterans of Castro's struggle in the Sierra Maestre. He was theoretician of the Cuban Revolution, his thin text Guerrilla Warfare became clandestine gospel to young revolutionaries throughout Latin America. Yet there he was, the man who had vehemently exhorted Latin Americans to follow the Cuban example, riddled with machine-gun bullets, in a ramshackle hospital morgue in eastern Bolivia, the movement he had built and led all but liquidated. Guevara's fate is not unique. Over the past few years several other top revolutionary leaders have been captured or killed, such as Colombian priest Father Camillo Torres and Peru's Jose Puente Blanco.
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Certainly, Castro has done his part. As many as 2500 young Latin Americans have studied guerrilla techniques in special Cuban schools. Fidel has also sent money, arms, and sometimes leaders to aid guerrilla efforts. Every night Radio Havana broadcasts its shortwave appeal to the masses to "turn the Andes into the Sierra Maestre of the continent."
Yet the number of guerrillas still active in Latin America is probably less than 800, most of them holed up in rugged mountain valleys where they subsist on roots, fish, and monkey meat, and launch occasional forays against government troops. They have succeeded in keeping thousands of soldiers tied up, and making headlines in the city papers, but nowhere do they threaten any government. For any would-be Castro, a post-Guevara catalogue of guerrilla efforts makes desultory reading.
Most active are the Venezuelan guerrillas who operate near the Colombian border and in the mountains south of Caracas. Though sometimes bolstered by university students playing at revolution over a weekend, the hard-core guerrillas number less than 300. Their greatest impact was in 1962 and 1963, when they launched a futile campaign of urban terrorism and industrial sabotage. In the backlands, they have had little success recruiting peasants, and their movements are increasingly restricted. Over the past few months, several important guerrilla leaders have been killed or imprisoned.
In neighboring Colombia, a guerrilla force of about 200 is split into two bickering groups. The National Liberation Army is composed mainly of Castroite students and intellectuals. The other force, the Colombian Revolutionary Army, led by one Tiro Fijo ("Sure Shot") is an offshoot of the bandit gangs that for years have roamed the interior. Both groups occasionally sally forth to blow up a bridge, attack a military outpost, or take over a village long enough to lecture its inhabitants on the glories of revolutionary warfare. Recently the Castroite group managed to hijack a commercial airliner, forcing the pilot to fly to Havana. But their actions are more or less contained by the army, and their numbers are static or diminishing.
In Guatemala, less than 200 Castroite guerrillas are active in the interior, but their efforts are a far cry from the spectacular outbreak of kidnapping and bombings of a year ago. Since last August, about 50 guerrillas, mainly students and middle-class intellectuals known as the "Sandinista National Liberation Front," have been operating in the mountains northeast of Managua in Nicaragua. Their attempts, at least so far, have been amateurish.
The Peruvian guerrillas, who began to operate in the Andean valleys in 1964, fared no better than Guevara's Bolivian force. After a few initial successful raids, they were cornered by Peruvian troops, and by early 1965 the movement had been wiped out.
As for other areas of Latin America, Brazil, despite all the talk about the misery of the Northeast, has not been the scene of an important guerrilla effort for the past 30 years. In Argentina a guerrilla movement died stillborn last year. Paraguay has had a few tiny attempts, all abortive. Despite some efforts, guerrillas were never able to take hold in Haiti, nor did they make much headway in the Dominican Republic following U.S. intervention there in 1965.
Why so many collapses in movements that were supposed to be irresistible? Some offer the Alliance for Progress as partial explanation. True, the Alliance has produced roads, dams, and schools, but it never triggered the hemisphere-wide effusion of reform and development that its originator, John F. Kennedy, envisioned. Today the Alliance is regarded by most conservatives and radicals alike as just another U.S. aid program, little better or worse than the others, lacking dynamism and plagued with bureaucracy.
In a few cases, such leaders as Peru's President Belaunde Terry and Chile's Eduardo Frei have taken the edge off radical demands by initiating basic reforms. But in Santiago and Lima and throughout Latin America, slums continue to fester around the cities as peasants flee from the even more desperate poverty of rural areas. In parts of Northeast Brazil, 500 out of every 1000 infants still die in their first year of life. Two miles high in the Andes, stunted Bolivians still fight for the privilege of working at $25 a month in the tin mines, though they know that within an average of five years after first entering the dusty shafts, they will either be dead or wracked by lung disease. Even though reforms have begun in some places, history has shown that uprisings must usually occur not when conditions are hopelessly stagnant, but just as changes are being initiated.
