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“Guerrilla“ is the diminutive of “guerra“, the Spanish word for "war", and means “small war”. Guerrilla war denotes a warfare pattern that is characterized, in opposition to traditional conduct of war, by the fact that at least one of the belligerent sides consists of irregular troops, i.e. of non-standing combatants – "guerrilla" also denoting the group of irregular fighters. Militarily disadvantaged and smaller in size, guerrilla fighters try to even up their detriment by “invisibility” to their enemies through fusion with the civilian populace and their superior knowledge on the terrain the war is fought on. Guerrilla warfare is also characterized by high mobility and “hit-and-hide-tactics” avoiding decisive battles known in traditional symmetric wars.

Guerrilla in Latin America

Small or guerrilla wars are historically by no means a new phenomenon. In the Early Modern Age, tactics and strategies of irregular warfare were applied in Europe during the Thirty Years’ War, the Anti-Napoleonic Liberation Wars etc. as well as in Latin American 19th century civil wars. Despite the historical tradition of irregular guerrilla wars the second half of the 20th century can be considered the heyday of guerrilla warfare. Guerrilla studies usually distinguish two phases of insurgency in Latin America, the first one starting in the late 1950s and continuing until the end of the 1960s, and the second phase since the 1970s.

The victorious Cuban revolution headed by Fidel Castro, his brother Raúl, the Argentinean physician Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, was the starting point for modern guerrilla warfare in Latin America. The insurgents’ victory over the long-time US-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959 evidenced the possibility of the military deposition of a seemingly overly powerful dictator by a reduced group of opponents. Guevara theorized his experiences later on in a manual titled “Guerrilla Warfare” which was widely received throughout Latin America. The main assumption was the “focus theory”: Due to the fact that the Cuban guerrilla movement developed from a miniscule group of original insurgents Guevara believed that an incipient insurgent movement itself, the focus, could create the conditions on which its victory depended. Furthermore Guevara emphasized that, given the dominant rural character of Latin American societies, the revolutionary potential was to be found in the rural peasant sectors and that revolutionary movements, therefore, had to start in the countryside gradually moving toward urban nuclei. Thereby Guevara dissociated from classical Marxist theory which laid emphasis on the necessity of the existence of a revolutionary situation based on (“objective”) criteria like class consciousness, pauperization and the revolutionary central character of proletarianized industrial working class.

Though Guevara’s personal attempts to transfer the Cuban revolutionary experiences to other countries (Congo, Bolivia) failed, Latin American political history during the subsequent decades is characterized by armed intents of overthrowing regimes perceived as dictatorial and contrary to people’s interests. The Cuban experience and Guevara’s writings had a wide impact on increasingly radicalized middle and even upper classes. Guerrilla leaders in the 1960s mainly had an urban background with a proportionally high number of students, freelancers and intellectuals among them. These had often pursued political activism in leftist political parties but opted for the armed struggle in order to enforce their political claims due to the further narrowing political system. Though mainly rural campesinos were recruited after the usual relocation to rural spaces from where, according to Guevara, the revolution had to start these urban bonds and leaderships were maintained. Despite the victorious Cuban example none of the guerrilla intents in the 1960s succeeded in taking over state power but were mainly annihilated by public forces or reduced notably, although they were able to resurge in the 1970s.

Despite the failure of the early Cuban-inspired guerrillas and the death of Guevara in the Bolivian highlands in 1967, armed opposition resurged in the 1970s, initiating the second wave of guerrilla wars in Latin America. Although different urban guerrillas emerged in the 1970s, especially in the Cono Sur, the Latin American guerrillas in the Second Phase continued to be predominantly rurally-based. The guerrilla resurgence in the 1970s is not surprising considering the fact that social, economic and political reforms, i.e. structural change, had not taken place in most Latin American countries. On the contrary, quite authoritarian (military) regimes had been established in many Latin American states which continued to narrow the space for legal, non-violent activity of political parties, trade unions and peasant leagues. Nevertheless, broad social pressure on fundamental reforms continued to rise as is made clear by the appearance of the Liberation Theology following the Second Latin American Episcopal Conference in Medellín in 1968. The inability or unwillingness of national elites to realize social reforms aimed at evening up social inequalities and broadening political and social inclusion led to social unrest that favoured the guerrilla reappearance in the 1970s. Due to narrow political spaces the re-emerging guerrillas could recruit combatants and support from disappointed (rural) trade unionists, leftist politicians and followers of liberation theologians. In contrast to its predecessors, women were numerically represented more in the second wave’s armed insurgency. Furthermore, in countries with considerable indigenous populations, the new guerrillas addressed their discourses to the socially long- excluded indigenous population, making reference to “proper ethnic grievances” such as racism, combining their Socialist approaches with indigenous mythology and beliefs.

