Between Friday, February 22nd and the 28th, Anthology Film Archives will be presenting a retrospective of the films of Raymundo Gleyzer, a revolutionary born in 1941 and who died in a military prison in 1976 as one of thousands of desaparesidos. Like the myth of Sisyphus, the Latin American left seems to be perpetually condemned to being crushed by a boulder rolling back on it, just after it was pushed to the top of a mountain. For many young leftists, the sight one “pink tide” government after another being replaced by rightwing, pro-American forces is painful but this has been happening for generations.
In the early 70s, the stakes were much higher since the workers of Chile and Argentina were far more ready to seize power through a socialist revolution than has been the case more recently with temporizing governments like Lula’s. Gleyzer made films that were to the Argentine class struggle that Che Guevara’s AK-47 was to the guerrilla movements that were sweeping the continent. For putting the epochal struggle for the liberation of the South into a broader context, one that spans Simon Bolivar to today, Gleyzer’s films are essential. We should be grateful to the curators at Anthology Film Archives for scheduling this retrospective and urge my readers in the Greater New York area to make time to see his powerful body of work.
Gleyzer was the son of Jewish parents who worked in the theater. When they separated, he began to take jobs as a photographer to help make ends meet in his mother’s home. His passion for photography soon led to an interest in film and enrollment at La Plata film school. Early on, he decided to make documentaries about the plight of Argentina’s poor and to use film as a way of changing society.
He dropped out of film school in order to learn on the job. Throughout the sixties, he made a series of documentaries about campesinos including “It Happened in Hualfin”, a 50-minute study of a family trying to eke out a living in Argentina’s northwestern Catamarca province by making earthenware pottery and weaving cloth under the most primitive conditions. In some ways, gaining the trust of its members was not that different from the guerrilla movements trying to establish a base in a rural village. As pointed out in a superb documentary made in 2003 about Gleyzer titled “Raymundo”, he had a gift for empathy that allowed people suspicious of outsiders to open up to him. In this film and others like it, you are struck by the meager conditions of the Argentine campesinos. If this relatively prosperous nation could have left so many of its people on the edge of starvation, you can begin to understand why the continent remains boiling with resistance to this day.
By 1973, Gleyzer had evolved toward a socialist perspective that helped shape “The Frozen Revolution”, a 65-minute documentary that is a history of the Mexican Revolution and, as the title implies, the failure of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) to realize the goals of the peasant armies led by Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. The film will help you understand why Mexico now has such a massive drug industry and will continue to do so even after the imprisonment of El Chapo. As long as people suffer from landlessness and unemployment, they will do whatever is necessary to put food on their family’s table and a roof over their head.
At the time of its filming, there were veterans of the peasant armies who were still alive and happy to tell their story. In addition, Gleyzer includes archival footage of these armies in battle, armed in one case with nothing but machetes. Using his gift for gaining the trust of strangers, he also arranges an interview with a woman who owns numerous haciendas that use what amounts to peonage labor. Her indifference to the suffering of those who cut cane on her plantation is shocking.
The final 15 minutes or so of the film is set in Chiapas. It well help you understand why the Zapatista movement was reborn there just twenty years after “The Frozen Revolution” was made. It will also help you understand why Mexicans finally got fed up enough about the broken promises of the PRI to vote Andrés Manuel López Obrador into office last year. While it is unlikely that he will be able to change Mexican society overnight, he at least has given workers the courage to organize strikes in the maquila zone. If it is easy to get discouraged over the situation in Venezuela, we should never forget that the old mole of revolution has ways of digging new tunnels and popping up unexpectedly.
Finally, a word should be said about a shocking scene toward the end of the film. A leader of the Mexican Communist Party explains why the party supported Luis Echeverría, the PRI candidate for President, in 1970. This is a politician who a year after being elected ordered his army to attack student protestors in Mexico City, leaving 120 dead, including a 14-year old boy. This event was dramatized in Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma”. Despite this brutality, Echeverría demagogically adopted leftist-populist rhetoric and positioned himself as a leader of the “Third World”, even supporting a UN resolution equating Zionism with Racism. This apparently was enough for its spokesman to respond to Gleyzer’s query about how a Marxist party could support Echeverría. He told Gleyzer that a developing country has to strengthen its national economy in order to resist American imperialism. Thus, you get the rationale for Communist Party support for thuggish populist dictators in so many countries since Stalin’s rise to power, including Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
By 1973, Raymundo Gleyzer had become a member of the Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores (PRT), a Guevarist party that included an armed wing called the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP). The PRT-ERP had an orientation to urban guerrilla warfare and was often the focus of media attention for its bold tactics that ranged from kidnapping corporate chieftains to hijacking trucks, whose goods were dispensed in poor neighborhoods. I was involved in a furious debate that took place around this time in the Trotskyist Fourth International that pitted Ernest Mandel, a PRT-ERP supporter, against the Socialist Workers Party that supported a group that was closer to us in terms of tactics. I will say a bit more about that after some words about two films that incorporate Gleyzer’s political orientation.
