The president of Uruguay used to rob banks. He became quite good at it because he did it often—and he was not alone. José Mujica was a Tupamaro, a member of a unique group of Marxist insurgents who staged a revolutionary uprising in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The story of the Tupamaros and the organization they created, the Movimiento de Liberación Nacional, or MLN, has been largely forgotten. However, it merits revisiting due to the important lessons it has for contemporary politics and international relations, especially in highly revolutionary times in the Middle East.
One of these lessons centers on the unique aspects of the Tupamaros’ insurgency, particularly the usage of a Robin Hood-like tactic they invented called armed propaganda. With its emphasis on ingenuity and symbolism, it brought to the fore the issue of how much violence it makes sense to practice when fighting a “people’s” war. An additional lesson concerns Mujica’s uniquely austere lifestyle, which has become intriguing to foreign audiences lately, and the effect it has on his leadership.
Mujica was never the leader of the Tupamaros. In fact, the group did not have a single leader. Rather, it operated in highly compartmentalized columns designed to survive the collapse of the others. Above the columns stood a leadership body in the shape of a tetrarchy. Mujica was never a part of that body, but his style as a politician and president follows that of the Tupamaros’ primus inter pares : Raúl Sendic . Sendic’s conceptions of leadership and revolution were counter-intuitive. He was a man of few words, who dressed and lived modestly to the point of looking bedraggled, and who had a severe disliking of explosives and other cruel or inhumane tactics. These traits have been highly influential among his followers ever since.
The MLN was an insurgent organization: this means it pursued revolution through a strategy that combined political activities and guerrilla tactics. 1960s Uruguay was a social democracy under siege. Its politics were increasingly corrupt and disappointing to its vast middle class. Its economy was sputtering badly. Internationally, the situation was even more serious. Cuba beckoned like a shining path towards utopian revolution. Brazil and Argentina, Uruguay’s towering neighbors, had military dictatorships in place ready to strike at any hint of “subversive” politics nearby. By 1968 the entire Western world was being shaken by riots, anti-war protests, assassinations, youth rallies and other high-profile political acts.
The Tupamaros were one of the first organizations in the free world dedicated to violent Marxist revolution against fellow countrymen rather than foreigners. They also faced the conundrum of fighting in a purely urban environment, the capital city of Montevideo. There was little choice: Uruguay’s rural areas, invariably flat, failed to offer the kind of refuge Mao Zedong’s Ya’nan mountain redoubt, or the Cuban revolutionaries’ Sierra Maestra, had provided them.
The MLN, with Mujica on board, launched its main insurgent effort in the first days of 1969. The term the group used for its campaign was armed propaganda. It consisted of staging guerrilla raids on key symbolic targets with minimal violence and high public relations impact. Although at the time they were less than a hundred in number, the Tupamaros managed to pull off some spectacular feats. They robbed food-delivery trucks and distributed the goods among the poor in the slums of Montevideo. They raided investment banks and publicized their shady bookkeeping, even resulting in judicial proceedings against the owners. They hijacked radio stations during major football games and broadcast their propaganda. They assaulted the headquarters of the naval academy and, with every cadet forced to stand and watch in the courtyard, looted the entire place of its firearms and equipment. MLN armed propaganda operations would often conclude without a single shot being fired. Typically, the group would leave a banner saying “The people passed through here” to sign their accomplishments. Within weeks the international press was calling them the “ Robin Hood guerrillas ”.
Government counter-guerrilla operations slowly managed to degrade the group. Mujica himself is one such case: in March of 1970, someone recognized him at a bar while meeting one of his contacts. The police arrived and a shootout ensued: Mujica wound up with six bullets in his body. It took him less than a year to recover, by which time he had joined other captured Tupamaros in prison.
Many Americans and Europeans will remember the Tupamaros due to the hostage crisis they caused in August of 1970, when they kidnapped several foreign individuals and sought to ransom them for their own prisoners. When the government refused to negotiate, the Tupamaros murdered one of their hostages—an American—in cold blood. It was proof that the organization had mutated: up until then, the MLN had limited itself mostly to tactics like armed propaganda and guerrilla attacks against the police. Now it was involved in a terrorist campaign of kidnappings and even targeted bombings. Behind this was a leadership different from the founding one: younger, more radicalized, and more violent. Its conception of revolution was more about destroying a “class enemy” than about gaining the support of Uruguayan society and leading it towards socialism. The government, in exasperation after the MLN added to this the greatest prison escape in the history of guerrilla warfare, summoned the final tool it had available to counter the onslaught: the military.