Dirk Kruijt explores what
drove Central America’s
‘guerrilla generation’ to war
through their own words
in a remarkable portrait
of a bloody era
Guerrillas: War and
Peace in Central America
2008, Zed Books
Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole
“THE CROPS burned, the women were murdered, the children were injured and killed, having walked barefoot amid the flames. I’m telling you: for me there is no other hell … Is there some other hell? It isn’t possible.” [p. 80]
This harrowing extract from a moving account by Daniel Pascual, co-ordinator of the Comité de Unidad Campesina (CUC) in Guatemala, of atrocities by government forces in the Mayan highlands is what makes Dirk Kruijt’s Guerrillas such an important contribution to our understanding of the wars that tore at the Central American isthmus.
For it reveals why so many ordinary, humble rural people at the mercy of repressive and brutal regimes, sought refuge from state violence by joining the ranks of guerrilla organisations mostly led by urban intellectuals, and hence the spectrum of motivations that swelled the membership of these groups.
Pascual joined the Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres (EGP), one of the three guerrilla organisations that merged to form the URNG in 1982. For many like him, and in particular many indigenous Mayan peasants, the army of the poor was seen as the only way of surviving a murderous state hell bent on their destruction.
That the guerrillas were eventually defeated in Guatemala, fought to a standstill in El Salvador and only achieved victory in Nicaragua – a triumph that was cut short after 11 years by the same superpower intervention that had prolonged the wars – is far less important from a sociological point of view than their reasons for taking up arms. Kruijt has compiled the most well-informed account of those reasons based on empirical evidence to date, thereby providing a vital, missing piece of the historical jigsaw.
Formulated around interviews with 90 leading members of the “guerrilla generation” and their adversaries in this period as well as extensive consultation of archival data, Guerrillas provides an exceptionally valuable portrait of the composition and conduct of these irregular armies from the 1960s to the 1990s.
It is not intended to be a history of the guerrilla wars but an analysis of the movements that fought them, examining their leadership, membership, ideological and organisational evolution, military strategies and fate after peace talks. At the core of the study are the three umbrella politico-military organisations that co-ordinated the endeavours of several independent guerrilla armies in each country – the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) in Nicaragua; the Frente Farabundo Martí de Liberación Nacional (FMLN) in El Salvador; and the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG) in Guatemala.
It is Kruijt’s purposeful and frank use of direct quotation gleaned from interviews with the leadership of the guerrilla forces that makes this account so compelling. But despite the fascinating insights it provides into the very human and personal dimensions of these conflicts, this remains a disciplined comparative analysis, highlighting both similarities and differences in the composition and conduct of the Nicaraguan, Salvadoran and Guatemalan guerrilla armies. As the author points out:
“The most noticeable similarity is the pervasive fear and stark socio-economic inequality common to all three societies. The three countries share the same social history of poverty and exclusion, the same political legacy of oppressive dictatorships and implementation of state terror against which the guerrilla leadership in each nation rebelled.” [p. 7]
Range of motivations
Kruijt identifies the broad range of motivations people had for joining, supporting or sympathising with the guerrillas in each country, providing an ample rebuttal to the paranoiacs in Washington – if ever this had been needed – who had convinced themselves of the communist domino effect. The prominent role played by Christians of all denominations and priests in the guerrilla organisations of El Salvador and Nicaragua, for example, was rooted firmly in liberation theology and the belief that Jesus Christ himself had been a revolutionary martyr.
Indeed, the collaborative embrace by Sandinista leaders of radical priests provides just one important example of how unorthodox many of the communists and radicals in the revolutionary front were. A good example of the fusion of beliefs is Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua’s current president and, for Washington, a hate figure of the war era, who speaks in the book of his twin idols, Sandino and Christ. It was no surprise that it was in Nicaragua that political relations between guerrilla leaders and the church hierarchy declined most severely. The recurrent division between a radical clerisy in direct contact with the poor and committed to social struggle, and a conservative hierarchy who see this as a threat to church unity, has recently resurfaced in Venezuela.
The author paints a candid picture of the successes of the guerrilla organisations, but also the failures, mistakes and strains that bedevilled their efforts.
In Guatemala, for example, there was bitterness among many Maya representatives about the conduct of the ladinos who dominated the URNG leadership during the peace negotiations. Rigoberto Quemé Chay, the former mayor of Quetzaltenango and political leader of the Maya Xeljú movement, told Kruijt:
“The peace agreements were signed by representatives of the traditional political system, who invaded the [Maya] region to fight out their war with Maya soldiers, Maya guerrilleros and Maya victims. Nobody signed the peace. They signed a treaty in which the defeat of the URNG was camouflaged.” [p. 172]
In Nicaragua, the Sandinista triumph led to the rapid emergence of a male-dominated “guerrilla aristocracy” comprising war leaders, all of whom were given or assumed leading positions in the state, party leadership and popular organisations. An FSLN guerrilla commander, Mónica Baltodano, refers to the gender bias that was evident in appointing new members of the Army Staff of the Sandinista Popular Army following victory:
“I really wanted to stay in the army. And the reasons that I didn’t stay in the army had to do with the Cuban advisers. They were really sexist (‘machista’). The Cubans really didn’t have the concept of a woman holding a position of command.” [p. 92]
Kruijt also reveals less well-known aspects of this epic history, such as the external sources of support for the guerrilla organisations, not least in the US itself. Guatemala’s URNG, for example, bought weapons on the open market in the US through intermediaries, and then even warehoused them there. Rodrigo Asturias, a member of the URNG’s general command and later a presidential candidate, said:
“Those who did the buying were not suspicious characters; they were generally internacionalistas and American citizens. They had strong moral convictions and we owe a great deal to their efforts.” [p. 87]
These internacionalistas were volunteers inspired by liberation theology or indignant at the sins of commission and omission of their government.
All the while, the author pays vivid attention to the human-interest stories that can lift an academic work from the ivory ghetto, such as the role poets played in the conflicts and the parameters of love and sex on the battlefield. Roberto Cañas, an international spokesman for the FMLN, speaks of the revolutionary ambience of the era, for example, and how young students fired by rebellious poetry and youth culture drew inspiration as much from Paris in 1968 and icons such as Che Guevara as from any ideological commitment to orthodox Marxist-Leninism:
“We weren’t followers like people in the Soviet Union. No, we were more interested in the Paris of 1968. We loved slogans like, ‘It is forbidden to forbid.’ We are the legitimate heirs of that current of the left. Of that generation … Roque Dalton said that poetry is the gateway to revolution.” [p. 54]
Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books