The first of these is a film titled “SWIFT” that documents the kidnapping of Stanley Sylvester, who was both an English diplomat and the manager of a meat processing factory that was part of the multinational known to Americans as a purveyor of unseemly canned meats. In Argentina, the Swift slaughterhouses were notorious for unsafe working conditions, low pay and utter disregard for workers rights. After the company agreed to the PRT-ERP’s terms, Sylvester was released and workers received packages of salt, cooking oil, blankets and other goods worth 25 million pesos. This 12-minute documentary encapsulates the outlook of not only the PRT-ERP but many urban guerrilla groups that flourished in the 1970s.
In 1973, Gleyzer made “Traitors”, his first and last narrative film. Like “A Frozen Revolution”, it is a fully developed and mature work that was made under difficult circumstances. When he was in Mexico, he had to keep his filming a secret since the government would have never permitted a film hostile to the PRI to be made. Even though Argentina was nominally a democracy in 1973, the Perónist government would have put obstacles in the way of a film that took aim the rotten trade union bureaucracy that supported President Héctor José Cámpora, a long-time Perónist. Like Argentina, the PRI had co-opted the trade union leadership into supporting a system that favored the rich. It was no wonder that Argentina refused to screen “A Frozen Revolution” since it would clearly be understood as a critique of Perónism as well.
Like “Citizen Kane”, “Traitors” is a study of one man’s degeneration. While Welles was interested in how the rich can become monsters, Gleyzer’s attention was riveted on a trade union bureaucrat named Barrera who became a monster in the service of the rich men who used him to keep a lid on working class resistance. When he is meeting with a factory owner about how to get workers to accept 70 percent of the wage hike they sought in negotiations, Barrera proposes that if he gets 10 percent of the 30 percent that is being denied to them, he will figure out a way to mollify them. For those who are not happy with the sell-out, including a class-conscious worker who denounces Barrera to his face, there is always a goon squad to beat them into submission or in this instance to death.
Toward the end of the film, there are clear references to PRT-ERP strategy and tactics. The workers begin organizing guerrilla squads that will oppose both the bosses and the bureaucracy. In the final moment of the film, a band of armed workers crashes Barrera’s office and guns him down. If I could get my hands on a time-machine, I’d travel back to 1973 and talk Gleyzer into a different ending since this ultraleftist scene would likely persuade some people unsure about the bona fides of the various armed groups to turn against them.
In effect, that was what I was trying to do back in 1973 during debates in the Houston branch where 40 percent of the membership were PRT-ERP supporters. To strengthen support for the SWP in Argentina that supposedly was close to us politically, we invited their presidential candidate Juan Carlos Coral to tour the country. When he arrived in Houston, I picked him up at the airport where he attached a false mustache over his lips. If this sounds a bit like a cheap spy novel, keep in mind that I also had to check my Dodge Dart for a bomb each time we drove somewhere for a speaking engagement. If the French police were willing to team up with some goons from Argentina to assassinate a PRT-ERP member in a Paris police station, it was clear that they were just as contemptuous of human rights as the Saudis.
After a few months, Cámpora stepped down and allowed Juan Perón to become President. Ill with cancer, he died a year later to be replaced by his wife Isabel who was overthrown in a coup led by General Jorge Videla in 1976. Like Pinochet, Videla was a bloody dictator who had no mercy for the left, whether it was urban guerrillas or honest trade union militants. In this period, if the death squads organized by the state were not enough to kill you, there were always rightwing Perónists to do the job. When Perón returned from his exile in Spain in 1973, there was a huge rally of leftist supporters at the Ezeiza International Airport in Buenos Aires, Argentina that was attacked by rightwing Perónists who killed 13 people and wounded another 365 with automatic weapons.
Héctor Cámpora represented the main left-wing Perónist while Perón’s personal secretary José López Rega represented the right. López Rega would found the Alianza Anticomunista Argentina, a terrorist gang. After Videla stepped down in 1981, he would be succeeded by rightist Perónist Carlos Menem and then by the Kirchners, who were latter-day versions of the leftist Cámpora.
Are countries like Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela condemned to repeat Sisyphus-like cycles of left reformist governments caving into rightwing oligarchies? Back in 1973, I was positive that the SWP in Argentina was destined to become the leader of a revolution just as I was sure that our own party would become the vanguard of a revolution by 1990 at least. Led by Nahuel Moreno, the Argentine SWP would eventually fragment into 25 different sects and my own group would decrease by 80 percent between 1973 and today.
Our mistake was not in hijacking trucks or setting off bombs in PRT-ERP or Weatherman style. It was in self-anointing ourselves as the saviors of humanity based on our superior understanding of Lenin and Trotsky. Those with savior complexes tend to alienate normal people and it will require millions of normal people to make a revolution.
It is difficult to predict what will happen next in Latin America. But it is not difficult for me to promise you that Raymundo Gleyzer’s films will make you more far-sighted. He was a great filmmaker and his martyrdom at an early age is just as tragic in its own way as that of Che Guevara’s.