Interview With Socialist Fighter Jorge Zabalza: “The Discourse that Revealed the Class Contradictions of Society has Been Lost”

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Source: Resumen Latinoamericano / The Dawn News / October 13, 2017

Jorge Zabalza was a member of the Tupamaro guerrilla in the 60s and 70s. Photo credit: Resumen Latinoamericano

Jorge “Tambero” Zabalza is now thinner than he used to be. This is normal, he says, since he recently survived a very risky operation and it has taken its toll. However, Zabalza is not a man to quit. He didn’t quit in his youth, when he fought the armed struggle with his Tupamaro comrades, and he’s not quitting now, when his revolutionary dreams have not yet found a harbor to dock.

A harsh critic of the Uruguayan Frente Amplio (“they fulfilled the promises of the right”) and of the vague defeat in which many of his own have fallen into, Zabalza still believes in the revolution, in the ideas of Artigas and Raúl Sendic Sr., and uses his experience to orient the newer generation.

Latin America is currently undergoing an attack that many characterize as brutal, and others call “times of serious difficulties”. What do you think?

Nowadays, Uruguay is a clear example of the process of the backslide of revolutionary ideas. The difficulty of reaching the people with a revolutionary message. This doesn’t mean we’ve lost our belief in the need to make the revolution, but it means that the revolutionary program retreats to a small group that cultivates that idea; we’re forced to discuss this idea among ourselves and not with the people because an ideological hegemony has risen to power, which makes apology of bourgeois democracy, where the biggest value today is to

Not long ago, in Uruguay, a landlord physically punished a 55 year-old fieldworker with a horsewhip, because he demanded to work less than 14 hours per day. And we have to hear things like “we have to understand the patron, be fair towards the owners of the land”. Is this an isolated event? Isn’t it a regular occurrence in the Uruguayan countryside? Are there not other cases? We’re going to carry out investigations in big estates and in timber exploitations on the conditions in which people are working, to be able to objectively assess whether this is a generalized practice or an exceptional case. But truly anyone can attest that this is not an exception, despite what the Prosecutor of the Nation, Jorge Díaz, affirms.

But in common discourse, people make apologies for this democracy, they don’t want to see class struggle in a big estate, a struggle so deep and so evident that it is solved with a horsewhip. What can the rural worker do? In this case he fled, but he could have knifed the foreman in self defense. But this level of violence is hidden in the countryside and the city.

In Montevideo, two out of three children live in settlements. This is the official number provided by Uruguay’s Center of Statistics. Is this violence? These kids are later on in life repressed by the police because they are considered “suspects”. Police officers detain and beat teens for no reason. Violence exists. But there’s a big fear of another type of violence: social violence. That’s why they cover up the existing violence, mainly through impunity. How is anyone supposed to be scandalized by the beating of a rural worker if they forgive torturers, rapists and people who kidnapped and made disappear people who fought for social change?

We have a national figure, José Mujica, who is linked to the rural area, who hasn’t said a word about the incident of the rural worker, because whatever he says will put him at odds with the landlords and the rural burgeoisie. He has already lost his moral authority to speak up against violence after letting torturers and murderers go unpunished. That’s why he also doesn’t speak about the missing people, about the recent case of Santiago Maldonado, about the violence that is being imposed upon the people of Venezuela by imperialism—he’s not only a defender of impunity but a denier of the existence of violence. This is representative of what’s happening in Cuba today, and sadly makes this country a sort of spearhead of the backwardness in Latin America.

Police states, impunity, and other problems… but somehow the only solution they offer is the urn. Is bourgeois democracy still the way to contain the rebellion of the poorest?

The discourse is simple: you’re exploited in factories, in the office. They exploit you by making you pick up trash in the roads, they punish entire neighborhoods as happened recently in the Casavalle neighborhood, in Montevideo, which was occupied by the police like the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, and if you complain you have to “do something” to change things, and what can you do? You can vote, “because your vote will change the governments”, they say, “and the next governants may not be on the side of the exploiters, on the side of the oligarchy—maybe they don’t defend the transnational corporations, maybe they don’t care about foreign investment… Vote so you can change things”. However, through vote, Uruguay has passed the disruptive law that legalizes the consumption of marijuana. That is, we’ve lost the dichotomy that revealed society’s antagonic contradictions, which forced you to be a revolutionary, and it’s becoming so distorted that the only way in which people picture themselves changing things is through vote: “if you can, vote Pepe Mujica in 2018 and we’ll all applaud you”.

Is Pepe Mujica running again, at 82 years old and after a presidency that left behind more doubts than achievements?

Pepe has all the qualities required to be a president. Firstly, we have to analyze the situation of right-wing candidates in Uruguay. Let’s see who has the biggest approval in public opinion and leads the polls among the right: Lacalle Pou, an aristocrat—and an arrogant one. People are not going to vote him, which means the right doesn’t have a strong candidate. Besides, the right doesn’t even have a program that differs from the Frente Amplio, because the Frente Amplio stole the right’s vindications: they brought in foreign investors, they brought the UPM cellulose industry, they work to satisfy the interests of capital and business, they protect state terrorism and oppressors. So the right doesn’t have an agenda.

Secondly, the Frente Amplio doesn’t have a candidate that can fill Mujica’s place, in terms of outreach to the people and prestige, which he still possesses because he used to be a revolutionary, and therefore his prestige lies upon the hundreds of comrades who were murdered and those who fought alongside him. On their honor lies Mujica’s image, both in the national and international arena.

