Urban Guerrillas Try to Fight Military Rule

TO CALL THEM bandits is just plain wrong--the real bandits in South America wear army uniforms or conservative business suits. To protest that they are unnecessarily violent ignores the violence that produced them--the hunger and poverty as well as the police forces and the electric shock tortures. And to romanticize them as modern Robin Hoods belittles the seriousness of their political strategy and disregards the changes in South American society that have called that strategy into being.

In the film State of Siege, the urban guerrillas were almost all young people, but their theoretical mentor was a Brazilian in his late fifties named Carlos Marighela, the man who formulated a plan for urban guerrilla warfare that is adhered to by groups as disparate as the Tupamaros in Uruguay and the People's Revolutionary Army in Argentina.

Marighela, a leader for 40 years of the Brazilian Communist Party, became increasingly disenchanted with the Party's failure to take action against the military dictatorship which seized power in Brazil in 1964. Marighela opposed the Party's decision to stand pat, await the restoration of parliamentary democracy, then work to augment its strength within the electoral system. He resigned in 1967 and helped establish the Action for National Liberation, a network of urban guerrilla units in Brazilian cities which engineered a spectacular series of raids and kidnappings, including a 1969 abduction of the American ambassador which forced the dictatorship to free 15 political prisoners. Marighela himself was shot to death by Brazilian police in late 1969, but his writings survived him and have guided urban guerrilla organizations in other Latin American nations.

What caused Carlos Marighela to renounce 40 years of his life, turn his back on a party he had led and a set of tactics he had helped develop? The reasons underlying Marighela's abrupt swerve from left tradition can be traced to the transformation in the character of Brazilian political life the dictatorship represented, a transformation that foreshadowed similar metamorphoses in other Latin American nations.

The Brazilian generals who toppled the elected government of liberal president Joao Goulart in 1964 were a new breed of militarists. Episodic military rule had punctuated the history of Latin American nations in the century and a half since independence, but the generals had usually withdrawn after a while and allowed at least a semblance of parliamentary democracy. But the Brazilian "gorillas" were different. They dissolved all political organizations, banned labor unions, suspended civil liberties, filled the jails, and sat back comfortably, smugly confident that skyrocketing U.S. aid and investment would foster economic development and undercut the sources of rebellion. The generals planned to stay in power for a long time, and the Communist Party's plan to wait them out made less and less sense as the decade wore on.


Had the generals studied sociology and government (instead of military science) in North America, they would have had even greater cause for satisfaction. A growing body of theorists predicted that left revolutions would not happen in industrializing, urbanizing nations. Revolutions were a "disease" which afflicted peasant societies. They believed that the proper innoculation was rapid economic growth. This was the theory behind the Alliance for Progress--the United States would still intervene militarily when it saw its interests threatened--Cuba, 1961, Dominican Republic, 1965--but armed force was only one of a two-edged sword. Economic aid and investment, the other edge, would finance the construction of factories and cities, give birth to stable urban working and middle classes, and thereby reduce the threat to U.S. domination of the country posed by men like Fidel Castro leading rural peasants to power. Representative democracy was the optimal form of government for Latin American nations, but the United States has had few qualms dealing with even the harshest military dictatorships if American hegemony is protected.

BRAZIL was the first of a growing number of Latin American nations to fall under long-term military rule, a new form of political system characterized by a combination of repression, economic development aided by the United States, and urbanization. Uruguay, the site of State of Siege, was a nation with a long history of democracy: the military moved into power there last June. Peru and Bolivia have also been ruled by the new type of general, and Chile in the wake of September's bloody repression of President Allende's government, has fallen under the sway of the gorillas. Venezuela is still technically a democracy, but there have been military rumblings there also.

It is this new form of imperialist repression which has produced urban guerrilla movements. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara fought their battles in the countryside, among and with peasants in predominantly rural Cuba. They established what they called a foco, a zone controlled by the revolutionaries, and expanded that area until the Batista government fled. Action in the cities, strikes and work stoppages, was merely supportive.

Carlos Marighela greatly admired Fidel and Che, but he modified their theory markedly in applying it to Brazil. The growth of industrialism under the gorillas meant that Brazilian cities were naturally far more important as arenas of conflict than were Cuban cities. The situation in Uruguay was even more pronounced: fully one-half of the country's two and one-half million people live in Montevideo, the capital, and any revolutionary scenario would have to take that factor in account.

Marighela intended that the Brazilian revolutionary war would eventually spread to the countryside, where the major battles would be fought, but the struggle was to begin in the cities, both to mobilize people living there and to prevent the military from immediately wiping out the revolutionaries. The new revolutionary war begins in the cities, Marighela wrote, "instead of with rural guerrilla warfare which would have attracted a concentration of enemy forces." The wave of political bank robberies, assasinations, kidnappings and so forth would demoralize the government, increase the repression and the contradictions within Brazilian society, and prepare the country for a large scale rural war which would finally topple the dictatorship.

Urban guerrilla war has not met with success thus far. Marighela is dead, the Tupamaros are dispersed, and the Chilean people have not yet swung into action, although the Pinochet dictatorship says it expects urban outbreaks. In Argentina, the People's Revolutionary Army is in action, although the situation there is complicated by the curious figure of Juan Peron. The North American sociologists were both right and wrong. Industrialism did not cause revolutionary resistance to disappear, but neither has that resistance gained anything resembling political victory. The successes of urban guerrilla warfare have been almost exclusively informational: The kidnappings and the robberies have shown that U.S. repression in South America has not ended. Whether the urban guerrillas can end that repression remains to be seen.

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