Nathaniel Whittemore Latin American Revolutions Final Paper 6/06/2005 Absolute Violence: The Renegotiation of Political Action in Revolutionary

Latin America This paper attempts to understand the role of violence in Latin American revolutions. Using a comparative framework, it examines how different types of violence were used to achieve different ends. Rather than view violence as a monolithic entity, it attempts to understand the varying symbolisms and significances of different groups’ violent actions and to understand how the popularly understood intention of violence and the force of the group from which it emanated affected its effectiveness in achieving its intended ends. It is my assertion that revolutionary groups who employed violence often unintentionally subverted their own cause by contributing to the renegotiation of a political landscape in which capacity for violent action was both the primary determinant of political power and in which violence was the only means by which common people could contribute to the political process. By participating in and conflagrating the culture of political violence, groups whose ultimate objective was popular political participation under a system of political, social and economic rights undermined their own cause. Moreover, their own violence, while often much less vicious, brutal, or indiscriminant than that of powers attempting to maintain or restore an oligarchy or dictatorial status quo, was used as justification for third party intervention on the side of that status quo. As part of this process, different groups appropriated part of the culture of political violence for their own ends. These appropriations tended to be rooted in a) the needs (social, identity, economic, or other wise) of the group and b) the understood ends of that violence (personal gain, community ascendancy, etc). The legitimacy of this violence tended to rest in the common understanding of its place in the dominant order of the time, and the understood capacity of the group from which it emanated to inflict further violence. Especially recently, then, the most effective opposition groups have tended to be those for whom violence functioned as a clearly delimited means to a non-violent and popularly understood end. It was only when revolutionary opposition groups offered within their own structural frameworks immediate or long-term alternatives to violence that they were able to survive in the long run. Indeed, the history of Latin America is often one in which the violence of revolutionary movements (both that which comes from their members and that which is justified in response) obliterates the idealism animating their members. In many of these situations, the only radical upheaval achieved through revolutionary violence is the creation or bolstering of a situation in which violent acts are the route to political agency. This paper attempts to explore these patterns by looking at Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Peru. Structurally, it follows one

relatively common pattern of violent political renegotiation. I begin by exploring the United States “special” relationship with Latin America, and the practical training for autocrats that that often entailed. I then move to the period of frustration when opposition groups take up arms, the response of powerful third party actors, and finally to the situation in which violence is the dominant political currency. In each situation I have attempted to ask relevant and enlightening questions for those circumstances in which the pattern is broken or disrupted. I conclude with a discussion of 1990s world opposition movements and the way they may reflect changing dynamics of resistance. Section One The United States has long maintained that its relationship with Latin America holds a special significance. This relationship is curious in that it has been continuously defined by a violence justified as necessary for the maintenance of that relationship. This significance has at times been economic: for decades Latin American agricultural markets have supplied US citizens with fruit, vegetables, and important crops like coffee. Additionally, specific circumstances, such as the need for a canal for shipments between coasts, reaffirmed this special economic importance. Simultaneously, Latin America has held a specific ideological significance. On the one hand, it has always been a place to test the idea of United States as a benevolent power. As early as the Monroe Doctine, America formally conceptualized its foreign relations with less powerful (militarily or economically) nations in a way fundamentally different than old-world colonialism. The United States, as a former colony itself, had the privilege of understanding the value of tutelage and exchange, while also recognizing the incredible importance of selfdetermination. In practice, the distinction between the exploitation of colonialism and the benevolence has often been hard to distinguish. Despite this tense and often hypocritically reality, American rhetoric has tended to hold Latin America as an important testing ground for its sense of projected self. Walter LaFeber discusses this very tension in the first chapter of his Inevitable Revolutions. On page 22, he writes: Thus was struck the continuing contradiction in North American Policy between the principle of self-determination, whose value has been self-evident to the US mind, and the expansion of their own nation’s power, whose value has also been self-evident to Americans.1 Latin and Central America have also been important testing grounds for another American ideology; that of economic liberalism and free trade. America’s liberal foreign economic notions have continuously pushed for open access to markets, low or non existent tariffs to agriculture exports, and developing economies based on exchange of agricultural and

