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Leftists gather, hoping to regain influence

The Communists were here, and so were the Intransigents, the Laborites, the Radicals and the Socialists. Former Sandinista, Tupamaro and Montonero guerrillas were here too, all under one roof to discuss the issue that has preoccupied the Latin American left throughout this decade: how to rebuild in a world dominated by capitalism and the United States.

A decade ago, such a conference might have taken place in Havana and been accompanied by ringing declarations of the inevitability of the triumph of socialism.

But when they met here this weekend, leaders of the Latin American left had to content themselves with more modest goals and seemed more reflective than boastful.

Representatives of 112 parties and political groups from more than 20 Latin American and Caribbean countries gathered for a three-day conference that ended Sunday.

While there were many differences about which path was the most appropriate to take, there was general agreement that recent years have been full of unexpected setbacks and difficulties.

The decade opened with the startling defeat of the Sandinistas in the 1990 presidential election in Nicaragua. Since then, Cuban leader Fidel Castro has reluctantly embraced some capitalist measures in an effort to keep his revolution alive, the guerrilla insurgency here in El Salvador has laid down its arms and former leftists such as Fernando Henrique Cardoso in Brazil and Juan Bosch in the Dominican Republic have seen their parties come to power after adopting more centrist positions.

The left also finds itself under attack in a caustic and influential book called Manual of the Perfect Latin American Idiot, published in Spain four months ago.

Mocking intellectuals, liberation theologians, reflexive anti-Americanism and revolutionary nostalgia in a biting 300-page jeremiad, the book argues that the Latin American left is inflexible and has thus become archaic and largely irrelevant.

Rather than examine their own doctrines, Latin American leftists continue "looking for alibis and scapegoats," the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa argues in the preface to the book, which was written by his son Alvaro and a Colombian and Cuban colleague.

At the opening ceremonies at the National Gymnasium on Friday, there was much that the authors would have found laughable.

Members of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, the host party of the event, waved red flags and banners proclaiming "The Struggle Continues" as a high school marching band, with cheerleaders and majorettes, pounded out American rock 'n' roll songs from the Elvis Presley era.

If one thing was clear during three days of workshops and debate, though, it was that the Latin American left's 30-year obsession with armed struggle as a means to revolution has come to an end.

Even the leaders of the last major guerrilla insurgency in attendance here, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity, were preaching the virtues of politics by more conventional means.

"Objectives vary according to historical circumstances," said Rolando Moran, a Guatemalan guerrilla commander. "The armed struggle had as its objective the seizure of power by assault. For the moment, that is not feasible, so we must develop our political struggle."

In place of bullets, leaders of leftist parties expressed a commitment to reaching power through the ballot box. But to do that, they acknowledged, they must change some of their most traditional and deeply held beliefs.

"We are looking for positions that will allow us to win the support of the voter in the middle, the ordinary citizen, without losing the support of the organized left," explained Porfirio Munoz Ledo, a leading strategist of Mexico's Revolutionary Democratic Party. "It is not enough to fill the stadiums and the squares. We also have to fill the ballot box."