Reinventing Revolution: The changing nature of Latin American Social Movements

Term Paper 2006 12 Pages

Politics - Political Theory and the History of Ideas Journal


“Our Revolution, which has been heterodox in its forms and manifestations, has nevertheless followed the general lines of all the great historical events of this century characterized by anticolonial struggles and the transition towards socialism.”[1] Che Guevara: Cuba: Exception or Vanguard, 1961[2]

“We are a product of five hundred years of struggle: first, led by insurgents against slavery during the War of Independence with Spain (…) They don’t care that we have nothing, absolutely nothing, not even a roof over our heads. (…) But today we say: ENOUGH IS ENOUGH![3] General Command of the EZLN: War! First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, 1993.

Fourty-two years lie between these two statements, the statements of two Latin-American revolutionaries, equal in charisma, and by a mere coincidence both renown for the smoking materials perpetually accompanying their every moves. Yet far more lies between Che Guevara and Marcos than that the former was a cigar-addict whilst the latter goes nowhere without his pipe. This essay is no contrast between the two. It is neither a character-sketch of Che, nor an analysis of Marcos’ poetry and prose, as the first would be ideal for psychologists, whilst the second task would be better performed in a literature department. Instead, I shall undertake to try and describe the changing fibre of revolutionary social movements in Latin America over the last forty years, explaining how Che Guevara’s legacy, paired with the Sandinistas and other influences led to the emergence of the Zapatistas in today’s Mexico.

In saying this, I shall state here in the introduction that through the research for this essay my initial sympathies towards the Zapatistas, which I developed while seeing them in action in and talking to them in Chiapas, have strengthened. I maintain that it is better to state openly an opinion than to try and conceal it. However, in keeping with Sir Karl Popper, the objectivity should rest not with the person researching, as such a thing is impossible, but in the methodology employed.

The methodology in this essay consists in taking Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution and the Nicaraguan Sandinistas as preceding case studies, as steps in the history of revolutions towards the Mexican Zapatistas.


¡Venceremos!, Che Guevara’s battle cry, which translates as, “We will win!” is in a word why the Cuban Revolution is set as a starting point of this essay. It was the first successful socialist revolution in Latin America, and also sparked a wave of counter-revolutionary activities and interventions by the United States for years to come. However, the Cuban revolution has been argued to be the most inspiring event for further Latin American revolutionaries, a pattern which others tried to follow.[4] Whether true or not, this was certainly seen so by Che Guevara:

“Never in America had an event taken place of such extraordinary character, such deep roots, and such transcendental consequences for the destiny of the continent’s progressive movements as our revolutionary war.”[5]

The claim that the Cuban Revolution was for social movements the single most important event might naturally be contested. Columbus’ “discovery” of the continent does not fall behind the Cuban Revolution in terms of impact on social movements even today. However, it would be far too simple to brush the statement aside as mere exaggeration and Guevara’s holding “his” revolution in too great esteem. While humbleness does not ring in the above statement, it should be understood in its context, which was one of struggle against colonial legacies, the Cold War, and the Marxist ideology gearing the revolution. Citing Lenin, Guevara maintained that, “Without a revolutionary theory there is no revolutionary movement.”[6] In other words, although the speech in question is titled “We Are Practical Revolutionaries,” Marxism as an ideology was the driving theoretical framework of the Cuban Revolutionaries.

The Revolution did, however, have its distinctive features in the Latin American context. Che Guevara saw Latin America as an entire region ready for socialist revolutions, the nucleus of which was to be Cuba, and the outcome of which was to be a continent united in its struggle against domination from the North.[7]


[1] J. Gerassi (1968): Venceremos! The Speeches and Writings of Ernesto Che Guevara, Weidenfeld and Nicolson: London, p. 131.

[2] Although his Christian name was of course Ernesto and Che a nickname Guevara acquired during the Cuban revolution, I shall refer to him hence as Che Guevara. I am sure that is what he would have wanted, too.

[3] War! First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle (2 January 1994), in: J. Ponce de Léon (2001): Our Word is our Weapon, Selected Writings of Subcomandante Marcos, Serpent’s Tail: London, p. 13.

[4] R. Gott (1973): Rural Guerillas in Latin America, Penguin: Middlesex, p. 23+24.

[5] J. Gerassi, Venceremos, p.131.

[6] Ibid., p. 120.

[7] Ibid., 419 f.


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University of Wales, Aberystwyth – International Politics Department
Reinventing Revolution Latin American Social Movements Zapatistas



Title: Reinventing Revolution: The changing nature of Latin American Social Movements