La Feber, 22

raw materials of industry for foreign capitol. Interestingly, these economic goals have produced the most direct contravention of the other espoused goal of hemispheric self-determination. Indeed, it is this goal which has tended to produce the most direct and indirect United States violence in the southern arena. As many scholars have noted, despite the rhetorical significance of self-determination and American benevolence, the overwhelming goal of the United States in Latin America has been stability. This has meant geostrategic stability in the face of global communism and ostensibly domino-like third world revolution. In both cases, this stability has been in the service of political order, and perhaps even more, maintained and un-threatened economic relationships. Indeed, for the United States, Latin American politics have tended to seem important specifically in their ramifications for the maintenance of an economic status quo which continues to benefit US producers and consumers, even at the cost of average Southern citizens. Discussing the support and training of the Nicaragua National Guard that became a part of Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor” policy, La Feber discusses the importance of the shift from US direct military intervention in Latin America, which had been common policy since the elder Roosevelt’s presidency, to a new, more indirect but just as relevant involvement in Latin American affairs. On page 71, he writes that FDR and Co “had found in the National Guard the answer to the perplexing problem of how to maintain an orderly, profitable system without having constantly to send in the marines.”2 Even more directly, La Feber asserts that “[no priority] ranked higher for Washington officials than order.”3 It is within this context that US violence must be understood. Be it direct military intervention, training for future autocrats in the School of the Americas, or CIA advising and destabilizing in covert operations, the United States violent involvement in that part of the world has tended to understand itself in the service of stability. In this situation, violence has functioned as a fundamentally demobilizing force. Counter to all our ostensible goals of selfdetermination and the employment of the citizen participation governing models we pride ourselves on, the type of violence that the United States has engaged in or supported in Latin America has been fundamentally about maintaining relationships of dominance and status quo’s in which politics are in the service of international economic exchange. Violence was used to demobilize restless populations and to eliminate their senses of political autonomy. Additionally, it is clear that violence was the political currency to which the US paid the most attention and accorded the most respect. For example, when a golpe in 1931 El Salvador brought General Maximiliano Martinez to power, the United States refused to open relations. The next year, however, disorganized communist uprising was met with
2 3

La Feber, 71 La Feber, 76

overwhelming force, and Martinez’s forces “slaughtered thousands of others in a kind of preemptive strike that set a bloody precedent for later Latin American military dictators who faced mass uprisings.”4 Within a few weeks, he was given informal US recognition. Especially after WWII, strategic support for and sometimes even preemptive investment in Latin America became part of official Cold War policy. La Feber suggests that access to raw materials became a security asset in the post-1945 Washington mind, and that in fact, US support for dictators was a rational choice calculation which determined that “given Washington’s needs and reliance on military means, the dictators were its best bet to maintain the system.”5 Indeed, summarizing a 1967 US Senate –sponsored analysis or El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras, “military force apparently equaled political peace.”6 This is not to say that the United States has followed a policy designed to deny the rights of voting to average Latin American citizens. Indeed, to the contrary, elections themselves have been a top priority of policymakers. The March 1982 Salvadoran election was given an important place in Reagan rhetoric. US officials brandished the election turnout as if they were waving a talisman to drive off the forces of darkness.7 These elections however, demonstrate a US support for an incredibly shallow popular participation. Continuing the previous quote: [The US officials] overlooked the absence of an opposition press, free speech, or freedom of assembly, not to mention the military’s close watch on individual voting in the ballot places. Above self-determination has been the goal of maintaining a clearly defined set of relationships. If elections did or could produce the results which would affirm that order, then they were championed. If not, they were, overtly or covertly, overturned. This was the case with the US sponsored coup of Guatemala’s popular Arbenz, Chile’s Salvador Allende, and numerous others. In this way, whatever the stated goals of US policy, violence came to undercut non-violent political landscapes and peaceful transitions of power. The most important, unexpected, and often misunderstood ramification of American violence in Latin America was that through it and the responsive violence it inspired, the entire political system was renegotiated. Violence, in cyclical pattern, became unrestricted, and an end in of itself. It became an end rather than a mean in that force became the dominant currency of political transaction. As violence and violent upheaval became common place, space for political maneuvering had increasingly to be cleaved. To engage in politics, citizens had to engage in violence. In some ways, Peru’s Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path was the embodiment of this shift. Some governments became so vicious and uncontrollable that even

