Interview with Xenia Itté, Widow of Union Leader Raúl Sendic

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Photo credit: Intendencia de Montevideo

By: Gerardo Tagliaferro / Source: Montevideo Portal / The Dawn News / May 20, 2014
You’re one of the women in that famous 1985 photo with your fists raised, saluting the crowd as you exited the prison
Yes, that’s me. When people see that photo they always ask what I’m saying. And what I was saying was “thank you, my people!”. I remember that day perfectly. The milicos [pejorative term for “troops” or “military”] said “don’t stick your arms out, they’re going to tear them out”. We left in the van from the basement of the Central Prison, through the ramp that goes out to San José and I quickly opened the window and stuck my arm out. They almost tore my arm out, effectively, it was full of bruises afterwards. But it was beautiful because it was the people who did it, not the milicos.
You had been in prison for 13 years.
Yes, I had been detained before. I fell in 1971, and was one of the 37 women who escaped through the sewers, in the breakout that was known as “The Star” (“La Estrella”). I lived in clandestinity from 1971 until I fell with Raúl on September 1, 1972. I was released by amnesty on March 10, 1985.
What’s life like in clandestinity? Many people imagine you’re locked in somewhere, without going out to the street.
No, no. It’s pretty difficult, because you lead a double life. You have to be constantly reminding yourself you have a false ID, and what you have to say if you’re detained. That was the first period, because after April 14 [1972, the day in which the Tupamaros Movement of National Liberation executed four members of the Death Squad and the latter responded by killing six Tupamaros], practically every comrade that was still free was armed. You put a lot on the line back then, you knew your destiny was either prison or death.
You were very young
Well, yes, I was young once (laughs). But look, when I was in prison my younger comrades asked me how I was able to maintain my spirit… I was always a happy person. Comrades who fell when they were very young were surprised, and I told them I had lived each moment fully. I was born and raised in the inland, I had many brothers and sisters, with whom I always played, and my parents were very close. All of that gives you strength of spirit. It’s not all about having been educated, knowing a lot of theory, it’s mostly about your experience. And I lived my childhood and youth fully.
You are from Bella Unión, and there you met Sendic, when he went to organize the sugar cane workers.
Exactly, I worked for the Bella Unión Radio, which was owned by Jorge Batlle, and Raúl went to ask for a program for the Sugar Cane Workers of Artigas (UTAA). I remember he used to ride a moped. He introduced himself and said he wanted to talk with the director of the radio. When he came back I told him “look, you have to bring the content of the program written down before the airing”. “Are you going to censor them?”, he asked. “I have to read them because that’s the order they gave me”. He said sardonically “very well, so you are going to censor my program”. “You can’t make personal attacks against the commissioners, the judge, nor the authorities of the people”, I replied.
You had to strike out 70% of the show
Yes, of course (laughs).
Who were you, politically speaking, back then?
Nobody. I simply lived, like Raúl wrote in a poem: “deep in a time of soft cadence, of “nothing going on”, of love without transcendence, I had the vague consciousness of existing and being nothing”. I was nothing, but I had a feeling that Raúl was going to change my life, because the town was very peaceful and I saw that his plan to organize sugar-cane workers was going to bring some trouble. And that I would have to take a side.
When did you make that choice?
I’d say right away. Because the UTAA camp settled in the town and began to hold protests with roadblocks, and the town was pretty agitated. I had a car, a Ford A, and they always asked for small favors, so I become gradually involved.
Do you remember the precise moment you joined the National Liberation Movement (MLN)?
I remained in the town, working in the radio, and I was studying at a distance to become a teacher. I took my exams by the end of the year, and when I graduated there wasn’t anything for me to do in my town. If I wanted to do something for the organization [the MLN] I couldn’t because I was “burnt” [people knew she was a militant]. So I came to Montevideo. One day they gave me an address. “Someone wants to see you”, they told me, and I went and met Raúl. He was already being intensely sought after, and we met outside a police station. I recall it very well. I said “we’re going to prison”, and he said “don’t worry, it’s safe”. He was always very confident.
