Armed insurrections are one of three methods that the left in Latin America has traditionally used to gain power (the other two are competing in elections, or mass uprisings often organized by labor movements as general strikes). After the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, guerrilla warfare became the preferred path to power given that electoral processes were highly corrupt and the general strikes too often led to massacres rather than a fundamental transformation of society. Based on the Cuban model, revolutionaries in other Latin American countries attempted to establish similar small guerrilla forces with mobile fighters who lived off the land with the support of a local population. The 1960s insurgencies came in two waves. Influenced by Che Guevara’s foco model, initial insurgencies were based in the countryside. After the defeat of Guevara’s guerrilla army in Bolivia in 1967, the focus shifted to urban guerrilla warfare. In the 1970s and 1980s, a new phase of guerrilla movements emerged in Peru and in Central America. While guerrilla-style warfare can provide a powerful response to a much larger and established military force, armed insurrections are rarely successful. Multiple factors including a failure to appreciate a longer history of grassroots organizing and the weakness of the incumbent government help explain those defeats and highlight just how exceptional an event successful guerrilla uprisings are.
The strategy of irregular warfare has been used since ancient times, but the term “guerrilla warfare” seems to have originated in early-19th-century Spain during the Napoleonic wars. “Guerrilla” is the diminutive of the Spanish word for war—guerra. During the Napoleonic wars, British troops used the term guerrillero (warrior) to refer to the Spanish and Portuguese rebels. The form of irregular warfare waged by these resistance fighters, who were engaging French troops during the Napoleonic invasion and occupation, became known as “guerrilla warfare.” The term was then used to refer to rebel troops in the Americas who led the battles for independence against Spanish troops. More recently, “guerrilla warfare,” as both a strategy and an ideology, is most closely associated with the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and the subsequent publication of the treatise and manual Guerrilla Warfare by Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Guevara did not invent the idea of guerrilla warfare, but the unique (and ultimately successful) approach to making revolution in Cuba and Guevara’s important treatise on the subject did change the general understanding and meaning of the concept. Guevara’s explanation of guerrilla warfare in the context of the armed revolutionary struggle in Cuba changed the trajectory of Marxist revolutionary thought and actions in the 20th century as well.