Becoming the Tupamaros: Solidarity and Transnational Revolutionaries in Uruguay and the United States

Becoming the Tupamaros: Solidarity and Transnational Revolutionaries in Uruguay and the United States

by Lindsey Churchill

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In Becoming the Tupamaros, Lindsey Churchill explores an alternative narrative of US-Latin American relations by challenging long-held assumptions about the nature of revolutionary movements like the Uruguayan Tupamaros group. A violent and innovative organization, the Tupamaros demonstrated that Latin American guerrilla groups during the Cold War did more than take sides in a battle of Soviet and US ideologies. Rather, they digested information and techniques without discrimination, creating a homegrown and unique form of revolution.

Churchill examines the relationship between state repression and revolutionary resistance, the transnational connections between the Uruguayan Tupamaro revolutionaries and leftist groups in the US, and issues of gender and sexuality within these movements. Angela Davis and Eldridge Cleaver, for example, became symbols of resistance in both the United States and Uruguay. and while much of the Uruguayan left and many other revolutionary groups in Latin America focused on motherhood as inspiring women's politics, the Tupamaros disdained traditional constructions of femininity for female combatants. Ultimately, Becoming the Tupamaros revises our understanding of what makes a Movement truly revolutionary.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826519443
Publisher: Vanderbilt University Press
Publication date: 02/24/2014
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Lindsey Churchill is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Central Oklahoma.

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Becoming the Tupamaros

Solidarity and Transnational Revolutionaries in Uruguay and the United States

By Lindsey Churchill

Vanderbilt University Press

Copyright © 2014 Vanderbilt University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8265-1946-7


"Digging the Tupes"

The Unique Revolutionary Contributions of the Tupamaros

[There will be] a country for all, or a country for none. —Tupamaros popular slogan

In a 1969 book describing the strategy and actions of the Tupamaros, Antonio Mercader and Jorge de Vera depicted MLN-T members as "total samurais, with muscles of steel, mentally alert, instant reflexes, an exact knowledge of weapons and resistance to pain." This romanticized description is one of numerous examples of the admiration that the left had for the Tupamaros. The Tupamaros garnered international attention in the late 1960s, a time when leftists throughout the world turned to more violent means of activism in order to inspire political change. Because of their violent actions against an increasingly repressive state, for their admirers, the Tupamaros were successful revolutionaries who challenged their country's dictatorship and won the support of a large portion of the Uruguayan people. With their seemingly creative and usually dangerous actions, the group specifically garnered the attention of the left in the United States. Scholars of the left occasionally and briefly acknowledge the international impact of the Tupamaros, but their influence and importance has not been explored in depth in historical literature. Despite frequent references and stories about the Tupamaros within leftist activism, scholars have tended to focus on Cuba as the romanticized country for leftist organizations in the US in the 1960s and 1970s.

While the Tupamaros performed actions not drastically different from other guerrilla groups such as the Brazilian Aqao Libertadora Nacional and Cuba's urban guerrillas, the left perceived the Tupamaros as more successful, egalitarian, and creative. The Tupamaros' victories occurred in part because of the Uruguayan state's initially weak response to the group. During the 1960s, the Uruguayan government lacked the ability to repress its citizens as violently as other nations in Latin America, allowing the Tupamaros to have more staying power and perceived successes. Because of the democratic and essentially nonviolent tradition within Uruguay during the twentieth century, initially the ruling government had neither the resources to neutralize the group nor the historical framework to conceptualize their violent attacks.

In order to demonstrate the supposed superiority of the Tupamaros, their leftist admirers pointed to the Tupamaros' use of urban guerrilla warfare, which included actions such as the kidnapping of several government officials (including US foreign agent Dan Mitrione) and the making and distribution of the controversial movie about the group, State of Siege. These romantic representations enabled the Tupamaros to invade the consciousness of the action-oriented left more than other urban based Latin American revolutionary groups. Thus, the left often imagined the MLN-T as more successful and egalitarian than other revolutionaries. This romantic perception inspired leftists to study the tactics and practices of the group in order to start similar revolutions in their own countries. However, while idealized portrayals proved common, the left also had a wide range of reactions to the accomplishments of the Tupamaros, some of which included criticism of the group's lack of a coherent ideology. Others rejected the MLN-T's advocacy of violence as a proper means of societal and political change. However, even strong critics of the Tupamaros recognized the group's achievements in their practice of urban guerrilla warfare.

