Hugo Blanco was born in 1934 in Cusco, Peru, where he witnessed firsthand the brutal treatment of indigenous peasants by white landowners. While studying agronomy in Argentina, he developed close ties to the Argentine Trotskyist tendency associated with Nahuel Moreno. After completing his studies, he returned to Peru and he became active in the struggle of the indigenous peasantry for land. He played an important role in the Tierra o Muerte (Land or Death) movement (1961-63) in which peasants carried out occupations and land seizures and finally organized mass armed resistance. They had imposed de facto land reform which was later legalized, but Blanco was arrested and charged with murdering a policeman. He was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison but was soon sent into exile after an international campaign successfully pressured the Peruvian government. After several years abroad, he returned to Peru, establishing a repeated pattern of militant activism with indigenous movements, followed by arrest, conviction, and the imposition of harsh sentences, commuted to exile by virtue of international pressure. Blanco’s health suffered as a result of years in prison and severe beatings, and much of the remainder of his life in exile. He nevertheless continued to draw his political inspiration from the indigenous peoples of Latin America, especially in confronting the challenge of climate change. Hugo Blanco was a fearless activist and a brilliant tactician; we have much to learn from his life and work.
We were star struck: nearly three decades earlier, in prison,
Threatened with execution, he had been the subject of a campaign
Supported by Sartre, Beauvoir and Bertrand Russell.
Crowds rallied, committees formed, Buenos Aires to the D.F.,
Paris, London, Calcutta, and Algiers; when he was finally freed,
Even his exile seemed a sign of the power of the revolt to come.
All these years later, again in exile, he sat on our couch,
Preparing to sleep on a mattress laid out on the floor
Like any other comrade, perfectly at ease: we were charmed.
Fujimori and Gonzalo had concluded a gentlemen’s agreement
To kill him, and anyone who sheltered him; he escaped,
Forced to leave behind the struggles out of which he was created.
From his place of refuge, he thought of nothing
But returning to the poetry of defiance chanted in Quechua,
To the sounds of hundreds of rawhide sandals slapping stone,
Drumming a descent on dirt paths, to the rustle of woolen skirts
Scattering into a labyrinth of mountain trails on moonless nights;
To the look, centuries-old, on the people’s faces
Just before dawn as they prepared to engage the invaders,
To the pleasures of little victories, a few acres of fertile field,
The difference between life and death.
He lived a time measured by enemies and battles,
By weapons, machete or rifle, by sounds, horses or helicopters,
By the grading of wounds, by death’s velocity,
A time of defeats, like the latest victory, destined to last no longer
Than the accumulations of clouds he had seen so often below him
As he climbed with his comrades to the top of the world, to eternity’s outlook.
Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.
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Warren Montag is a professor of English at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. He has written books and articles on Louis Althusser, Spinoza, and Adam Smith, and is editor of the journal Décalages. He was a founding member of the revolutionary socialist organization Solidarity.