ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, February 1974


Frank Roberts

The Tupamaros: Rise and Fall


From International Socialism, No.66, February 1974, pp.??.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Two years ago the Tupamaros of Uruguay seemed to many revolutionaries throughout the world to provide a perfect model of what revolutionary activity should be. Their example influenced other movements in a dozen or more countries. Their activities have been given further prominence recently by the release of State of Siege, an excellent film directed by Costa-Gavras. The picture below shows a scene from the film. It is still showing in London and should be seen by as many people as possible.

State of Siege

But the Tupamaros themselves seem to be defeated and demoralised. Frank Roberts explains the political reasons why in this review of The Tupamaros, by Alain Labrousse, recently published by Penguin Books, price 60p.

THERE IS nothing new about the use of guerrilla warfare in the city. Nor is urban guerrilla warfare especially a weapon of the left. In Cyprus, General Grivas used this form of struggle to realise his dream: union of a fascist Cyprus with a fascist Greece.

Yet, since about 1968, urban guerrilla warfare has enjoyed a great vogue on the left. From Latin America, to Detroit, and Belfast, it has emerged as a dominant form of armed struggle. Romantics and opportunists on the left have rushed to do obeisance to the mode of struggle, or to one or more of the organisations conducting it, in the most uncritical fashion imaginable.

There seem to be four main reasons for the turn towards urban guerrilla struggle since the late 1960s. First, in the past five years, capitalism’s crises have been concentrated more and more, not on the fringes of the modern world, but in its heartland, the industrial cities.

Second, this shift in focus coincided with the end of the myth of the rural, peasant guerrilla war, a myth established by the successes of Mao, Giap and Castro, but which died with Che Guevara in the forests of Bolivia.

Third, 1968 was also the year in which the Vietnamese struggle moved into the cities, in the Tet offensive, an attack that gave a massive boost to urban struggle.

And, finally, a decisive factor was the emergence of the Uruguayan Tupamaros, the subject of this book. The Tupamaros, though now smashed by outright military oppression, set a standard of intelligent violence unequalled in modern times. (Anyone wanting to see just how good they were should make a point of seeing the film, State of Siege, a highly accurate account of the kidnapping and execution of Dan Mitrione.) The Tupamaros’ flair, bravery and genius are not in question: but equally, their politics most definitely are. Von Clausewitz, the German strategist, much admired by Lenin, wrote that war is only the violent extension of politics; if the politics are wrong to start with, the war will probably go the same way.

If you want a guerrilla war in Uruguay, it has to be an urban one. The country is dominated by its capital city, Montevideo. In 1964, 87.2 per cent of the population lived in towns, the majority in the capital itself. In the early 1960s, Uruguay was a quiet little bourgeois democracy, ‘the Switzerland of Latin America’. It had a small and manageable population, and a developed labour movement. Its politics were dominated by a stable two-party system.

Yet in the mid-sixties, Uruguay was overwhelmed by economic crisis, inflation reaching an annual rate of at least 50 per cent. The native bourgeoisie faced a choice: either they must seriously examine the causes of the country’s collapse (which meant examining the government ministers who were, as the Tupas later proved, getting fat on the chaos) or they must tighten their grip and let the workers do the suffering. Their choice was obvious. In June 1968 President Jorge Pacheco Areco declared martial law. Strikes were dealt with by the army, all newspapers were censored, and wages were frozen. In a matter of weeks this model democracy had shown the true face of world capitalism.

Into this crisis came the Tupamaros. Their name is odd, but when explained it reveals a good deal. The original Tupas were gauchos, cowboys who fought to help win Uruguay its freedom from Spain. They were glorious and romantic figures from the national past, and derived their name from an even more romantic figure, Tupac Amaru, last king of the Incas. If you can imagine a name in our own folklore that conjures up both the Lone Ranger and King Arthur, you have the force of the name Tupamaros. And the name, as we shall see, says much about their politics.

Though Uruguay is one of the world’s most urbanised nations, the original Tupas had begun with the fashionable rural road. Raul Sendic, one of the original founders, began as an organiser among the dreadfully impoverished sugar plantation workers. Other Tupamaros had had experience with rural guerrillas elsewhere on the continent. The Tupa entry into the cities was the product of the overwhelming crisis and repression, rather than of any Marxist line on the revolutionary role of the working class.

