The Dilemma of Armed Struggle in the Global South

A Danish fashion company called Fighters and Lovers is selling T-shirts promoting two armed groups in the global South: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Not only is the company producing clothing emblazoned with the acronyms of these two armed organizations, they are donating $6.00 from the sale of each shirt to the groups. Proceeds from the FARC-labeled shirts will be used to fund rebel radio stations while the PFLP-labeled shirts will support a graphics studio in the Palestinian territories. Both of these groups are on the U.S. and European Union lists of terrorist organizations. Consequently, both the company and its customers have been accused of supporting terrorist groups. The company’s actions, however, raise broader questions about who decides who is a terrorist and the methods people should employ in their struggle to achieve social justice.

From the 1950s to the end of the 1980s, armed struggle in nations of the global South was widely accepted as a legitimate strategy for seeking political and social change. There was also a tolerance by many governments in the global North of their own citizens who organized in solidarity with armed liberation groups such as the Palestinian Liberation Army, Nicaragua’s Sandinistas and El Salvador’s Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN).

Acceptance of armed struggle as a legitimate strategy to achieve political and social change began to diminish with the demise of Soviet-style socialism and the end of the Cold War. The rise of the new globalized free market economic system coincided with U.S. policies of “democracy promotion.” As a result, armed struggle, the argument went, would become largely de-legitimized because citizens would have the ballot box as a means to effect change.

Naturally, the form of democracy being promoted was a Western liberal model established on a free market economic foundation. In reality, it provided citizens with little more than the right to vote for leaders who were not beholden to their constituents, but instead to the international institutions—International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization—responsible for managing the global free market economy. In effect, elected officials were obligated to administer their country’s economy under the free trade guidelines established by the international institutions.

Not surprisingly, voter turnout in many nations, particularly in Latin America, declined throughout the 1990s as citizens realized that “democracy” was not addressing their most fundamental needs. For the majority in Latin America who live in poverty, this meant a failure by nationally elected leaders to improve their economic condition. The September 11 terrorist attacks against the United States occurred at a time when faith in democracy and the free trade doctrine was hitting a new low in many Latin American nations. The Bush administration’s new war on terror, however, further ensured that armed struggle would not return as an internationally tolerated strategy by emphasizing that anti-capitalist groups such as the FARC were on the U.S. terrorist list and, therefore, could not be considered legitimate politic actors.

But “democracy promotion” and the war on terror have not always succeeded in ensuring that all Latin American nations obediently play the game according to Washington’s rules. One example is Venezuela, where a majority of the country’s citizens rejected the traditional political parties and the free trade model by electing Hugo Chávez to the presidency in 1998.

The United States has responded by actively seeking to isolate and even overthrow Venezuela’s democratically elected government by supporting general strikes and a failed coup. It has labeled the Venezuelan leader as an authoritarian who governs undemocratically despite the fact that Chávez has won clear majorities in two presidential elections and a national referendum, all of which were declared free and fair by international observers. Washington has also accused Chávez of being a destabilizing force in the region and has made unsubstantiated claims that he is supporting “terrorist” groups such as the FARC. Clearly, it appears that from Washington’s perspective a democracy is only viewed as legitimate when citizens elect leaders palatable to the United States.

With Chávez in power in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia, the next few years will be pivotal in determining whether or not nations of Latin America and the rest of the global South can truly achieve political and economic sovereignty and whether or not Washington will accept and support such an achievement. If not, and if citizens believe that the United States is responsible for undermining and overthrowing their democratically elected governments, it might not be long before they lose faith in the democratic process entirely.

Many citizens in Latin America may then conclude that armed struggle is the only way to achieve political, social and economic justice. As a result, there would not only be a resurgence in armed struggle by groups desiring to achieve social justice, but also by violent criminal groups solely interested in their own economic gain. We are already seeing the beginnings of this process in the dramatic increase in violent crime throughout Latin America as individuals and gangs mired in poverty lose faith in the democratic process. Ultimately, the likely outcome would be increasing numbers of failed states in the region as societal structures break down, something that is already occurring in Haiti and in several nations in sub-Saharan Africa.

Meanwhile, under such a scenario, those armed groups in the global South that sought to achieve social justice would likely see a resurgence in support among citizens of the global North. In this sense, perhaps the Danish fashion company Fighters and Lovers is simply a little ahead of its time.

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