- Revolution Beyond the Sierra Maestra:The Tupamaros and the Development of a Repertoire of Dissent in the Southern Cone
In July 1967, while Che Guevara was trying to create—with limited success—a rural foco (guerrilla cell) in Bolivia, the first conference of the Organization of Latin American Solidarity (OLAS) was taking place in Havana.1 The conference was presented as the application of the decisions made at the Tricontinental Conference, which had taken place in January 1966. For the first time, members of different organizations on the Latin American left met to agree on a collective response to the question of how to develop solidarity among countries such as Cuba that had defeated imperialism and those that had embarked upon but not yet won a definitive battle.
Although the Cuban position argued that the only real way to promote solidarity was through developing a continental strategy for armed struggle, the original OLAS report raised exceptions to its use in Latin America: “[T]o talk today of guerrilla struggle in Chile or Uruguay is as ridiculous and absurd as denying the possibility to Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, Guatemala or Peru.”2 The report caused some irritation among certain sectors of the left in the Southern Cone who believed OLAS would bring the winds of revolution to their countries. At one of the post-conference parties, two journalists from the Southern Cone, Augusto Olivares (Punto Final, Chile) and Carlos María [End Page 523] Gutiérrez (Marcha, Uruguay), found an opportunity to discuss the matter with Fidel Castro. They were left “somewhat vexed at receiving such a categorical response” when they asked about the possibility of armed struggle in Uruguay and Chile. “It wasn’t me who wrote that,” answered Fidel, “don’t be disheartened.” “[T]here is no denying,” he continued, “that there are mass movements in Chile and Uruguay. But the geographical conditions must also exist.” Chile, he argued, had such conditions: “Look, if I were in Chile, I would rise up. But I think they are still pursuing elections there.” He took a different stance on Uruguay: “[Y]our country lacks the geographic conditions for armed struggle. There are no mountains, no jungles. Guerrilla warfare would be impossible there.” Asked about the possibility of other models, such as armed urban insurrection, he responded:
“In theory it’s possible. … You have a combatant and politicized mass in Uruguay. When you look at things that way, some of the conditions exist. However at present, an armed insurrection in your country wouldn’t last more than two days. You’re caught between the two colossuses; they would squash you immediately. No, in Uruguay it is impossible.”
“Then we are to accept the OLAS Cuban thesis?”[María Gutiérrez]
“Well,” said Fidel, smiling, “if you want to be involved in guerrilla warfare, there are conflicts on your doorstep, there in Bolivia. Look, guerrilla warfare is the same throughout America: the goal is the same everywhere. When the conditions do not exist in one country,” he continued, addressing the Chilean, “you must support those who have them.”3
The exception regarding armed struggle was removed from the final document at the end of the conference. However, the debate touched at the heart of some of the problems and contradictions inherent in the relationship between the Cuban revolution and the revolutionary groups in the Southern Cone during the second half of the 1960s. Although the groups acknowledged the leadership of the Cuban Revolution and supported its position of continental revolution, the characteristics of the Southern Cone countries appeared ill-suited to the Cuban strategy of the rural foco, which, in the words of one of Che Guevara’s assistants was “an infallible method for liberating the people.”4 Based on their own experience, however, militants in the Southern Cone came to find the method less than “infallible,” noting that it did not fit the geographic, [End Page 524] political, and social conditions of their countries. The differences were too marked not to be taken into account.5
This article examines how the militants of a nascent new left in the Southern Cone came to develop new repertoires of dissent. These repertoires...