The Tupamaros, Terrorists of Uruguay – Part 1: The Beginnings


 . .Myself By T.V. Antony Raj.

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Luis Alberto de Herrera (1873–1959)
Luis Alberto de Herrera (1873–1959)

Luis Alberto de Herrera, a Uruguayan national leader of great importance during the first half of the 20th century, led the National Party for five decades. His political movement is known as Herrerismo. He strived to become the president many times, but was unsuccessful. Nevertheless, In 1958, he achieved a historic electoral triumph for his National Party. He died the following year. Ironically, from March 1959 to February 1967, eight National Party governments ruled Uruguay.

After the death of Herrera in 1959, divisions in the National Party demonstrated the fragility of the electoral accords that had led to its victory.

The social unrest and economic crisis that had beset Uruguay from the mid 1950s continued through the 1960s. At the time of the 1962 elections, inflation peaked to a historically high 35 percent. The Colorado Party was defeated once again, although by a much smaller margin of votes. The National Party split.

At this time, a new political protagonist came onto the political scene in the form of Raúl Antonaccio Sendic, head of the sugarcane workers from the north of the country, formed, together with other leftist leaders, the National Liberation Movement-Tupamaros (Movimiento de Liberación Nacional-Tupamaros–MLN-T), a clandestine urban guerrilla movement.

Raúl Sendic

Raúl Sendic (1926—1989), prominent Uruguayan Marxist lawyer, unionist and founder of the Tupamaros National Liberation Movement (MLN-T) (Source: chasque.net)
Raúl Sendic (1926—1989), prominent Uruguayan Marxist lawyer, unionist and founder of the Tupamaros National Liberation Movement (MLN-T) (Source: chasque.net)

Raúl Sendic Antonaccio (March 16, 1926 – April 28, 1989), a prominent Uruguayan Marxist lawyer and unionist, with his brand of social politics, nicknamed “El Bebe” (“Baby”) for his childish face and soft voice.

Sendic was born in a peasant family near the village of Juan Jose Castro, in the Flores Department of Uruguay. He worked with his father on a crab apple farm until he finished high school. He then left his rural home and went to Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay to study law. In 1952, after finishing five one-and-a-half of the six years required for a law degree, he obtained the title of attorney.

In Montevideo, Sendic became a prominent member of the Socialist Party of Uruguay after joining its youth wing. He was taciturn and dressed slovenly

Throughout the 1950s, Sendic observed how employers mistreated agricultural workers in regions where there was basically no cognizance of democracy. He intensified his social activities and got appointed as the trade union attorney of rural workers. In the late 1950s, Sendic started a campaign for creating social awareness about the sugar cane workers and their predicament.

On May 1, 1961, four hundred workers marched to Montevideo demanding redistribution of land, eight-hour working days for workers on the sugar plantations, and minimum wages, shouting slogans: “Por la tierra y con Sendic” (“For the land and with Sendic”). The march, however, was violently dispersed by troops from the Republican guards.

From this incident Sendic concluded that to meet his socialist goals would need a clandestine urban guerilla movement operating in Montevideo and not in the countryside.

At a meeting on September 21, 1961, in Bella Union, he founded the union for sugar cane workers “Unión de Trabajadores Azucareros de Artigas” (UTAA). He also helped form the union for sugar beet workers (SUDA) and the project for an all-inclusive association of rural workers – SUDOR.

The Tupamaros

Flag of the Tupamaros
Flag of the Tupamaros

Uruguay is dominated by its capital city, Montevideo. In 1964, 87.2 percent of the population lived in towns, the majority in the capital itself.

In the early 1960s, Uruguay was a quiet little bourgeois democracy, with a small and manageable population and a developed labour movement. It was known as ‘the Switzerland of Latin America’. The country had a stable two-party political system. However, in the mid 1960s, Uruguay was affected by economic crisis. Inflation reached an annual rate of at least 50 percent. Uruguay’s vast middle class was also disappointed with the country’s corrupt politics and stuttering economy.

The members of Sendic’s trade unions united with the Movimiento de Apoyo al Campesino (Peasant Support Movement) to form the Movimiento de Liberación Nacional-Tupamaros (MLN-T).

The MLN-T did not have a single leader. The leadership body was in the form of a tetrarchy. Raúl Sendic was the primus inter pares (first among equals).

