21st Century Revolutions In Latin America

  • Category: History
  • Words: 4263
  • Grade: 85
Ever since the arrival of Columbus, Latin America has been the scene of many revolutionary struggles. After the battles against the newly arrived conquistadors, many must have thought that the struggle for independence in the 19th century would be the end of conflict in their nations. But in the 20th century, civil wars have been waged against the common enemies of the people: imperialism, rampant poverty and inequality. The people of the region have bled for change, sometimes for the better, but generally in a losing cause as displayed most profoundly in Central American nations such as Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, where hundreds of thousands lost their lives in search of a better way that escaped them in the end.
        With the dawn of the 21st century, Latin America has yet to shed the burden of civil war, both existing struggles and those that are young. In the South American nation of Columbia, the civil war that originated in the 1950's has yet to be settled by peaceful means or by way of force. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) have been fighting the Federal Army since 1966. On January 1st, 1994, the day Mexico was to formally enter into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and hence the world economy, a guerrilla group calling themselves the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) rose up in arms and captured several cities and towns in the southern state of Chiapas. It was a stark reminder that Mexico in particular and the region in general were not as stable as analysts suggested and that armed struggle has yet to be abandoned as a vehicle for social change.
        But while the FARC has been battling for 35 years without either overthrowing the government or making substantial strides towards their goals through negotiations, in their 7 short years of existence the Zapatistas, who pose a much smaller military threat to the Mexican government, have engaged in negotiations which have led them far closer to achieving their goals than the FARC have. It will be argued that the EZLN has had greater success than the FARC for 2 main reasons. The Zapatistas have proved themselves to be experts in the field of public relations, presenting, and sometimes altering, their image and attracting international attention to their struggle, while the FARC are largely unknown and retain little international solidarity from civil society. Furthermore, the methods that the FARC have utilized have robbed them of any hopes for international support and may have even helped their enemy, the Colombian government. Secondly, while Columbia is still regarded as a third world nation, Mexico's entrance into NAFTA has propelled them into the industrial world, and as such, they face a higher level of international scrutiny in their handling of the rebels, while the Colombian Armed Forces are essentially free to use whatever means necessary to destroy the rebels. As with any study, it would be futile to asses the situation without being able to place it in a historical context, so a brief history of each group while be provided prior to entering into any further argument.

Origins and Current Status

        The FARC can trace their origins to the period roughly between 1949-1958 known as "˜La Violencia,' a conflict between Liberals and Conservatives that left 200 000 Colombians, mostly poor campensinos, dead.1 The FARC was born out of the peasants who had settled on land during La Violencia and formed armed self-defense groups to protect themselves from the violence.2 After years of this violence and a military government from 1953-58, the parties came together to form an agreement to end the fighting. Known as the "˜Frente Nacional' (National Front), the agreement stipulated that the presidency would rotate every four years, the congress and all other legislative bodies would be equally divided between the two; essentially "a constitutional mechanism designed to divide all national power equally between the two groups."3 (emphasis in original) The agreement only recognized the two parties, making any third group illegal. In the face of rising political violence and income inequality, in 1966 the FARC switched its tactics from defensive to offensive actions and issued a manifesto of its goals. In a document typical of Marxist-oriented groups of the era,4 the FARC called for, amongst other demands, the withdrawal of military forces, wage increases, more spending on public and a system of agrarian reform.5
The group spread out from its base in southern Colombia and began to use traditional guerilla tactics against the government forces. The FARC also developed the characteristics of a full-fledged army, through the appointment of Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda as their commander, the capture of uniforms from the Federal Army and a "˜guerrilla code' of laws, dictating punishments for banditry and other crimes.7 Support was gained through FARC protection of peasants who seized land from large estates, and the rebels essentially became the government in these ares.8
After a massive government counter-insurgency campaign in 1980-81, which the FARC managed to survive and even expand its number of active fronts (from nine in 1979 to 27 by the end of 1983), both sides met in an effort to create a peace. On April 1, 1984, a one-year truce was signed, in which the FARC received only vague promises about social and economic reform, yet the agreement did not require disarmament. Part of the plan allowed the creation of a broad-based political party, the Patriotic Union (UP). After the murder and intimidation of hundreds of UP members, the FARC separated itself from the party and renewed its armed struggle in 1985.9
The next 13 years were defined by violence. The dramatic rise of paramilitary death squads added to an already volatile mix. Between 1989 and 1999, an estimated 35 000 people died, and the number of internally displaced refugees is over 200 000. Peace efforts were few and far between, but in 1998, President Andres Pastrana ceded a 19 000 square mile enclave to the rebels as a show of good will to further negotiations.10
Recently, talks are again being held, but they remain tense. On October 5, 2001, rebels signed an agreement promising to end its practice of kidnapping hostages for ransom. But, by October 11th, BBC News reported that the guerrillas had kidnapped and executed 2 police officers in response to death squad activities that left at least 40 dead, some of the over 1000 victims of the conflict this year, putting hopes for a lasting peace once again at the edge of collapse.11

