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Emery Coxe

Professor Haynes
History 6
February 23, 2009

The Functionality of the Foco Theory

The key ideological figure of Latin American revolutionary movements in the

second-half of the 20th century, Che Guevara burst into the international limelight in 1956

as an integral member of the hard core of revolutionaries – the foco – invading Cuba to

overthrow the Batista regime. And it was during this formative stint in Cuba that Che, a

Marxist advocate for worldwide struggle against imperialism, expounded the first

manifestation of his theory of guerrilla warfare, one that would be amended over the

years, reducing the qualifications for revolutionary struggle while preserving the

fundamental tenets of his theory. Central to Che’s theory was his belief in the foco – that

a “small band of men, the armed vanguard” could, when certain base conditions existed,

induce the subjective conditions for revolution, and thus foment an uprising and achieve

social justice (Guevara, 55). Though he later placed less emphasis on the necessity of

these core conditions for revolution, a revision that has generated much criticism of his

theory and arguably precipitated his demise, Guevara was resolute in his conviction that a

small group of ideologically committed individuals could disseminate the message of

their movement and sow the seeds of revolution among the populace. Although

Guevara’s theory perhaps romanticized the critical importance of the foco to the

revolution’s success, it was accurate in stressing the necessity of a committed

organization – not necessarily a political party – central to the revolution that would

spread the political message and unify popular support. By analyzing the revolutionary

movements that occurred in the 1960s and 70s in Cuba, Nicaragua, Vietnam, and Bolivia,
parts of Guevara’s foco theory are validated – namely, his faith in the ability of a foco to

create the subjective conditions for revolution and instigate the masses through political

effort – while others are discredited – his conviction that the foco alone can overcome a

dictatorship without external help.

Before examining the foco theory through the lens of the aforementioned

revolutionary struggles, the principles of Guevara’s theory must first be delineated. While

much of Guevara’s seminal Guerrilla Warfare and other writings reiterate tenets of

guerrilla warfare established in Mao Tse-tung’s On Guerrilla Warfare and other texts, he

did offer several unique thoughts on the matter. First, he asserted that when “forces of

oppression…maintain themselves in power against established law” and “people…see

clearly the futility of maintaining the fight for social goals within the framework of civil

debate” – significantly, this excludes governments operating under the guise of

constitutional legality – then guerrilla fighters themselves, without the backing of a

separate political organization, could create the subjective conditions for war through

propaganda and appeal efforts aimed towards the peasantry (Guevara, 51). In the words

of Che, “as a product of the interaction between the guerrilla fighter and his people, a

progressive radicalization appears which further accentuates the revolutionary

characteristics of the movement and gives it a national scope” (Guevara, 74). This

conjecture was a break from previous guerrilla texts in that it rejected the necessity of a

vanguard party that would propagate the ideology of the revolutionaries and engender

public support. Additionally, Guevara developed the concept of a foco – a group of

between 30 and 50 men of similar social background as the peasantry – as the “vanguard

of a popular army” and the “political and military center of [a] revolution” that endeavors
to “minimalize, neutralize, and exterminate the ability of the government to curb and

opposition and maintain stability”, thus acting as a “catalyst of revolution” by converting

the small-scale actions of the foco into a mass uprising (Moreno, 116-119). Later, Che

expanded the scope of his belief in the ability of the foco to foster revolution, stating that

oligarchic dictatorships operating under the pretense of democracy can be felled by

“[obliging] the dictatorship to resort to violence, thereby unmasking its true nature as the

dictatorship of the reactionary social classes” (Guevara, 154). Once the government has

been pushed to violence, “the development of the struggle will bring about the general

strategy”, and “as vanguard of the people…[the foco will] create the necessary political

conditions for the establishment of a revolutionary power based on the masses’ support”

(Guevara, 157,159). Lastly, Che emphasized the international nature of the struggle

against imperialism, calling for a “world confrontation…to eliminate the foundations of

imperialism” and achieve the “liberation of all people” (Guevara, 172). Implicit in this

declaration is the belief that the revolutionaries need not be citizens of the country in

which they are fighting, and that international revolutionaries can galvanize the national

spirit of a country to rebel against an unjust government.