4 5

La Feber, 75 La Feber, 112 6 La Feber, 174 7 La Feber, 317

the United States government balked. In 1980, a Reagan official said “What we’d give to have an Arbenz (the Guatemalan leader overthrown in a US engineered coup in 1954) now.”8 Yet throughout the second half of the 20th century, American money and training supported the transition to a violent political environment. Often this process started before revolutionary upheaval. Trying to hedge their bets, so to speak, the United States would invest in leaders whom it believed either capable of maintaining order or at least willing to follow American directives in a majority of situations. This investment might be educational, economic, advising based, or something even more direct. Section Two Demobilizing the Latin American electorate was a task that proved extremely difficult. Especially in the first quarter of the 20th century, Latin America was often defined by upheaval. The 20s and 30s saw waves of popular rebellions. It is interesting to note however, that while these were not simply peaceful little gatherings of the disenchanted, the sorts of brutality, indiscriminant terror and symbolic violence that characterized certain countries a few decades later had yet to come to fruition. These movements tended to produce moderate reformists who promise gradual land redistribution and greater inclusion of average citizens in the political process. By the late 1940s and 1950s, however, those once promising governments had decayed and the new systems had become old. The combination of disillusionment associated with these disappointments and the new third world revolutionary discourse circling after World War II, as well as the example of nascent Latin American revolutions created situations in which more and more groups were looking to armed struggle for liberation. Speaking of Guatemala, La Feber reminds us that the generation coming of age after WWII had “matured in a world shaped by global revolution, FDR’s Four Freedoms, and a new awareness of the horrible social conditions within the country, especially among the Indians who comprised more than half the population.” Indeed, the continued inability of reformers to affect change through systemic means led increasing numbers of groups to begin to claim political space through violence. Just as terrorist groups seek to remedy military power imbalances through strategic strikes which make those organizations appear more powerful than they are, so too did armed revolutionary movements begin to use violence to extend their influence much beyond the size of their constituency. Unbeknownst to them, their appropriation of violence would involve them in a renegotiated political sphere in which force was the ultimate determinant of power and influence, and in which their own violence would give justification and leverage not simply to


La Feber, 261

their own ends, but to powerful outside actors who’s primary goal was to ensure that they would not disrupt the status quo they rejected. Within this framework were some groups who, like the state, attempted to use violence to demobilize the population. Most notably, Peru’s Shining Path distinguished itself from other Peruvian leftist movements by rejecting ambivalence of purpose.9 Its purpose was to inspire and wage a cleansing popular war which would situate all participants on one of two sides: that of the Shining Path or that of the state. It believed that a total destruction of the system was required. In their minds this was, to appropriate Schumpter’s term, creative destruction: the total replacement of an old order with something new and better. This ironic utopian appropriation of violence represented an extreme end of the course of Latin American revolutionary movements. Its success in Peruvian society is nevertheless enlightening in its demonstration of the disturbing bounds of the renegotiated political landscape. Section Three As early as 1943, thinkers in the United States had begun to formulate visions for postwar international order. These visions tended to create spectrums of progress which, of course, found the United States at a polar end. They suggested that an America awakened to its own power and obligation in a new world could be used as a mighty force of good. In these imaginations, American leadership would be the benevolent leader that created a half century of peace and prosperity out of a half century of terrible catastrophe and war. These grand visions soon gave way, however, to fears of rising communist menace. The intensity of feeling that a world behind America was posed for greatness was matched only by the intensity of fear that global communism could destroy everything in that dream. The sense of common destiny animating immediate post war thinkers quickly gave way to a sense of common threat. There arose a strange situation in which America looked outward to bolster its turning inward. In this climate, the goals of stability in Latin America became even more prescient in the minds of Washington policymakers. As La Feber noted, after WWII, access to Latin American goods and general political stability became security issues. Preserving stability now meant the protection of an entire system of economic and political order. To an even greater degree, official Washington thinking reflected the overwhelmingly dominant goal of ensuring the power of partners willing to tow the American line in all situations. The United States government became a fundamentally counter-revolutionary force. Domestic fears of communist penetration seeped into foreign policy and any reformism which might start the slippery slope to communism was intolerable. From 1949 to 1964, The US School of the Americas, located in the Panama Canal Zone churned out hundreds of would-be leaders, newly trained in counter


