The Miami Herald
Sun, Jan. 22, 2006

From guerrillas to politicians


LIMA - One staged the dramatic kidnapping of the U.S. ambasador to Brazil. Two others were members of Uruguay's notorious Tupamaro guerrillas. Another belonged to a group that bombed pipelines and electric pylons around Bolivia.

And now all are legitimate politicians and even senior government officials, carried by the left's increasing success at the ballot box in Latin America into positions of power in the very government systems they once fought to destroy.

Latin American specialists say the trend does not present a threat to democracy.

''The ex-guerrillas tend to be the most consistently pragmatic and pro-democratic forces on the left,'' Oxford professor Timothy Power wrote in an e-mail. ``Those who have been arrested, exiled, or tortured tend to value democracy and civil liberties more than other leftists who have not yet stuck their hand into the fire of repression.''

Of course, not every former guerrilla who stuck his or her hand into the fire of repression has since run for Congress or pledged fealty to the democratic system. That is especially true of the Shining Path, who engaged in terrorist attacks in Peru beginning in 1980 before being decimated after the capture of their leader in 1992.

But guerrillas who willingly laid down their arms in the 1980s and 1990s have generally made a smooth transition into the democratic system. And the U.S. government has generally welcomed the new role of the ex-guerrillas, except for in a few cases.

Power noted that two former Brazilian guerrillas, José Dirceu and José Genoino, led the ''pragmatic transformation'' of the once hard-line Workers Party in the late 1990s that opened the way to the election of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

In Uruguay, former Tupamaro guerrillas from the 1960s and early 1970s now hold two of the 13 Cabinet ministries under leftist President Tabaré Vázquez, elected in 2004. About 10 of the 130 members of Congress are also former Tupamaros, said Luís Rosadilla, who is one of them.

Alvaro García, elected last month as the next vice president of Bolivia, was a leader in the Túpac Katari Guerrilla Army that bombed 48 pipelines and electric pylons in the late 1980s and early 1990s. García was captured in 1992, tortured and spent five years in prison.

And Brazilian Congressman Fernando Gabeira was part of a group that kidnapped U.S. Ambassador Charles Elbrick in 1969 to protest U.S.-backed military rule. The group released Elbrick four days later in exchange for the freedom of 15 political prisoners, one of whom was Dirceu, who went on to become Lula's chief advisor before resigning last year amid a corruption scandal.

Gabeira has since repented for the kidnapping, but that wasn't good enough for the United States, which has denied his visa requests.

Gabeira said the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and contact with European Social Democrats convinced many guerrillas to give up the armed struggle. If they remained committed to social change, then entering politics was the best place to go, he added.

''It was important to understand that socialism wasn't the answer and that you could use [taxes from] the profits of capitalism to deal with the problems,'' Gabeira said by telephone from Brasilia. He said living in exile in the Soviet Union and seeing first-hand that it was not a workers paradise also eliminated his youthful illusions. ``I learned you have to develop capitalism with social responsibility.''

Rosadilla, who was a 17-year-old student and part-time baker when he took up arms against the Uruguayan government, was later captured and spent nine years in prison. He said he couldn't have imagined in those days that he would one day be a member of the Congress but that his goals remain unchanged.

''I want better social justice and a better distribution of resources over the middle term,'' Rosadilla said in a phone call from Montevideo. ``I want a socialist system over the long term.''


Kenneth Roberts, a Cornell University professor who specializes in Latin America, said the door for guerrillas entering government began opening with the wave of democratization in the 1980s that replaced military regimes.

The process may be accelerating now, he said in an e-mail, because the ex-guerrillas ``have worked their way up to higher-level (and more publicly visible) positions. In other words, they have gone from guerrillas to party activists or [nonprofit] workers to congressional candidates and party leaders and eventually to ministers, etc. They paid their dues [and] established their democratic credentials.''

That's true in the case of Antonio Navarro Wolff, once a commander of Colombia's Cuban-backed M-19 group. Navarro, who lost a leg to a grenade attack, surrendered after a negotiated peace agreement and ran for president in 1990, then served as health minister, was elected to the Colombian House, was elected to the Senate and is running for president again in upcoming elections.

In fact, Jonathan Hartlyn, a professor at the University of North Carolina who specializes in Latin America, blames non-guerrillas for the greatest attacks on democracy in recent years.

``Threats to democracy have tended not to come from former guerrillas but from elected presidents who were not former guerrillas (such as Alberto Fujimori in Peru), or from military conspirators (Hugo Chávez himself in 1992) or business and military conspirators (such as in the aborted 2002 coup in Venezuela).''


Other ex-guerrillas who tried to enter politics met a different fate. Former M-19 commander Carlos Pizarro, who ran for president after laying down his weapon as part of a peace pact with the government, was fatally shot in April 1990.

Then there's Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, a former Sandinista guerrilla leader and president who allied with former President Arnoldo Alemán, convicted of massive corruption, in an unsuccessful effort last year to oust President Enrique Bolaños.

But other Sandinistas first won representation in the Congress in 1990 when Nicaragua elected a democratic president and ended the Sandinista revolution. Today, five former Sandinista guerrillas serve in the Congress, as well as two former Contra guerrillas who fought against the Sandinista government, said Xiomara Chamorro, political editor of La Prensa.

In El Salvador, Shafik Handal, the losing candidate in the 2004 presidential election, and about 15 of the 84 members of Congress are former members of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, said Sigfrido Reyes, who is one of the 15. The FMLN waged a 12-year guerrilla war ended by a 1992 peace pact. ''I joined the armed struggle because we lacked democracy,'' Reyes said by telephone from El Salvador.

The latest ex-rebel to enter government is Alvaro García, who took up arms against a democratically elected government in Bolivia that he believed excluded the country's poor and Indian majority.

Since his 1997 release from prison, García has won widespread respect as a sociology professor and political commentator. He will be sworn into his new job today, the day that Evo Morales is inaugurated as Bolivia's first Indian president.

Despite his new path, García is not completely forswearing his past.

''I have never rejected the violent path,'' García said in a telephone interview from La Paz, ``but it should be the absolute last of all the options because it's such a terrible way to go. Going down that road was part of the maturation process, part of the learning process. I will be a better leader as a result.''

Herald researcher Jenny González in Bogotá contributed to this report.