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BOOK REVIEW: "Revolutionary Movements in Latin America" by Cynthia McClintock

United States Institute of Peace Press
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BOOK REVIEW: Revolutionary Movements in Latin America: El Salvador’s FMLN and Peru’s Shining Path by Cynthia McClintock (US Institute of Peace Press) 1998

The Marxist-inspired “armed struggle” in Latin America has been covered in depth by authors and journalists alike over the past five or more decades and in the 1998 book Revolutionary Movements in Latin America, which compares and contrasts Peru’s Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) and El Salvador’s Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), which were at their height in the 1980’s and into the early 1990’s.

The FMLN was a revolutionary movement that had its creation  at the National University of El Salvador and how the militants felt forced into taking up arms, as one female Salvadoran rebel (“Nidia Diaz”) recalled: “I love peace, and life; but an unjust war was imposed upon us … (I did not want to take up arms bt) there was no alternative … The causes of the struggle are still here, continue to persist: misery, hunger, exploitation, disrespect for human rights.”

And while peasants were commonly associated with FMLN, others in the middle classes of Salvadoran life were attracted to the movement.

When Catholic priests were abused or murdered, as was the case of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980, “midlevel leaders and urban professionals” joined the guerrillas against the repressive right-wing government back by the Americans. Romero’s murder, for many Salvadorans, “was the galvanizing atrocity.” With liberation theology becoming popular and leftist Catholic priests emphasizing economic injustice, the government knew it had to tamp down the insurgency.

With the Shining Path, economic inequality, human misery and suffering and hunger were among the attractions of those joining and becoming Senderistas. They saw Peru’s corrupt leader, Alberto Fujimori, “as the man responsible for the hunger and genocide” committed against the Peruvian people.

“What I like most about Sendero,” said one supporter, “Is that the ideology maintains you, and you are not servile, and you don’t accept the misery that is inflicted by the governments that come and go, puppets of North American capitalism.”

In Peru, however, it was university professor “philosopher-warrior” Abimael Guzman (a.k.a. “Comrade Gonzalo”) who was the leader and “committed revolutionary” who controlled Sendero with an iron fist for years, before his capture and arrest in 1992 following a wave of terror – murders and bombings that eventually brought Lima to a virtual standstill at one point. This was part of their war against key “public enemies,” McClintock writes.

Attracted to Marxism while in university, Guzman would later be said to only have a thin understanding of Marx and a thorough understanding of Mao, getting the cornered leader painted as simply a “studious, provincial intellectual.”

Their base of operations was in the mountainous areas of Ayacucho, east of Lima and the coast. And we have recently learned – many years after the publication of this book – that Shining Path is still in existence in remote regions of Peru.

McClintock, a political science professor and director of Latin American studies at George Washington University, and also a former fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace, draws the reader in in explaining why both revolutionary movements had staying power – within the framework of geopolitics (in the orbit and influence of the USSR to a small degree?)

The chapter “U.S. Policy and Latin American Revolutions” really goes in depth at framing what was going on when FMLN and Shining Path were at their political zenith.

“During the Cold War, if the U.S. government determined that a democratic or quasi-democratic Latin American regimed was threatened by Marxist revolutionaries, a major rescue effort was a virtual certainty.” And while that was the case in El Salvador, with the FMLN, the U.S. government did not look at the Shining Path insurgency through the same “Cold War prism,” notes McClintock.

And then there’s the issue of foreign aid. El Salvador, much closer to the U.S. in proximity, was provided “more than six times the amount of U.S. aid to Peru,” notes the author.

Prior to El Salvador and Peru, though, there were successful revolutions in Latin America in 1952 (Bolivia), 1959 (Cuba), and 1979 (Nicaragua’s Sandinistas). McClintock examines these historical examples, explaining why rebellion worked there and not elsewhere.

The author reminds the author that revolutionary movements are “not an anachronism” and that when authoritarian regimes (and there are many in 2015) around the world continue to repress and/or exclude their people (look at what is happening in Turkey today or in Chiapas, Mexico in the 1990’s with the Zapatistas) or embrace free-market economics at the expense of the working class, well, that’s when the trouble starts and the post-Cold War revolutionary movements begin to stir, in all likelihood, in the remote and destitute regions. With Pope Francis emphasizing social justice, one wonders if we may see a repeat of the revolutionary movements we witnessed during the Reagan-Bush years?

McClintock’s scholarly book has many, many pages of notes and information. This is a must read – despite being 17 years old – for those wanting background on what was going on in Latin America in the latter days of the Cold War era. 

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