The origins of the EZLN are much more homogenous and easier to discover than those of the FARC, partially due to the superiority of the literature available. The southern state of Chiapas, on the border with Guatemala, has a long history of rebellion and extreme poverty. Because of their geographic isolation, residents of Chiapas, mainly Mayan, were mainly forgotten both during and in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917). As Neil Harvey notes, "The revolution in Chiapas was essentially about who would control access to Indian land, labor and production." Forced to fight by wealthy landowners, natives were "manipulated by all sides during the civil war."12 Once the revolution had been won, they received no part of the spoils:
Land reform, one of the main legacies of the Mexican Revolution, had never been fully implemented in Chiapas. Large numbers of Mayans had lived for several generations in their villages but were still fighting for their land. They had copies of presidential decrees granting them land titles"¦[but] wealthy Chiapas ranchers had blocked their efforts by appealing such decrees in the courts and using their political clout to make sure they would never be enforced.13

A long history of uprising and popular movements fighting for change followed, yet things seemed to get worse for the residents of Chiapas. Under the government of Miguel de la Madrid (1982-1988), legal consolidation of estates skyrocketed. The government handed out 2932 certificates for large agricultural farms and 4714 for cattle ranches, 75% and 90% respectively of the total certificates issued since 1934.14 By the 1990's, poverty in Chiapas was reaching epidemic proportions. The contrast of the wealth of the resources in the state and the state of the people is staggering: 55% of all hydroelectric power, 21% of oil and 47% of natural gas is found in Chiapas. Meanwhile, nearly 60% of homes lack electricity, 50% lack tap water, and the illiteracy rate of 30% is over triple the national average.15
        Given this history of poverty and repression, it is not hard to understand why the residents of Chiapas took up arms. Three indigenous and three mestizos, including Subcommandante Marcos, who would eventually become the group's leader, formed EZLN on November 17, 1983. The group was formed as a result of "the need for self-defense in the face of unrelenting repression," and in response to several violent evictions that year.16 Throughout the next 11 years, the group worked in mainly Mayan communities, educating and training the people, as well as building their up their trust and support for the movement and its leaders.
        By late 1993, the group was ready to launch the revolution. In the first hours of 1994, the very moments when NAFTA would legally come into effect, EZLN troops attacked and seized several towns and cities in Chiapas, including the tourist city of San Cristobal de la Casas. After holding the cities and town for about a week, the rebels slipped back into the cover of the Lacandon Rain Forest. 145 people died in the 12 days of relatively light fighting.17 Since then, EZLN has maintained de facto control over parts of Chiapas and most of the Lacandon jungle, and have not made any offensives, seemingly preferring to take the issue to the bargaining table. In 1996 the two sides reached an agreement giving indigenous communities more autonomy. The San Andres Accords were quickly vetoed by President Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000).18
        Peace talks have been stalled since, but no further violence between the EZLN and the Mexican Federal Army has occurred, although paramilitary action is still occurring. In March and April of 2001, the EZLN traveled through a dozen Mexican states, ending up in Mexico City and speaking to nearly 500 000 people at a rally. They also made an historic address to the Mexican Congress, pressing for concessions for talks leading to their decommissioning. Although some demands were met (political prisoners released and army base closures in Chiapas), their principal demand, the implementation of the San Andres Accords, was ignored, and the responsibility of indigenous autonomy was passed on to State leglislatures.19 For the time being there is peace, but it remains uneasy.