Urban Guerrilla Warfare

A primary reason many North American groups and movements throughout the world admired the Tupamaros was the perception that the group more successfully implemented urban guerrilla warfare tactics than did their colleagues in other countries. Tupamaro supporters argued that Uruguay represented an ideal place to practice urban guerrilla warfare. By the 1960s, half of Uruguayans lived in the capital city of Montevideo, and 30 percent more resided in other urban areas. The Tupamaros' inspiration for urban guerrilla warfare derived in part from the so-called theoretical brain of the group, Abraham Guillén. Along with Guillén, Brazilian militant Carlos Marighella also inspired the urban guerrilla strategies of the Tupamaros and other leftists throughout the world. However, Guillén had a specific impact on and association with the Tupamaros. Though the relationship between Guillén and the Tupamaros is not completely clear, the left considered Guillén the Tupamaros' theoretical mastermind as he wrote extensively about the group's revolutionary development. While not an official member of the Tupamaros, in 1966 Guillén participated in series of discussions with Tupamaros and a cell of Argentine guerrillas in Montevideo. He later published his contributions to these meetings and also expressed the Tupamaros' ideas concerning urban guerrilla warfare in a book entitled Estrategia de la guerrilla urbana. Publishing information from these meetings proved to be an important task as the group rarely articulated their theories to a larger audience.

Guillén, originally from Spain, immigrated to Argentina when he was thirty-five. He earned fame as a commentator on international politics but never joined a Marxist party. He was associated with the Uturunos leftist guerrilla movement in Northwest Argentina until the Argentine government arrested him for his involvement with the group. When he was released from jail three months later in 1962, Guillén escaped to Montevideo. There he established himself with Fidelista strategy groups but soon realized that the topography and urban demography of Uruguay was not conducive to rural strategies. This realization supported Guillén's argument that topography should never be the foremost element of consideration for revolutionary movements. Instead, Guillén asserted that ultimately people make the revolution.

Guillén's critical work, Estrategia de la guerrilla urbana, helped provide a theoretical model for the Tupamaros. Guillén's notion of urban guerrilla warfare posited an alternative to Che Guevara's ideas of guerrilla warfare in the countryside. Inspired by the actions of the Tupamaros, Guillén later contended that the group demonstrated the struggle between "capitalism and socialism with its epicenter in the great cities." Guillén even went so far as to criticize the ostensibly poor strategy of carrying out a revolution in the middle of the countryside as "peasants did in the middle ages." Guillén suggested instead that guerrillas in countries such as Uruguay and Argentina should engage in prolonged urban warfare and focus on small victories that would eventually destroy existing governments.

Large cities would ideally contain hundreds of revolutionary cells living separately but fighting together (which the Tupamaros accomplished at the height of their success). Guillén advocated that urban guerrillas rob banks and kidnap important figures for ransom. Such strategies appealed to those that lived in large cities and had trouble relating to notions of guerrilla warfare focused on the countryside. Therefore, within this symbiotic relationship, the Tupamaros came to represent Guillén's idea of urban warfare. Guillén also called for the union of as much as 80 percent of the population in a broad front to create revolution. Thus, revolution in Latin American urban settings also needed to include the middle class along with exploited workers and peasants. The call for a cross-class alliance also fit well with the Tupamaros as the majority of the group derived from the middle class.

Therefore, Guillén's methods enticed revolutionaries dealing with variant terrain, such as cities. For Guillén, it was the Tupamaros who exemplified the best model of urban guerrilla warfare. In an English-language translation of Guillén's work, US professor Donald Hodges notes that the Tupamaros' organizational model influenced the Quebec Liberation Front, the Black Panthers, and Weather Underground. Hodges posits that these groups maintained revolutionary tactics similar to the Tupamaros in part because they too operated in more "advanced" countries with similar terrain. Indeed, revolutionaries throughout the world, particularly in urban settings, continuously imagined the Tupamaros as more successful practitioners of urban guerrilla warfare and hoped to emulate their tactics.