Stern, 19

insurgency techniques. 358 graduates returned to El Salvador, 958 to Guatemala, and no less than 2,969 came back to work with the Nicaragua military or National Guard.10 American officials were explicit in their fears, and made reference of other nations that had been “lost” to communism. Secretary of State John Dulles told Congress that “if we don’t look out, we will wake up some morning and read in the newspapers that there happened in South America the same kind of thing that happened in China in 1949.”11 In this context, opposition violence came to be the necessary justifying factor for American direct or indirect interference in Latin American politics. As more and more opposition groups (organized and disorganized) took up arms, or threatened violence, it became increasingly commonplace for the state (supported by international allies) to respond with overwhelming demonstrations of force, brutality or both. In 1960 the president of El Salvador declared a month long state of siege after uncovering ostensibly student communist threats. In response, “military officers jailed the students, invaded…the library to tear it apart, rape female students, and kill a librarian.” This would only get worse over the next two decades. By the 1980s, violence had become an almost singular factor in political relationships. Section Four Just as popular civic participation in nonviolent politics is characterized by a variety of motivations for and manifestations of participation, so too did a Latin American political system defined by violence find different individuals and groups employing violence to very different ends. For some groups, violence, as political participation, was means and ends. These groups were typically the most disenfranchised and most bereft of political voice. For them violence was a way to communicate a specific and historical set of grievances, and to be engaged as political actors in a way denied them in nonviolent movements. In many cases, government violence was a triggering factor in the revolutionary process. In the northern Guatemalan town of Panzos, soldiers massacred a group of Q’echi Indians when they met on town square to request help protecting their land from local authorities. This triggered an incredible response. As La Feber wrote: “Indians who had been passive for centuries became revolutionaries.”12 In Peru, the senderistas provided disenfranchised rural youths with a chance for social ascendancy, an outlet for their potential radicalism, and a new medium for exerting their own individual power. One youth from Rumi remembered

10 11

La Feber, 111 La Feber, 111 12 La Feber, 258

A famous illusion…they created among the muchachos was, way back in 1981, that by ’85 there would be an independent republic. Wouldn’t you like to be minister? Wouldn’t you like to be a military chief? Be something, no?”13 For some, violence was a means to an individual end. One unintended consequence of the corruption of violent autocratic regimes was that its bolstering forces, the police and the army, were often subject to the same corruption and shifting alliances as its leadership. Corruption, like violence, came to define entire systems. Nicaragua’s National Guard provides a perfect example of the way that violence for individual gain could both bolster and be the undoing of a system of repression. As the FSLN came closer and closer to victory, the Guard’s toughness, which had been “proved by the murder and brutalizing of women, children, and unarmed men,” crumbled. A foreign mercenary fighting for Somoza was similarly disgusted: “There was nothing gutsy about those guys…They ran like rats.”14 When their personal incentives to be violent dried up and it became clear that they were working for the losing team, their resolve evaporated. For certain individuals, violence simply became the way that political and social frustrations were resolved. As the Carter administration tried to implement a military government that both broke the power of the Salvadoran oligarchy and gained massive peasant support by moderate land redistribution, they ran into the effects of a new culture of violence first hand. Those oligarchs whose power would be broken by the reforms tended to “hire former ORDEN (death squad) members of D’Aubuisson’s killers to eliminate peasant groups that tried to take the land.” In a sick irony, Between January and August 1980, peasant deaths accounted for more than half of all civilians murdered. The death rate ran highest in areas where land reformers were most active. The lower classes were engaged in similar violence. In 1983, The Economist joked that it cost $100 or less to have “your wife’s lover or business rival” killed in Guatemala City.15 By 1982, even the Guatemalan military was awash in personal power struggles and mob violence. Both military and leading civil society members fought each other like “rival mafias.”16 In El Salvador too, violence for personal gain or personal connections became the norm. In the 1980s, “Salvadoran officers’ first allegiance was to protecting members of their tanda (their military school graduating class), rather than to the nation, and in many cases they were equally interested in getting rich. Salvadorans believed that their army’s ranks were captain, major, colonel, and millionaire.”17 As the system of violent participation strengthened, contests to demonstrate power often ensured that the particular style of violence was increasingly brutal and visual. Priests
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Stern Ed., 130 La Feber, 236 15 La Feber, 322 16 La Feber, 260 17 La Feber, 314

