Juan Carlos Mechoso does not need much coaxing to turn to his subject – the El Cerro district [Montevideo] – a subject that loosens his tongue and stirs him more than any other.
Before the start of the interview, when the photographs were being taken, he mentioned that El Cerro had a population of some 80,000 and greater El Cerro 150,000. That, at best, youngsters could only find casual jobs. That those who managed to find work for five, six or eight months were few in number and scarcely anybody has a steady job, he says and then he smiles because he is asked about the glory days in the past when there was no unemployment and when each family had somebody working in the refrigeration plants – Swift, Nacional or Artigas…
“Somebody bringing home a wage and two kilos of beef a day” – he says, enjoying our surprise. “there were families with three or four workers working in refrigeration and bringing home so much beef that it was even given away for free. Barbecues were held in the district and in the clubs. In those days it was also the case that the workers built their own little houses and this required masses of equipment, carpentry and glazing materials and there was a store on every block and the pawn shop was part of the local culture. A dim view was taken of anybody who did not cough up. Come the lay-offs, the shops were filled with blue uniforms and clothing.”
Supplied by the firm?
“Yes, two uniforms a year and a pair of boots. That was one of many gains made.”
And do the youngsters in El Cerro these days know about this?
“Sure. You often hear them talking about such gains which were made in the 1930s as if they happened yesterday. They are engraved in the collective memory in El Cerro and people still refer to incidents and things and ways of life that are now gone.”
You arrived in El Cerro with your family, then?
“We came from Flores in the interior of the country [he was born in 1935] and we came to Montevideo, like many another family in the 1940s and settled into a modest home in La Teja. And any of us that could work went out to work. I myself went to school and worked. Then they offered me double pay to put in more hours.”
So you had to quit school?
“Yes, in my fourth year. In those days in those barrios most lads used to work and, get this, it was a rare shop that didn’t display a card saying ‘Boy needed here’” (Mechoso erupts into uncontainable laughter).
If only! It must have been paradise.
“Yes, it was. Nearly all of us lads from the barrio worked. As did the grown-ups and youngsters, virtually all of them. It was hard to carry on with one’s studies.”
You worked in a warehouse which, I think, was facing the glass factory where your father worked.
“Yes. There were frequent disputes at that factory because it had a very pugnacious trade union with an anarchist trade union leadership. ‘Bigote’ was the nickname given to one of the leaders. The vast majority of my contemporaries from La Cachimba del Piojo near where we lived became anarchist sympathisers.”
You say the union members were very militant. How did that show itself?
“I can remember the factory cordoned off by the police because the workers had taken it over and were holding the bosses inside as hostages. I was very aware of this because my father and brother were inside.”
And what age were you at the time?
“Eleven or twelve.”
And when did you begin to flirt with anarchism?
“All my brothers became anarchists before me. I followed soon after, aged 14.”
And what did anarchism mean to you at that point, what was its attraction for you?
“I saw it as the workers defending themselves. I heard the matter being talked about all day at home. In addition, though, there was effective, well-organised propaganda. Lots of anarchist workers were employed in the refrigeration forms and a group was up and running in the barrio. My 16 year old brother was active in it and I became active in it at the age of 14.”
You mean your brother who was murdered? [Alberto Mechoso]
“No, the one they killed was younger than me. There were four of us, one of whom was a runaway from a home and he lived with us.”
Not a full brother, then?
“No, a brother from the streets. When he ran away he ended up in our house and stayed and became another brother. He became an anarchist too, just as we did. In fact he may well have led the way for he was a couple of years older than the eldest of us.”
What did that propaganda you mentioned consist of?
“Conversation. Lots of conversations explaining ideas and what socialism was. There were two or three places we used to go for a chat.”
And what was the situation between socialists and communists in El Cerro back then?
“There were hardly any socialists. There were anarchists and, later, communists. The CP was slowly growing and had worker groups in El Cerro as well as in La Teja.”
What do you remember of the trade union arguments between anarchists and communists back then? What were the most ticklish issues?
“I reckon the anarchists had more of a stomach for a fight over demands and claims and confrontation with the class enemy.”
Really? More so than the communists?
“Yes. At that point, yes. The communists were more moderate.”
Maybe the war was a factor.
“Of course. Even though the communists never gave up on their class approach, there was a live-and-let-live arrangement in place at that point in time. Then again there was sharp controversy from the anarchists in that they had severed any connections with the Russian revolution. ”
But they had backed the revolution in trade union terms.
“To start with. But by that point any hope that the revolution might, as was claimed, bring about a new civilisation, had long since evaporated.”
More than 25 years had gone by.
“Yes. There was increasing friction within the unions as the first communist groups spread across the country, when they affiliated to the Third International and when the CGT was set up. What was left of the anarchists were very critical.”
