Hugo Blanco (1934-2023)

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By Michael Löwy*

The man with the “heart of stone and a dove”, a revolutionary, an opponent of the capitalist system

With the death of Hugo Blanco on June 25, 2023, we lost a very dear friend and comrade. But it is a great loss for many, for many more: not just for the indigenous and peasant peoples of the Americas, but also for humanity as a whole. Hugo was a tireless fighter who contributed decisively to the emergence of international ecosocialism.

His life is an unparalleled example of courage, dignity, political and moral integrity. A life of permanent struggle for the cause of the exploited and oppressed and in defense of Pachamama, our Mother Earth.

Without fear, without retreat, he resisted the imperialists, the landlords, the oligarchs, the dictators, the police and the army. He spent years in prison, suffered death threats and was exiled, but he never surrendered. He learned a lot from Leon Trotsky, from the peasants in Peru, from the Zapatistas in Chiapas… He was always open to new revolutionary ideas.

Hugo Blanco was a revolutionary, an intransigent opponent of the capitalist system, a destroyer of human life and nature. He never stopped aspiring to a new society, free from exploitation and domination, in harmony with all forms of life. On its flaming red and black flag is inscribed, in letters of fire, the slogan that Emiliano Zapata bequeathed us: Land and Freedom!

Hugo Blanco, the man with the “heart of stone and a dove” – an indestructible stone against the oppressors, a humble dove in the hands of the oppressed –, as the great Peruvian writer José Maria Arguedas so well defined it (1), was a legendary figure in Latin America. A tireless fighter, he traveled across his country, Peru, from north to south, from the highlands to the coast, “and wherever he went, he helped the fallen to rise and the silent to speak” (2).

Like few others, he embodies the centuries-old struggle of indigenous peoples from the continent – ​​what the great Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui called “Indoamérica” – against their oppressors, colonizers, imperialists and oligarchs. His biography is an uninterrupted succession of struggles, defeats, victories (some), repression, arrests, coups d'état, torture and exile – right from the beginning. A militant for many years in the Fourth International – with which he has always maintained fraternal relations – he identified with the Zapatistas in Chiapas and with indigenous struggles around the world.

Hugo Blanco Galdós was born in Cuzco in 1934. After secondary school, in 1954, he went to Argentina to study agronomy. It was there that he discovered Trotskyism and joined the Revolutionary Workers' Party (POR), led by Nahuel Moreno. In 1956, his comrades asked him to return to Peru to try to reorganize the POR in Lima. His task was to establish himself in the industrial working class, but he soon realized that the main struggles were taking place in the countryside… Thus, from 1958, he joined the peasant struggle in the La Convención and Lares valleys, in the province of Cuzco, helping to form peasant unions, with the support of his organization, the Revolutionary Left Front (constituted by the POR in alliance with other organizations). At the head of the movement, Hugo began to carry out an “agrarian reform from below”, under the motto “land or death!”. Looking back on this period, he observed that what he called “the union” was actually something else: “we had resurrected the ayllu, the peasant community”.

Facing the landlords and the Civil Guard, the peasant unions tasked Hugo with organizing armed self-defense. In several writings of this period, and in his book tie or die (3), he explains the profound difference between his conception of self-defense as a direct expression of the struggle of the peasant masses and the “guerrilla focus” proposed by other groups – such as the MIR (Movimento de Esquerda Revolucionaria) of Luis de la Puente Uceda, or the ELN (Exército de Libertação Nacional) of Hector Bejar – inspired by the Cuban experience. After some battles with the Civil Guard, his self-defense groups were defeated and Hugo captured in January 1963. His trial took place in 1966 and, in 1967, after an appeal, the prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Military Justice asked for the death penalty for the dangerous revolutionary. A vast international campaign of solidarity with Hugo Blanco was launched, led by the Fourth International, but with the support of many personalities such as Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Bertrand Russel. The court was content to sentence him to “only” 25 years in prison – the maximum sentence at the time – and send him to the sinister penal colony on the island of El Fronton.

With the establishment of the nationalist military regime of Velasco Alvarado in 1970, political prisoners, including Hugo, were granted amnesty. The Velasco government offered Hugo Blanco the possibility of participating in the ongoing agrarian reform; unlike Hector Bejar, also released on that occasion and who accepted this offer with enthusiasm, Hugo preferred to maintain his independence and critical distance in relation to this type of reform “from above”, with its bureaucratic and authoritarian characteristics. As a result, he was expelled from the country and had to live in exile for seven more years…

First in Mexico and Argentina, where he was arrested, then in Chile, where he lived the experience of the Allende government – ​​helping to organize the industrial cordon of Vicuña Maquena – and finally in Sweden, after Pinochet's coup d'état (1973). In 1978, he returned to Peru and was elected deputy of the Constituent Assembly on behalf of a radical coalition, the Frente Operaria, Camponesa, Estudantil e Popular (FOCEP), being the third most voted candidate in the country (4). In 1980, he was elected deputy again, this time for the city of Lima. In 1985, he chose not to run for election and, until 1990, headed the Peasant Confederation of Peru (CCP); During these years, he also participated in the struggles of indigenous communities in the Amazon, in Pucallpa (1999), where he was brutally attacked by the police and arrested. He was only released thanks to a national campaign – promoted by the Unified Mariateguista Party (PUM) – and an international campaign, not only by the Fourth International, but also by Amnesty International, the Central Organization of Swedish Workers, the Spanish Workers’ Commissions, the Workers’ Party of Brazil (PT), the Farabundo Martí Front in El Salvador, etc.

