The Long March in Latin America

In mid-2008, the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) came under strong criticism from both Brazil’s Lula and Venezuela’s Chavez. Lula said, “The waging of armed struggle as a means of achieving power should end in Latin America. The belief that armed struggle can solve anything is out of date.” Chavez mirrored these views, saying, “The guerrilla war is history. At this moment in Latin America, an armed guerrilla movement is out of place.”

Chavez is no stranger to the armed road. His brother Adan, now a leading Chavista, was a member of the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR), a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla organization, and later with the Party of the Venezuelan Revolution, an urban underground organization affiliated with the former guerrilla commander Douglas Bravo.

But, from Adan, Hugo Chavez also saw first hand the limitations of this work. As Adan put it to Alan Woods, “We conducted urban guerrilla work. But because of its clandestine character [of the Party of the Venezuelan Revolution] did not have contact with the masses. Furthermore they were very dogmatic and sectarian. Like the MIR, it split and ended up disappearing. In order to achieve a revolutionary popular movement, which would allow the taking of power, one had to have a strong influence within the popular masses and have support within the Armed Forces.”

Adan’s prognosis mirrors the self-criticism of the Venezuelan Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN), whose leadership wrote in 1964 that they had fallen prey to “infantile subjectivism of petty bourgeois origin – the swollen enthusiasm due to a long chain of successes which we gained for a time, which made us appear each day, in Venezuela as well as abroad, like an almost mythological force of immeasurable power.” This led to an underestimation of the Venezuelan state and a grave overestimation of the fellowship between the masses and the FALN. The assessment is gloomy, but its victim was not simply the guerrilla army. It was equally the Venezuelan Communist Party, which took refuge in a quiescence that led in 1967 to its open break with Fidel Castro.

Hugo Chavez was part of the Venezuelan armed forces, within which he led a small clandestine leftist group. His band attempted a coup in 1992 that failed. Hugo Chavez went on television to tell his comrades to give up, por ahora, for now. That phrase, por ahora, struck a chord. Chavez converted his popularity into a mass movement, into which the small parties and the social movements threw themselves.

I remember meeting various left activists at the Central University of Venezuela in the years between the Chavez coup attempt (1992) and before his eventual electoral victory (1998) – their gloom was evident, nostalgia for Cuba, circa 1959, but desolation for their own future. Guerrilla warfare had ended by the mid-1990s: the leading edge for the Maoists of the continent was the Shining Path of Peru, whose leader, Guzman, was captured by the Peruvian military in 1991, with mopping up operations at work around the Maoists’ stronghold of Ayacucho. The Venezuelan left activists were in small bands, unable yet to see what had begun in the barrios, the slums of the poor that ring the city.

The fatigue with the parties of the Right and the Center-Right and the enthusiasm for the populism of Chavez’ party and his style enabled the first victory. Against US pressure and the machinations of the oligarchy, Chavez’s movement held firm. It then conducted its “long march through the institutions,” bringing the various state agencies in line with the values of the Bolivarian movement. All this culminated in the revision of the Constitution, which now better represented the aspirations of the vast mass of the Venezuelan population. State power was the goal, but it had been clear to the Bolivarian movement that state power does not only mean control of the state apparatus; if it meant only this, then the Bolivarians would have to do the dirty work of the oligarchy’s 1961 Constitution.

To write the new Bolivarian Constitution (1999), the Venezuelan population voted in a Constituent Assembly, who drafted a Constitution which was then ratified in a popular vote, the first time ever in the country’s history. The Constitution draws from a variety of sources, including from Latin America’s revolutionary history (from the liberator Simon Bolivar and the Marxist Jose Carlos Mariategui) and from Marxist theory (notably the remarkable Soviet jurist Evgeny Pashukanis). It is an astounding document, with provisions for deeper democracy at one level, and another for the widest recognition of human rights. The Chavez government had already formed the Barrio Adentro program to provide government-sponsored healthcare for the population. But this would have simply been at the mercy of the government. Now, the Constitution directs the government to provide healthcare, as it is now legally binding. All of this funded, propitiously, by the oil revenues that flooded into Venezuela’s state coffers. Guns remained holstered. The struggle was taken through the ballot box.

The successes of the Bolivarian project threatened the oligarchy with extinction and the US with the loss of its own power in its backyard. Distracted by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as by the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran, the US was unable to extend itself against the Bolivarians. The armies in the region too were not enthused to leave the barracks. The tide of history in Latin America favored the Bolivarians. Nevertheless, the US pushed for a counter-revolutionary coup in 2002. It failed, as the people rallied in large numbers behind the Bolivarian project. They had everything to lose, and they had been organized for just this eventuality. Chavez would not allow himself to fall like Pinochet. He had the support of the military, and he had not allowed the population to remain demobilized. They were now part of neighborhood committees and various self-defense leagues. They won by the numbers. The time of “terrible necessity,” to unholster the gun, was not yet at hand.

