When Colombia’s government and its biggest guerrilla group agree to lay down their arms later this year, it ends something much bigger than one country’s civil war. For the first time in 60 years, not a single nation in Latin America will be locked in armed combat with a viable guerrilla army.
Not since Fidel Castro slipped ashore in Cuba in 1956 with a tiny group of revolutionaries he assembled in exile in Mexico, launching a guerrilla war that would inspire revolutionary insurgencies from Tierra del Fuego to the southern jungles of Mexico, has the region fully embraced ballots over bullets.
But after six decades of warfare and the pushback of military and political repression it often provoked, at the cost of well over half a million lives and uncountable billions of dollars in damage, Latin America’s bloody epoch of insurrection appears to be at an end.
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The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which is on the brink of signing a peace deal, is the last guerrilla group in Latin America “that ever had the possibility of destabilizing the political order,” said Colombian historian Eduardo Pizarro Leongómez. “The FARC is the end of a cycle that started with the Cuban Revolution.”
After more than three years of negotiations in Havana, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos hoped to have a definitive deal with the group signed by Wednesday — Colombia’s Independence Day. And while that deadline appears to be blown, both sides say they’re close to a final pact, which will be submitted to a referendum before going into effect.
Some tiny armed groups remain active around the region, from the few dozen guerrillas of the perpetually beleaguered Paraguayan People’s Army to the few hundred of Colombia’s once powerful National Liberation Army. Peru’s Shining Path barely amounts to a ghost of the murderous organization that ran amok through the countryside during the 1980s, and it mostly pushes not Maoist politics but cocaine.
These tiny, ragged bands seem more like artifacts from a time capsule than actual guerrilla armies. “They’re the Last of the Mohicans — they’re very marginal little groups,” Pizarro said.
His opinion is shared by legions of scholars, diplomats and journalists who have spent the better part of their lives analyzing the groups, as well as survivors on both sides of the insurgencies.
“I do think Latin America is entering another one of its political cycles,” said Brian Latell, former chief analyst for the CIA’s Latin American section and now an adjunct professor of international affairs at Florida International University. “There’ve been so many. I hope this one will be happier.”
The violence that wracked Latin America from the middle of the 20th century well into the 21st began with Castro’s revolt in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra mountains. When Castro’s troops marched into Havana three years later, it seemed to offer a blueprint for change to the rest of region.
“Most of the folks who founded these guerrilla movements were inspired by Cuba, and a lot of them trained there,” said David Scott Palmer, a Boston University political scientist and the author of half a dozen books on Latin America. “Castro’s call to make the Andes the Sierra Maestra of South America was certainly not an idle threat.”
Castro was hardly the first Latin American to use political violence. It was widespread throughout the region during the 19th century, when political parties regularly raised their own armies and elections were often barely distinguishable from civil wars. Still, Castro significantly upped the ante — especially as his ties with the Soviet Union expanded — by training and arming guerrillas who fanned out through the hemisphere.
“There was plenty of conflict in the Americas before Castro came to power, but he made it worse,” said Alberto Fernandez, a retired State Department official who served in three Latin American countries before becoming a U.S. ambassador in Africa. “It’s like the Islamic State and jihadism. Did the Islamic State invent jihadism? No, they just made it nastier, a lot nastier.”
Within a year of Castro’s accession to power, leftist guerrillas laid siege to the government in Guatemala in a war that would last 36 years. Venezuela and Colombia followed soon after. By the late 1970s, every country in Latin America except Costa Rica had a guerrilla movement, and some had three or four (and Colombia at least five) as rival groups quarreled over whether the purest strain of Marxist thought came from Havana, Moscow or Beijing.
A few, like Colombia’s FARC and El Salvador’s Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, grew into major armies that controlled wide swaths of territory. Many, like Uruguay’s Tupamaros and the Cinchoneros of Honduras, remained purely terrorist, unable to muster the infrastructure or popular support to stage anything beyond sporadic bombings and assassinations. Some, like Ecuador’s Alfaro Vive, Carrajo (Alfaro Lives, Dammit!), named for a 19th century president, didn’t have much going for them beyond funny names and oddball publicity stunts like stealing the man’s sword from a museum.
Many of the countries where guerrilla movements sprang up were relics of Spanish colonial times, hermetically sealed boxes where tiny white elites held tight control of the political and economic systems. “You look at a country like Guatemala, where the oppression of the [Indian] population was so widespread that they felt they had no other option but to take up arms, and you can’t blame them, really,” said Lino Gutiérrez, who served as U.S. ambassador to Argentina and Nicaragua and now teaches international affairs at George Washington University.
But the violence also spread into modernized and relatively prosperous countries with good track records on free elections. “Uruguay was Latin America’s first social-welfare state — democratic, with a pretty fair distribution of wealth, ethnically homogenous and a pretty well-educated population,” said Robert Callahan, a former U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua who also held State Department posts in four other Latin American countries. “And what happened? They got the Tupamaros, one of the most violent guerrilla groups ever.”