The success of the Cuban revolution – fundamental to Che’s development of the

foco theory – substantiates the notion that a hard core of guerrillas can, through

politicization of the peasantry, induce the subjective conditions for revolution to uproot

an oppressive government. Cuba in the 1950s was ripe for revolution, exhibiting many of

the requisite objective conditions: the majority of its economy relied on a single crop –

sugar production, an economic endeavor controlled by and benefitting US interests that

resulted in seasonal unemployment; corrupt political practices allowed dictators to


manipulate and consolidate power in the government, furthering their own and US

interests through political strong-arming; and tensions arose from the strong US influence

in Cuba, particularly due to the corruption that characterized the US-Cuban relationship

(Skidmore, 300-5). After a botched landing in Cuba that decimated the majority of the

26th of July Movement’s forces, the remaining revolutionaries – about twenty guerrillas,

including Fidel and Raúl Castro, and Che Guevara – fled to the Sierra Maestra

mountains, where they rebuilt their troops and began fostering the subjective conditions

for war in Cuba, mainly through politicization efforts that legitimized the guerrillas and

weakened the Batista government (Skidmore, 306). Following two months of relative

inactivity, the guerrillas – who recognized that the erosion of Batista’s foreign support

was critical to toppling his regime – achieved their first major success at propagandizing

their movement with the help of Herbert Matthews, a journalist for the New York Times

who wrote a series of articles on the rebels that gave them “international status overnight”

and put Batista “on the defensive in world public opinion” (Skidmore, 307). This

publicity brought the rebels new recruits: 58 men, mainly of middle-class origin, who had

joined to combat the “brutality, corruption, and antinationalism of the politicians”

(Skidmore, 307). Aside from seeking international support, guerrillas in the mountains

“took a strong interest in [the] people’s fate because they needed peasant support to

survive in the mountains” (Skidmore, 307). Months of political work among the

peasantry eventually bore fruits: “peasants and landowners began to recognize rebel

forces as the government of the region by paying taxes to and obtaining protection from

the rebel forces” (Moreno, 125).

In addition to political endeavors, the foco coordinated military strikes, first at La


Plata and El Uvero, two military bases, and their successes lent credibility to the

movement and precipitated new fronts against the Batista government – student

movements and anti-government uprisings – that spread a “generalized belief of

dissatisfaction” and “[gave] credit to the foco as the only credible challenge to the forces

of the government” (Moreno, 124-5). As guerrilla warfare intensified from 1957 to 1958,

Batista was pushed to adopt increasingly repressive tactics, such as torture and execution,

actions that produced “new rebel adherents” (Skidmore, 308). Further civil unrest

developed, prompting Cuban bishops to appeal for a “government of national unity”, and

moreover, the United States, whose support of Batista was crucial to his rule, began

withdrawing their interests from Cuba, beginning with an arms embargo placed on the

Batista government (Skidmore, 309). As the revolution continued through 1958 and into

1959, the foco reinforced their position at the forefront of the movement and solidified

their role as vanguard of the movement: the rebels made it clear that the llano leaders –

political leaders in the cities – would not “impose their will upon the [revolutionaries]”,

and by January 1959, “everybody accepted [the foco’s] leadership” (Moreno, 128). This

sequestration of popular support assured Castro’s succession to power when Batista fled

the country on New Year’s Day, 1959 because the foco had “[remained] the key political

institution thereafter” (Skidmore, 309).

An application of Che’s foco theory to Cuba vindicates his assertion that the foco

can develop the subjective conditions for revolution. Upon establishing camp in the

Sierra Maestra mountains, guerrilla soldiers faced a Cuba that objectively satisfied the

conditions for revolution – due largely to the corruption of the Batista regime – yet was

not on the brink of disaster. The aforementioned actions of the guerrillas – which align
extensively with the guerrilla tactics outlined in Che’s Guerrilla Warfare – had

“[accelerated] and spread the process of social disintegration of the old structure to the

whole system…[and] made people aware of such a situation” (Moreno, 129). Moreover,

“when the masses decided to act, they followed the lead of those who had been

effectively active…the leaders of the foco were now to become the leaders of a mass

struggle” (Moreno, 129). To put it another way, the actions of the foco had indeed created

the subjective conditions for revolution, and instigated an uprising in which they were the

primary player.

