Photo via lapoliticaonline.com

Last week, the ghostly name of the “Quebracho” militant group resurfaced to send shivers across the country and pour yet more speculation and rumors surrounding the death of late federal Prosecutor Alberto Nisman into the conspiratorial broth.

Why?

Former spymaster and sinister guy par exellence Antonio “Jaime” Stiuso called into the Intratables show live on air last Wednesday and accused the hard-nationalist, hard-left activist movement of being former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s “henchmen” and also by association of killing Nisman in his apartment last January, a charge they have since denied.

Stiuso also appeared to verbally assault one of the guests — legendary human rights lawyer Luís Moreno Ocampo — because he had said that Stiuso ought to be, perhaps, maybe involved in the ongoing and revitalized investigation into Nisman’s death. In the almost comical, chaotic scenes conjured live on air as a result of the former secret service chief’s phone-call, what might prove to be a never-ending list of questions were raised.

How many shouting panelists are too many shouting panelists? How should you hold a telephone up to a microphone for the best reception while live on air? And who are the Quebracho?

Hints Of Koba, A Rosarino And The PFJ

The Quebracho — that is, the Patriotic Revolutionary Movement Quebracho — are an ultra-nationalist, ultra-left-wing (of the authoritarian, Leninist kind) activist group, who formed in La Plata in 1993, gathering together like-minded radical Peronists and hard leftists alike.

Quebracho flag and activists (look for the keffiyeh headscarves) at a rally in Buenos Aires City. Image via wikipedia

Their leader, Fernando Esteche, who teaches at the University of La Plata, has described the group as “revolutionary patriots.”

Potato, potahto.  

Their first congress was held in 1996 and reportedly attracted 250 people, all-told. No one knows how many revolutionary patriots are now enrolled in official or unofficial capacity, though Esteche has said that they have a presence in 13 provinces and that “between Lanús and La Plata there’s a big presence.” So we’re talking about a group with cells everywhere but focused in Buenos Aires Province. Their previous mobilizations would suggest the 1996 figure has increased.

The era of their formation may go some way in explaining their current militancy. The ’90s were the zenith of what we now call neoliberalism in Argentina. Former President Carlos Menem privatized large swathes of public-owned industries such as the railways (re-nationalized last year by Cristina) and cut billions of dollars from the State budget, implementing various other Friedman-inspired free market reforms in the process which would contribute to the crashing of the national economy come 2001.

Or, as renowned journalist Luis Gasulla said when I asked him about their formation: “The Quebracho have always said they were a social movement and formed in the ’90s under and (against) Menem.”

Consequently, in opposing neoliberal austerity and laissez-faire measures endorsed by Menem, the Quebracho gained fame and/or notoriety depending on one’s sympathies in this context by staging and taking part in a number of drastic and very deliberately visible demonstrations, protests and direct actions in favor of ostensibly left or patriotic causes.

More on those below.

Now as then, as a group they bare out numerous similarities to other fringe radical leftist organizations from the recent past, such as the early Baader-Meinhof group in West Germany, the more active fringe communist parties in Europe or even the group’s own spiritual predecessors, the Montoneros, only without the urban guerrilla machine-gun-toting assassinations and bombings to boot.

Indeed, the Quebracho reflect a Latin American revolutionary spirit in that their ideology is fused with a progressive and militant nationalism in the tradition of the original revolutionaries on the continent like Símon Bolívar et al.

If all this sounds somewhat Chavismo-Bolivarian, it is, though we  should be careful equating Kirchnerism, the Victory Front and the Quebracho as one and the same thing, as repeated Kirchnerite condemnations of their more hardcore antics (see below) would suggest.

As Gasullo pointed out, “they have no formal connections to political parties.” Nevertheless, “the links to Kirchnerism are obvious,” he added, also highlighting the proximity of the movement to the University of La Plata where Cristina plied her trade on the student debate circuit back in the day.

But despite all this, Kirchnerismo and the Quebracho should be treated as different and largely exclusive animals.

While the Kirchnerite FpV prioritzes a social-democracy style incremental route to change via the ballot box, the Quebracho more or less rejects this as even being effective, for example.

It seems from the outside that for many people involved in the movement, enemies of the nation and the revolution are myriad and must be opposed urgently and with direct action. In fact, both above concepts are often smooshed together in a homogenous, “good” whole (the revolutionary-patriotic bit). The defence and promotion of this is the group’s aim.

Esteche has offered up sound-bites and interviews to support this proximity with an inward-looking national revolution, such as when he called on Kirchnerism “to accompany us in the fight against the enemies of the homeland,” after ex-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner rapped the Quebracho’s knuckles after a 2012 march on the UK embassy in Buenos Aires City turned violent.