In 1990, Hugo Blanco was elected Senator of the Republic by the PUM. His activity in this institution was short-lived, as in 1992 President Fujimori carried out a “self-coup” and dissolved both chambers. Once again, Hugo was forced into exile, this time in Mexico, where he joined Subcomandante Marcos' EZLN in 1994. Finally, in 1997, he returned to Peru and settled in Cuzco, working with the Peasant Departmental Federation of Cuzco, which elected him honorary president. In 2008, he was arrested again, accused of “violence and resistance to authority”; as soon as he was released, he organized (2009) a protest campaign against the massacre of an indigenous demonstration in the Amazon region of Bagua by the government of Alan García. In 2009, Hugo Blanco signed the Ecosocialist Declaration of Belém and participated in the international ecosocialist meeting held shortly after the World Social Forum in Belém. “We, the indigenous peoples”, he said on that occasion, “have been fighting for ecosocialism for 500 years”. Finally, he took over the direction of the newspaper Indigenous Fight, headquartered in Cuzco.

I know of few biographies of militants so impressive for their tenacity, courage, pride, constancy in their engagement in the struggle for the emancipation of the exploited and oppressed, facing, against all odds, the power of the ruling classes and their instruments of police/military repression, without letting themselves be beaten down by defeats, beatings, arrests or exile.

To understand Hugo Blanco's struggle, it is important to understand his historical and cultural roots.

in your book Introduction to political economy (published by Paul Lévi in ​​1925, after Rosa Luxemburg's death), Rosa Luxemburg was interested in primitive communism as a universal social formation. She especially cites the example of the pre-Columbian Inca rural community, expressing her admiration for the “incredible resistance of the indigenous population and the institutions of agrarian communism” which, despite unfavorable conditions, lasted until the XNUMXth century. In his other economic work, The accumulation of capital (1913), she evoked the struggle of the indigenous populations of the colonies against the imperial metropolises – Spain, France, England, the United States – as the tenacious resistance of the old communist traditions against the brutal capitalist “Europeanization” imposed by colonialism.

A century later, in Latin America, we witness a new episode of this ancestral struggle. More precisely, in Hugo Blanco's Peru, it is about the struggle of ayllu, the old indigenous community structure, against the infamies of capitalist “modernization”. Not only in the XNUMXth century, but even today, in the XNUMXst century, we have, Hugo writes, “an old collectivist organization, the ayllu, the peasant community, which, despite the distortions of the unequal individualistic environment imposed by the law, maintains its vigor”. Contrary to the neoliberal and reactionary discourse of Vargas Llosa, who denounced the “archaism” of indigenous traditions, Hugo defends the vitality of the ayllu, which is not just an economic phenomenon, but a spirit of collective solidarity present in vast sectors of the peasantry. The importance of this tradition is also political – it brings elements of communitarian democracy, a direct democracy, from below – and ecological: it implies respect for nature, for “Mother Earth” (Pachamama).

Hugo was deeply rooted in Andean culture; not only did he speak Quechua, he identified with the long history of indigenous resistance to Hispanic colonialism – going back to the epic of Tupak-Amaru in the 1969th century. His correspondence with José Maria Arguedas (XNUMX) is a moving testimony to the friendship of two rebels who shared this deep “indigenous root”. In recent years, for example, Hugo has become enthusiastic about the struggles of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon rainforest – strangers to Quechua culture – against oil multinationals and agroindustry. A fight of vital importance, not only for these indigenous communities that never accepted Western “civilization”, but for all of humanity: the Amazon, which capitalists and landowners are trying to destroy in their blind pursuit of profit, is the biggest carbon sink on the planet and, therefore, one of the last obstacles to the catastrophic process of global warming caused by the greenhouse gases emitted by the capitalist mode of production. It should be added that Hugo's enthusiasm was not theoretical: he was at the forefront of indigenous struggles and, like his companions, was the victim of the blows of repression.

But Hugo's perspective was not just Peruvian and Latin American: as an active participant in the World Social Forums, his vision of the struggle was internationalist, universal. For example, at the conclusion of his book, he wrote: “We are not just the indigenous peoples of the Americas”, referring to struggles in Oceania, Africa and Asia. The fight is the same, and the enemy is the same: the multinationals, the landowners, agribusiness, neoliberal policies, the western capitalist system. There is nothing “regressive” or “archaic” about his approach, but he tries to save a precious heritage from the past: “In my opinion, it would be healthy to go back to our original morals, which does not mean going back to primitive life: deep human solidarity, intimate links with nature”.

One of the chapters of your book tie or die its title is a quote from a famous poem by Antônio Machado: “The walk is not a path, it is done by walking”. Few fighters in Latin America have contributed as much as Hugo Blanco to opening the way that could one day lead us to a different future, to a new possible world.

In a beautiful aphorism, Bertolt Brecht said: “Some men fight for a day and are good. Others fight for a year and are better. There are those who fight for many years and are very good. But there are those who fight for their whole lives: these are indispensable”. Hugo Blanco was one of those indispensable…

*Michael Lowy is director of research in sociology at Center nationale de la recherche scientifique (CNRS). Author, among other books, of What is Ecosocialism?Cortez).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves


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