Guerrillas take to government

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The World

LIMA, Peru — Years after trying to shoot their way into power, dozens of former guerrillas in Latin America have found a better way to help chart their country’s future — through the ballot box.

A former member of the M-19 guerrillas in Colombia is a senator. Several one-time rebels in El Salvador are congressmen, and one was elected as the country’s vice president in March.

In the latest example, Jose Mujica, who spent 14 years in prison for waging war against the state as a Tupamaro guerrilla, was elected president of Uruguay at the end of November.

"Is there anything better than having the people who thought that killing, kidnapping and robbing was the path to power then decide to join the political process and earn their way to high office without rigging elections?" said Arturo Porzecanski, a Uruguayan who is an American University professor.

The one-time guerrillas typically express no regrets that they took up arms.

"We have democratic governments today in many cases because of the heroic struggles," said Sigfrido Reyes, a former FMLN guerrilla in El Salvador who is now the vice president of the country’s Congress. "George Washington had to lead an armed struggle against the British. Simon Bolivar used arms to overthrow the Spanish."

Today’s one-time rebels typically chose a violent path during the 1970s and 1980s when military dictatorships or authoritarian elected governments squelched dissident and freedom, often in the name of stamping out communists.

The generals returned to the barracks in the 1980s and 1990s, and newly elected democratic governments gave amnesties to guerrillas that allowed them to return to civilian life in return for forswearing violence.

Today, the only remaining guerrilla groups in Latin America are the FARC and the ELN, both in Colombia.

"The political success of leftist parties and movements in the region weakens the idea that violent strategies are necessary for substantive change, strengthening the legitimacy of electoral procedures and representative democracy," said William Aviles, a Latin American expert at the University of Nebraska.

The former guerrillas began winning elections in the 1980s in Central America and have steadily won more important races throughout Latin America as they have gained the public’s trust. Their success has contributed to the leftward turn of Latin America in recent years.

Former guerrillas now hold key positions throughout Latin America.

Alvaro Garcia, who was just re-elected as Bolivia’s vice president, was a leader in the Tupac Katari Guerrilla Army that bombed 48 pipelines and electric pylons in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Garcia was captured in 1992, tortured and spent five years in prison, before becoming a respected professor and political analyst.

Vice President Salvador Sanchez of El Salvador and at least a dozen congressmen — including Reyes — fought with the FMLN guerrillas against the country’s military dictatorship.

Dilma Rousseff, a former cabinet minister favored by President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva to succeed him in next year’s presidential elections, joined a guerrilla movement against Brazil’s military dictatorship and spent nearly three years in prison before becoming an economist.

Brazilian Congressman Fernando Gabeira was part of a group that kidnapped U.S. Ambassador Charles Elbrick in 1969 to protest U.S.-backed military rule. The group released Elbrick four days later in exchange for the freedom of 15 political prisoners. One of them was Jose Dirceu, who went on to become Lula’s chief adviser in the Workers’ Party.

President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua actually did shoot his way into power with the Sandinista guerrillas before winning the presidency twice. Nicaragua’s Congress includes guerrillas who fought with the Sandinistas and the so-called "Contras" who tried to overthrow them in the 1980s.

Victor Hugo Tinoco said he is one of several former Sandinista guerrillas elected to Congress who oppose Ortega because the government "doesn’t respect the rights of individuals."

Yehude Simon was imprisoned for eight years on charges of conspiring with the MRTA guerrillas in Peru before being pardoned and then being elected governor of Lambayeque state. From 2008-09, he served as Peru’s appointed prime minister.

"Not many people are improved by prison, but Yehude was one," said Curt Struble, a former U.S. ambassador in Peru. "His personal experience clearly left him convinced that an excess of passion in politics was extremely dangerous and that conciliation of divergent interests was best. I found Yehude to be an exemplary democrat in that sense."

At least a dozen members of Uruguay’s 130-member Congress fought as Tupamaros against an authoritarian democratic government in the 1970s, including Juan Jose Dominguez, a substitute senator who spent nearly 16 years in prison and was freed in a 1985 amnesty.

"We’ve decided to fight through the electoral process," Dominguez said, noting that Mujica heads a coalition known as the Broad Front that has governed under a non-Tupamaro president, Tabare Vazquez, the last five years.

"We’ve instituted the program of one computer per child," Dominguez said. "We’ve improved salaries for workers, and we want maids to get a fairer salary. We’re doing a lot of the things we wanted back then."

Dominguez added: "Mujica has told the military that they shouldn’t be in the business of hating people."

Several former guerrillas have said the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and contact with moderate socialists in Europe convinced them that they could achieve more by surrendering their weapons and entering politics.

Several who went to live in the Soviet Union found that it wasn’t the workers’ paradise they had envisioned.

In the case of Sen. Gustavo Petro, the former M-19 guerrilla in Colombia, he said he decided that he could achieve more by returning to civilian life.

"The fight for social equality and democracy is the same," Petro said. "My methods are now peaceful. Times have changed."

What he learned living underground may still come in handy, however.

Petro keeps an AK-47 in his bedroom because his exposes of political corruption have produced an avalanche of death threats.

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