Lula, too, was also no stranger to the politics of the gun. When he was nineteen, the military deposed the left-liberal President Joåo Goulart to open an era of military rule that ran from 1964 to 1985. Lula lost the little finger of his left hand while working a press in an auto factory during the coup year, and by the time the dictatorship ended, he was a leader in the trade union movement and in the Workers’ Party (PT). During this long era, the urban middle class that leaned left went either into clandestine trade union organizational work or into gclandestine urban guerrilla units. Of the latter, the most spectacular was Carlos Marighella’s National Liberation Alliance; Marighella was the author of the influential Small Manual of the Urban Guerrilla (June 1969), a touchstone for the urban guerrilla from Montevideo to Mexico City. The police killed Marighella the same year as his manual came out (he was 57 years old, a veteran of the Brazilian CP who had broken with it over the strategy of violence).

The urban guerrilla did not influence Lula. Nor did the sectarianism of the Brazilian Communist Party during the Goulart era. The Brazilian CP took a hard line against the left-liberal regime of Goulart, letting him feel the heat from both the much less powerful Left and the much more powerful Right-wing (including the oligarchy and the military). In 1965, the Central Committee of the Brazilian CP conceded its errors, mainly “the underestimation of the danger of a rightist coup, which was considered to be a mere scarecrow, intended to frighten the masses. Concentrating our fire on the government, we demanded more and more drastic measures while overlooking our own weaknesses and the shortcomings of the national-democratic movement, as well as the effective correlation of social forces that existed at that time.” Neither the isolated guerrilla nor the sectarian line of the Goulart era CP.

The lessons for Lula were straightforward, and these went with him and the other labor activists into the Workers’ Party (PT) in 1980.  A few years later, the Brazilian campesinos formed two of the most resilient peasant organizations, the National Confederation of Agricultural Workers and Movimiento Los Sin Tierra (MST) – they built up a membership of about eleven million members. These groups became fundamental constituents of the PT. Even in the most difficult situation, Lula and his current remained with mass organizing, building a movement of Brazilian workers through small actions that build the confidence of individuals to create a strong collectivity. It was this long campaign that resulted in the Diretas Ja! (Direct Elections Now) movement of 1984 that finally toppled the dictatorship. Not once did Lula move to the gun. Some of this is certainly temperamental; he was a working-class organizer who believed in making the fullest use of whatever institutions are available to build the power of the working-class.

It was not easy for a Latin American leftist to stray too far from the gun. US imperialism has always treated Latin America as its property. The Roosevelt Corollary (1904) to the Monroe Doctrine (1823) pointed out that the US government had the right to intervene in Latin America when it saw instances of “flagrant and chronic wrongdoing by a Latin American Nation.” It was for the US President to make this assessment. And he made it often, from the 1846 invasion of Mexico to the 2009 soft coup in Honduras. If the US did not come by way of the Marines or the Bombers, it came equally powerfully with its Dollars and Free Trade Agreements. This was clear to the Uruguayan Communist Party leader Rodney Arismendi by 1947, when he wrote, “The United States is profiting from this vying for power, from advantages obtained during the war, and in particular from commitments and agreements made under the Pan-American system. There is, therefore, no Pan American economic combination that does not lay South America at the feet of Yankee industry.”

A combined Latin America needed to stand tall against the attempt by “Anglo-Yankee financial oligarchies,” which were trying to “dynamite the foundation of the newly laid peace.” Any attempt to push a peace agenda was met with the same tonic from the local oligarchs and their North American allies: military coups and murder of the organizers of the peace. No wonder the gun for the revolutionary, drowning in the sorrows of futility.

The agony of the Left saw its deliverance in 1959 with the Cuban Revolution. It was almost miraculous. A small detachment of poorly armed men and women came off a boat from Mexico to hold off the Cuban military in the highlands. From there, luck and pluck enabled them to enlarge their base (their foco) and create firm alliances with the urban mass movements, which had themselves been awoken from a deep slumber by Castro and his brigands. The dictatorship crumbled with barely a few armed engagements. It was an extraordinary moment. Young people across Latin America took refuge in it, and, in particular, with Che Guevara’s call to revolt (his Guerrilla Warfare, 1961).

The French student, Regis Debray, wrote a manifesto for Castroism (1965) which extolled the ideas in motion which do not exist “except in those towns and mountains where at the present moment thousands of militants are fighting, beleaguered, with no guarantee for the future.” Debray was careful to point out in his survey that the tendency had already failed to take flight (“armed struggle is not in itself a panacea”), and yet he willed the idea of the “organic link between armed struggle and mass struggle.” Debray’s teacher, Louis Althusser responded tartly, “It may be that your theses are correct, but your text doesn’t really provide a positive demonstration of this; it simply gives what we could call a negative demonstration. In your writings, the validity of guerrilla warfare is demonstrated less by its own merits than through the defects or drawbacks of past forms of struggle that you examine; it is supported less by its positive qualities than by the negative aspects of other forms of struggle.”