What were the main points of difference? Did they perhaps have something to do with rejection or acceptance of the Soviet Union?
“In a sense, yes, because the main controversy surrounded the issue ‘socialism plus freedom or authoritarian socialism’. And that argument had been raging from the very beginning, when the union was being organised. These days, union membership is taken for granted. But in those days it was a badge of the libertarian school of thought. A way of organising along federal lines.”
And what did the communists want?
“A centralist form of organising, with more permanent leaders, little involvement by the people.”
They reckoned that was the only efficient way of prosecuting the social struggle. Goes to show how much distrust there can be of everybody getting involved. Bordering on what is often referred to these days as ‘anarchy’. Anarchy meaning ‘disorder’, ‘chaos’ and ‘confusion’. Or as we say down here on the River Plate ‘looseness’.
“Anarchism stated, and historically has argued, that we have to rely upon the populace getting involved and try to make that involvement greater and more intense as time goes on. People grow through participation. That’s what we believe. The greater the participation, the greater the growth and the learning process.”
Which is one of the major arguments that feminism puts for participation.
“Precisely. In the National Library I was reading a newspaper, El Obrero, dating from 1884 which contains a spectacular feminist outlook as up to date as if it were yesterday. The earliest feminist arguments in this country emanated from anarchist quarters.”
They wouldn’t agree that women should wait for the revolution in order to be liberated and take up the position they are born to occupy. I remember it being said that the feminist struggle per se is meaningless. What did that newspaper from the 19th century have to say?
“It said that besides the class struggle and moving beyond capitalism, women had a two-pronged war to fight since they had to break free of the patriarchy they had to endure at home. And that the latter was a struggle to be carried forward since performance in those professing left-wing ideas very often falls short of their ideas. And another issue raised was nature conservation.”
Odd that these topics should have been raised over a hundred years ago.
“Yes. Within the group there was a greater concern with the human being. I’d say that the revolution encompassed a much broader front. You were asking me what the points at issue were. They mostly had to do with forms of relationship and organisation, including modes of relationship between militants. Insofar as there were no leaders, everything was up for discussion by everybody. The views of those most respected carried some clout but this did not of course mean that their views were not well queried.”
I imagine that in discussions of concrete problems differences derived from the differing stances within anarchists would have carried some weight.
“That’s a fact. Among the anarchists there were nuances corresponding to differing strategic approaches. I mean the politically organised ones.”
Yourself, for instance, were you a believer in political organisation as a priority?
“Yes, I was a in favour of a specifically anarchist organisation, a given scheme of political work different from that of the anarcho-syndicalists who held that trade union work was enough to bring about emancipation of the workers and subsequently reorganise social life. Inside these currents we ran into Spaniards who had come over after the civil war and stated here, whereas others moved on to Argentina. From the word go these people used to visit El Cerro and La Teja to give us talks.”
You left school after four years of primary schooling, but you have an education that many an academic might envy. A while ago you were talking about Foucault, who is no easy read. I was changing tapes and you were saying something. What was it you were saying about forms of repression?
Juan Carlos Mechoso laughs.
“I don’t know. Some nonsense.”
No, no. It was no nonsense.
“I said that there are forms of repression in matters economic, political and social going right back to the ideological roots and as they permeate the body of society at every level they allow the system to avoid resorting to direct repression. It being the citizens themselves who uphold and reproduce the ideology that serves the system.”
Interesting. The question is how did you get where you are now?
“Like a lot of anarchists, I got here through reading and conversations. Near here we had the Ateneo Cerro where lectures and talks and debates would take place.”
What sort of reading?
“All sorts. For instance, the comrades used to urge us to read history from Greece through to the First International, and Bakunin’s polemics with Marx, the birth of the workers’ movement, and good quality literature. Kropotkin of course, a theoretician of anarchy who wrote, say, a book on prisons adopting viewpoints akin to Foucault’s Surveillance and Punishment ”
But Kropotkin lived a century ago.
“True, he was a Russian prince. When the anarchists parted company from the First International in 1872, he carried on being active within what came afterwards.”
I got off the bus recently and walked as far as your house looking at the run-down little houses and the bay yonder. I’d like you to draw us a picture of what El Cerro was like once upon a time. Prosperous, lively, militant. Tell us a little of what El Cerro was like when you were 15.
“We lived in El Cerro and sought our entertainment in El Cerro. People didn’t go into the city proper very often. There was a joke in those days. Whenever anybody bought a new suit, they would be asked: ‘Off to the centre then?’ On Sundays and holidays we would stroll down Grecia Street as if in the countryside. There were some cinemas, dance halls, a theatre (the Selecto) near the bend in Grecia Street. And lots of cafe life, where one could sit all night over two or three cups of coffee. Left-wing cafes where left-wingers would stop off.”
