“Unlike other Latin-American guerrilla groups, the Tupamaros normally avoid bloodshed when possible. They try instead to create embarrassment for the Government and general disorder.”
-- New York Times (1970)
“You go Uruguay and I'll go mine.”
-- Groucho Marx (1930)
In a recent article, I declared: “I believe someone needs to write a definitive book on the Tupamaros of Uruguay.” This belief was based primarily on what I had read about the group (a.k.a. “Movement for National Liberation” or MLN) in William Blum's Killing Hope.
“Perhaps the cleverest, most resourceful and most sophisticated urban guerrillas the world has ever seen, the Tupamaros had a deft touch for capturing the public's imagination with outrageous actions, and winning sympathizers with their Robin Hood philosophy,” Blum wrote. “Their members and secret partisans held key positions in the government, banks, universities, and the professions, as well as in the military and police...Once they ransacked an exclusive high-class nightclub and scrawled on the walls perhaps their most memorable slogan: ‘O Bailan Todos O No Baila Nadie’ -- Either everyone dances or no one dances.”
After reading that paragraph, you can't blame me for wanting a whole damn book written on this topic, huh? Well, in response to my public plea, friend and colleague Greg Elich took time to set me up for an e-mail interview with Hiber Conteris, a former Tupamaro now living and working in the U.S.
Mickey Z: I'm willing to guess that most Americans are unfamiliar with the Tupamaros. What can you tell us by way of introduction?
Hiber Conteris: I would say that the best way to characterize the MLN-Tupamaros, is to say that it finally became an urban guerrilla warfare movement, which decided to resort to the arms as a way not necessarily to overthrow the government, but to create consciousness among the population about the futility of the electoral process under a corrupt and repressive regime. At the beginning, the movement created by Raul Sendic (a former member of the Socialist Party) had not other goal than to organize the workers in a sugar cane plantation in the North of the country in a trade union, demanding better salaries, better work conditions, and eventually a sort of land reform, the right to work by themselves the unproductive lands owned by the company and the landlords. Different circumstances (the indifference of the legislature, the repressive measures taken both by the government and the land owners, etc.) determined that the original union movement became a clandestine movement: their members were forced to steal some arms to defend themselves, and then to rob a bank to get some money to survive themselves and feed their families. Sendic and the original founders of the movement were after these events in the underground, required by the police, and the whole group began to grow up as a guerrilla warfare movement.
MZ: What role did you play personally?
HC: I joined the MLN in 1968, during the presidency of Jorge Pacheco Areco, who was running the country under special repressive measures known as “Medidas prontas de seguridad” (MPS) or “Prompt security measures”: 5 Leftish political parties were banned (among them the Socialist Party), and constitutional and individual rights were suspended. It seemed to me that there was no other way to act in a significant political way than through the actions of the movement. This was the phase generally known as the “Robin Hood” stage, when the actions of the movement were oriented to bring some relief to the population (by stealing food, for instance, to be distributed among the poor) and also to expose through different actions the corruption and repressive measures of the state. Because of my political and philosophical formation, I had some instruction responsibilities, because the movement was growing up at an incredible rate, and it was necessary to give some ideological bases to the new members. I never belonged to the direction of the Movement, but I was in touch and personally knew most of the leaders and members of the executive, and because of that I participated in some of the most important logistic and military operations of the movement between the beginning of 1968 and August of 1970. Profound discrepancies with the tactics and strategy of the movement (under a new direction, because the members of the historic direction of the MLN were in jail at that time) led me to an internal discussion and finally to the separation from the movement.
MZ: Were the tactics you used to “’create consciousness among the population about the futility of the electoral process under a corrupt and repressive regime” accepted and supported by the general population? If so, how did you avoid being demonized by those in power who surely would have loved to turn the masses against the MLN?