In the Nicaraguan case, once more is Che’s conviction that a foco can induce the

necessary conditions to precipitate a full-blown insurgency affirmed. However, the

success of the FSLN was due largely to political workings that developed as a result of

FSLN activities, and the support of external nations, and thus, the notion that the foco

will resultantly win the induced uprising of its own accord cannot be maintained without

qualification. As in Cuba, Nicaragua displayed a preponderance of objective conditions

critical to the development of revolutionary struggle: the Somoza dynasty “epitomized

the Caribbean-type dictatorship described by Che Guevara as the ideal target of the

guerrilla foco”; furthermore, Nicaragua’s economy relied heavily on the export of a small

number of crops, which in turn promoted inequality in land distribution, sowing

discontent among rural peoples (Loveman, 345-7). In July 1961, the FSLN – the foco in

Nicaragua – was founded following an “upsurge of anti-Somoza activity” since 1959 that

entailed, among other conflicts, violent clashes between the repressive National Guard

and student organizations (Loveman, 350). Rooted in the tradition of the Nicaraguan war

hero Augusto Sandino, the FSLN set out on a course of revolution that would last nearly
20 years. The FSLN propagandized and recruited for their cause through student

movements such as the FER, which disseminated the social ideals of the revolution

through protest and by “organizing study circles, which were then organized into teams,

teams that later became cells of the Frente Sandinista” (Cabezas, 32). Additionally, the

FSLN “worked to incorporate local peasants and workers into a network of sympathizers

and intelligence gatherers” (Loveman, 353). Oftentimes, this entailed personal contact

between peasants and FSLN guerrillas, centered on principles such as land reform and

class struggle. In the words of Cabezas, “we invited [the peasants] to struggle and to fight

for agrarian reform” (211). This political work was accompanied by small-scale guerrilla

operations and several major successes for the FSLN, such as the capture of Somoza’s

brother-in-law in 1974 in an attack that earned massive publicity for the movement. As

the FSLN continued spreading their message and organizing resistance to Somoza’s

government, they “[created] a heroic, even mythic, image of the valiant muchachos who,

against impossible odds, continued to fight the Somoza dictatorship” that garnered

increasing peasant support (Loveman, 354). Nevertheless, the brutal repression of the

Somoza regime, which failed to deter the foco, hacked away at the leadership of the

movement – “most FSLN leaders of the 1960’s were dead, in prison, or in exile” by 1970

– and at times brought the FSLN to the brink of extermination (Loveman, 354).

Though the FSLN had followed Che’s school of guerrilla warfare to create

subjective conditions for revolution and had succeeded in establishing a large rural

support base, their efforts came to fruition largely due to a combination of political

opposition, social discontent induced by non-FSLN sources, and foreign support (or lack

thereof). Drought from 1970-72, economic turmoil, and “modernization of


agribusiness… disrupted rural Nicaraguan society, and served as a prelude to the crisis of

the late 1970s” (Loveman, 357). Furthermore, a massive earthquake in Managua in 1972

that left the city crippled and devastated exacerbated tensions between Nicaraguans and

the government because Somoza and his cronies ruthlessly exploited the situation to

make ludicrous profits. The FSLN capitalized on the public’s growing dissatisfaction: “in

the period 1970-74 with greater political organization work among the masses, and with a

considerable development of the vanguard’s internal structures…the Sandinist war took

great leaps forward in the accumulation of political, organizational, material, and military

force” (Loveman, 359). As encounters increased between the FSLN and the National

Guard, Somoza’s forces became increasingly brutal and repressive, “[creating] more and

more enemies of the dynasty and a growing tide of unfavorable publicity in the US”

(Loveman, 360). The country was finally pushed to insurrection following Somoza’s

assassination of Pedro Chamorro, whose murder galvanized anti-Somoza opposition

throughout the country and throughout organizations, leading to a general strike that

paralyzed the country for a month (Loveman, 362). Soon, the country was in the grips of

a civil war led by the FSLN that lasted until July 1979, when revolutionary forces finally

ousted Somoza. Veritably, the FSLN had succeeded in creating a revolution and

uprooting an unjust government using the foco theory; however, their success cannot be

viewed as a complete validation of Che’s theory because it succeeded due to substantial

external help, which contradicts Che’s belief that the foco alone is sufficient to overthrow

a dictatorship. First, throughout the period of struggle, Somoza faced opposition from

many different aspects of society, from agrarian to bourgeois, encompassing students

groups, such as the FER, Christian groups (MCR), and many others. In fact, “the
bourgeois opposition itself opened up the crisis of the Somoza regime and actually led the

first phase of the revolution. It was only at the end of the process, with the help of

Somoza’s intransigence, that the FSLN captured the leadership of the struggle”