testifying about Somoza and the National Guard in Nicaragua told Congress that torture included not only rape and electric shock, but innovative devices “such as forcing a prisoner to swallow a button on a string while a Somoza official kept tugging it up.”18 Moreover, as the FSLN guerilla army strengthened its forces in 1978, Somoza’s Guard was given free reign. It leveled parts of towns and massacred thousands of people. One survivor later testified, “I could see what they did to my Mother after they killed her – they slit her stomach open with a bayonet. They cut off the genitals of my brotherin-law and stuffed them in his mouth.”19 By this point, the Frankenstein of US-backed Latin American force had completely left its creators control. Scrambling to determine the best course of action, the woeful Carter government could do nothing other than have a spokesman suggest that “the Guard had to be kept to “preserve order.”” La Feber cynically suggests that At that moment Somoza’s troops were dive-bombing slums, murdering unarmed people in the streets, and looting the cities.20 Similarly, the newly elected but incredibly weak president of Guatemala in 1980, Duarte, admitted to the US ambassador that the military had been responsible for the killing of a moderate revolutionary leader and “implicitly admitted that neither he nor any other civilian could control the forces.”21 Even earlier, as La Feber notes in the 1960s, “[the Guatemalan officer corps]…with a single voice…told the United States to provide supplies and training but no advice, as its troops killed thousands of peasants and political opponents in the name of “counterinsurgency.””22 One fascinating result of the gradual build up of the Latin American culture of political violence was that through their actions, actors became basically indistinguishable. Ideology increasingly gave way to ability and willingness to use force. With no revolutionary organization was this process more embraced and glorified than with the Shining Path. Hinojosa writes that No other organization…stayed so exclusively aloof from the electoral political scene and concentrated so completely on its “popular war.” Nor could anyone compete with Shining Path on the terrain of war – neither in the rhetoric of war, nor in the cult of death as a welcome blood sacrifice, in short in the idea of violence as a permanent and legitimate political resource that transcended any “social cost.”23 Section Five The Shining Path is not only a telling example of violence in Latin American revolutions in its successes. There are important lessons contained within its eventual defeat and the popular resistance it inspired as well. As Stern writes in his introduction to Part II of Shining

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La Feber, 228 La Feber, 232 20 La Feber, 233 21 La Feber, 254 22 La Feber, 256 23 Stern Ed., 76

