Leftist Tupamaros fight for political life in Uruguay

October 10, 1991|By Chicago Tribune

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay -- The Tupamaros were among South America's most famous guerrillas, fearless young revolutionaries fighting for social justice.

But 17 years after their defeat by the army and six years after becoming a legal political party, they seem dated and out of step -- a fringe group even in a country where the left is gaining political strength.

Today, the Tupamaros -- formally known as the National Liberation Movement -- are fighting for their political lives.

While former insurgent groups in Colombia, Venezuela and elsewhere have softened their rhetoric and become major political forces, the Tupamaros remain hard-line socialists committed to class struggle and a battle against the United States, which they see as the source of worldwide imperialism.

Among Tupamaros, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev is a traitor to the Communist cause and a U.S. lackey. Two dozen multinational corporations are enslaving the world's poor, they say. And Fidel Castro's Cuba is the model of a democratic society.

Tupamaros still call one another "comrade." They refuse to renounce armed revolution.

"Violence isn't necessary now, but I am always ready to fight. We want a total change in Uruguay," said Eleuterio Fernandez, a founder who, like most Tupamaros, has spent much of the last three decades in combat, in jail or in hiding.

Ironically, Uruguay always has been among South America's richest countries -- a peaceful society of 3 million people and a cradle-to-grave welfare system financed by wool and beef exports.

Leftist politics is a tradition, but it's a benign sort that defends a lifestyle now jeopardized by a decline in exports, fiscal mismanagement and a bloated state sector.

The Tupamaros -- who take their name from the Inca chief killed by the Spanish after leading a revolt in 1780 -- began their war in 1966 as one of a half-dozen South American rebel groups inspired by Mr. Castro's victory in Cuba.

The rebels handed out stolen food to the poor, blew up the clubhouse at the Montevideo Country Club, robbed casinos and banks and bombed the offices of American corporations. Then the military seized power in 1973, and the insurgents were defeated.

About 10,000 rebels and other leftists were jailed during a 12-year dictatorship that ended with democratic elections and an general amnesty in 1985. About 400 Uruguayans died in the war.

The Tupamaros bought a radio station that is now ranked third nationwide, started two newspapers that have a combined circulation of 20,000, and opened a political headquarters in Montevideo that has become a shrine for visiting leftists. A U.S. flag with a skull and crossbones hangs in the front window.

The former insurgents also joined the Broad Front, a coalition of 20 leftist parties that control the Montevideo city council and includes among its members Uruguay's most popular politician, Montevideo Mayor Tabare Vazquez.

Recent polls showed the Broad Front with 26 percent of the vote -- enough to win an election in a highly fragmented political system. The coalition currently holds 23 of the 130 seats in Congress; radical leftists aligned with the Tupamaros hold two of those seats.

Diplomats say the Broad Front's support is based largely on voter disgust with the two major parties, the Colorados and the Blancos, which have failed to halt Uruguay's economic slide. Coalition leaders also have tapped into Uruguayans' aversion to change by promising to maintain the country's vast social programs -- something diplomats say is fiscally impossible.

"Uruguayans don't like confrontation. It's a middle-of-the-road society where the state does everything for them," said a Western diplomat, explaining that 25 percent of all workers are ,, on the government payroll, and 30 percent of all Uruguayans receive state pensions or welfare support.

President Luis Lacalle of the Blancos is trying to stimulate the economy and reduce 100 percent annual inflation through free-market reforms and regional economic integration -- policies followed by leaders across the continent.

The Broad Front is demanding suspension of interest payments on Uruguay's $6 billion foreign debt, nationalization of banks and sweeping land reform. Mayor Vazquez also has proposed building a city-owned bread factory to help feed the poor.

"Everybody should have a decent wage, health care and education. In Cuba, they do," said Carlos Gonzales, a delegate at the Broad Front's national convention this summer.

But while some coalition leaders, including Mr. Vazquez, are moving to the center politically to attract votes, the Tupamaros remain uncompromising, something that has made moderate leftists propose expelling them from the coalition.

Many Uruguayans say they won't support a group that fails to renounce violence. Many younger Uruguayans describe the Tupamaros -- whose party has about 1,000 members -- as a bunch of old-timers.

Alberto Silva, host of the Tupamaro radio station's top-rated program and a non-affiliated leftist, said the party must attract younger leaders and voters if it is to survive politically. "If they don't do something, they will become a part of history," Mr. Silva said.

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