José Gabriel Túpac Amaru or José Gabriel Condorcanqui Noguera, later known as Túpac Amaru II (Source: deperu.com)
José Gabriel Túpac Amaru or José Gabriel Condorcanqui Noguera, later known as Túpac Amaru II (Source: deperu.com)

In a way, the Cuban Revolution (1953–1959) inspired the formation of the Tupamaro movement in Uruguay. The movement was named after the romantic revolutionary José Gabriel Túpac Amaru or José Gabriel Condorcanqui Noguera, later known as Túpac Amaru II, the last king of the Incas. In 1780, Túpac Amaru led a major indigenous revolt against the Viceroyalty of Peru.

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.

In his younger days, José Mujica was a member of the Tupamaros.

The ideology of the Tupamaros incorporated aspects of both nationalism and socialism, even though it was basically Marxist in origin. The Tupamaros realized that the foreign influence of countries such as the United States, Britain, Argentina, and Brazil was hindering the development in Uruguay. They also sought to end the economic oppression by the indigenous oligarchy that owned and controlled nearly all Uruguay’s land and businesses in a conventional Marxist method of restoring the means of production to the people of Uruguay.

While these were the lofty goal of the Tupamaros, they had their short-term goals, namely to set up a parallel, shadow government with its own courts, a “People’s Prison,” tax collection, and channels for distribution of stolen money and food. The intent behind this “power duality” was to challenge directly the legitimacy of the government administration by providing the benefits of citizenship by means besides that of the state.

The Tupamaros was organized at the most basic level into cells. Each cell had four or five members. However, cell members did not know the names of others in their own cell. Each member was given a pseudonym.

The cells were divided into either commando units or service cells.

The commando units, staffed by the most experienced Tupamaros engaged in military actions.

The service cells

    • obtained places for meetings,
    • constructed hideouts,
    • purchased food and clothing,
    • gathered intelligence,
    • provided medical treatment,
    • manufactured explosives,
    • obtained and maintained arms and ammunitions,
    • repaired vehicles, and
    • solved transport and communication problems.

These cells were then combined into columns that operated in a given geographic area. There were several columns in Montevideo alone.

The cells or columns received their orders from the Executive Committee that directed the entire organization and created and disbanded cells.

The Tupamaros had a National Convention that consisted of representatives from every cell and column. Though the National Convention was to meet every eighteen months, it met only twice – in January 1966 and March 1968.

The membership of the Tupamaros was diverse in terms of occupation, gender and age.

There were an equal number of students, middle class professionals, and laborers with their mean age about twenty-six years. Around 70% of the Tupamaros were male, and 30% female.

Jose Mujica on March 14, 1985, the day he was freed. (Source:  AFP/Getty Images)
José Mujica on March 14, 1985, the day he was freed. (Source: AFP/Getty Images)

José Alberto “Pepe” Mujica Cordano was born on May 20, 1935 on the outskirts of Montevideo. His father Demetrio Mujica, was a small farmer of Spanish Basque ancestry. His mother, Lucy Cordano, was the daughter of poor Italian immigrants from Liguria. In 1940, when José was five years-old, his father went bankrupt.

As a boy, he helped his mother sell chrysanthemums in their neighborhood. It was their main source of income enduring a life of “dignified poverty”.

Poverty led him towards political activism. After dropping out of a prestigious high school, he associated himself with petty criminals in the slums of Montevideo. Then, he met Enrique Erro, a socialist who led a youth branch of a left-wing political party. Erro offered Mujica a leadership role in his party.

With financing from the party, Mujica, traveled to the communist countries. He visited Moscow, Beijing, and Havana. In 1959, he met Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Havana, just months after they took over the country. On returning home to Montevideo, Mujica deserted Erro’s party and turned into a gun-toting Tupamaro guerrilla with a revolutionary dream about ushering in an upheaval in Uruguay comparable to the Cuban Revolution.

 Previous -Prelude

Next  Part 2: The Formative Years

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12 thoughts on “The Tupamaros, Terrorists of Uruguay – Part 1: The Beginnings”

  1. The study’s title and many of its historical facts are misleading or inaccurate.
    For more than 3 decades now, scholars and activists have widely demonstrated that the term “terrorist” and “terrorism” could only be applied to the actions taken by the state (“state terrorism”) under one of the most brutal dictatorships the country had ever had.

    Please treat the information provided carefully and make clear references to your sources.

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