Another explanation suggested for guerrilla defeats is that Latin-American armies today are much better trained and equipped. Many of their officers have attended U.S. counterinsurgency courses in Panama, or have been taught by U.S. Special Forces on the spot. Yet, with or without its new turbo-helicopters and U.S. advisers, the Bolivian Army that defeated Ché Guevara is one of the most corrupt, poorly trained and staffed armies in Latin America today, and the soldiers who finally captured Guevara were young conscripts with six months of experience. On the other hand, in Southeast Asia, the Viet Cong are holding off an enormous highly trained, well-equipped U.S. force.
Internal strife is also supposed to undermine the strength of Latin-American guerrillas. Strife there has been. Earlier this year, for instance, Chilean Communist leader Luis Corvalan published a bitter article in Pravda attacking Castro's insistence on revolutionary violence. Fidel retorted with his own vitriolic blast against the Chilean Communists, who for decades have pinned their hopes on exploiting the democratic process. In April this year, the Moscow branch of the Venezuelan Communist Party also brought down Castro's wrath when it withdrew support from the guerrilla movement, announcing it agreed to "do without armed subversion, condemn terrorism, and participate in the next electoral process." In most of Latin America, orthodox Communist parties are giving little support to violent revolution.
But such internal feuding among the radicals is as much the result of guerrilla frustrations as it is the cause. It was only after the Venezuelan guerrillas lost momentum that the local Communists began to pull out. In Cuba, old-time Communists are still trying to live down the fact that the Party first condemned Castro's guerrilla attempts, and only gave him real backing a few months before he came to power.
A third, more accurate reason cited for guerrilla failure is peasant apathy. The fact of it goes against Castroite doctrine: according to Guevara, the guerrilla "is above all an agrarian revolutionary"; one of Ché's three prime tenets in Guerrilla Warfare is that "the countryside is the basic area for armed fighting." In Mexico in 1911 and Bolivia in 1952, the peasant masses did rise up violently to help topple conservative regimes. But in most areas the peasants have greeted the guerrilla call for support and action with a stony gaze. In fact, in Bolivia and Venezuela (where the peasants in many cases work their own land, or are at least beginning to) the natives have frequently divulged the whereabouts of local guerrilla bands. Guevara himself may have been betrayed by peasant informers. And just how much did peasant support have to do with the success of the Cuban Revolution? And just how relevant is the Cuban example to the rest of Latin America? The answer to both these questions: not as much as Castro would have Latin Americans believe.
Theodore Draper has noted that when Fidel Castro began his fight in the Sierra Maestre, "no one, including Castro, thought that Batista could be overthrown by means of guerrilla warfare. The main blow was to come from urban resistance in the form of a general strike." Though Castro did receive some aid from the peasants, for most of the struggle the majority of his forces were students and city dwellers, generally of middle-class background. Even if peasants had made up half of Castro's fighters, for most of the campaign their numbers would still have been few. For in June, 1958, only six months before he swept to power, Fidel had only 300 men fighting with him, about the same number that today are active in Colombia or Venezuela.
The basic reason for Batista's collapse was not force of arms. Castro's men fought very few major battles with government troops, the army and its equipment were intact almost to the end. Batista's regime rotted from within and needed only a push to fall from its own weight. His ministers and officers were corrupt and personally ambitious, and neither officers nor troops had any reason to risk their lives for Batista's sake. But the major blow to Batista came when middle-class professionals, businessmen, and merchants turned even from passive support of his government, began backing urban resistance organizations, and accepted a loose alliance with Castro.
Still, had Batista managed to hold successful elections, Castro might never have taken power. As Guevara recognized in Guerrilla Warfare, "Where a government has come into power through some form of popular vote, fraudulent or not, and maintains at least the appearance of constitutional legality, the guerrilla outbreak cannot be promoted, since the possibilities of peaceful struggle have not yet been exhausted." In Cuba the possibilities were exhausted by November, 1958, when Batista tried and failed to obtain mass participation in presidential elections. Despite Castro's threats, two opposition groups put up candidates, but abstention was very high -- up to 75 percent in Havana -- and the "victory" of the government's candidate was the last straw to many who had held hopes for Batista's democratic demise. After that, he had to be overthrown.