The enemy wasn’t the Blancos nor the Colorados. Because the right as such was non-existent. [Blancos and Colorados (whites and Reds) the two party system in Uruguay]
“There were no right-wing parties, although there were right-wing individuals inside the parties … Echegoyen, for instance, was a right-winger.” [Echegoyen: Martin Recaredo Echegoyen, Blanco party leader]
Nardone was a right-winger too. And Pacheco later. [Nardone: Benito Nardone, radio broadcaster elected president in 1958: he proved a sore disappointment to his conservative voters. Pacheco: Jorge Pacheco Areco, president and Colorado Party leader.]
“Sure. To get back to your question: we used to meet up in those cafes where we talked about everything, politics included. One of the cafes was the Mirambell and the other one, down yonder, was the Viacaba.”
Tell me about demonstrations when there was a dispute on.
“The demonstrations by the Meatworkers’ Federation were massive, really massive turn-outs. With gauchos [cowboys] leading them.”
Even the gauchos were involved?
“Yes, the guys who worked on the refrigeration ships would turn out. On horseback they would follow behind the Meat Federation’s loudspeaker truck as it played the Marseillaise at full volume.”
“No, just the music. When folk heard the strains of the Marseillaise they knew right away that federation propaganda or a street demonstration was on the way. Heading up the procession there also a machine firing rockets skywards. The cowboys – many wearing their ponchos, white neckerchiefs and grey sombreros – were followed by cyclists and then by people on foot. Entire families, young and old. Drinking yerba mate as they went.”
All bound for the Palace… [the parliament building in Montevideo]
“The final destination was the Palace where sometimes they camped out. Tents were erected along the esplanade. And then the police would show up and wind things up. That was in the early 1950s.”
Just as Uruguay was taking an economic down-turn.
“Yes, the refrigerated meat industry was in crisis and the foreign firms were starting to pull out. The Meatworkers’ Federation was sorely injured and almost fatally wounded and had stopped playing its part. The Ateneo Cerro picked up the banner of agitation. There were experts in various fields who used to come and give talks. About humour, cinema and history. Some of these courses lasted six months. At the same time positions were being adopted vis a vis labour mobilisations and liberation movements around Latin America … in Guatemala, Santo Domingo and the fighting in Cuba leading up to the revolution. A number of libertarian performers such as Carlos ‘El Gaucho’ Molina and Zitarrosa [Alfredo Zitarrosa (1936-1989), very popular singer, composer and writer whose songs were banned in Uruguay after 1971 and who was forced out of the county.] used to turn up to play and sing. And at the weekends there were conversations with the Spanish exiles. The rector of the university even turned out: he was introduced by Gomensoro [Possibly Jose Gomensoro, lecturer in medicine at the University of Montevideo.] and Gatti and gave a talk on fascism at a street rally. The Ateneo was always alert and active on issues, not just nationally but throughout Latin America.”
What is the Ateneo focusing on these days?
“One of the things I feel is important right now is the need to counter the fragmentation being caused by our new historical circumstances.”
The undermining of the strength of the working class.
“Precisely. Right now the Ateneo means to make as much of an effort as it can to rally scattered forces so as to rebuild the fabric of social solidarity. We’ve always been in favour of not making man a prisoner of the collective.”
‘The collective should not wall him in but shore him up’, is one of your principles.
“Correct. We are all for personalisation although naturally that has nothing to do with bourgeois individualism.”
Which is running very strong right now.
“And which has spawned a number of practices boosting the power of a tiny faction that can do whatever it pleases, whereas the broad masses, being atomised, have lost much of their power. What we are looking for through the Ateneo is some way of coming together and coordinating with every other social institution in El Cerro and then aiming to create a strong social movement with answers to contemporary issues, bearing in mind especially that traditional political mechanisms have these days run out of steam.”
How do you see the performance of the establishment in this context?
“The establishment has become a lot more conciliatory. We have a particularly ruthless capitalism spearheaded by finance capital and we have states creating openings for them right around the globe making laws for their protection. What have Menem, Cavallo [Menem: Carlos Saul Menem, Peronist president of Argentina in the 1990s. Cavallo: Domenico Cavallo, Argentinean economy minister in the 1990s.] and others in Argentina done but set in place the legal conditions enabling capital to do as it pleases? And another important point: no longer is this being described as imperialism. ”
It has been re-branded as globalisation.
“And there in that change of terminology lies the snare that disguises what is really going on, the real machinery at work. Let’s not use the words ‘class’, nor ‘struggle’ nor ‘confrontation’ nor ‘imperialism’ any more. At the same time they have conjured up a consensus around this lie. As Chomsky puts it: “Never have so many intellectuals of the first calibre been as compliant and comfortable within the system as they are now. Nor as productive of its values.”
As you see it, what is the purpose behind these changes in terminology?