Tupamaros as Inspiration

The Tupamaros' inspiration of radical action spanned the globe during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The proviolence West German Baader-Meinhof group or Red Army faction called themselves the "Tupamaros of West Germany" and released statements asserting that they must learn from revolutionary movements such as the Tupamaros. One article in the mainstream press even went so far as to claim that a handbook explaining the armed resistance strategy of the Tupamaros had been the Baader-Meinhof's "only ideological basis." The US leftist press sometimes described the Baader-Meinhof as "West Germany's version of the Tupamaros." Furthermore, in the late 1960s, two small, proviolence organizations named after the Uruguayan Tupamaros emerged in Germany—the Tupamaros West Berlin and the Tupamaros Munich.

A group of leftist guerrillas in Greece also found inspiration from the small Uruguayan organization as they planned to overthrow the military backed government by using the tactics of the "South American Tupamaros." The influence of the Tupamaros extended to the Voice of Palestine, a group of Palestinian volunteers who broadcasted a two-hour show about politics and ostensibly transmitted coded messages to guerrilla members in Israel. The radio show sometimes gave details about the successful tactics of the Tupamaros as a teaching tool. Therefore, to those who admired the Tupamaros, the group offered an excellent example of the growing strength of leftist revolutionary movements.

Because of their status as international symbols of revolutionary triumph, French-born Régis Debray, who theorized about revolution and fought with Che Guevara in Bolivia, found inspiration from the Tupamaros. Debray wrote about what he perceived as the group's success in comparison to other revolutionary groups in Latin America. Debray had first visited Cuba in 1959 after Castro and the 26 of July Movement's successful guerrilla warfare campaign against the Batista dictatorship. He returned in 1961 and by 1964 had visited every Latin American country besides Paraguay. For Debray, Latin American guerrilla movements held powerful appeal and political importance. Che Guevara's writings especially influenced Debray's ideas about revolution. Three fundamental conclusions that Guevara derived from the Cuban Revolution particularly influenced Debray: that popular forces can win against an army, revolutionary conditions can be created, and rural areas are more conducive for revolutionary battles within the Americas. Though Marx had predicted that revolution would take place in urban areas, within Latin America, the countryside seemed to be the best place to incite battles for national liberation.

Influenced greatly by the Cuban Revolution, in the mid-1960s Debray wrote articles such as "Castroism: The Long March in Latin America" which was targeted primarily to US and European audiences. In these works, Debray looked to Cuba and analyzed the potential for revolution within Latin America. Fidelism, according to Debray, was not necessarily a new ideology, but a "regeneration of Marxism and Leninism in Latin American conditions and according to the historic traditions of each country" Debray tried to understand why Cuba's revolutionary example had spread less dramatically in South America. He blamed the divisions within South America (largely the fault of the US) as well as what he deemed the insularity of some South American people and nations. Indeed, Cuba had brought about a massive transformation in Latin American politics, but it also inspired many countries to reinvigorate their oppression of the left.

In January 1966, Debray returned to Cuba and trained with guerrillas. In 1967, he wrote Revolution in the Revolution?, which was published in France, the US, Cuba, and England. The work fared well, with three hundred thousand copies published in Cuba. In this work, Debray stressed the importance of the specificity of the Latin American experience as well as small, extremely disciplined guerrilla groups. Debray believed that the role of the guerrilla group constituted more than armed struggle; it also could act as a model of a future, counter society. "Liberated zones" could become laboratories for "agrarian reform, peasant congresses, levying of taxes, revolutionary tribunals, and the discipline of collective life." Revolution in the Revolution? demonstrated Debray's belief in the centrality of armed struggle in order to foment revolution. Though Debray had been writing about revolution in Latin America for years, his arrest in Bolivia exposed him to worldwide leftist prominence in 1967. Debray had been traveling as a journalist when the Bolivian government jailed him and sentenced him to thirty years in prison (he was released in three).