From the beginning, the Tupamaros established their reputation for brilliant organisation and direction. Their speciality was the political kidnapping. This was not an end in itself, but was designed to highlight a political message. Their targets were corrupt members of the cabinet, foreign businessmen and others implicated in the economic collapse. The most important of their coups was the kidnapping of Dan Mitrione, an FBI torture expert operating as a foreign aid merchant. The Tupamaros prepared and released detailed dossiers on corruption and torture, based on their interrogations of Mitrione and other prisoners. Those who were kidnapped were kept hidden and were even smuggled into hospitals for treatment.

But other of their stunts were even more impressive. Let Labrousse tell the story:

‘15 May 1969: the Cup Final of the America Cup between the Argentine Estudiantes de la Plata and the Uruguayan team Nacional de Montevideo. Everyone who had not managed to get in the stadium had transistors glued to their ears ... Instead of the expected voice, “a low grave voice” announced a message from the National Liberation Movement (Tupamaros) which lasted five minutes and was repeated five times.’ (p.70)

The police were forced to blow up a pylon to get the broadcast stopped.

On 8 October 1969, 40 Tupas captured the small town of Pando, after arriving in town disguised as a funeral procession. Yet, typically, they used this only as an opportunity to distribute leaflets. Those of them who were captured were savagely tortured: one, Jose Iglesias, was found to be suffering from cranial shock after his interrogation. Subsequently, the Tupas began the systematic use of counter-terror: any policeman or soldier involved in torture could expect violent death at the hands of Tupamaros assassins. For a time, this had a salutary effect on those Uruguayan police who were anxious to put to good effect the lessons they had received from the CIA and the Brazilians. But only for a time.

Other Tupa stunts were pure publicity. Perhaps the best example is their highjacking of a lorry-load of turkeys, which they distributed amongst the poor of Montevideo for Christmas.

Workers as Audience

THE STYLE is the politics. The Tupamaros and those who follow them belong to an old-established, pre-Marxist tradition. The essence of this tradition is that there are two kinds of good people: those who act, and those who watch. Every peasant may have dreamed of being Robin Hood, but there was only one real Robin. There are the elect, the Saints, the Saviours, on the one hand; and on the other hand stand the herd, those who are to be saved.

The Tupamaros’ politics, like those of urban guerrillas everywhere, have much in common with TV’s Lone Ranger. After a stunning coup – a radio station commandeered, a town captured, a cargo of turkeys delivered – the poor bemused local population can only gawp as the hero vanishes from town. In these affairs the working class exists only as an audience. Some commentators have attributed this to the class origins of the Tupamaros. There is some justice in this. Labrousse, who treats the Tupamaros as almost beyond political criticism, is yet obliged to point out that support for the Tupas ‘decreases down the social scale. At the bottom of the scale, the Tupamaros are regarded not so much with hostility as with that indifference with which this group regards all political questions’ (p.117). And, of course, Tupa politics encourage this passivity which those ‘down the social scale’ (i.e. the workers) are always encouraged to display by their superiors.

There were workers amongst the Tupamaros, or at least among those captured. A group of 55 Tupa prisoners was made up as follows: 15 students, 7 members of the professions, 16 white-collar workers, 10 manual workers, 2 soldiers, a priest and 4 seminarians (trainee priests). Labrousse admits (p.115) that ‘most of the Tupamaros in fact come from the bourgeoisie’ though he follows this up with the absurd assertion that 65 per cent of the population of Montevideo are ‘bourgeois’, a proposition that indicates his rather vague understanding of class.

What the above figures do indicate is that the Tupamaros were a ‘broadly based’ movement, in the worst sense of that term. A look at their manifesto reveals that any consideration of working-class interests is sacrificed to ‘the nation’, ‘the people’ and ‘the armed struggle’. The Tupas defined the difference between themselves and other groups as being that the Tupas believed in action – as if revolution were a matter of sheer willpower. They had no line at all on the question of work in the mass organisations of the working class, a position understandable for a group viewing revolution as work for heroic martyrs. There is only the following section, one out of 30, on real work in the working-class movement:

‘If he (a Tupa) is militant in a trade union or mass movement, he must create an atmosphere, within a nucleus of the trade union, or the whole trade union, in which it is possible to organise support for the armed struggle and preparation to join it. His concrete tasks are theoretical and practical education and the recruitment of soldiers, the call to armed struggle. And when possible, the trade union must be led to more advanced stages of the class struggle.’ (Labrousse, p.136).

That, and nothing else.