And the timing of would-be revolutionaries could be confusing and seemingly contradictory. “Shining Path, the radical Maoist organization that was one of the most brutal in Latin America, started its ‘people’s war’ in 1980 at the very moment Peru was going through its first-ever democratic election with universal suffrage,” noted Palmer, of Boston University.
In part, that’s probably due to what political scientists call “the crisis of rising expectations,” when hopeless political and economic conditions improve, but not fast enough to suit the newly awakened aspirations of the disenfranchised. But many analysts — especially American diplomats who helped fight the Cold War — say communist guerrillas didn’t want democracy or free-market economics to succeed.
“There were a lot of serious issues in Latin America: rich vs. poor, lack of democracy, all kinds of things in play,” said Gutiérrez, the former ambassador. “But I think it was all made worse by the Cubans and the Soviet Union, who tried to exploit these inequalities for their own purposes.”
U.S. interventions in Latin America did little to calm the waters. While Washington spent hundreds of millions of dollars to improve the quality of everything in Latin America from water to education, it also invested heavily in the police and military of authoritarian governments.
Atrocities spiraled out of control on both sides. In Peru, Shining Path regularly festooned city street lights with strangled dogs and stoned to death agronomists who tried to persuade peasants to use “foreign” plants. In El Salvador, the army literally wiped the little town of El Mozote off the map, killing the entire population, then blowing up and burning the blood-spattered buildings.
In the bipolar political world that grew up from the ruins of World War II, there wasn’t much middle ground. “You bring Soviet weapons and American intervention into the mix, and a lot of the Cold War was fought on Latin American soil,” Gutiérrez said.
After the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, the end of the Cold War cash flow brought an end to many Latin American insurrections. Others, particularly in Peru and Colombia, were refueled by a new source of wealth, the drug trade. But the pure exhaustion of so many years of killing has finally ground down even the most hard-core combatants.
“The FARC has realized that this war isn’t leading them anywhere,” said Fernando Hernández, a former member of the rival National Liberation Army and now head of the Colombian think-tank Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, which studies the conflict. “Faced with the technological advances in the military and the crisis of socialism, they know they needed a negotiated solution.”
What all the years of violence accomplished, in Colombia or anywhere else, is hard to assess. Two Marxist insurgencies — in Cuba and Nicaragua — toppled their governments and took power. A third, the Nicaraguan contras (the lone right-wing guerrilla movement of the epoch, funded by the Reagan administration), forced internationally supervised elections that it won.
Two other guerrilla movements came tantalizingly close to victory. In 1981, the Guatemalan army was down to a two-week supply of ammunition and near panic at its impending defeat. At about the same time, guerrillas in El Salvador were so confident that they launched what they billed as the “final offensive” on the nation’s capital. In both cases, last-minute military aid from the Reagan administration turned the tide.
Some insurgencies, even if they didn’t march into power, forced democratic openings in their countries that they were eventually able to take advantage of. “The democratically elected president of Brazil [Dilma Rousseff] is a former guerrilla, or at least was in the guerrilla movement,” notes former CIA analyst Latell. “Until last year, you had a former Tupamaro bank robber (Jose Mujica) who was the democratically elected president of Uruguay.”
More commonly, though, insurgencies triggered brutal responses from their countries’ militaries. Under pressure from the Tupamaro guerrillas, Uruguay’s democratic social-welfare state gave way to a military dictatorship that lasted 12 years and at one point had the highest per-capita number of political prisoners in the world. It was not alone.
“By 1976, 16 of the 20 countries in South America were under military or authoritarian governments,” said Boston University’s Palmer. “Was that progress? I think it’s very hard to put a label on the time of the guerrilla movements and say it was good or bad.”
Many former guerrillas, however, say they were only playing the cards they were dealt from a stacked political deck. “Of course it was worth it,” said Roberto Cañas Lopez, a Salvadoran economist and former FMLN guerrilla. (He helped negotiate the group’s 1992 peace treaty with the government.) “With all the poverty, inequality, and political exclusion in our country, the only way to change it was with armed might.”
And, he adds, nothing about the way Latin American leftists fared when they tried voting rather than shooting their way into power was exactly encouraging. “In Chile, Salvador Allende thought he could try democracy,” Cañas Lopez pointed out. “And as soon as he won, the armed forces staged a coup.”
Others think the cost was too high. “Did Latin America need reforms? Yes, absolutely,” Callahan said. “But some countries did it with a lot less bloodshed than others. Panama, Honduras, Bolivia, none of them suffered all the death and destruction of El Salvador or Colombia or Nicaragua. Where we are today could certainly have been achieved with a lot less killing.”