Media and International Support

        Since the opening salvos of the revolution, the Zapatistas, and particularly Subcommandante Marcos, have shown themselves to be incredibly adept at harnessing the powers of public relations and the media. Along with revamping their image somewhat substantially in the days following January 1, 1994, the Zapatistas have been able to use the Internet to spread their manifesto and gain international support for their movement, while at the same time aligning themselves with other progressive causes.
        The image revamping mentioned earlier plays a crucial role in showing how the Zapatistas gained international attention. As Andres Oppenheimer argues:
Judging from the Zapatistas' initial communiqués, internal rebel documents, and Marcos' own response when I asked him about it, there is little doubt that the Zapatistas grew up as a traditional Marxist guerrilla group, which changed its rhetoric after the January 1 rebellion, when its media-savvy leader discovered the advantages of playing up the Indian participation in his uprising- the one aspect of his revolution that had captured the world's imagination.20

Indeed, if one does look at the initial January communiqué, it is filled with Marxist rhetoric, the type of document that could have just as easily been issued by the FARC or the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The document has various references to imperialist influences in the nation and a pledge to "suspend the sacking of our natural resources."21 Zapatista declarations in January of 1993 stated the goal of the organization was to "establish the dictatorship of the proletariat, understood as a government of the workers that will stave off counterrevolution and begin the construction of socialism in Mexico."22
        Within days of the January 1 offensive, the tone of the rhetoric, and indeed its focus, drastically changed. Marcos realized that the notion of a Marxist revolution was not quite as romantic as that of Mayan natives rising up in arms to end their oppression by the Mexican State. The venture proved a huge success, and within days, the Zapatista cause was known across the world.22
        The Zapatistas were also able to make use of the Internet as a medium to spread their message. Shortly after the first offensive, an official Zapatista website sprung up and was used to issue various communiqués and manifestos. The importance of this action was that those outside of Mexico could follow their struggle:
With the cease-fire, any projection of the war to the outside had to come not through a self-squandering of the Zapatista army but by circulating the uprising in different media. The uprising of Indians against the establishment gained the instant national and international attention, creating a network of electronic support that was far different from the general insurrection for which the Zapatistas had hoped.23

Within weeks, individuals and groups began to set up their own Zapatista sites, and the image of the EZLN spread worldwide. The Internet also allowed the Zapatistas to align themselves with other popular causes. Chiapas quickly became a major focus of the "new left" and Chiapas was the site of various conventions and meetings of civil society groups in the 1990's.24 Marcos sent letters to Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu Jamal, America's best known political prisoners.
        In the years that followed the Zapatista following grew both inside and outside Mexico's borders. Portraits and quotations of the Subcommandante sprung up all over Mexico, in the same fashion of Zapata 80 years earlier. In western countries, shirts, buttons and patches with the EZLN letters or a picture of Marcos began to appear, and it seemed he was approaching the legendary status of Che Guevara. The Zapatista movement has also been the focus of at least three documentary films. Their ability to gather public support, even though somewhat deceptively has undoubtedly helped their cause.

