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  • Latin America's Internal Wars
  • Gustavo Gorriti (bio)

With the end of the Cold War, there has been an understandable decline in concern about the dangers of violent insurgencies in Latin America. As we shall see, it is true that the threat they pose has diminished in most of the Hemisphere. Yet in a number of important countries, guerrilla movements continue to put at risk the current process of political democratization. Thus it remains vital to examine how the still imperfect young democracies of Latin American can confront insurgencies without aborting the process of democratic consolidation and lapsing back into dictatorship.

At first glance, the situation appears encouraging. To begin with, revolutionary insurgencies today are thinner on the ground in Latin America than at any time since the Cuban revolution. Currently, only Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia, and Peru are facing significant insurgencies, and only in Peru are the prospects for a peaceful settlement presently nonexistent. In Guatemala, the June 1 peace accord signed in Madrid by President Vinicio Cerezo's government and the UNRG (the umbrella organization for all Guatemalan guerrilla groups) was a historic, albeit fragile, first step towards ending the country's exceptionally brutal 30-year-old internal war. In El Salvador, the combined effects of military stalemate, a changed international situation, and the subsistence of the elected regime all point towards a peaceful resolution. All in all, this is indeed, as far as internal war is concerned, the most promising moment in Central America in many years.

In Colombia, after the troubled but convincing transit of the M-19 [End Page 85] from armed insurgency to peaceful and rather successful electoral competition, several other guerrilla movements have either embarked upon, or announced their disposition to engage in, formal peace negotiations. Although these guerrilla organizations are not the most important ones, the situation does seem to be changing for the better.

More generally, the spread of democratic rule has continued throughout the Hemisphere, with most countries already engaged in a process ranging from prolonged democratic transition to democratic consolidation.

But this hopeful process still confronts great challenges, particularly since all too many Latin American countries display an inverse relation between political and socioeconomic progress. Indeed, the most remarkable feature of the new wave of democracies in the 1980s and early 1990s is their amazing resiliency, their capacity to survive adverse conditions. While it used to be said that an inflation rate of over 60 percent a year would topple any Latin American government, the Latin democracies of the 1980s endured not only quadruple-digit hyperinflation, but also negative growth and widespread corruption. Besides the so-called "D problems," (debt, development, demography, and deforestation), unsuccessful reforms in some countries and missed opportunities in others have reinforced a general impression of failure, while no clear alternatives seem to have emerged out of the whole set of unhappy experiences. Yet with memories of military rule still fresh, most people, both civilian and military, remained convinced that renewed military rule would only make things worse.

A closer look at current Latin American insurgencies provides matter for sobering reflection. The diminished number of insurgencies is heartening, of course, as is the waning of the superpower rivalry that so often exacerbated them. The insurgencies that remain, however, are stronger both because of their independence from direct international influence and because they have arisen as developments of or alternatives to the string of insurgencies that followed the Cuban revolution. In the two most salient cases, namely El Salvador's FMLN and Peru's Shining Path, they have learned from the experience of 30 years of continual guerrilla war and terrorist rebellion.

However else they may differ, the current insurgencies are alike in being extremely violent, and in showing considerable staying power. All are fighting either established democracies or elected governments that are making gradual transitions to more comprehensive forms of democratic rule. Guerrillas in the Andean region have also become enmeshed in the dynamics of the U.S.-led "Drug War." The escalation of this war might well trigger an intensification of insurgent violence severe enough to threaten democracy itself.

The authorities in the threatened countries must confront the nightmarish realities that any Third World...


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pp. 85-98
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