Published: February 12th 2011February 12th 2011
Some time ago, I struck up a conversation with a man at a Latin American function. We exhanged a few words in Spanish. By way of introducing himself, he said “I’m Inca”. He had a problem, and wanted to know if I might have a solution. We switched to English, but none of my suggestions were to his satisfaction. He asked where I had learned Spanish. I explained that Guapo is from Uruguay, and added “he’s Anglo-Uruguayan”. To which the Inca responded: “Oh, they’re the worst!”
When I relayed this conversation to Guapo he said he sometimes feels reluctant to admit he grew up in the privileged Anglo community when speaking with indigenous South Americans. Somehow or other, he got talking about the Tupamaros, the Uruguayan urban guerrilla movement which emerged in the 1960s and lasted until the 70s.
The Tupamaro movement was named after the Inca revolutionary Túpac Amaru II, the last Inca to resist the Spanish. Although Guapo was too young in the 60s, and in fact left Uruguay in 1965, he does remember that members of the movement used to place bombs in banks at night when no one was in the buildings.
From afar he followed the news: when a coalition of left wing parties looked like it was gathering strength, the civilian government ceded government authority to the military. The coup in July 1973 led to the suppression of all political parties.
Uruguay had a military government 1973 – 1985. Amnesty International calculated that in 1976 Uruguay had more political prisoners per capita than any other nation on earth. During these years, approximately 10 per cent of Uruguay's population emigrated for political or economic reasons. “It was a dark time” says Guapo. “You didn’t have to support them, you only had to sympathise with them to run the risk of being thrown in jail.”
There’s a documentary entitled Tupamaros
made in 1997, in which Pepe (Jose) Mujica, who later became a member of the Uruguayan parliament and is now the current President of Uruguay, along with others of the Tupamaros recount the history of this urban guerrilla group. In another more recent Uruguayan documentary El círculo
(2008), the film-maker tells the story of former Tupamaro guerrilla fighter Henry Engler who was a medical student at the time. He also suffered long periods in jail. He eventually left Uruguay to live in Sweden.
I’ve just ordered The Invisible Mountain, the best-selling novel by Carolina de Robertis, which looks at Uruguay through the eyes of several generations of women. The blurb says the family saga begins in Montevideo in 1900. As the story progresses to the 1970s, one of the characters joins the Tupamaros, only to end up in jail. While many Uruguayans are happy to see El Pepe, Jose Mujica, the former Tupamaros fighter, as the current President of Uruguay, large numbers would take a different view. What does the ex Tuparamos fighter know about economic policy? I’m chuffed that this septuagenarian vegetarian in a meat lovers’ country drives a Volkswagen Beetle.