        In the case of the FARC, it seems the only press coverage afforded to them in the Western media is negative, and the group has been unable the gather international support for their revolution. It seems that the methods that they have employed have not helped them in this respect. When the FARC is mentioned, it is joined at the hip with issues like ransom kidnappings and narco-trafficking, the two primary fund raising activities of the group. Both issues are huge problems and businesses in the country in general, and the FARC seemed to have made the pragmatic decision to take advantage of them. The FARC doesn't actively produce or market cocaine, but provides protection for those who do, and levies a tax on it. The have made attempts to reform the system, protecting the peasants who grow the coca leaf and ensuring that those who purchase it from them pay in cash, instead of in refined cocaine or crack.25
        Extortion kidnappings are also used to fund the revolution. In 1997, the FARC was responsible for over 50% of the 867 reported kidnappings in the country, including those of foreigners.26 Between the two enterprises, the FARC generates an estimated $600 a year.27
        The FARC has also carried out summary executions on those it considers to be government or paramilitary supporters. Amnesty International accused the group of six murders and eight disappearances over a three-week period in 1999.28 The group was blamed for 23% of the extrajudicial killings in Columbia in 1997.28
        Other techniques, such as the intimidation of voters and politicians have also hurt the image of the FARC. One of the worst public relations mistakes they made was in 1991, when they bombed an oil pipeline, in one of the over 200 instances where the FARC has attacked an oil pipeline.29 The line ruptured, and spilt "more oil into the Orinoco River Basin than the Exxon Valdez did in Alaska," causing an environmental nightmare and leading to the first civilian demonstrations against FARC actions.30
        The failure to observe the Geneva Conventions combined with their questionable and violent fund raising techniques have led to their inability to gain strong national, much less international, support. In fact, the actions taken, especially in narco-trafficking, have likely done more harm than good, attracting the US into subsidizing the "˜War on Drugs' in the Colombian theatre. The well-established link between cocaine and the guerrillas may well hold dire consequences for their movement.

The Issue of NAFTA

        The NAFTA trade agreement, so symbolic to the EZLN uprising, very well might be their saving grace. With their entrance into the world economy, Mexico hoped to solidify their position in the global order, placing themselves closer to the developed end of the economic spectrum. As such, when the uprising began, they were expected to handle it in a first world fashion, as the entire world watched. More than just a test for Mexico, the Zapatista rebellion would prove to be a test for the institution of free trade itself. Politicians in Washington and Ottawa routinely claimed that trade would have a democratizing effect on less developed countries, and if the Mexican Army were to simply destroy the EZLN, which they easily could have done seeing as EZLN fighting strength is suspected to be no greater than 2 500 mainly poorly armed soldiers, the publicity would have cast into serious doubt the supposed democratic benefits of free trade.
        The Mexican government, very conscious of its image in the world media, ended its military operations within 12 days of the opening of the revolution and decided to negotiate for peace. Undoubtedly, Washington had a part in this. In Congressional hearings, Representative Chris Smith (New Jersey) noted that:
"¦It became evident that the events would demand a response by the Mexican Government. Sadly, the military response chosen by the Mexican authorities was harsh, deadly, overwhelming and inappropriate. The violent reaction by the thousands of troops left an unknown death toll"¦ the reported torture and executions must be investigated. The stain of bloodshed will not fade easily, but represents the grim consequence of neglect by authorities in recent deacades.31        

Pressure like this and the fact that the "events were watched by a variety of civil organizations, thereby limiting the possible range of actions for a government concerned about its international image,"32 forced the Salinas government to pursue negotiations.
        The international focus has also reduced, though not eliminated, the paramilitary activity that has come to be an ugly facet of almost every conflict in Latin America over the past 30 years. Paramilitary groups so exist, and massacres have occurred under the eyes of Mexican authorities, such as the Acteal massacre described by Christine Eber:
The massacre of 21 women, 9 men and 15 children"¦ on December 22"¦ was committed by a paramilitary group called La Mascara Roja (The Red Mask). The shooting lasted from 11:30 in the morning until 4:30 in the afternoon. The state government tried to cover up the massacre by altering the scene of the shooting"¦ but those investigating the crime revealed that high-level military officials were involved. From one until four in the afternoon, retired Brigadier General Julio Cesar Santiago Diaz was stationed at the entrance to Acteal, 200 meters from where the massacre occurred. He was accompanied by 40 state police and 4 state police commanders, all of whom listened to the rapid succession of gunfire for over three hours and did nothing to stop it.33

Although gross human rights abuses are still committed in Chiapas, the Mexican military is held responsible for the bulk of these, and as they are somewhat responsible to the government, these abuses may be easier to halt.34
                The integration of Mexico into the world economy and the attention that the rebellion in Chiapas has attracted has had a positive effect on the hopes for peace in the region.

