A strategy for revolution associated with Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and formalized by Che and the radical French writer Régis Debray.
According to this theory it is not necessary to wait until conditions are right to launch either an insurrection or else a people’s war (depending on the nature of the country). Instead, at least in oppressed Third World countries, a dedicated band of revolutionaries can launch very small-scale, roving semi-guerrilla warfare at any time, which will supposedly serve as a focus (Spanish: foco) and inspiration for the rapid growth of more general guerrilla warfare and/or at some relatively early time a general uprising capable of seizing political power. The theory is that these paramilitary roving bands can themselves create the necessary conditions for revolution through their vanguard actions and moral example.
Unlike genuine people’s war, the foco theory is based on the assumption that a band of heroes can create a revolution, and that the mere existence of the foco makes it a vanguard without any necessity to merge deeply with the masses, forge close ties with them, participate seriously in their own struggles, and actually lead the masses in their own struggles. Foco theory, or focoism, is therefore a strongly elitist theory of revolution.
The origin of the foco theory lies in an idealist generalization of the experiences of Che and Fidel Castro in the Cuban Revolution. However, given the stategy followed by Castro, the success of that revolution was pretty much a lucky accident. This was at the time when there was already mass disgruntlement on the verge of boiling over against the Batista dictatorship. In other words, while the foco theory says it is not necessary for conditions to be particularly ripe for revolution, in Cuba itself they actually were. This circumstance also led to tremendous demoralization and ineffectiveness in Batista’s army, which almost totally fell apart after Castro’s small guerrilla force of a few hundred men took over a similarly small Cuban Army garrison of 250 men near the city of Santa Clara in December 1958 (the Battle of Yaguajay).
Attempts to apply the foco strategy in other countries have always failed dismally. In Africa Laurent-Désiré Kabila, with the direct help of Che, attempted it with very dismal results in the Congo. The most famous example is that led by Che himself in Bolivia, where his approach failed to connect up with the Bolivian peasants and led to his swift capture by the Bolivian Army with the help of the U.S. CIA. (The actual cold-blooded murder of Che after his capture is said to have been done personally by the notorious CIA agent Felix Rodriguez.) This humiliating failure led Cuba to back off on supporting similar focoist adventures for a number of years, and revolutionary groups around the world which had been inspired by the Cuban revolution began splitting into factions, and shifting more toward alternative strategies. In the mid-1970s, however, Cuba resumed its support for international revolution in a big way. In Africa it deployed its own troops and also supported the MPLA guerrillas in Angola. In the Caribbean area it resumed substantial support for groups following the foco strategy. In Argentina, the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP), led by Roberto Santucho, tried the foco method in Tucumán Province, near Bolivia, but apparently without Cuban military or financial support. It was also rather easily defeated by around 3,000 Argentine soldiers, partly by using vicious state terror tactics against the small number of ERP supporters in nearby towns.
While the original foco strategy was designed for revolutionary efforts in rural areas in oppressed Third World countries, in the late 1960s the foco idea was also adapted for urban areas in some Third World countries and even in the United States! Needless to say, the results of this urban guerrilla warfare were even more ignominious defeats.