Che Guevara ultimately went to Bolivia, to try out his method for the last time. He went to a remote region, hoping to enthuse the peasantry of the north-east and the miners to throw in their lot with him. The futility of the effort comes across in Che’s last entry into his diary: “Eleven months since our inauguration as guerrillas; the day was being spent without complications, even bucolically, until 12:30 when an old woman shepherding her goats came into the canyon where we had camped and it was necessary to apprehend her. The woman gave no truthful news about the soldiers, saying that she didn’t know anything, as it was a long time since she had been here. She only gave information about the roads…Fifty pesos were given to her with the request that she not say a word, but with little hope that she would keep her promise.”

Not only were the guerrillas isolated geographically, but also they were isolated from the people. They did not trust them. It is this image that provoked Teododo Petkoff of the Venezuelan CP and then of the MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo), and now a fierce critic of Chavez, to write in 1976, “Reality showed that a revolutionary will, deprived of favorable circumstances and supported by generalities like ‘Latin America is ready for revolution’ could do nothing when faced with those ‘stony eyes’ of the Bolivian peasants who looked at Guevara without understanding his efforts to communicate with them.”

By 1976, when Petkoff wrote his screed, the guerrilla movements had dissolved into driblets. Little remained in the Southern Cone (Argentina, Uruguay, Chile), and much less still in Brazil and Venezuela. Bolivia had been rendered mute, and Paraguay never was much of an option. The activists who remained alive took refuge in incubation: they seeded movements with their careful gestures, working among the Amerindians or the trade unions, in the Amazon forests or in the working-class barrios. The armed struggle, however, took root in the Andes, from southern Peru to the highlands of Colombia. In the former, it was the Shining Path, which would be obliterated by the mid-1990s. In the latter, it was the FARC.

Formed in 1964 by a rump group of the Colombian Communist Party (and led by the remarkable leader Manuel Marulanda, also known as Tiro Fijo, sure shot), the FARC went deep into the roots of Colombia’s rural life (Colombia profunda), building rural leadership to replace the few urban militants who had retreated into the countryside. Massive assault by the US-financed Colombian military could not destroy it, and indeed it seemed to grow like a mythical beast with each attack. In the 1980s, the Colombian Left signed a peace agreement with the oligarchy, and took to the polls. FARC supported the accord, but did not sign the agreement; it did not leave the mountains for the cities. It held its guns. The accord failed, as the politicians of the Left were killed, one by one, by the oligarchy’s military. FARC restarted the armed struggle. It was the resilience of the FARC that pushed the Plan Colombia, with the US government making that country the base of its Latin American operations. But it could not defeat FARC. The situation went to a stalemate.

It is in this stalemate that other forces emerged. In the northern regions, where the FARC is also popular, came new social institutions of the Nasa Indians. They held peace in their hearts, exhausted by the protracted civil war that has claimed too many of their loved ones. For them, another path was necessary. FARC was not going anywhere. It bounced back from its demise in 1970-74, and neither Plan Colombia (1998-2006) nor Plan Patriota (2003-2006) has dented the stalemate. And yet, as the Colombian activist and economist Hector Mondragon put it recently, the FARC has long eschewed the mass line for the military line. It is devoted to its military campaign, and pays little attention to the building up of mass struggles. As Mondragon points out, “This is a political error. It has become a tragedy for popular struggles. It has permitted the strengthening of the extreme right, which today is running the country. Not only has it failed to stop the displacement of hundreds of thousands of peasants and afro-Colombians, but it has actually exacerbated that process, and even provoked the forced displacement of indigenous peoples in various parts of the country.” From this perspective one must see Chavez and Lula’s plea to FARC. They want the muscle of this organization to come above ground, join the “Pink Tide” in Latin America by assisting the Democratic Pole move Colombia’s institutions leftward.

The Bolivarian project has created a breakthrough in Latin America. It has inspired similar attempts to build electoral-parliamentary movements in concert with social movements, to use the power of the majority to seize state power and reshape the moral compact between the state and society. The Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) is the mechanism to bring the 1999 Venezuelan Constitution to the hemisphere – this an alternative to the Free Trade Areas of the Americas favored by the oligarchies and Washington, DC. ALBA is no longer simply an alternative; it is now an alliance for a new kind of inter-state reiation.

Chavez’s call for the creation of a Fifth International, as “an instrument for the unification and the articulation of the struggle of the peoples to save this planet,” takes the project to the planetary level. This is Marxism without the Blanquist move to the gun. It based on a sober analysis of the social forces arrayed around the planet, with an eye to the possibility of using what institutions exist to move a progressive agenda, and to build toward the formation of a new moral-social compact such as the 1999 Venezuelan Constitution and ALBA.

What we have today, to borrow from Debray, is the Promethean lyricism of revolutionary construction and a lucidity with regard to its own actions, an alliance symbolized by the uneven but combined efforts from Brasilia to Caracas, La Paz to Havana.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007.  This essay also appears in Student Struggle, New Delhi.He can be reached at:





Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).