YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Regional Outlook : Rebels Without a Cause in Americas : Latin guerrillas may go the way of the cavalry and Cold War spies as democracy spreads and Marxism fizzles on the continent.


LIMA, Peru — Times are tough for the Latin American guerrilla, that romantic figure who made trouble for dictators, struggled for revolution and stirred the masses with demands for social justice.

Today, there aren't many dictators left to pester, and Marxist-charged revolution has lost its fizz. Guerrilla war cries, it seems, no longer rouse the passions of bygone years, as when Fidel Castro's bearded band marched down from the Sierra Maestra and sparked rebellion around the region.

Or when Che Guevara was a living legend, vowing to bring the Yankee-scorching flames of Vietnam to this hemisphere. Or when the Nicaraguan Sandinistas sent Gen. Anastasio Somoza packing to Miami.

In October, 1967, they tracked down and killed Guevara as he tried to start a guerrilla movement in Bolivia's back lands, the heart of South America. A quarter of a century later, in October, 1992, they convicted Abimael Guzman, patriarch of Peru's brutal Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas, and sentenced him to life in prison.

Guevara's demise came near the beginning of a great cycle of Latin American guerrilla warfare. Although the cycle has not fully closed, Guzman's fall certainly comes at a time when guerrillas are faltering and failing throughout this huge region.

Are Latin American guerrillas going the way of cavalry, cowboys and Cold War spies? Maybe not yet, but everywhere you look, armed rebels are biting the dust, riding off into the sunset or coming in from the cold.

The failures of Cuban Communists, Nicaragua's Sandinistas, the Soviets and other Marxists in power have seriously undermined arguments for guerrilla action in Latin America. In the 1960s and 1970s, Cuba's Communist government supplied both inspiration and aid to many guerrilla movements. The Soviet Union, in turn, pumped billions of dollars into Cuba, where the socialist economy never prospered on its own.

Castro blames a U.S. economic embargo for his economic troubles, but it has become increasingly clear even to Latin American leftists that revolution is not a panacea for underdevelopment. And the collapse of the Soviet Union has further undermined Marxism as a source of guerrilla inspiration.

Since the triumph of Castro's 26th of July Movement in 1959, the only other leftist guerrilla group to take power in Latin America has been the Sandinista National Liberation Front in Nicaragua. The Sandinistas led a popular insurrection against Gen. Somoza that triumphed in July, 1979.

They ruled for another decade and fought the U.S.-backed Contras, or counter-revolutionaries. Anti-U.S. sentiment helped keep the Sandinistas unified all that time. But Nicaraguans, tired of war, voted Violeta Barrios de Chamorro into the presidency in 1989, and the revolutionary Sandinistas left power peacefully.

Other famous guerrilla movements have dwindled and disappeared without ever tasting success. In some cases, brutal repression by military governments hastened their defeat. Urban guerrilla organizations in Brazil, and Uruguay's bold Tupamaros, made world headlines with spectacular kidnapings and other operations in the early 1970s. They succumbed by the end of that decade to harsh anti-subversive campaigns that included systematic torture and summary executions.

The People's Revolutionary Army and the Montoneros of Argentina lost in a "dirty war" that included terrorist bombings and assassinations by the guerrillas, torture and disappearances by the military government. From 1976 to the early 1980s, when the guerrilla action ended, more than 9,000 detained people disappeared.

In Venezuela, Mexico, Honduras, Ecuador and Bolivia, guerrilla bands have cropped up from time to time since the early 1960s but have never really taken root. The Bolivian case is typical.

Ernesto (Che) Guevara, the Argentine-born revolutionary who fought beside Castro in the Sierra Maestra, tried to repeat the successful Cuban experience in the lowland hills of Bolivia starting in November, 1966. His small band, failing to win recruits or support among Bolivian peasants, was hunted down by the Bolivian army and U.S. advisers. They executed Guevara on Oct. 9, 1967.

In 1970, another short-lived guerrilla movement ended under siege with the deaths of all but a few of its members. The dead included Nestor Paz Zamora, brother of Jaime Paz Zamora, Bolivia's current president.

The government of President Paz Zamora, elected in 1989, has announced the capture of two guerrilla leaders in the last three months--Johnny Justino Peralta of the Zarate Willka group in July, and Felipe Quispe of the Tupac Katari Guerrilla Army in August. Those groups, which never posed a serious insurrectional threat, now appear to be verging on extinction.

In other Latin American countries, guerrillas have had much greater impact, but any chances they may have had for armed victory appear to be growing dimmer.


Los Angeles Times Articles