(Loveman, 357). Additionally, the political work of the FSLN, far from relying strictly on

popular appeals made by the foco, “required the incorporation of entrepreneurs, clerics,

workers, and…political elites” (Loveman, 366). Loveman and Davies go one step further,

charging that the FSLN would have failed even with political aid from outside sources

had the FSLN not received “extensive assistance from…Costa Rica, Venezuela, Panama,

Mexico, and Cuba” (366). Lastly, the increasing disapproval from the US for Somoza,

particularly over his human rights abuses, ultimately led to the withdrawal of US political

support for the Somoza regime, which allowed the masses to unite in rebellion against the

National Guard. While these events were crucial to the FSLN’s ultimate success, they are

unaccounted for in Che’s theory, and thus cast doubt not on the ability of the foco to

create conditions, but rather on its ability to succeed of its own volition without external

support.

Though the Vietnam War was guided by General Vo Nguyen Giap’s application of

Mao’s strategy of guerrilla warfare, it nevertheless offers demonstrates the ability of

guerrilla forces to generate support for revolution among the masses, and to unite them

for revolution against a common foe. Vietnam possessed the objective conditions for war

in that there was substantial hatred for Diem’s repressive tactics and rigged elections;

furthermore, the agrarian policy set up by French colonialists created tensions between

landowners and peasants, who desired land reform. Originating in South Vietnam, the

revolutionary movement was spearheaded by the National Liberation Front, “the symbol
of Vietnamese national aspirations and the vehicle for mobilizing support”, and for the

intents and purposes of this analysis, the Vietnamese incarnation of a foco (Duiker, 143).

Notably, the NLF and the entire revolutionary movement was backed by the DRV, the

government and political organization of North Vietnam; this external support from a

political organization, though a break from Che’s theory and the aforementioned cases,

does not exclude Vietnam from an application of Che’s theory wholly. Much like the

FSLN in Nicaragua, the NLF utilized personal contact between members and the

populace to pull on nationalist aspirations and gain sympathy and support for the

movement: as Truong Nhu Tang described, “I would make my approaches gently, talking

over current happenings with my friends and associates, sounding out their political

leanings and the intensity of their convictions” (85). Throughout the war in Vietnam, the

NLF’s “religious preaching of nationalism and radical social change” – in particular,

agrarian reform – was crucial to mobilizing mass support and creating the subjective

conditions for revolution (Harrison, 147). The NLF additionally pursued small-scale

guerrilla operations to complement their political front to increasingly spur revolutionary

zeal among the rural populace in South Vietnam, but as the war dragged on, NLF fighting

relied more heavily on North Vietnamese forces to “take over the brunt of heavy

fighting”, and likewise, relied increasingly on conventional assaults (Elliot, 1116).

Moreover, the revolutionary fighters received increasing “uninterrupted support” in terms

of war materials and supplies from China and Russia to combat their enemies, and

coupled with the withdrawal of US forces and tactical support from South Vietnam, this

assistance allowed the NLF to overrun RVN in 1975 (Sorley, 382). Once again, the fact

that the revolutionary forces in Vietnam succeeded due to external support – from North
Vietnam, China, Russia, Cambodia, and Laos – and the withdrawal of US interests in the

conflict offers strong evidence negating Che’s assertion that the foco alone can lead a

guerrilla movement to victory. Similarly, the external political influence of the DRV on

the NLF again detracts from Che’s theory because it was critical to the development of

ties with the aforementioned countries. Nevertheless, the war testifies to the ability of a

guerrilla movement to generate a revolution by developing subjective conditions that

motivate the populace to take up arms and struggle for freedom: the actions of the NLF in

the South Vietnamese countryside to earn peasant support by championing nationalism

and land reform changed the war from a conflict between small cadres of hard core

opponents of Diem to one in which “275,000 [South Vietnamese] were killed in action”

(Sorley, 383). The massive amount of military casualties alone evidences the support for

the revolution that the ideological indoctrinations of the NLF instilled in the peasantry,

and affirms that the military can indeed bring the people around to revolution by creating

subjective conditions that compel them to rebel.

