The Federación Uruguaya Anarquista: Crisis, armed struggle & dictatorship, 1967-85 [Review]

This overview of the main Uruguayan anarchist movement takes the form of various articles by and interviews with militants. It may be initially daunting for anyone not familiar with the subject, as the pieces which give a basic overview of the history only appear in the middle and at the end of the pamphlet. However, it is worth persevering as the story of the Federación Anarquista Uruguaya (FAU) is instructive.

Though anarchists had been active in Uruguay since the 1860s, the Federación was not formed until 1956. Like earlier libertarian organisations in the country, it was a broad based movement, influenced mainly by the writings of Mikhail Bakunin and Errico Malatesta. Though anarchism gained a following in the poorer districts of the cities and in some trade unions, the Federación lacked a distinct ideology and, partly due to this, it lost influential activists to Marxism in the wake of the successful Cuban revolution of 1959 – proof again that the effects of selfless activism are all too often dissipated if anarchist movements don’t adopt a strategy and organisational model which allow it to present a viable alternative to the parties of the left.

Worse was to follow as a growing economic crisis brought with it increased state repression against the working class. Fascist gangs attacked union activists and strikers and an intense social conflict led to the suspension of civil liberties by the government in 1968, followed by a military seizure of power in 1973. The FAU had to go underground but continued to operate clandestinely, despite many of its members being rounded up.

It created an armed wing, the People’s Revolutionary Organisation, which expropriated funds from the banks for workers’ struggles and kidnapped leading industrialists. However, the military proved too strong and many FAU militants had to go into exile. Yet even in neighbouring countries they were not safe. South American dictatorships combined with US intelligence against revolutionaries of all shades in “Operation Condor” – an international collaborative effort launched in 1975 in which information was shared, fugitives and exiles were hunted down and tens of thousands were imprisoned or assassinated.

Ultimately, the Uruguayan dictatorship could not solve the country’s economic problems and its repression could not indefinitely contain popular protest. The FAU reemerged with the outbreak of strikes and demonstrations in the mid-1980s and held its refounding congress in 1986. Today, with “democracy” as the preferred political method of the nation’s ruling class, it is once more active in community, workplace and student struggles. The definitive English language history of anarchism in South America is yet to be written, but pamphlets such as this are useful steps towards that goal.

From: Direct Action #47 (Summer 2009).