In June 1966 General Juan Carlos Onganía seized supreme power in Argentina. During the inaugural ceremony Cardinal Caggiano gave his blessing to the military dictator. In the subsequent months General Onganía proceeded to send the troops into the universities purging all leftist, progressive and/or reformist professors. Though Onganía came to power with the tacit support of a substantial sector of the national Peronist trade union bureaucracy, he proceeded violently to repress strikes, intervene unions and jail or fire thousands of trade union militants. Strikes by petroleum, railroad, and port workers were smashed. Government-subsidized functionaries took over the unions.footnote1 Many trade union officials were cowed: the government threatened to seize and take over their substantial real estate holdings and bank accounts. The Secretary-General of the General Confederation of Labour (cgt), Augusto Vandor, and his ‘rival’ Jose Alonso, announced several plans of struggle (plan de lucha), but each time they reached last minute covert agreements with the Government to call off general strikes—without meeting any of the demands of the working class. With the officials of the major trade unions actively collaborating with the military dictatorship and with the rank and file trade union militants hounded by employers and police, the factory owners and the government were able to freeze wages but not profits or prices. us corporations and especially banks moved into Argentine en masse: scores of banks and large industries were ‘de-nationalized’ while ‘unprofitable’ enterprises like the sugar mills of Tucuman were abruptly closed down without compensation or consideration for the thousands of sugar workers thrown out of work. Even their meagre subsistence earnings were lost by the Tucumanos.

These workers of Tucuman were the first to crack the ‘social peace’ imposed by the Onganía dictatorship. Throughout 1967 and 1968 mass marches of hungry unemployed sugar workers became daily occurrences: municipal offices were attacked, the sugar mills were seized, and the old Peronist bureaucrats were replaced by revolutionary socialist and Peronist leaders from the rank and file (peronistas de base). The dictatorship sent in the Army, but social violence beame as routine as its repression. All of Argentina became aware that ‘Tucuman arde’—Tucuman was burning. The confrontation between the workers and the dictatorship was prolonged; but without the support of the trade unions in the great industrial centres the struggle was doomed to failure; the sugar centrales stayed closed. Many unemployed sugar workers migrated to Córdoba or Buenos Aires. However, out of this confrontation between workers and the military, many militants concluded that the masses needed revolutionary armed force; that under conditions of dictatorship there was only one road: the immediate organization of an underground People’s Army linked to the workers’ trade union and revolutionary struggles. Some of the key military cadres of the People’s Revolutionary Army (erp), which emerged in 1969–1970, were former militant leaders of the sugar workers.

Early in 1969, on the surface, it appeared that Onganía had once again regained complete control of the situation: strikes were few and trade union officials were eating out of his hand. Onganía’s law and order was praised by US investors as a model for Latin America. But in one year this scenario was completely destroyed. In May 1969 one of the most massive industrial proletarian uprising in the hemisphere took place in Córdoba; subsequently two participacionistas, union officials who collaborated with the government, were shot; and five major guerilla organizations and innumerable commando groups multiplied the armed actions—disturbing ‘law and order’ on a daily basis.

The Cordobazo—as the Córdoba workers’ uprising of May 1969 is commonly referred to—was a spontaneous explosion of hatred toward the Onganía dictatorship for the decline in wages, the police state repression and the thousand and one indignities that the regime had imposed on the wage and salaried classes. For days the workers took control of their own barrios, setting up barricades and fighting, first the police and then the army. Deaths, injuries and arrests totalled in the thousands and property damage was in the millions (of pesos). An indefinite general strike mobilized massive participation—as has every strike since then (over a dozen). The Cordobazo was followed by major uprisings in Rosario (the third industrial city of Argentine) and on a lesser scale in other cities.

With Onganía’s image of law, order, power and stability severely shaken, the military chieftains met and decided that it was necessary to sacrifice the man to save the system. A new General was called in from Washington. In June of 1970 Marcelo Livingston replaced Juan Carlos Onganía as the military’s choice as ‘President of the Republic’. But changing Generals and making minor concessions to labour demands did not lessen tensions. Three nation-wide general strikes in October and November were totally effective. Nine general strikes in Córdoba—during the first five months of 1971–in which everyone from autoworkers to shoe shine kids downed their tools—were unnerving to the Government. In March 1971 General Livingston appointed a Reagan-type Governor in Córdoba, called Uriburu, the umpteenth Governor appointed in 5 years. In his first major declaration, Uriburu declared that the forces of law and order must cut off the head of the ‘subversive sepent’. Within a week the workers took to the barricades and for 48 hours the streets were in the hands of the people. Córdoba police disappeared, and when ‘law and order’ re-appeared it was in the form of federal police flown in from Buenos Aires.