Finally, by applying Che’s theory to the Bolivian case, where Che was caught and

executed in 1967, the expansion of his theory – namely, that subjective conditions could

be induced in countries that had, at least nominally, a democratic alternative – is

disproved, and moreover, through the failure of the foco in this case, Che’s original

assessment, that objective conditions for revolution must be met before subjective

conditions can be induced, is reaffirmed. To begin, though Bolivia in the 1950s exhibited

objective conditions for revolution – a weak mono-product economy, extreme disparities

in landownership, and an “archaic, manorial social system” that exploited the Indian

population – Che arrived in 1966 to a Bolivia that had “experienced fundamental


changes” due to a national revolution by the MNR in 1952 (Loveman, 314). Among other

improvements from the MNR, “destruction of the Bolivian latifundia system” and a

functional party system that held regular elections created a population that generally

favored the Bolivian government (Loveman, 316, 318). Thus, because agrarian reform

and political discontent were not viable ideals to gain popular support, Che’s foco had

“no hope of creating the necessary subjective conditions among the peasantry”

(Loveman, 322). The foco further damaged their chances of inciting a revolution by

precipitating an irreparable rift with the PCB, eliminating a large portion of their potential

support base in Bolivia and severing their political resources. This break occurred, in

part, because the internationality of the foco – 21 of the 50 guerrillas were not Bolivian –

troubled the PCB, who wanted Bolivian leaders to head the revolution; their

internationality further attributed to their failure because they suffered from a “woeful

lack of knowledge of the Bolivian geography”, a terrain that was already barely

compatible with the desirable terrain described in Che’s theory (Loveman, 319-20). The

foco’s unfamiliarity with the Bolivian countryside accelerated their ultimate demise by

causing a separation of the their forces, one of which led by the Cuban, Joaquín, was

wiped out in August, 1967 by Bolivian forces, thus destroying the majority of the foco

and yielding the “seizure of all their supplies of food, medicine, and munitions”

(Loveman, 323). A little over one month later, the Bolivian army, having recently

increased the military prowess of their army with the addition of 600 US trained Bolivian

Rangers, captured Che and the remainder of the foco, marking its end and the end of any

“significant guerrilla activity in Bolivia” (Loveman, 325). The failure of Che and his foco

to succeed at instigating a revolution provides historical evidence that simultaneously


rejects Che’s assertions that a foco can create a revolutionary movement where viable, or

at least seemingly viable, political outlets exist and that international revolutionaries can

foment a national rebellion, while upholds the validity of Che’s belief that prerequisite

objective conditions must exist for a foco to achieve its aims, for clearly, his efforts

collapsed in a country lacking these requirements.

Though Che’s foco theory overestimates the capabilities of a dedicated group of

individuals to create and win revolution, and though Che later amended his theories to

further romanticize that revolution could be instigated without certain objective

conditions for rebellion, particular concepts of his theory withstood the trials of history.

However, when comparing the central tenet of Che’s theory – that of the foco – to its

counterpart in Mao’s theory, the foco parallels, at least in part, the role political parties

play in other schools of guerrilla warfare. In that regard, it becomes necessary to ask: if a

foco is to espouse political ideology, and is to unite a population towards one common

goal, and is to control governmental power once that goal has been achieved, what real

differences – other than the resolve to fight – exist between a foco and a political party?

And furthermore, if the foco resembles a political party in functionality, how much of a

break does Che’s theory of guerrilla warfare represent from that of Mao?

Works Cited
Cabezas, Omar. Fire from the Mountain. New York: Crown, 1985.

Duiker, William J. Sacred War: Nationalism and Revolution in a Divided Vietnam. New

York: McGraw-Hill Humanities, Social Sciences & World Languages, 1994.

Elliott, David. The Vietnamese War: Revolution and Social Change in the Mekong Delta,

1930-1975. Chicago: East Gate Book, 2003.

Guevara, Ernesto Che, Brian Loveman, and Thomas Davies. Guerrilla Warfare. Danbury:

Scholarly Resources, Incorporated, 2002.

Moreno, Jose. "Che Guevara on Guerrilla Warfare: Doctrine, Practice and Evaluation."

Comparative Studies in Society and History. 2nd ed. Vol. 12. London: Cambridge

UP, 1970. 114-33.

Skidmore, Thomas E., and Peter H. Smith. Modern Latin America. London: Oxford UP,

Incorporated, 2004.

Sorley, Lewis. A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and the Final Tragedy of

America's Last Years in Vietnam. New York: Harcourt Trade, 2007.

Tang, Troung Nhu. A Vietcong Memoir: An Inside Account of the Vietnam War and Its

Aftermath. New York: Vintage, 1986.