Another factor is Mujica’s ambition. His ambition is palpable, as his desire to be president again. He said he was going to be involved in the Parliament for two or three days, and he’s already been three years. He had also said he wasn’t going to run for president, but now he’s saying “people are asking me to run for president”, and in a few months he’ll say “my party is requesting me to run for president”.

But beyond all of this, Mujica has control of the only two political apparatuses that remain of the Uruguayan left: the Movement of Popular Participation (MPP) and the Communist Party of Uruguay (PCU). These two apparatuses operate mostly in Montevideo and Canelones, where the majority of the voters are located.

So, to sum up: Mujica for president in 2018.

Argentina represents, along with Brazil, the other side of the coin in the recent era of progressivist and revolutionary governments. How does the onslaught of the right-wing reaction affect Uruguay?

Where is Santiago Maldonado? They took him alive, we want him to return alive*. I believe this case represents in a nutshell the current political scenario of Argentina, and Mauricio Macri’s hypocrisy. His government promised “change”, but they’re continuing the same policies that began with President Julio Argentino Roca [President from 1880 to 1886]. They are still persecuting the native peoples and this caused a forced disappearance in Argentina. However, Macri is unwittingly the best ally the Uruguayan Frente Amplio can have, because he incarnates what people fear: policies against the poorest and against unions.

What impacted the popular opinion the most here was the rate hikes [in water, gas and power], this concerned people so much that they will possibly vote for the Frente Amplio once again.

While Cristina Kirchner diminished their chances, Macri increases them.

Jorge Zabalza. Photo credit: Resumen Latinoamericano

Does nobody criticize the affinity between Tabaré Vázquez and Mauricio Macri?

This is seen with good eyes in the framework of the apology of consensus. Uruguay harnesses an attitude of embracing Macri, Trump, Obama, Soros, Rockefeller… They’re not seen as enemies but adversaries, and we have to be tolerant towards the adversary, forgive them… What we can’t tolerate is “the unruly radical left” who still believe in the revolution… those have to disappear, like Santiago Maldonado.

In your latest book, “The Tupamaro Experience. Reflecting on Future Insurgencies” you discussed the possibility of future rebellion in the Continent. Considering the protests that have taken place over the last few months against extractivism, massive women’s mobilizations, etc, do you believe this strengthens the probability of revolutionary change?

Yes, I believe the most notorious phenomenon in this sense is the march that is carried out every May 20 in Uruguay, because the social-democrat’s thesis maintained that state terrorism was a “two demon” problem: there were two equally-evil sides, the Tupamaros and the military, and when those people died of old age, the issue would no longer be relevant. But every May 20, more youth join the protest. Unions are getting younger, and they  struggle every day, like the AUTE union (Aggrupation of officials of the National Administration of Power Plants and Transmitters), or like the Official Bank, those unions who don’t just fight for economic issues but also political ones.

What’s the current relationship between those unions and the PIT-CNT [historically, the most powerful union confederation]?

Well, the PIT-CNT has changed, its political route has veered. We used to debate a lot with the Communist Party in the 60s about the methods to achieve the revolution, we even had fights with them, but we couldn’t deny they were a party with a class perspective. Today we can’t say the same about the PIT-CNT. Their leadership plays a role in political domination.

The biggest example is the current controversy about the framework agreement on labor that was made between the Finnish cellulose industry UPM, the government and the construction union, SUNCA. Of course, they will say that SUNCA didn’t compromise anything but then a photograph will be published where the President of the PIT-CNT and the leader of the SUNCA hug the representatives of the company and the government. And this symbolic gesture tells the Uruguayan people that it’s OK for a foreign company to reap profits from contaminating the Black River (fish is no longer possible in that area already), and that it’s great that these investments don’t benefit the country, while a tax-free area is created for them so they can see return on their investments in two or three years.

Besides, they lie to the people, because they said they were going to invest 5 thousand million Uruguayan pesos and we already know it won’t be more than 3 thousand million pesos. I would like to see the PIT-CNT occupying the place where the factory will be and saying: no foreign investors will set foot here, because we defend national sovereignty.

On a different topic, what’s your analysis of the situation of Colombia regarding the “peace process” between the government and the FARC?

I wonder if the former FARC members aren’t afraid of walking around unarmed in the demobilization camps, while paramilitaries are still armed. Are they not afraid of an extermination? The government already did this to Patriotic Union and they are still massacring social fighters in rural and urban areas. They have also murdered many members of the FARC. Something that wasn’t obvious to many during the times of the armed struggle is that the rifles of the revolutionaries stopped the rifles of the fascists. The coups d’État commenced when we were already defeated. They had to defeat the revolutionary forces first, and then came the coups.

Regarding the debate that divided some sectors of the Latin American left: what do you think about Venezuela’s situation?

Well, there can’t be two sides on this. Every media outlet normalizes the existence of right-wing fascists leading violent protests, but what would happen if they decided to take a city on the border with Colombia? The next day, the Colombian paramilitary would siege the cities. And the following day the US troops would parachute down. But the plan of the MUD and the yankees has failed because they haven’t been able to gather enough force on the street to shake the foundations of the government—which is what they did in Santiago de Chile in 1973. But they couldn’t do it in Caracas, 2017.

* Zabalza echoes a phrase that has been omniscient in Argentina (and in other places committed to human rights) since the forced disappearance of activist Santiago Maldonado on August 1. The question “¿Dónde está Santiago Maldonado?” (“Where is Santiago Maldonado?”) pops up everywhere and it is directed at the government. It has been written on walls, in protests, on social media, and in all sorts of public spaces, from music concerts to waiting rooms, as a way to demand justice and fight against oblivion.

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