Sunday, September 20, 2009

An Interesting and Troubling Apology from Former Tupamaro (and Uruguayan Presidential Candidate) Jose Mujica

Uruguay is gearing up for a presidential election here, and on the eve of elections, the leading candidate, Jose Mujica, had some interesting comments to make on his view of economic policies, the role of the government, and his role in the guerrilla/political Tupamaro movement in the 1970s.

For those on the right in the U.S. who get worked up into a Cold-War-level froth over the fact that Latin America is electing leaders from the left, Jose Mujica offers just one more example of how stupid that froth is. Mujica, a 74-year-old senator and the leading candidate for president heading into Uruguay's elections in October (where a run-off is likely), offered some comments that raised eyebrows this week, including his insistence that

“If belonging to the left means defending a strong government intervention in the economy and a strong state tendency in economic affairs, that’s not for me [...] I’m more a libertarian than a man who thinks the state is the solution. My Socialist ideas support self-management and I don’t mix it with the power of the state. The job of government is to help with social distribution, to avoid the accumulation of social rust-belts which the market can’t address, and they finish being extremely dear for the rest of the community.”
This is not surprising, as the U.S. press in general has shown a remarkable ability to totally misinterpret the political spectrum in Latin America and to paint broad homogeneous strokes over what is a very heterogeneous group of leaders and political parties. This misunderstanding not just of the Latin American left, but of Latin American politics in general, is easily understood - one simply have to know that Brazil's center-right former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso and his party, the PSDB, are often described as "center-left" by otherwise-respectable news sources in the U.S.

What's (perhaps) more interesting is Mujica's admissions about the Uruguayan dictatorship this week. In addition to being a senator and presidential candidate, Mujica was a leader in the Tupamaros, the urban political/guerrilla group of the 1960s and 1970s. Although the Tupamaros did participate in kidnappings and interrogations (always without the use of torture), and killed some (including an FBI agent who was involved in training the Uruguayan military how to torture), they were effectively weakened beyond any real threat by 1972 due to increasing repression. Although virtually finished as a guerrilla group by 1973, the Uruguayan military nonetheless used the Tupamaros as its raison d'etre for establishing its own military dictatorship in 1973. Once in power, the military began repressing all social sectors and political parties, using the Tupamaros as window-dressing for its broader authoritarian goals.

However, his role in the Tupamaro political/guerrilla group has not been a major concern, and this week, he made a fascinating admission. When asked what his greatest "repentance" is, Mujica responded, "That because of the armed struggle the (Uruguayan) people were condemned to 16 years of dictatorship and we couldn’t kick them out. I failed as a militant. Besides we learnt that when you try building a society without social classes, the bureaucracy monsters appears and gobbles all ideals, and you enter a world of disillusion."

What's interesting here is the notion that the Tupamaros are somehow the ones who are to blame for the (bloodless) military coup in Uruguay. Again, by 1972, the Tupamaros' "guerrilla" activities had effectively been halted as the military had begun cracking down under a democratically-elected president who was increasingly ineffective and a puppet to the military. Only in 1973, a year after the effective end of the previous phase of Tupamaro methods, did the military come to power. I don't know the full scholarship on what caused the Uruguayan military to take control, but from what I've read, the military only used the Tupamaros as a pretext for its own designs on power, something that I think the timeline supports. I don't know if this is an ego-trip on Mujica's part, or if it's genuine sincerity (it seems like the latter, though those two items aren't mutually exclusive, either), but I find it fascinating and mildly disturbing that a participant in the leftist movements of the 1970s is apologizing for the military's actions, actions over which he didn't really have control. Did the Tupamaro movement heighten the tension in Uruguay? Sure. But asking them to apologize for their "causing" the dictatorship is like asking Chile's Unidad Popular to apologize for causing Pinochet's dictatorship, or for the workers and students and Joao Goulart to apologize for Brazil's dictatorship. It's not just that it makes no sense; it's not even that it therefore asks participants in those movements in the past to have been able to predict the future in 1963 or 1973 or 1971. It's that it in some way puts the responsibility for the thousands of murders, tortures, and disappearances at the doorstep of groups that, at the time, felt they were doing what they had to do to fight for social and economic justice. Regardless of whether or not you agree with the actual policies and methods of the left in Latin America in the 1960s, 1970s, or even today, to lay the responsibility of those tortures and murders at their feet strikes me as not only offensive, but absurd.

Of course, this isn't what is raising eyebrows in Uruguay (it's his comments on Argentina's Kirchners, about whom he has little nice to say). And to be clear, I don't think that anybody else from the Latin American left in the 1960s and 1970s is going to be offering this kind of "apology." Still, I find it interesting and unique, and more than a little offensive to those whose actions were certainly part of broader processes that led to repressive, authoritarian regimes, but who were in no way singly "responsible" for those regimes or their subsequent actions.