Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

S. American rebels losing ground. Rise of democracy in region one factor in decline of insurgencies

Guerrilla activity in South America is at a historic low. So some South American governments registered surprise to find themselves shaded in red as areas of Sandinista intervention on a map President Reagan used last week to support his bid for aid to the Nicaraguan ``contras'' rebels.

Brazil and Argentina both asked the United States for clarification of their inclusion on the map, which indicated the communist Nicaraguan government to be giving arms, military training, and safe haven or transit to insurgents from several major South American countries.

About these ads

The US response is that it did not intend to suggest actual penetration inside these countries.

Aside from some persistent but small revolutionary movements in Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador, the continent now dominated by democratic governments is largely free of the shadowy urban terrorist or jungle guerrilla activity that is such a major problem in Central America, say authorities on Latin America and even supporters of Reagan policy.

``There is no similarity in South America to what is happening in Central America. Guerrilla movements have no more than miniscule support,'' says Peter Hakim, staff director of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based organization of North and South American opinion shapers. ``There is no possibility of [any of these groups] challenging the central government for power.''

Further evidence of this, he suggests, is the fact that none of these South American countries have requested US military aid for counterinsurgency -- in contrast to their Central American neighbors such as El Salvador.

The wave of new democracies in South America -- six in as many years -- is often credited with removing the political repression that guerrilla groups thrive on.

On the other hand, a democratic government may be more vulnerable to guerrilla groups than a military government with strong social controls, say some observers. A democratic government trying to control the violence of guerrilla activity can be accused of or actually commit human rights abuses, which can weaken the popular support vital to an elected leadership.

The nature, strength, and backing of guerrilla groups in South America is at best unclear.

About these ads

Colombia is the foremost example of alleged Nicaraguan-supported activity in South America. The April 19 Movement, known as M-19, is believed to have ties to Managua and was responsible for last November's siege of Colombia's Palace of Justice and the killing there of nearly 100 people, including the president of the Supreme Court and several magistrates.

Nicaragua openly voices support for the M-19 and supplies arms and training to the guerrillas who come to Nicaragua, say State Department officials.

Further, the Peruvian press has reported an alliance between the M-19 and guerrilla groups in Peru and Ecuador.

This so-called ``America Battalion'' suggests at least an indirect Nicaraguan link through the M-19 to these other groups.

Another perhaps more important link between the guerrillas of the Andean region is narcotics traffic. Money from drug dealers who buy protection from the guerrillas may be as big a support for these guerrillas as any Sandinista aid, says Ernst Halperin, a professor of political science at Boston University.

Even if South Americans were being trained or getting arms through the Nicaraguans' Cuban-supplied arsenals, there is skepticism about the extent of Nicaragua's direct influence.

``It's ridiculous to think Nicaragua could be in any important way supporting [these groups] . . . . Safe haven is possible . . . but the idea that the Sandinistas in Managua are planning the assault on the Palace of Justice just doesn't make sense,'' says Peter D. Bell, senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

The Nicaraguan government has problems handling its own war, economy, and social problems and isn't likely to be orchestrating activity all over the Western Hemisphere, he says.

Skeptics say it echoes the ``alarmism'' over communism in the Americas when Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba.

``Yes there's a certain sense of alarmism. But over a period of 10 or 12 years, these things can mount. Look at what Cuba has done: They have troops in Angola and Nicaragua, and Nicaragua is already a headquarters for various [guerrilla] groups,'' says Mark Falcoff, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank.

``Historically it [guerrilla activity] is at a fairly low point except for Peru and Colombia. The President as usual was being hyperbolic . . ., but there is a core of truth that, if he'd expressed less [dramatically], might not have been understood,'' Mr. Falcoff says.

Here is how other South American countries square with the Reagan map:

Peru was not shaded on Mr. Reagan's map. But it is struggling with the most stubborn of guerrilla groups, the Shining Path. A secretive Maoist group of native Indians, the movement began in the 1960s and has no known contact with the outside world. No leaders of this group have ever been captured. Fear of this group's violence is believed to have been partially responsible for the heavy migration from the rural areas to cities.

Peru's Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, a small band of leftist, university-based students created within the past two years, has taken credit for terrorist violence in Lima and was reported to be linked to the America Battalion.

(Police suspect either Shining Path or Tupac Amaru was responsible for five dynamite attacks at Lima schools during the night between Wednesday and Thursday. The attacks follow a series of similar bombings.)

Ecuador's Alfaro Lives group won that nation's shading on the map. The group, comprised primarily of middle-class university students, has announced a strategy of kidnapping prominent Ecuadoreans to achieve its leftist goals. The Ecuadorean government charges that the group is led by the M-19 through the America Battalion.

Venezuela and Bolivia were included as areas of Sandinista activity on the original State Department map used in testimony by US Secretary of State George Shultz. The map was used to make Reagan's map, but Venezuela and Boliva were not included as having Nicaraguan involvement in his speech nor do those nations report any known radical movement working within their borders. A White House spokesman would not comment on why the changes were made.

(It was not immediately known if a Bolivian guerrilla group was to blame for yesterday's dynamite blast at the US embassy in La Paz.)

Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, which suffered long internal wars between lefist urban guerrillas and military governments in the 1970s, say they have no known active guerrilla groups. It is speculated that formerly active groups were either wiped out by the military or have found channels for political expression in the new democracies. All three were shaded on the map.

Chile's shading on the map was due to the Manuel Rodriguez Brigade and the Revolutionary Left Movement, but damage from periodic violence, such as the bomb attacks this week on government offices and power lines in three cities, has been kept to a minimum by Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship. But, foreign analysts say, there is a danger of violent opposition growing if steps aren't taken soon for a transition to democracy.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.