That was Cuba in 1958; conditions are rather different in most of Latin America today. First of all, many regimes threatened by guerrilla action and urban terrorism have refrained, at least in the cities, from excessive brutality. More important, the possibility of peaceful democratic opposition, or at least the facade, has been preserved in most of Latin America. In 1963, Venezuelan guerrillas stepped up their sabotage and terrorist attacks to a bitter pitch in an attempt to force a rightist military coup and disrupt scheduled elections. They failed, and from that point on their movement lost ground. In Bolivia, Ché Guevara may have also been hoping to provoke a military coup to close off the democratic alternative. But even such crusty dictators as General Stroessner in Paraguay and the Somozas in Nicaragua have gone through the motions of holding elections.
But the basic reason for the failure of Latin-American guerrillas is not so much the maintenance of a democratic option, as the precedent of the Cuban Revolution itself. A decade ago, before Castro took power, violent revolution was considered a legitimate means for non-Communists to overthrow unpopular regimes. Both Mexico and Bolivia have revolutionary experiences which have become a hallowed part of their political traditions. Some of Latin America's foremost liberal democrats, such as Costa Rica's José Figueras and Venezuela's Romulo Betaneourt, gained power themselves through armed revolts. Today, however, they would stand little chance.
When he overthrew Batista, Castro came to symbolize the hopes of popular revolution everywhere in the hemisphere. But by publicly embracing Communism in 1961, he discredited the cause of the revolution in all of Latin America -- as well as in Washington. Now, anyone left of center advocating the violent overthrow of his government, no matter how oppressive that government be, is almost universally labeled a Communist or Castroite (except, perhaps, in the case of Haiti). And mainly for emotional reasons, the great majority of politically active Latin Americans, particularly the vital middle class, are strongly anti-Communist.
Because of their socialist and anti-American leanings, many young revolutionaries today do regard Cuba as the pattern to follow. They also believe that a leftist revolution would be impossible to sustain without the support of the Soviet bloc. They have never been shown any other contemporary alternative, and the fate of the 1965 uprising in the Dominican Republic only bolstered their views. In a vicious cycle, their radical attitudes confirm the widely held view that popular revolution today must bring with it some variant of Communism. As a result, the young revolutionaries become even more radical, isolated, and powerless. (Castro himself has admitted he could never have gained the support necessary for winning if he had been identified as a Communist -- which many doubt that he was -- before consolidating power.)
This does not rule out the possibility of violent social revolution. There are too many countries, each with its specific problems and structure, too many ways in which revolution could come about. Though the middle class has shied from alliance with the guerrillas, some radicals pin their hopes on widespread anti-Americanism to forge a link between middle-and upper-class nationalists and the left. Such is the theory presented by Regis Debray in Revolution in the Revolution? (which Juan Bosch feels actually represents Castro's own thoughts), and the idea may not be such a pipe dream. In Brazil, for instance, businessmen and industrialists frequently support drives by the radicals against such "economic intervention" as U.S. private investment. In Peru, a similar alliance demands the government nationalize Standard Oil's local holdings. And it is not at all impossible that U.S. armed intervention into another Latin-American state could provide the spark -- as Castro is always pointing out it has in Vietnam -- to bring local radicals and nationalists together in common cause.
There are other conceivable routes to guerrilla triumph. In Bolivia, for instance, what would be the result of a guerrilla campaign that, unlike Guevara's, had strong ties with the country's militant, well-organized tin miners? Or, in Argentina, is an effective linkup between guerrillas and Peronistas completely out of the question? And guerrilla warfare may be only one path of revolution. There is the possibility in a number of countries of a leftist nationalist revolt breaking out within army ranks over the next few years.
Nor are the chances for a radical take-over restricted to violent means. In 1964, a socialist-Communist coalition ran a close second in Chile's presidential elections. That same year, only a revolt of conservative military officers prevented Brazil from heading toward some kind of strong leftist regime under President Joao Goulart.
Guevara's death demonstrates the tremendous difficulty guerrillas are encountering, but it by no means symbolizes the end of the radical left.
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1967; Latin-American Guerrillas; Volume 220, No. 6; pages 26-36.