And their goal? No nonsense about workers taking over society, a workers’ state, or anything like that:

‘... we want the abolition of all property which can be speculated with; absolute equality between the government and those they rule, both in sacrifice and pay. This, in short, is our programme. We do not call it an “ism”. We are a huge movement whose militants include all sorts of groups from Marxist to Catholic and we do not need an “ism”.’ (p.145).

This kind of theoretical gibberish is reminiscent of a group of rather wet liberals in 1847. Marx and Lenin might never have been born. Lenin’s remark, ‘Without revolutionary theory, no revolutionary practice’, is apt. This might seem a paradox: after all, the Tupas have had plenty of practice. But their practice has not been revolutionary practice, actions which can change the whole basis of society.

The political ‘theory’ of the Tupamaros proves that they have not the faintest idea what capitalist society is, who can change that society, or how such a change might come about.

‘Operation Armadillo’

THE TUPAS’ single-minded stress on the ‘armed struggle’ proved to be their final undoing. A movement that does not have really deep roots in the working class, roots which enable it to defend itself with the threat of massive strikes, can prove an easy prey to direct governmental violence. In April 1972, the Uruguayan government declared ‘a state of internal war’. It proceeded to mobilise every terroristic resource at its disposal – murder, random attacks, torture. Within months 846 Tupas were captured, their impregnable ‘People’s Prison’ was discovered, six of their surgical teams unmasked. Under intense pressure, what remained of the Tupamaros fled into the countryside from Montevideo, disguising the crushing defeat they had suffered with the code name ‘Operation Armadillo’.

Uruguay’s chronic economic difficulties continue, but the Tupamaros’ strategy proved no answer to it. The final crushing blow to the Tupas came recently, when Raul Sendic, their founder, was sentenced to death.

What is true of the Tupamaros applies to most other urban guerrilla movements across the world. Generally, these others have an approach far cruder than the Tupamaros – the indiscriminate bomb attack rather than the precise kidnapping or assassination. Urban guerrillaism might be a useful form of pressure, but there is no evidence that it can mobilise large sections of the population. And, of course the question of the guerrillas’ relationship with the mass of the population is crucial. In 1971 the IRA Provisional had an almost impregnable base in the Free Areas: within a year a series of disastrous political and military misjudgments had totally destroyed the morale upon which this was based. The basis for Operation Motorman, when the army captured the Bogside without any serious bloodshed, was the ineptitude of the Provisional IRA.

Socialist revolution must mean the mass of the working class consciously taking power, in order to shape society and the economy to their own ends. The 1917 Revolution in Russia was no coup: the Bolsheviks had the clear support of the workers’ councils (the Soviets), the highest expression of working-class self-government yet seen. Urban guerrillaism might persuade a tottering colonial power to quit, as happened to Britain in Cyprus and Aden, but it cannot tackle the real questions of the needs and potentialities of the working class. The current crises of Cypriot life are clear proof of this.

In the face of repression, the workers have two clear advantages: politics, and numbers. With socialist politics, they can neutralise and counter the lies of their enemies, and can build up clear political strategies. Those politics must be based on Marxism, which has proved time and again the only politics capable of bringing the working class to victory. The second strength of the workers lies in their numbers, resting on the fact that it is their collective labour power, daily bought and sold, that fuels the system.

The Tupamaros turned their back on both these sources of strength. Their politics were a vague mish-mash of sentiment and nationalism. By choice, they were a heroic few striving to impress the majority. Strange as it may seem, their error is only a variation of Allende’s error in Chile. Socialism can never be delivered to the workers: either their mass, conscious activity will create it, or it will not occur.

Labrousse’s book is useful if what you want is a fairly straightforward and thorough list of facts about the Tupamaros. But the reader who wants to see these facts in a political perspective must look elsewhere. Labrousse is totally uncritical, accepting Tupa rhetoric and ideology at its face value. The book contains some useful appendices: Tupa manifestoes, interviews etc, enough to convince anyone of the poverty of the ideas behind even the most polished and successful urban guerrillas.

Socialist Worker (24 November 1973) can have the last word:

‘The Tupamaros failed completely to provide an alternative leadership for the working class. Though they enjoyed widespread sympathy, their tactics did not relate to the real struggles of Uruguayan workers and they remained a predominantly middle class grouping seeking to influence the workers’ movement by individual heroic actions. They were smashed relatively easily by naked military force, and the condemnation of Sendic is a final symbolic gesture by the new regime which they could not prevent.’

It is a sad, but an accurate epitaph.

Top of page

ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 8.3.2008