“To stop us from thinking about these things. To offer us a representation that does not match the facts. Preventing a correct analysis of them. Gaston Bachelard has done some interesting research into this.”
So this belongs in the same category as ‘the end of ideology’, the ‘end of history’ and ‘the impossibility of socialism?
“And as ‘there are no classes any more’ and ‘those days are gone’. As Chomsky says: ‘If there’s one thing that is self-evident, it’s the existence of classes.’.”
There’s an economist, an American like Chomsky, Kenneth Galbraith who states in his History of Economics that ‘economics is a science greatly cultivated by those who say what the rich are eager to hear.’ And ‘Monetary measures are not politically and socially neutral.
“True, that’s another thing they would have us swallow. One of the theorists of Thatcherite conservatism said that it was a good thing for social democracy to win from time to time ‘to introduce some ideological oxygen’. Obviously, this raised certain expectations among the people that made it feasible to put immediate demands on the long finger.”
Let’s look a bit further back into the past. Back to the days of the dictatorship. You people were hit quite hard in terms of dead and disappeared, You yourself had a brother who perished in Orletti [concentration camp].
“Yes, my brother [Alberto Mechoso] is one of those who disappeared in Orletti along with Gerardo Gatti and León Duarte. Along with another comrade, Perro Pérez [Washington ‘Perro’ Perez, FAU and PVP activist], for instance, they were founders of the FAU. We were active alongside them on a range of tasks … the ROE and the OPR (an armed organisation that carried out a number of operations).”
Such as the kidnapping of the industrialist Molaguero, or the abduction of Costa-Gavras’s wife, Michele Ray, or the theft of the ‘33 Orientales’ flag and the kidnapping of Cambón, the representative of a number of paper-making forms. What was behind the Molaguero kidnapping?
“Molaguero was an industrialist involved in shoe-manufacture, a real feudal lord who was firing people, harassing the union and even beating people. At the time, Alfaro had an article printed about the vicious treatment he was doling out to the workers. The guy was a member of the JUP [Juventud Uruguaya de Pie: Alert Uruguayan Youth] and he was kidnapped in relation to a dispute.”
It was claimed at the time that you had tortured him.
“Which is a complete lie. Our thinking on such matters was very clear. Torture of a defenceless person was not on. Not just because of what it did to the victim, but also because of the way it impacted on the militant. He was the only kidnap victim who claimed to have been tortured and he was lying. As to the abduction of the reporter Michele Ray, the object there was to get some publicity for the reasons we had not voted in the elections. We whiled the night away chatting to her. She was very well informed as to the situation in Latin America and our chat was very enjoyable.”
Tell us about those of your comrades who were ‘disappeared’ in Orletti.
“Those comrades featured in an episode of what was known as Operation Condor.”
Tell us about the incident when they took Perro Pérez to Orletti to get something the Uruguayans involved in Operation Condor in Buenos Aires were after.
“Here goes. Our people kidnapped an industrialist inside Argentina and got a ten million dollar ransom for him. I was in jail at the time. The military – Gavozzo and Cordero and the rest – got wind of the money and wanted a cut. At the time they were holding Gerardo Gatti and Duarte in Orletti. Perro Pérez, a well known and very active anarchist and FUNSA [Uruguayan National Tyre Plant and its trade union] employee, one of the people most active in the 1972 strike, was in Buenos Aires.”
“No, living openly because there was no warrant for his arrest. He had a street-corner newsagent’s shop that supported himself and his family. One day one of the Uruguayan military turned up and offered to free his comrades from Orletti in return for two million and suggested that they take him to Orletti to iron out the details. They took him out to Orletti – blindfolded of course. Perro asked to see Gerardo Gatti but was told that he was not there. He then asked for Duarte and they fetched him. He could scarcely recognise him. He looked ghastly. Clothing in shreds and his feet bare. Perro looked at his feet and said: ‘How come you’ve no shoes on?’ At which the soldier, who was listening, piped up to say: ‘There are shoes in that room’, with a smirk. When Leon later went to the room there were more than fifty pairs of men’s and women’s shoes there. Perro Pérez had a word with Duarte. He put the proposition made by the Uruguayan military and agreed to come back to hear the response. They fetched him a few days later. What the response was I do not know, but I know that before they parted they hugged each other and Duarte whispered into his ear: ‘Get out of here. They’re going to kill you.’ That very same day Perro and his family applied to the Swedish embassy for asylum And survived. Duarte and Gatti were ‘disappeared’. Duarte knew that, money or no money, they were going to be killed.
And Perro is dead now.
“Yes, he returned from Sweden in 1986 or 1987 for a tribute we paid to Duarte. He said his piece and then sat down. And dropped dead ten minutes later. His heart gave out.”
Interview conducted by Maria Esther Gillo
From: from Brecha, Uruguay, July 2001. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.