Argentina and Uruguay: Those who were incarcerated, tortured, murdered, "disappeared," stripped of their civil rights and denounced as criminals, are now back, this time in the role of victors. Last part in a series of five

Demonstration in Buenos Aires, 2001

Voyage to South America – Part 5

PUBLISHED IN haaretz  |  Mar 26, 06

BUENOS AIRES and MONTEVIDEO. They were nine – the “nine prisoners,” as they were known. Nine men around forty years old, leaders of the Tupamaro underground movement, who were imprisoned and tortured by the military regime in Uruguay. Nine men who spent 12 years of their lives in moldy cells, in solitary confinement, cut off from the world. One of them made friends with the frogs in his cell; a second related that he tried to preserve his sanity by keeping track of the progress of the spider webs. Now, in a stunning reversal of reality, these people, who have become the symbol of the struggle against the military dictatorship, are leading the left-wing revolution in Uruguay – that is, those who survived and did not go insane.

The year is 1972. Uruguay seems to be poised on the brink of a leftwing revolution. The Tupamaro underground (named for the legendary Inca leader Tupac Amaru) is waging fierce guerrilla warfare against the police forces. The government decides to imprison all the movement’s leaders and issue an ultimatum to their comrades who are still free: For every operation by the underground, one of the detainees will be executed. The underground suffers a serious setback and loses its momentum. Immediately afterward, with the assumption of power by the military in 1973, all the members of the underground are arrested and murdered. Those who can, escape into exile.

But now is the hour of the politically suppressed in South America. This is the hour of those who were incarcerated, tortured, murdered, “disappeared,” stripped of their civil rights and denounced as criminals. Throughout the continent, and especially in its southern area, where a series of military dictatorships ruled in the 1960s and 1970s, figures from the past are reappearing, this time in the role of victors.

Michelle Bachelet, the newly elected president of Chile, is the daughter of Alberto Bachelet, a general in the Chilean air force who opposed the regime of Augusto Pinochet. A year after the military coup, in 1974, he died in prison. Brazilian President Lula was jailed for his activity as the leader of a trade union, as were leaders of other parties in that country. In Argentina, the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of May Square) organization, which for years fought for recognition of those who were “disappeared” by the military regime in Argentina, is now a central organization which has excellent relations with President Nestor Kirchner.

But this phenomenon is most pronounced in Uruguay, the small country sandwiched between the giants of Brazil and Argentina. For the first time after 180 years of right-wing rule, the left-wing bloc won in the elections of 2004. The leading force in the bloc, a coalition of various left-wing organizations, consists of former members of the Tupamaros, who returned to the country following the general amnesty that was granted them in 1985, following the fall of the military regime. Of the “nine prisoners,” three became leading politicians.

One of them is now sitting across from me: Mauricio Rosencof. True, his eyes are tired and his hair is gray, a far cry from the young intellectual who became a leader of the underground. He has 40 years of war behind him, 11 of them in subterranean isolation, without light, without books, without outdoor walks, and with one opportunity a day to relieve himself. Now he looks more like a grandfather than a fighter. But when he starts to speak, the resolve and the power are still there. The sentences are short and clear. The charisma has not disappeared. This man, now 73, knows exactly what he wants.

“I have been following my path for very many years,” he says. “This is my path. On this path you can end up in jail, you can end up in the grave, and you can end up in a government ministry. But this is my path and I have not changed it.” With the rise of the left-wing coalition, Rosencof was mentioned as a sure bet to get a cabinet portfolio, but in the end he made do with a senior position in the Montevideo municipality. As a highly regarded writer and playwright across the continent, Rosencof was appointed director of the Culture Department.

His office in the municipal building is void of any symbols of power. Simple wooden furniture, with no potted plants, no flowers, no pictures. Only a desk, a bookcase and a typewriter. Yes, a typewriter. Rosencof doesn’t have a computer; he still uses a typewriter, as he has during his whole life. A typewriter bearing a sticker announcing that it is city property. “Sometimes I toss off a poem here,” he says with a smile.

The city hall building is also quite modest. White walls, free of pictures, which like the whole capital city seems to have got stuck in a time warp sometime in the 1950s. It’s not a good idea to speak English here, because someone might hear you and decide that you are an enemy. Hebrew is better. And there is also a new obsession here – the war against smoking. A recently passed law made Uruguay the fifth country in the world to ban smoking in closed public places. A sign at the entrance to city hall reads, “This place is smoke-free.” A young man who is standing under the sign mutters cynically, “And justice-free, too.”