and Other Paths, Sendero squandered all of its political advantages in its inability to look beyond violence as both means and ends. It came to rely ever more exclusively on violence and coercion to exert a direct political presence, and it would end up facing organized resistance by peasant…military patrols determined to defend communities against incursions and intimidation.24 In truth, Sendero’s greatest strength was also its greatest undoing. Its ability to employ brutal and unfeeling violence throughout Peruvian society, and through this violence attract young constituents from historically disenfranchised populations gave it an incredible advantage in a climate where force was the most respected political currency. Yet at the same time, the violence was so that it existed outside the bounds of comfort and acceptance even for the most calloused peasant populations. Its “brutal indifference to the sufferings and deaths of youths drawn into the war effort”25 would eventually bankrupt its political and social capital and indeed, inspire a turn away from violence. Degregori noted that the Path “had an ideology that made violence an absolute value rather than a relative or proportionate instrument.”26 As time passed, the root and emanating force of that violence began to change. The internal repression and terror tactics Sendero began to employ against its own population reflected not only a continued belief in violence as political currency but a weakening of internal organization. No longer was violence a symbol of strength; it had become a stop gap measure implemented to delay an ensuing chaos.27 Conclusion Three examples of 1990s opposition movements, one of them from Latin America, provide a final context for thinking about revolutionary violence in the modern era. In 1994, a rebellion in the Mexico state of Chiapas, designed to coincide with the entry of Mexico into the North American Free Trade Association exploded in bloody siege. Within a few days, it had become clear that the Zapatista movement was ill-equipped to combat the Mexican government militarily. The intelligent organization quickly shifted its focus. Over the course of the next few months, strictly delimited and strategic violence was used as part of a more general strategy of marketing and publicity, utilizing the internet and other creative means to disseminate writings on (largely legitimate) grievances. Over the next few years, the group took on cult status in a number of circles and was able to influence political discourse to an incredible degree, considering its overall real size and strength.

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Stern Ed., 122 Stern Ed., 123 26 Stern Ed., 135 27 Stern Ed., 168

In 1987, the Islamic Resistance Movement was founded in the Palestinian Territories as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood that would deal directly with the first Intifada. At first, that organization was unsuccessful in differentiating itself from other resistance movements. It soon employed an ideology of violence, however, which defined its struggle in terms that were culturally, historically, and religiously relevant to a large part of the Palestinian public. Over the course of the next five years, HAMAS was able to build a presence in the Palestinian political space through its use of strategic terrorist violence. In 1993, however, the promise of the Oslo Accords quickly undercut the Palestinian publics willingness to see violence as the preferred means of political exchange. HAMAS had quickly to adopt to the changed climate. Since then, they have employed a multipart strategy in which violence is an important part but never moves from means to end. It has sold itself as a malleable yet firm organization capable of responding to the demands of an oppressed population. In 1998, a number of university students in Belgrade founded OTPOR, or “Resistance” to attempt to bring down the Milosevic regime through citizen action. It was decided extremely early that there would be no violence. Firstly, they recognized that Milosevic had more capacity for force than they ever would. Secondly, they recognized that this use of repressive force as political exchange was “trademark” of Milosevic, and that by taking violent action, they would be, ironically, supporting the system which kept him in power. Instead, they formed an extensive grass roots network of individual actors and used symbols and humor to erode the sense that Milosevic was the dominant and singular political actor. They were able to unhinge those police and military forces who were working for the regime because they that that was the most expedient political decision. As stickers saying “Time’s up”, stencils of the Otpor resistance hand symbol, and demonstrations sprouted up around the country, the seeds of doubts were planted in the very foundation of the regime. So what do these movements have to do with theories of violence and Latin America? It is my assertion that a dominant intended role of violence in Revolutionary Latin America was to demonstrate an ability to operate politically on the same level as the state. Violence was strategic as a means to the end of target destruction, but it was also a symbol of the potential for greater violence to come. To some degree, displays of violence were meant to make an organization seem bigger, more organized and better able to operate than it actually was. This strategy was inevitably bankrupt because it aided a transition towards a politics in which violence was the only currency. The state, with backing from outside allies, was in all cases more able to inflict violence. At the same time, this transition unleashed single action, chaotic and disorganized individualistic and citizen violence which fundamentally shifted the individualism and sensibility of Latin American countries. Even when violence was able to inspire (as with early Sendero youth recruits), its singular application and glorification eventually inspired rejection and a turning away.

In the 1990s, successful revolutionary movements tended to be those that were best able to adapt to changing climates and sentiments within support bases and to create an appearance of being bigger than reality would display. In a strange way, media began to usurp some of the former role of violence. Whether this suggests a total shift in the way opposition movements are carried out remains to be seen, but it seems clear that just as the second half of the 20th century saw a new role of violence in Latin American guerilla movements, so too with this new era witnessed a change in strategies of resistance.

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