The night you were detained in the Old City with Sendic and another Tupamaro you were about to leave the headquarters because you knew you had a few hours left before you fell
Ah, yes. Another comrade and I were already shooting and we’re going to the inland because Raul said it was safer. This comrade went out to buy some things and he didn’t come back. We knew that if he wasn’t back on time it meant he had fallen and we had to flee. It was pouring and we were under some trees, covered with a plastic film and in the early hours of the morning we took a bus to the Old City. But I kept saying to Raul “I have a feeling we’re going to fall”. I went ahead, he remained a little further back to see what was going on. If I made a sign, it meant everything was OK. And like that we reached the headquarters at Sarandí 229.
Do you remember his incursions to the Florida Battalion headquarters, in the Buceo neighborhood? A lot has been said and written on that throughout the years?
Yes, I recall that one day he told me that the comrades had requested a meeting with him—this was during the time of dialogue with the milicos, during the truce [in 1972]. And I remember saying “you know you’re not coming out of there”. “Yes, I will, they’re going to do what they said”, he said. That night he brought a piece of paper to me and said: “look what I found in a dungeon, these verses”. And the piece of paper said: “Dying, in the end, is not a big deal. What’s worse is being free and being a slave, it’s worse to be free and be imprisoned. Some die agonizing twelve months in a bed, and some die singing with ten bullets in the chest”.
Those verses were written on the wall of a dungeon?
Yes, right there in the Florida Battalion. I remember him saying “they demand my surrender, but I’m not giving myself in. Comrades are dying and I will stay here fighting. And I tell you one thing: the milicos are never going to do what they are proposing”. Because they were offering things in exchange for Raúl giving himself in.
Back to the night of the fall, what else do you remember?
I always say I feel like it happened to someone else, that I’m not the protagonist of all of these episodes. When we heard the outside call for us to leave the building, the shootout began. We were in very inferior conditions, we didn’t have long weapons… I don’t know what the milicos thought we might have, perhaps they thought that since Raúl was here we ought to have an arsenal. Given the situation, Raúl told Ramada and I to surrender.
Did he say what he was going to do?
Yes, yes, that he was going to keep fighting. I remember it very well, and he was very serene. That’s what I always praise of Raúl, his wholesomeness. The officer in charge of the operation to capture us said so in an interview: Raúl seemed to be in charge of the situation, even though we were in absolute inferiority.
Were you scared?
Yes, I didn’t know what was going to happen.
Did you have experience? Had you shot a gun before?
Yes. Why else would I have one? But I was no expert shooter by any measure. There was a hallway leading to the street and when I reached the end I felt I had been in it for centuries.
The first to go out was Ramada. Raúl shouted: “A comrade is going to surrender, you have to respect his life!”. There the shooting stopped, and they said “come out with your hands in the air”. He went out and he said again “A comrade is going to surrender, you have to respect her life”. I put a handkerchief on and went out. I remember I was looking for my sneakers and couldn’t find them. “Raúl I can’t find my sneakers” I said. “Go out like that!” he said (laughs).
Where did they take you afterwards?
First of all, they blindfolded me and took me back inside, as a human shield, to check if there was someone left, and they begun shooting through the walls. And then they put me inside a vehicle, and we made a very short trip but I didn’t know the city so I couldn’t tell where we were going. It was the FUSNA, where I spent seven years. All those years I didn’t see the sun, and I always say that when I arrived in Punta de Rieles I could literally not see beyond my own nose, because I had been blindfolded all the time.
Did the tortures begin that night?
Not that night. They had locked me in a cell and they were very busy with the fact that they had captured Raúl. To them, to the Army, it must have been a trophy, everybody was talking about the detention and the proof of that is the fact that they couldn’t hide that information, it was immediately all over the press.
At that time, did you believe they had killed him?
