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Latin America, Popular Liberation Movements in

Fidel Castro's successful consolidation of the revolutionary state in Cuba after 1959 encouraged the mobilization of popular resistance movements throughout much of Latin America. These liberation movements generally had two targets: standing governments that repressed popular political ambitions and aspirations, and the international order that, according to the theoretical assertions of the organizers of the liberation movements, held Latin America in a subordinate position.

The Cuban Revolution did not in itself spark liberation movements in other countries. In fact, efforts by Ernesto "Che" Guevara to sponsor other revolutions through the creation of organizational focos failed.

Foco meant literally a focal point of organizational activity, associated with foquismo, whereby the term was blown up into a theory of revolution. Guevara and his followers asserted that a small group of committed revolutionaries could, given the circumstances of Latin America's general exploitation and widespread poverty, move into any isolated or impoverished area and generate a community of resistance by providing an example of sacrifice, organization, and ideological commitment. This theory had been extrapolated from the Cuban revolutionary experience in the Sierra Maestra, the highlands of central Cuba, where a small band of committed revolutionaries galvanized popular support for the movement to overthrow Fulgencio Batista. Guevara and his later supporters built up their experience into a general plan for revolutionary struggle and change. Their assertions were particularly influential for rebel efforts in Central America and Chiapas in southern Mexico. In 1967, Guevara himself was captured and executed in Bolivia during such an attempt.

The atmosphere that produced the spread of popular liberation movements was more complex. First, the Cold War fostered the rise of powerful dictatorships in much of Latin America. During the 1940s and 1950s, governments in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Peru, and Venezuela that had mobilized popular sectors with promises of economic and social reform had been forced from power by military coups (often sponsored by the United States), foreign invasion, or interparty strife. By the start of the 1960s, the power of the regimes that had come into being earlier in the Cold War had weakened substantially, and in turn frustration over the lack of substantive reform had grown.

A variety of examples had appeared in and beyond Latin America that helped inspire organized challenges to state power. The defeat of the French in Indochina in 1954 helped demonstrate the potential success of a guerrilla insurgency against a stronger foe. Algerian resistance to French control beginning in November 1954 generated important theoretical and practical lessons. The brief success of the Bolivian Revolution in 1952 and the ability of Castro and his communist rebels to challenge one of Latin America's most entrenched dictatorships demonstrated that a social base for revolution existed within the region.

In the 1960s, two distinct intellectual streams inspired the development of revolutionary organizations. The Marxist tradition, central to the Cuban Revolution, enjoyed broad support among intellectuals, students, and organizations linked to industrial workers. Although communist parties, in existence for decades in almost every Latin American country, remained largely isolated from the popular mobilization under way, in universities, large cities, and within unions clandestine radical groups formed and began to organize for revolution. Groups that defined themselves as Marxist and dedicated themselves to the revolutionary struggle appeared in almost every Latin American country before 1965.

Coincidentally, within organizations associated with the Roman Catholic Church, a second revolutionary front took shape. Responding to calls from the Church hierarchy to make the Church more responsive to the needs of the poor and oppressed, lay organizers and clergy alike began reaching out to communities in new and important ways. The worker-priest movement in Argentina and the Comunidades Eclesiales de Base (CEBs, Ecclesial Base Communities) in Brazil and elsewhere are notable examples of this trend. As this push for social and political engagement peaked in response to the instructions that Vatican Council II (1962–1965) provided, many of the clergy became radicalized by the experience. Discouraged by the Catholic Church's conservatism, individuals resigned their positions and became political activists.

The spread of revolutionary organizations did not result in many successful challenges to established regimes in the 1960s, however. Urban revolutionary cells in Mexico, Nicaragua, and Venezuela appeared and quickly collapsed. In Guatemala, efforts to organize a peasant revolt collapsed under pressure from military campaigns that the United States helped coordinate and support.

The few successful organizations relied on a community or institutional base. Radical Marxist groups in Peru took shape in Andean universities. In Argentina, the Ejército Revolutionario del Pueblo (ERP, Revolutionary Army of the People) and the Montoneros emerged from groups that had splintered off from the Perónist political movement. Other groups, such as the Fuerza Armada Revolucionaria Colombiana (FARC, Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces), the M-19 in Colombia, and the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN, Sandinista National Liberation Front) in Nicaragua, survived and expanded by shifting from urban to rural bases.

The Catholic Church unintentionally contributed to the survival and spread of popular liberation movements in much of Latin America. While Church officials eventually backed away from the political engagement that Vatican II had dictated, local parishes provided space and protection for community groups that initially focused on community needs and concerns. The meeting places and community base allowed leaders to shift these groups into more radical directions. This trend, which took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s, came at times in reaction to attempts at repression or came as a result of links to other radical cells that effectively recruited locals to their broader causes.

In the 1970s, incompetent or incomplete efforts to destroy guerrilla groups and protest organizations helped galvanize liberation movements in some cases. Most notably in Nicaragua, the clumsy and brutal actions of the Anastasio Somoza dictatorship helped win sympathy and support for the FSLN. By 1979, united with opposition political parties, reform groups, and other dissenters, the FSLN overthrew the dictatorship and moved to establish a new Marxist revolutionary regime.

By the end of the 1970s, applying the lessons learned from the Vietnam War and motivated by the challenge that the Sandinista government represented to its authority in the region, the United States became more directly involved in a military reaction to popular liberation movements. U.S. intervention in El Salvador helped transform the conflict there into a bloody stalemate. Aid and advice to the Guatemalan military sustained its struggle against peasant-based resistance groups.

Military governments in Argentina and Uruguay effectively neutralized urban guerrilla movements. But in other contexts, government actions helped maintain the strength of liberation movements into the 1980s and beyond. While organizationally distinct from early revolutionary cells that had operated in Chiapas, the Ejécito Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN, Zapatista National Liberation Army) launched a strong challenge to the authority of the Mexican state beginning in 1984.

Daniel Lewis


Further Reading
McClintock, Cynthia. Revolutionary Movements in Latin America. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1998.
 

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