In the office itself, Rosencof hunches over the desk. In a shirt open at the neck that reveals white hair on his chest, he looks like a remnant from the past, like a kibbutz member who refuses to accede to the changing world. Indeed, Rosencof is nostalgic about the kibbutz movement: “The kibbutz of the old days, in its first days – our ideology has remained the same. Our ideology is that everyone will give according to his ability, receive according to his needs. That is all. That was also the idea of the kibbutz in its first days.” Where else can you find a politician in a liberal democracy these days who utters Marxist mantras – and believes them wholeheartedly, too?

Taps on the prison wall

Mauricio Rosencof

Mauricio Rosencof

He set out on his political path in the 1950s. Rosencof, who is descended from a Jewish family that emigrated from Poland in the 1930s, founded the Communist youth organization and became a journalist. His road to the Tupamaros passed through the sugar workers’ strike in the 1960s – a formative event in the history of the underground and in his life as well. Rosencof was stunned by the thousands of pickers of sugar cane who were made to work in disgraceful conditions and then made their way to the capital by foot with their families to demand their rights. These children, he thought, are seeing a cafe for the first time in their lives. It then came to him that democracy did not apply to all segments of the population.

Rosencof, the journalist who covered the struggle of the sugar cane workers, became an ideologue of the underground, which posited two enemies: American capitalism and the local oligarchy. Like the other revolutionary left-wing movements in Latin America, the Tupamaros were influenced by the Cuban revolution and the regime of Salvador Allende in Chile. Perhaps, they thought, they would be able to break the centuries-old exploitative economic structure on the continent.

At first the members of the underground acted like Robin Hood, breaking into food warehouses and distributing what they took to the poor. They wanted every child to eat three meals a day, Rosencof says. Gradually, though, the struggle turned violent and increasingly targeted symbols of government. The underground’s activists broke into armories and government buildings; they kidnapped the British ambassador to Uruguay and threatened his life.

Overall, the Tupamaro movement is considered one of the most successful of its kind anywhere: It shed “little” blood, yet gained worldwide publicity. In its final years of activity, in the early 1970s, the movement engaged mainly in urban guerrilla warfare and carried out show operations in the big cities.

“We always thought that the right way to rule is, ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to others,'” Rosencof says. “That is the whole doctrine and there is nothing else to add. The government must work for the people. We always believed that we must do for the people what we would want for ourselves. All the rest is nothing.” But Rosencof and his comrades did not succeed in realizing their goal – not then, at least. On one day the nine leaders of the underground were arrested and thrown into jail. The generals took power in a coup and launched a savage campaign against left-wing activists. Hundreds of people were murdered and disappeared. Tens of thousands were imprisoned without trial – a wound which this society has yet to come to terms with.

The “nine prisoners” became a legend. Stories whose truth is difficult to verify tell of daring escapes from prison: escape, arrest and again escape. According to one story, Rosencof and his good friend Jose (“Pepe”) Mujica, communicated by tapping on the common wall of their two cells. Of the nine, the lives of three ended tragically: two lost their sanity and one died of cancer in prison.

Rosencof was released and became a successful writer. His book, “The Letters that Never Came,” which compares his prison experiences to what his family endured in Europe under the Nazi occupation, became a bestseller in Latin America, but has yet to be translated into Hebrew (an English translation was published by the University of New Mexico Press in 2004). As for Mujica, he is a simple man, whose acquaintances say rarely showers and, according to photographs, is not big on haircuts or shaving, either. In 1995 he became a member of the Uruguayan parliament, but continues to wear the same simple clothing and drive a motorcycle rather than avail himself of a state car. On the day of the swearing-in ceremony in parliament, he parked his motorcycle in a spot reserved for senators. A policeman who never imagined that Mujica was a member of parliament, scolded him: Only members of parliament can park here. Mujica one-upped him: Yes, but now I am a senator.

Following the victory of the left in the last elections, Mujica was appointed minister of agriculture; he is considered the most popular politician in the country. Where else is the most popular politician a former member of an underground that fought for many years against his own state and was shot six times for his trouble?