Yes, I believed they had murdered him and the milicos told me they hadn’t. So they brought the newspaper where there was a picture of him, lying in bed and with tubes all over him. “See? He’s alive. We saved him”. One day they took me to see him. They took me out of the cell (I had been in isolation for five months) and I didn’t know what my destiny was. When they took you out, you never knew if it was to finish you, to torture you, you never knew, you were always in that state of uncertainty that was also a way to dominate you. So they put me into a cell and there was Raúl. I could only see his eyes… It was a huge surprise because I didn’t know where I was. So I kissed his forehead and I said to him: “Raúl, I was a coward, I left you alone”. He couldn’t talk, his eyes filled up with tears. When they lifted the regime of isolation, five months later, he wrote a poem where he said: “you told me you had been a coward, but you were very brave”.
After you were released, did you continue to militate with him?
Yes, I accompanied him. He was very involved in the “movement for land and against poverty”, and I often accompanied him to meetings. People stopped him when they recognized him, to greet him, but he was very low-profile and always tried to go unnoticed. At that time it was hard to know what was going to happen in the country.
What did he think about the return of democracy? Did he think it was strong or that the violent confrontations would soon be back? I ask because there are different versions on what he thought at that time.
What he thought is what he wrote, because he was asked those questions and he answered them. I do believe that he trusted this democracy and he maintained that the Tupamaros would participate in democratic life. Both the Movement for Land and the Broad Front that he gave life to called everyone to participate. He called to make certain minimum agreements to lift the country out of poverty, and the items he said were non-negotiable were land, banks and foreign debt.
In Paris, in 1986, Sendic organized a meeting of Uruguayan scientists that lived in Europe, in order to create ideas for uruguay. Among them was the current Minister of Education, Ricardo Ehrlich, is that right?
Yes, first we went to Cuba because he needed to undergo surgery to solve a problem with his jaw. Afterwards we went to Nicaragua because they had invited him. Then we went to France, where his brother and sister-in-law were living and he convened comrades who were working on research, for example in the Pasteur institute. Among them were Ricardo Ehrlich, Julio battistoni, Omar Piume, who is a hematologist and was very close to Raul during the final stage of his life.
What did he want to achieve with that meeting in Paris?
Well, he was always very interested in research, specifically on agricultural technology. He wanted to get people to return to Uruguay and develop that field.
You also visited several former USSR countries, on invitation.
Yes, we were invited to Budapest and Prague and they arranged a suite in a hotel owned by the Communist Party. I tell you this so you can picture his austerity. Cuban comrades were waiting for us and took us to that hotel, where they had reserved a suite for us in which we frankly felt bad. Raúl told the Cuban comrade “we’re used to staying in the houses of comrades, this is too much”. The suite was on the third floor and through the window you could see the Winter Palace, it was like a postcard.
We arrived in the afternoon and the comrade led us to the suite and told us that later we could go down to the dining hall and order whatever we wanted. Raúl was very angry with this arrangement. We took out our mate, our yerba and our thermos, which we had brought with us in a bag, we filled it with some hot water from the boiler and we spent the rest of the day drinking mate in our room. To dine we had some chocolates and pepperoni they had given us in Budapest, and we ate them inside the suite. That suite was… I remember the decor was like a bonfire, the curtains were orange and yellow… We ate there and Raúl admonished me: “You know, the person in charge is going to come and ask if we ate, please don’t say we didn’t eat”. The next day we didn’t go down for breakfast either, we drank mate and ate chocolate. The Cuban comrade returned to take us to the airport and when he tried to pay for the expenses he realized we hadn’t had dinner nor breakfast in the restaurant. He was mortified. And Raúl told him: “look comrade, we’re used to staying in the houses of comrades, we don’t feel comfortable in hotels”.
A few days ago here was a homage for the 25th anniversary of his death
Yes. Henry Engler [former Tupamaro leader, current director of the Uruguayan Center of Molecular Imaging] wrote a letter to him and requested that I read it in the cemetery. In the letter he talks to Raúl, he says how much we need him, and he recalls that when they argued, Raúl told him: “look, if we’re going to argue about our differences, we’re going to spend the rest of our lives arguing. But if we put ourselves to work on our agreements, we’re going to spend the rest of our lives working”.

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