This ethnic and gender broadening of the guerrilla bases reflected the shifted tactical focus of the Latin American guerrilla war. While the 1960s were strongly influenced by the “narrow” Guevarist Focus Theory, in the 1970s guerrillas tended to broaden the “Focus approach” with the concept of the Prolonged Popular War preparing for a long insurrection that required broad social bases. Despite these organizational changes some key patterns of the first Guerrilla wave were maintained in the second. The increased recruitment of female and indigenous combatants did not lead to considerable changes regarding the guerrilla leadership, which continued to be predominantly male and white with an urban background.

By the end of the East-West conflict, referred to as the “End of History” by Fukuyama, the armed guerrilla insurgency became a less plausible option for political action, i.e. the end of the second wave of Latin American guerrillas was heralded. On the one hand the incipient democratization of the late 1980s allowed the transformation of guerrilla movements into political parties. On the other hand, guerrillas which continued to exist despite the breakdown of the Eastern Block faced the problem of waning legitimacy closely bound to their criminalization, either by official public discourses or the guerrilla’s participation in tendentially criminal activities such as drug trafficking or extortionate kidnapping. Nevertheless, the mid 1990s experienced a new, frequently-discussed guerrilla movement. When the North American Free Trade Agreement became valid (1.1.1994) the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) made its appearance by occupying several major cities in Chiapas, Mexico. The EZLN has been considered the first (and by now the only) postmodern guerrilla as it focuses, although armed, less on violent armed skirmishes than on gaining broad civilian support in order to fundamentally change Mexican society towards a politically, socially and, especially, ethnically inclusive community. The zapatistas’ strategy often has been compared with Gramscian theory, especially the forming of a new “historic bloc”.

Although armed attempts at replacing governments have been observed for decades throughout Latin America, only two insurgent movements were in the end successful in doing so: the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and the Nicaraguan Sandinista guerrilla movement twenty years later. The question why so few guerrillas were successful cannot sufficiently be answered by the military strength of the victorious insurgent movements as other, ultimately unsuccessful guerrillas were far stronger than the Cuban or Nicaraguan insurgents compared to their state opponents. To guerrillas, the support they receive from the civilian population is fundamental. This support does not, as many guerrilleros had to experience bitterly and as scholars have to keep in mind when analyzing guerrilla movements, depend merely on “objective” criteria (like pauperization, proletarianization etc.) but also on subjectivities. Classical political theory describes the relationship between the state or the government on the one hand and the population on the other as a social contract with mutual obligations. The less the political elite’s obligations of this contract are fulfilled (for example in the context of the patron-client-hacienda-network) the more probable the citizens’ participation in or the support of an insurgent movement is. Given the Latin American structures of social inequality a lot of guerrilla movements could count on popular support of the civilian population in the beginning. But insurgent movements, in turn, represent a counter-state or counter-government, which means that guerrillas replace the government in certain regions by regulating communal life and local economy, protecting the community, i.e. the guerrilla assumes a number of responsibilities. If the civilians, subjectively, do not consider these guerrilla obligations fulfilled, their support of the guerrilla can fade away quickly. For example, it often has been observed that local civilian populations have rescinded their backup to the guerrilla, blaming the insurgents for leaving the civilians unprotected after highly repressive public forces, trying to strike the insurgents, had caused mainly civilian casualties. As becomes apparent, the cultural framing and socio-political network underlying insurgent movements are highly complex and go far beyond classical materialistic explanations drawing only upon “objective” measurable criteria.

Lukas Rehm

Please cite as:
Rehm, Lukas. 2012. “Guerrilla.” InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspectives. www.uni-bielefeld.de/cias/wiki/g_Guerrilla.html.


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