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Ex-Guerrilla Presidents in Latin America, Good or Bad?

In Latin America, 7 presidents have guerrilla backgrounds. Those who opted for gradual changes were more successful, while rupturist projects failed

Eduardo Pizarro Leongómez

30 de abril 2024


After the triumph of the Cuban Revolution on January 1, 1959, seven ex-guerrillas have taken office in Latin America: Fidel and Raul Castro, Daniel Ortega, Jose Mujica, Dilma Rousseff, Salvador Sanchez Ceren and Gustavo Petro, who have left good and bad experiences. In which of the two options is the Colombian government positioning itself?

As seen in the table below, in six Latin American nations former guerrillas have assumed the state’s leadership in the last decades. In two countries, Cuba and Nicaragua, as a result of the only two triumphant revolutions in Latin America (1959 and 1979), which brought down the dictatorial governments of General Fulgencio Batista and the Somoza clan. In two other countries, Brazil and Uruguay, former members of defeated guerrilla groups, Jose Mujica and Dilma Rousseff, after years of prison and painful torture, rose from the ashes and triumphed in transparent elections in 2010 and 2011, respectively. Finally, in two nations, El Salvador and Colombia, former members of guerrilla movements that signed peace agreements and made the transition “from arms to politics” were elected heads of state, Salvador Sanchez Ceren (2014) and Gustavo Petro (2022).

We do not include Hugo Chávez in this picture, because, even though as a young officer he was under the influence of the most emblematic of the guerrilla leaders of the time, Douglas Bravo — who did not embrace the peace process of the late 1960s and continued in arms through the Party of the Venezuelan Revolution and its Armed Front of National Liberation (PRV-FALN)—, he broke his moorings in 1986. That year, Chavez formed a clandestine military faction called the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement (MBR-200), which would be key to his rise to power years later. That’s to say, Chávez was not properly a guerrilla fighter.

Cuba and the Castro Family

The brothers Fidel and Raúl Castro were the head of the state for 59 years, between 1959 and 2018, and progressively established a single-party system. In 1961, the 26th of July Movement merged with the Popular Socialist Party and other organizations to form the so-called Integrated Revolutionary Organizations (ORI), which, after many ups and downs, on October 3, 1965, took the definitive name of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC), which governs uninterruptedly until today. Fidel Castro was the world’s longest-serving president from 1900 to the present. He headed the state for 49 years between 1959 and 2008—, was replaced by his brother Raul, who was replaced, in turn, by his hand-picked successor Miguel Diaz-Canel.

Cuba ceased many years ago to be the “New Jerusalem” —as it was for my leftist generation— and, today, unless there is a surprising change of course (for example, the adoption of the current model of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, with its extensive market economy), it is experiencing an even greater crisis than the one it endured after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the so-called “special period”.

Nicaragua: the Ortega family

Daniel Ortega initially became head of state as a member of the Junta that replaced Anastasio Somoza Debayle and his successor for a few hours between July 17 and 18, 1979, Francisco Urcuyo, following the flight of the last member of the Somoza dynasty.

The Government Junta of National Reconstruction was composed of its coordinator, Daniel Ortega, member of the Joint National Directorate of the FSLN; Moisés Hassan, of the National Patriotic Front; Sergio Ramírez, writer and member of the so-called Group of Twelve; Alfonso Robelo, businessman and member of the Nicaraguan Democratic Movement; and, finally, Violeta Barrios, widow of the director of the newspaper La Prensa, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, murdered by the Somoza dictatorship in 1978 and who would be “the spark that ignited the prairie”, to recall a text by Mao Tse-Tung (or Mao Zedong for younger readers).

It was a pluralist junta that made it possible to leave behind the atrocious Somoza dynasty — which ruled the destinies of his country with an iron fist between 1947 and 1987 — and begin the transition to democracy. In 1985 Daniel Ortega was elected in a clean election on behalf of the FSLN. And then came the governments of Violeta Barrios, Arnaldo Aleman, and Enrique Bolaños (who all defeated Ortega) until the triumphant return of Daniel Ortega in 2007, who has not left power to this day thanks to numerous electoral frauds, legal tricks, and persecution of the opposition.

That is to say, in the two nations in which there were triumphant revolutions, their leaders from the beginning (Fidel Castro) or years later (Daniel Ortega) ended up being cemented into power with a clear strongman leadership with messianic features.

