by Cristina Flores
Hugo Blanco – famously described by Latin American literary giant Eduardo Galeano as a man who was born twice. His first birth was in 1934, and he spent his early years living as a white boy in Cusco, a city where indigenous people were not allowed to walk on the pavement. Unphased by his skin colour, Hugo would play in the streets with his friends, speaking the local language of Quechua. Hugo Blanco’s second birth was at the age of ten. Upon hearing of a local landowner branding the skin of one of the peasants with his initials, Hugo Blanco, the ardent revolutionary was born. Such early consciousness of social injustice still fuels the man today, as I found out on the 27th February when I was lucky enough to attend an evening with Hugo, as part of the promotion of Derek Wall’s latest book, “Hugo Blanco – a revolutionary for life.” As a social activist myself, I was intrigued by what lessons could be learnt from a 20th century revolutionary legend.
Accompanied by his son, Oscar Berglund, acting as Hugo’s translator for the evening, Hugo passionately opened his talk with stories of early activism. School strikes gave him his first taste of rebellion, something which resonated with me, especially in light of the recent Youth Strikes 4 Climate across the world. Perhaps Hugo’s most famous act of resistance occurred in the 1950’s. Organising farmers into strikes against the ‘latifundistas’, owners of huge estates whose power maintained the neo-feudalist order of Peru in the early 20th century, Hugo and others took back control of the lands they worked on. The group were met with violence, and they themselves were forced to respond with armed opposition, something Hugo would later go on to discuss with regard to the use of non-violent tactics in today’s struggles.
The black and white image of Hugo Blanco, the political prisoner, could be found plastered across university campuses everywhere.
Anecdotes regarding his experience of the judicial system provided some comic relief – when faced with a jury full of the state’s own national guard, Hugo told us that his only response was to stand up and call them the true criminals in the room; a point that was greeted with much laughter from the audience. Having been sentenced to 25 years in prison for his role as organiser of the self defense teams during the uprising, a string of international solidarity campaigns were set in motion. The black and white image of Hugo Blanco, the political prisoner, could be found plastered across university campuses everywhere.
Following years living in exile, and having spent time in Argentina, Mexico and Sweden, Hugo returned to Peru to begin his political career. Again, Hugo spoke of one particular act of rebellion which would go down in history. As with all candidates in the country’s 1978 elections, Hugo was invited to speak on national television as part of an organised party broadcast. Refusing to abide by the rules of the game once again, Hugo used his television appearance to call for the people to support a general strike following a price increase of basic goods. Deported from his own country, Hugo would later find out he had been elected to government whilst in exile.
Hugo currently lives in Mexico and finds many lessons to be learnt from the Zapatista struggle.
Hugo’s latest episodes of activism have been in support of the many indigenous and environmental struggles currently taking place in Latin America. Hugo spoke of the Quechua goddess of the Andes, Pachamama, as a central driver of resistance to the many global environmental horrors, including mass deforestation, palm oil production and open-cast mining, all at the hands of a capitalist system that attacks the environment for profit. Hugo currently lives in Mexico and finds many lessons to be learnt from the Zapatista struggle. Their direct democratic government system presents a model that I have seen discussed in many environmentalist spheres. The Zapatistas have no elected political leaders, and instead whole councils are selected, with half being replaced after a set time, in this way ensuring information and learning is shared among longer serving and newer members. Women and men play a central role in this system (historically the group have promoted their own brand of indigenous feminism.)
Again, another example can be found in Rojava, where the governing model is shaped by ideas of direct democracy. Here in the UK, we are seeing regular examples of a system incapable of internally responding to the ecological crises. As George Monbiot said back in 2018, “the oligarchic control of wealth, politics, media and public discourse explains the comprehensive institutional failure now pushing us towards disaster.” Groups such as Extinction Rebellion are calling for a Citizen’s Assembly to oversee the long-term changes necessary to address the climate catastrophe our planet is facing. But, as Hugo and Derek Wall went on to suggest, there are a number of ways in which we can, and must, join this global struggle.
As Derek Wall writes in the opening pages of his new biography, Hugo has had “varied experiences of of electoral politics, armed struggle, institution building, and non-violent direct action”. When asked by one member of the audience what we can best do to address the great socio-environmental issues we are facing, both Hugo and Derek presented a range of strategies we must deploy. Firstly, Hugo made clear, violence in action was only ever used in response to state violence. Non-violent direct tactics in civil disobedience is something we must commit to here in the UK if we are to inspire any responses, and ones with urgency at their core. Derek went on to remind us of the importance of global solidarity, and encouraged us all to remember the power of writing letters to our friends and allies facing lengthy prison sentences around the world (see Amnesty International, Survival International and Black Cross for UK based organisations working with global networks). And finally, we were reminded of the power of solidarity on home soil. Even in the UK, there is much that can be done to promote and support global struggles – here in Norwich, for example, Symbiotic Horizon organise Kurdish solidarity events, and Extinction Rebellion, an international movement founded in the UK, are planning a week of disruption in London in response to the government’s inaction on climate change.
“Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage.”
Listening to Hugo share his stories and lessons reminded me of a beautiful quote a friend recently shared with me – “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” At a time of great uncertainty, being reminded of the power of collective action can give us the hope and courage we need, and can only spur us on further.
You can purchase ‘Hugo Blanco – A Revolutionary for Life’ by Derek Wall here – http://resistancebooks.org/product/hugo-blanco-a-revolutionary-for-life/
To get involved with Extinction Rebellion Norwich, check out their Facebook page – https://en-gb.facebook.com/xrnorwich/
Featured image credit: Photo of the front cover of ‘Hugo Blaco – A Revolutionary Life’ © Derek Wall
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