Debray supported the Tupamaros and their part in advancing urban armed struggle in Latin America. As he had claimed in other writings about Latin America, it was the historic conditions and the specificity of each area that should influence and shape the struggle for liberation. The Tupamaros understood the significance of the largely urban Uruguayan population. Debray argued that the Tupamaros represented, "The only armed revolutionary movement in Latin America who knew how, or was able, to attack on all fronts (and not only at one point or one side) and to neutralize the bourgeois and anti-national dictatorship, questioning its very survival." Thus, Debray viewed the Tupamaros as purveyors of new forms of socialist revolution. For Debray, the Tupamaros and their use of urban guerrilla warfare offered an excellent example of how the historical, social, political, and cultural conditions of a country (Uruguay) should influence armed struggle. Instead of relying on armchair discussions and rhetoric about liberation, the Tupamaros took actions that revealed their political ideology.

At the same time, Debray also admitted that the group lacked a precise ideology, a public program, and a true commander. However, Debray viewed these issues as possibly positive aspects of the group. According to Debray, the Tupamaros demonstrated that their unique revolutionary hero was not an individual but the group itself. In this way, Debray believed that the group moved away from egotistical displays of personal glory that plagued leftist organizations throughout the world. Even the press appointed leader of the group, Raúl Sendic, claimed that he simply played a combatant role similar to the other Tupamaros. The Tupamaros claimed, "The leadership is collective. There are no sacred cows." Debray applauded that the Tupamaros did not (publicly) support rigid hierarchies and stressed that the group was not impersonal, rigid, or puritanical. The idea of not having a central organization or commander appealed to leftists as it offered an easily followed romantic model. According to Debray, the Tupamaros further deviated from other "inferior" revolutionary groups that exhibited pompousness and childishness in both rhetoric and action. These faux revolutionaries, who lived throughout North America, Latin America, and Europe, often posed under pictures of Che or Mao in order to give their groups revolutionary credibility. After the Cuban Revolution, many leftist groups in Latin America attempted to emulate Che's and Fidel's success but with superficiality and mere caricature. According to Debray, these movements only illustrated the personal vanity of their middle-class members. In contrast, most members of the Tupamaros ignored notions of personal glory and instead created an organization where fellow militants greeted one another as equals. Unlike the elitist groups that Debray maligned but did not specifically name, the Tupamaros successfully reached out to and garnered support from labor unions, university students, popular movements, traditional parties, and members of the church. Debray believed that by including "the people," the Tupamaros altered the dichotomy between combatants and noncombatants. The movement needed the people's involvement in the revolution—from workers who could not leave their jobs, to housewives, intellectuals, and the "petit-bourgeoisie." Debray argued that these varying types of people supported the Tupamaros but did not actively join the organization.

According to Debray, the Tupamaros, in contradistinction to other inferior clandestine guerrilla movements, appreciated and needed the force of the people in their struggle for liberation. Therefore, because of their continual planned actions and alliance with the majority of the people, Debray viewed the Tupamaros as offering an international example of revolutionary maturity. Debray failed to note, however, that the Tupamaros had trouble connecting with some factions of the labor movement and other factions of the left. While they won the approval of the Sendic-led UTAA and the workers of Frigorifico Fray Bentos, they did not penetrate the trade-union movement or the Uruguayan Communist Party as easily. Thus, when describing the Tupamaros, Debray ignored or seemed unaware of fragmentation within the Uruguayan left. For Debray, the Tupamaros' discretion in targets and actions undeniably proved a high level of prudence and exemplified important political goals the majority of Uruguayan supported.


Excerpted from Becoming the Tupamaros by Lindsey Churchill. Copyright © 2014 Vanderbilt University Press. Excerpted by permission of Vanderbilt University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction 1

1 "Digging the Tupes": The Unique Revolutionary Contributions of the Tupamaros 29

2 Supporting the "Other" America: Leftist Uruguayan Solidarity with US Radicals 69

3 Solidarity and Reciprocal Connections: Uruguayan and US Activists 99

4 "A Pistol in Her Hand": Sexual Liberation and Gender in the Tupamaros and the Greater Uruguayan Left 119

Conclusion 155

Notes 165

References 193

Index 205

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