Uruguay: Jose Mujica

The third former guerrilla who acceded to the presidency in Latin America between 2010 and 2015 was Jose Mujica, former leader of the National Liberation Movement – Tupamaros. After the transition to democracy and his release from prison — where he spent 15 years in solitary confinement — he became a member of the leadership of the Movement for Popular Participation (MPP), a component of the Broad Front that brought him to power and which covered the main parties and political currents of the Uruguayan left.

The “poorest president in the world”, who at 88 years of age still lives in his modest country house in the outskirts of Montevideo in the company of another ex-guerrilla and former senator Lucia Topolansky, is by far the most admirable and respected of the ex-guerrillas who have come to power in Latin America. His humility, enormous human sensitivity, neatness, and ability to build consensus make him “out of the ordinary”.

Brazil: Dilma Rousseff

A year after Mujica, on January 1, 2011, Dilma Rousseff became the first woman to become President of  Brazil. The “Joan of Arc of subversion” — as an army prosecutor called her during her trial in a military court — was a member of the guerrilla movement Vanguarda Armada Revolucionaria-Palmares (VAR Palmares), which was one of the groups that confronted the military regime installed in Brazil in 1964. Arrested in 1970, she was severely tortured and detained in subhuman conditions for three years.

The balance of her government is undoubtedly bittersweet, as her important achievements — in 2013 Forbes magazine ranked her, after Angela Merkel, as the second most outstanding woman in the world —  were overshadowed by her dismissal by the Senate via impeachment.

El Salvador: Salvador Sanchez Ceren

The teacher and later member of the leadership of the Popular Liberation Forces (FPL), one of the five organizations that formed the FMLN, became president replacing the renowned journalist Mauricio Funes, and was at the head of the executive branch between 2014 and 2019 on behalf of the FMLN and who would end up residing in Nicaragua — where Daniel Ortega granted him asylum and then nationality — to escape justice in his country, which charged him for acts of corruption.

The balance of the FMLN’s two terms in office was not very encouraging, as its manifest failure on many levels and, in particular, in the management of internal public order opened the way for Nayib Bukele, the world’s coolest authoritarian leader.

Colombia: Gustavo Petro

And finally, in Colombia today, Gustavo Petro, a former member of the April 19 Movement, is the head of the state.

Has the balance of the ex-guerrillas in power been positive or negative?

The answer is not obvious, since there have been both very positive experiences, as was the case of Jose Mujica in Uruguay, and manifest disasters such as that of Daniel Ortega (particularly the Ortega of recent years) in Nicaragua. In other words, the balance is bittersweet.

In any case, if we discard the cases of Cuba with its single-party system and Nicaragua recently through an “electoral autocracy”, that is, a fictitious pluralism built based on benefiting the ruling party and reducing the opposition, in the rest of the experiences (Uruguay, Brazil, and El Salvador) liberal democracy held firm at least during the term of these governments — later would come the Bolsonaro and Bukele — and, in the case of Colombia, it is an ongoing process, the outcome of which we do not know.

The success or failure depends on several factors that would require a very rigorous investigation (for example, the strength or weakness of the democratic traditions that were not similar, for example, in Uruguay and Nicaragua. However, on this occasion, I would like to highlight the role of the personality and the political project of the president who comes to power. The strongman personality of a Daniel Ortega (and the arrogance of the revolutionary triumph) is not the same as the measured personality of a Jose Mujica (and the humility of defeat).

The ex-guerrilla presidents who embarked on gradual changes and with high levels of national consensus were the most successful (Brazil and Uruguay). In contrast, presidents who embarked on abrupt changes ended up having poor long-term results (Cuba and Nicaragua).

Is this complex picture a call for optimism or pessimism? Is Colombia going to head toward an “electoral autocracy” like Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua? After a progressive government will the political pendulum swing toward the far right as happened in El Salvador with Nayib Bukele and in Brazil with Jair Bolsonaro? Or, after Petro’s government, will a moderate center, center-right or center-left come.

First published by lationoamerica21. To get the most relevant news from our English coverage delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe to The Dispatch.


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Eduardo Pizarro Leongómez

Eduardo Pizarro Leongómez

Profesor de la Universidad Nacional de Colombia. Fue presidente de la Comisión Nacional de Reparación y Reconciliación (CNRR) e integró la Junta Directiva del Fondo de Víctimas de la Corte Penal Internacional.