HC: The MLN had three main objectives: a) To carry out some operations (actions) that produced a strong impact on the people, for instance to distribute some food among the lower income sectors of the population, or --another example -- during a strike of the bank employees, when the government decided to use the military to enforce the employees to go to work, the MLN kidnapped the CEO of one of the biggest banking corporations and kept him until the government suspended the repression against the employees; b) Another sort of action was aimed to unmask or put in evidence the corruption of the people in the government and the big corporations; for instance, in 1968 the MLN stormed the central offices of one of the financial corporations that was having illicit operations, showing that one of the members of the government (a Minister) was the owner of the firm. The MLN took confidential documents of the firm, made copies, and distributed the copies among the newspapers and other mass media to make them known by the population; c) And many of the actions were aimed to reinforce the internal structure of the movement, both financially and in military terms, like robbing (the word used by the Movement was “expropriation”) a bank or assaulting a military unit to “expropriate” arms. In general, the Movement did not publicize this last kind of actions, but the first two were aimed to get the sympathy and support of the population, and they were very effective in this sense. Later on, about 1971, the Movement had so many people in its files and so many others who wanted to participate in one way or another, that a political branch named “26 de Marzo” (March 26 - a date) was created, to participate in the electoral process (even though the Movement decided not to present their own candidates) and support those candidates that the Movement considered honest, responsible and inclined to introduce the social and economic changes needed by the country.
About the second part of your question, I would say that we couldn't avoid to be demonized by the government and their repressive forces. There was a time when the government even prohibited to the media to use the words “MLN”, “Tupamaros”, or any other expression related to the movement. They created their own denigrated vocabulary to refer to the actions of the movement.
MZ: Do you think such tactics could be adapted for use in 2004 America...a nation in dire need of consciousness and alternatives to a corrupt electoral process?
HC: Definitely not. I don't think that that kind of tactics used by the MLN would have any positive effect on the North American population. Remember the case of the Black Panthers and other “guerrilla warfare” groups that appeared in the U.S. in the 60's. They were minoritarian groups that never obtained the general support of the population, not even among the Black population. On the other hand, you have to remember that the MLN suffered a military defeat in 1972, and now it is a political movement articulated in a wider political front, with a couple of senators and several deputies in the Congress.
MZ: How then would you advise those in America with a sincere desire to take action? In your opinion and based on your experiences-both positive and negative-what can be done to work for justice in the United States?
HC: Your last question is not an easy one. I think that some of the most important political changes in the U.S. and also in Europeans countries, came about when some non-political forces, like student groups, intellectuals, marginal sectors like the Black population and other minorities groups began to mobilize themselves against the major national and international problems in the society, for instance the civil rights struggle, the right for a free education, economic justice (normally by blue-collar workers), human rights abuse, the lesbian-gay rights, the Vietnam War, the Iraq war today, etc. It is true that the decisions are finally made at the political level, but these kind of opinion movements, when they are really able to produce a change in the society, are not partisan, but supra-partisan movements. The decision to end the Vietnam War was made by the Nixon administration, but only because the protest and resistance of the various internal forces in the country enforced the government to do that. Radical changes in any society only occur during or after a deep crisis. The most significant economic and political change in the history of the U.S. was probably the policy of the New Deal by President Roosevelt after the financial and economic crisis of the 30s. Now is also a time of crisis in this country, but the 9/11 terrorist attack is still too fresh in the memory of the majority of the people as to perceive the absurd and historical crime of the Iraq war. The policy of this administration is a policy of fear. I don't see any other way to change the present situation than to create consciousness about this and other crimes in our society among the people who is around us, either in the school, in the place of work, in the church, in the neighborhood, in the various clubs, groups or associations to which we belong, including our political party. Because the last decision, as I said before, has to be a political decision, made at the political and governmental level.
Hiber Conteris is currently an Associate Professor at the University of Arizona, teaching Latin American Political Ideologies and Geopolitics of the Southern Cone Countries at the Center for Latin American Studies. He is planning to retire in two years and return to his country, Uruguay
Mickey Z. is the author of two brand new books: The Seven Deadly Spins: Exposing the Lies Behind War Propaganda (Common Courage Press) and A Gigantic Mistake: Articles and Essays for Your Intellectual Self-Defense (Library Empyreal/Wildside Press). For more information, please visit: http://mickeyz.net.
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