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Born in Florida, Uruguay in 1933, Mauricio Rosencof was one of the founding members of the revolutionary group the Tupamaros. Captured by the military in 1972, he was kept in solitary confinement for 13 years as a hostage. Since the return of democratic rule in Uruguay and his release in 1985 he has gone back to writing and broadcasting in Montevideo, where LAB editor Nick Caistor interviewed him:
You describe your father as a ‘Bolshevik’- so how did he come to Uruguay, and when?
MR: My father was a Polish Jew. He fought in the First World War, and then in 1918-1919 against the Russians. He was always left-wing, a trade unionist – he used to say he was from the United Needle Union, because he was a tailor. He came to Uruguay in the 1930s when the Nazi persecution began in Europe.
When I was released from prison, I went to see him in an old people’s home (he had been thrown out of his house). The first thing he asked me was a question he had never put to me before: ‘Now can you tell me what the difference is between a communist and a Tupamaro?’
When did your own interest in politics start?
MR: Very young, as a member of the southern section of the Communist party, and in the committee of support for the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. My mother used to knit woollen socks for the members of the International Brigades.
Why did you think that a revolution was necessary or possible in a country like Uruguay?
MR: The Tupamaro movement was an armed political organization. We formed it because we felt that no response was being given to the needs of the most dispossessed. Raúl Sendic was a member of the Central Committee of the Socialist Party, ‘Pepe’ Mujica in those days was a militant in the pro-Chinese Communist Party. I helped set up the Communist youth groups, then became part of the team that brought out the El Popular newspaper. It was for them that I went to report on and organise the workers in the rice-fields. They worked fourteen-hour days in the mud, in the year 1954. I lived with the other organisers in a shack with a beaten earth floor and with another journalist from the weekly Vanguardia Socialista. He was Raúl Sendic. One day I said to him that the rice-workers seemed like an army. He replied: ‘it is an army’.
So when did you get together to form the Tupamaro movement?
MR: By 1958, Sendic was organizing the sugar-cane workers in the north of the country, who were the most dispossessed of all. He built up a combative trade union that spread throughout Uruguay, and the Tupamaro movement grew up around this struggle for land. We never used the word ‘revolution’. We were politicians who used weapons to confront repression, death squads, and financed ourselves through our actions, the seizure of the Navy barracks, money from banks and casinos. As Raúl Sendic used to say: ‘This will be a Uruguayan socialism or it won’t be anything’.
Why did you think violence was necessary to change the political regime in Uruguay?
MR: We used arms only for propaganda purposes. In our statutes for example, the use of explosives was strictly forbidden. We took the Navy barracks without firing a shot, the officers were overpowered, and nobody was hurt. We took 150 rifles, ammunition, pistols, things like that. When we took over the town of Pando, five different commando groups were involved. They raised a flag, read a proclamation, but as we withdrew three of our comrades were killed, as was a local inhabitant.
When you were taken prisoner by the uruguayan military in 1972, were you afraid you would receive the death sentence?
MR: Fear is healthy for a combatant. In our organization everyone was a militant, a combatant. It wasn’t a case of a leadership that set the line and a base carried it out. Everything was possible for everybody.
You and the others were kept for 12 years in solitary confinement as ‘hostages’. Was that made explicit?
MR: We were made hostages the moment in 1973 when we nine leaders of the Tupamaros were kept isolated from each other, held in underground cells, unable to see the sun or any human face. The colonel in charge of the operation told us publicly: ‘Since we wouldn’t kill you when you were captured, we’re going to drive you mad.’ Of the nine of us, one died, two did go mad, the rest of us are still here. The first thing we were told, by another colonel who is now in jail for human rights abuses, was that ‘if there is any action in the street, we’ll simulate an attempted escape, and that’ll be the end of you’.
During the 13 years we were held, we were transferred between barracks 47 times, and each time we thought we were going to be executed. And once I was told directly that I was part of a group of five hostages who would be shot.
How did you manage to survive, and did those years change your political views?
MR: A person, whatever their beliefs, has more reserves of strength inside them than they ever imagine. Prison, death, torture, are all part of the path of militancy that one assumes for life. I’ll follow it until the lights go out for me.
What do you think about the possibilities for revolution in Uruguay in the 21st century?
MR: When the last of us were released from prison (we didn’t get out thanks to the amnesty, but to a special law that said because of the treatment we had suffered, ‘every day in prison was equivalent to three’ and so we completed our sentences. Raúl Sendic said ‘we’re coming out to join the institutional struggle, with no cards up our sleeves’. We became part of a great political force, the Frente Amplio, which is now in government for the third time in succession, which is lowering the levels of poverty, infant mortality, and reducing unemployment. In the present government, el Ñato, Fernandez Huidobro, is the minister of Defence for the second time. Another hostage, José Mujica, has been president. Why on earth should we think in terms of a ‘revolution’?
The political system we have now, where the citizens support our programme, is the best for us and we want to look after it. In the words of José Artigas, the founder of our nation, the liberator who in the midst of the independence struggle planned and carried out the first agrarian reform in Ameríca, ‘the cause of our peoples does not permit the slightest delay,’ and ‘the land will be distributed to ensure that the most unfortunate are the most privileged.’
And to quote someone else to finish, as Don Quixote himself said: ‘happy those days that the ancients called the golden age, not because that precious metal was so abundant, but because the words ‘yours and mine’ did not exist.
A new edition of Memorias del calabozo [Memoirs of the Cell] by Mauricio Rosencof and Eleuterio Fernández Huidobrohas recently been published by Ediciones de la Banda Oriental. Rosencof’s The Letters that Never Came is published in English by the University of New Mexico Press.