Jorge Castañeda: Latin America's Stunted Left

Ernesto (Che) Guevara would be proud. Throughout Latin America and much of the world, Latin American ambassadors and dignitaries came together last week to recall and commemorate a special date for the hemisphere: the 40th anniversary of Guevara's death in the barren wilds of Bolivia. For the first time, the ritual decennial celebration was not just attended by groupies and Cuban bureaucrats, but also by representatives of the governments of Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, and here and there, of Iran and North Korea.

Guevera would be happy to know that President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela recently created a commission to draw up the "Che Guevara Mission Extraordinary Plan," which, among other lofty aims, seeks to create "new men and women" along the lines of the internationalist prophet's "Socialism and Man in Cuba." He would be pleasantly surprised to find that just where he died, surrounded by a ragged, exhausted and tiny group of mainly Cuban comrades, there are today countless Cuban doctors. Bolivia, like Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and even Mexico are teeming with them, providing free medical care for the poor, as well as political education and organization for the left, in or out of office.

Most important, he would be delighted to see how the dream he shared with Fidel Castro of exporting revolution, socialism or "another world" now seem to be coming true in Latin America. Yes, one part of the hemispheric left—Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, perhaps Peru—is adapting to the market, representative democracy, globalization and dealing with Washington as it is, not as it wants it to be. But the other left—Venzuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Mexico—is as Guevarista as possible, with an ideology that believes in socialism, anti-imperialism, statism and participatory democracy. No wonder its ambassadors now hail Guevara, proclaiming like Cuban schoolchildren for the past four decades, "We will be like Che."

The problem, of course, is that Ernesto Guevara's legacy is far from an unblemished one, particularly outside Cuba. Three facets of his legacy still plague the region. First, his larger-than-life persona, his presumed exploits and the domination of Havana over the region's left have all delayed the birth of a modern left that believes in the kind of democratic principles and market-based economics that Latin America so urgently needs. Without it, Latin Americans will be doomed to choose between an enlightened and retrograde right and a populist, rabble-rousing left. Second, Guevera taught violence—what he labeled "the armed struggle"—to many in the region's university population. Thousands of talented and altruistic young men and women rushed to their deaths in the '60s, '70s, '80s and even '90s, thinking they could emulate the "Comandante." Latin America needed that generation, but lost it in the mountains, slums and jungles of Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Guatemala and today, tragically but not improbably, in Mexico. The young blood shed over those years was spilled needlessly, because with the arguable exceptions of Nicaragua and El Salvador, nothing came of it. The consequences of that loss are still with us today.

Finally, the military dictatorships of the seventies and eighties, whose unimaginably evil and widespread policies destroyed tens of thousands of lives throughout Latin America, cannot be understood without reference to the guerrilla wars they were at least in part a reaction to. Nothing can justify the egregious human rights violations committed by the extreme right throughout the hemisphere. But armies shoot back when they are shot at; governments, legitimate or not, defend themselves when attacked, and unless the balance of forces is even remotely favorable to those seeking their overthrow, they will crush any armed opposition. It's their job. That balance of force was favorable in Batista's Cuba in the late 1950's; it was also auspicious in Somoza's Nicaragua in the late seventies.

But nowhere else, ever, since Fidel Castro and Che Guevara started exporting revolution from their island rear­guard, has the balance of power tipped to the far left—until now. It changed, initially through democratic means—in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua. Perhaps tomorrow it will change in Guatemala, Paraguay, Mexico, Colombia and Peru. Guevera would be thrilled.