Hugo Blanco: A man who loved humanity and Mother Earth

Hugo Blanco

La Vía Campesina recognizes the enormous political, social and humanist legacy of our comrade Hugo Blanco, a Peruvian and internationalist, who died yesterday in Sweden. His militancy and commitment marked the organization of peasant farmers for agrarian reform in the 20th century, not only in Peru, but also throughout Latin America.

Hugo participated in the fight for the first agrarian reform in Peru, organizing peasants and indigenous people in the early 1960s in the semi-tropical zone of the department of Cusco, more specifically in the province called La Convención and in the district of Lares to the south of the country, where coffee, tea and cocoa are grown. He denounced the exploitation and slave labor experienced by the peasantry, who were forced to work free in days of up to more than 12 hours a day, including women and children.

He was sentenced by the Peruvian justice to the death penalty, which he managed to avoid due to a strong international campaign of solidarity, but he spent nearly 7 years in prison and had to live several years in exile as well. “When I entered the room to be judged, and saw my comrades after three years in prison, I yelled: Earth or Death! That was our slogan. They responded: We will win!” He commented in an interview conducted in 2018, and added, “some said that it was Hugo Blanco’s agrarian reform, but it was not Hugo Blanco’s agrarian reform, because when it happened I was already in prison, it was the peasantry in struggle as a whole that conquered the land.”

  Throughout his militancy, Hugo understood that the struggle and the need for the organization was even broader, not only against the latifundio, but against neoliberalism, capitalism and transnationals. So he became a tireless defender and staunch critic of extractivism and the depredation of Mother Earth. He accompanied marches, walks, crossed and toured the entire country defending the rights and dignity of the peoples of the countryside and cities.

“In the past, the struggle was to have land, work and farm. Now that neoliberalism acts and fiercely attacks nature, our fight has changed to the defense of mother earth, of pacha mama, that is the fundamental fight of now. Before I fought to socialize the land, today I have to fight for the maintenance of the human species” he commented.

For La Vía Campesina, Hugo Blanco is today a native seed, with an enormous potential for life, which inspired and will continue to inspire many generations in Peru and in the world. His legacy and commitment will endure in the struggle, in the organization and in the collective memory, because ideas do not die, like seeds multiply, grow and bear fruit.

“There are men that fight one day and are good. There are others that fight for a year and are better. Some fight for many years and are very good. But there are those who fight all their lives: those are the essentials» Bertolt Brecht

Revolutionary, peasant leader: Hugo Blanco (1934 - 2023)

First published at International Viewpoint.

Hugo Blanco, the Peruvian revolutionary, peasant leader, former member of parliament, fighter for the rights of indigenous people and for the environment, has died after a short period of acute illness.[1] He was born in 1934 in Cusco in Peru, in the indigenous heartland, and he constantly returned there. At the same time, throughout his life he was always on the road, living in several countries, repeatedly deported by those in power whom he criticised. As late as in March he arrived once more in Sweden, yet again because of political turmoil after a coup in his home country. He died, as he had wished to, close to his two daughters in Sweden, Carmen and Maria.

For many years, Hugo was a member of organisations affiliated to the Fourth International, first in Argentina where he arrived as a young student and then after his return to Peru in the late 1950s. That is where he participated in and played a leading role in the campesino movement against the cruel, neofeudal latifundista reign in the Peruvian Andes. The peasants’ demand for land was met with brutal repression. Hugo took part in the forming of armed self-defence. In one confrontation a policeman was killed. Hugo was put on trial in a military tribunal and the prosecutor argued for a death sentence, but in the end he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

An international campaign for the liberation of Hugo Blanco was launched immediately after his arrest. Hugo himself has commented that on every occasion his life was threatened – and indeed, there were a lot of occasions – the Fourth International led the way in the campaign to save him. In Sweden, Amnesty International made him their Prisoner of the year in 1968. He was liberated after a supposedly progressive military regime had taken power in Peru in 1970 but was deported some time later to Mexico.

During the Allende period in Chile, Hugo moved there but was forced to flee the country after the military coup in 1973. Like many others he was saved by the Swedish ambassador Harald Edelstam and got asylum in Sweden. That was the beginning of a long relation between Hugo and socialists, solidarity organisations and social movements in Sweden. He returned several times to see the family he had formed there – but also on repeated occasions after being deported or having escaped death threats in Peru.

During a period in the 1970s-80s he was elected to parliamentary assemblies in Peru as a representative of left fronts in which the Peruvian organisation of the Fourth International participated. In the year of 1980, he ran as a presidential candidate in the elections.

During his exile in Mexico, he met and was inspired by the uprising of the Zapatista movement in 1994. He was inspired by their orientation towards building power from below, basing themselves on the traditions of the indigenous peoples. Later Hugo resumed his work in the peasants’ movement in Peru. During the last decades of his life, he dedicated his efforts mainly to the struggle for the rights of indigenous people and for the defence of natural resources against exploitation. He started publishing the monthly newspaper Lucha Indígena (Indigenous struggle), that focuses on indigenous issues and is still being published by Hugo’s comrades.

Hugo’s health was frail for many years. He had been beaten too many times in prison and by police and the military. In 2002 he had a brain operation in Mexico and was treated in Cuba after the operation. In 2019 he visited Sweden, and the visit was prolonged by travel restrictions due to the Covid pandemic. In spite of his deteriorating health, he participated in climate manifestations with Greta Thunberg and Fridays For Future and met activists from the organisations of the Sami, an indigenous people in the northern parts of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia.

Hugo Blanco did not compromise in political struggles, and he neither surrendered nor was enticed by privileges he was offered. For instance, he totally rejected offers of joining the half-hearted land reform of the military regime in the beginning of the 1970s. He opposed self-appointed leaderships in parties and movements. Hugo stressed the importance of being practically involved in the daily work of the movements and of listening to all concerned. He also had a rare quality of reaching out to and convincing people. One example is how he addressed his prison guards in the military trial and explained that he made a clear difference between them and their superior offices. During his prison custody and during the trial, his guards repeatedly had to be exchanged since they grew too sympathetic to him. He was present in dramatic moments in world politics, and he managed to convey strategic lessons from every struggle to the rest of us.

In April this year, the Red Room Publishers (Bokförläggarna Röda Rummet) published a biography of Hugo in Swedish, a translation of the book Hugo Blanco – a revolutionary for life by Derek Wall. Those of us who worked with the book in the publishing house were especially pleased that the book was finished in time for him to receive it. At the book launch in Stockholm in early June, there was an intense moment for all present when Hugo participated with a militant greeting on a zoom link from his hospital bed in the city of Uppsala. At the launch, his daughters described what Hugo had meant in their life and in their common political work. One of his daughters, Maria, concluded her presentation with the slogan that will always be associated with the peasants’ movement in Peru in the 1960s and with Hugo Blanco:

Tierra o Muerte! Land or death

[1] Born 15 November 1934 in Cusco Peru, died 25 June 2023 in Uppsala, Sweden.