                Going back to Colombia, efforts to end the conflict peacefully have proven to be unsuccessful. This failure, complicated by the fact that, "In Colombia, in all three groups [Government, Paramilitaries and the FARC] to a greater or lesser extent there are important elements that have not renounced violence as a means of achieving their political objectives,"34 has led to a state of permanent war. The strength of the FARC has prevented a clear military victory by the government. With 15 000 fighters, a small fleet of helicopters and newly purchased surface-to-air missiles,35 the "country faces what has been called a negative draw,"36 where neither side is able to win, leading to a war of attrition. Colombia has been a very violent country for years, and as such, few in the international community have spoken out against the rampant human rights abuses. Some nations, like the US, have even had a helping hand in these abuses, and because of the lack of criticism, the Colombian government essentially holds carte blanche in dealing with the rebels.
                In order to defeat fight the rebels, the Colombian government has increasingly relied on outside parties for assistance in dealing with the FARC. In contrast to Mexico,
"The Colombian military has always had more autonomy for civilian institutions than the Mexican, developing its activities in the area of national security- fighting against guerrilla movements and drug dealers- with little control form the civilian authorities."37 Paramilitary groups, some funded by ranchers, some by drug cartels and others by the army, have increased in size and number since the early 1980's. By the late 1980's, some 140 of these groups existed, some bearing obvious names (Death to Kidnappers, The Machete Squadron) others having elongated or puzzling titles (The Crickets, The
Soot-Faced, Death to Land Invaders and their Supporters, Punishment to Swindling Intermediaries).38 These groups have been the private armies of their masters, launching massive campaigns of murder and intimidation. In recent years, transnational corporations, especially those in the mineral and oil business, have been accused of having links and providing funding to paramilitary groups.39
                Colombia has also turned to the United States for help in the war, although the rhetoric surrounding the US aid program to Colombia is thick. Under President Clinton, Congress approved a massive military aid package to the Colombian government. Under the pretext that the money would be used to fight the drug war, to which the rebels are inextricably linked, "˜Plan Colombia' gave $1.3 billion of military aid to the country with the worst human rights record in the hemisphere, continuing a time honored American tradition of doing so around the world (Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Burma and Indonesia to name a few). Despite the fact that concrete links between previous the US military aid program and paramilitary groups have been established,40 Colombian soldiers will receive training and arms from the US. In June of 2001, the Canadian Press reported that, "The US government is hiring private American firms to fight its drug war in South America, a move critics say amounts to hiring mercanaries."41 The article also reports that George W. Bush is now saying that the aid should be used to fight the FARC, which most serious observers assumed to be the object of the exercise in the first place.
                The situation for both groups remains very much in the air. The Zapatistas forces continue to hold a cease-fire, but remain a standing army. At this point, it seems that the fighting is over, and that any solution will be created on the bargaining table as opposed to the battlefield, but only time will tell. In Colombia, the situation is even more ambiguous. The long battle of the FARC seems to be far from its close. Peace talks have led to no substantial change in either side's position; the government has not yet given in to the FARC demands, and the rebels have yet to abandon hope for a military victory. But with the US now placing a huge investment in the outcome, the prospects seem grim. Following an existing brutal model of intervention in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala, history sets a dire prediction for Colombia and its inhabitants. The Colombian government probably wants to solve this problem within 4 years, with 2005 being the target date for the institution of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Whether or not they will remains to be seen, but if the FARC can hold out, they may find themselves in a stronger position for negotiations, similar the position of the Zapatistas in Mexico. If the government decides that a military solution is the only possible outcome and the long history of violence in Colombia continues, the human and economic cost will be enormous.

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