Quebracho intellectual leader Fernando Esteche. Image via youtube

Combine this with hard-left Bolshevik or even Maoist-inspired revolutionary insurgency and you have a communish fringe movement dreaming of insurrection á la Cuba cerca 1959, only in a democratic, 21st Century State with extensive and popular welfare programs, rather than a neo-feudal fascist dictatorship like that of pre-Castro Cuba.

More specifically, the movement follows in the later Argentine radical left revolutionary tradition in so far as it is inevitably in the orbit of the iconic Latino revolutionary and Rosarino Ernesto “Che” Guevara, whose image often appears (like it does at most social protests here) at their mobilizations.

Then again, despite Guevara’s nationalist interventions like his historic “homeland or death” speech at the United Nations General Assembly in 1964 (a Cuban battlecry adopted by others including the Quebracho, by the way) El Che was an internationalist through and through.

The Quebracho’s insistence on “patriotism” and the nation über alles suggests otherwise, despite examples to the contrary. Their solidarity marches with Islamic fundamentalists Hezbollah during Israel’s brutal invasion of Lebanon in 2006, or with the civilians of Gaza during Israel’s equally ghastly bombardment of Gaza in 2012 pointed to international sympathy with maligned groups or societies.

Their repeated symbolic burning of flags (UK, US, UN) and effigies (Prince William of all people was one) also suggests a rather prickly and perhaps ironic internationalism too.

Certainly a global perspective is part of the movement, but the Quebracho’s nationalist revolutionary ethos takes center stage, even though the somewhat uneasy blending of both suggests a discepancy within their ideology from the usual Stalinist-Trotskyist schism, as Esteche himself readily admits.

“As a movement, we are full of contradictions,” he said previously.

What They Do

The movement is perhaps best known for its demonstrations and other direct protest mobilizations more than anything else.

These have equaled in the past spearheading marches against national embassies where an international enemy needs challenging, or targeting specific places or people in Argentina when it’s an enemy-within type scenario with various tactics which range from flash-mob unannounced protests in television studios all the way through to fun with Molotov cocktails.

The latter tendency i.e. firebombing is probably as serious as it has got for the movement, in fact. In 2007, they attacked a campaign building in Buenos Aires City connected to former conservative figurehead and Neuquén Governor Jorge Sobisch, and succeeded in burning down a significant portion of it.

As a result, three members including Esteche himself received prison sentences, mainly for arson.  It was a peak for their all-important media coverage.

Years later, one of their most high-profile mobilizations of recent times other than the arson attack coincided with the 30th anniversary of the 1982 Malvinas conflict. Relations with the UK were already simmering at the time thanks in part to unrestrained rhetoric from then-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner on the one hand and typical automaton intransigence from London in refusing to even discuss the Malvinas sovereignty issue on the other.

Quebracho activists attempt an assault of the British embassy, 2012. Photo via buenosairesherald.com

As grade-A patriots, the Quebracho are just about as militant as anyone when it comes to the Malvinas Islands and so in this case decided to vent their fury on the largely blameless and benign British embassy, plus the civil civil servants inside.

The Quebracho marched with various Argentine communist outfits to near to the British embassy, suggesting previous claims about their similarities are not entirely unfounded. Once within a few blocks, they were confronted by police and proceeded to battle it out with Molotov cocktails, sticks and stones, clad in their own special uniform of the keffiyeh headscarf variety.

They were roundly condemned for the attack, foremost by Cristina herself — no friend to UK foreign policy over the Malvinas by any stretch of the imagination.

“The existence of these violent groups really catches my attention. They’re not compatible with the idea of democracy,” she said soon after the attack, adding that, “The acts conducted by these kind of groups are only in benefit of interests that have nothing to do with Argentine ideals.”

Splitters?

This example of what the Quebracho do in particular burrows in to the heart of what has repeatedly cast them for others involved in the political process as a complication and difficult addition to the discussion in Argentina.

We hear a lot about “militancy” and “the militants” in discourse about the many social movements operating in Argentina, which add a popular dimension to frustrating institutional politics. But it seems like the Quebracho as a unit underlines the need for greater nuance from commentators when throwing about terms like this, since their own brand of social activism often veers into violent territory rejected by most other progressive activists be they noisy La Cámpora, rising feminist and LGBT movements or the trade unions.

These groups, while militant in their own ways, ought not to be tarred with the same brush, even though many of their aims — from solidarity with oppressed international groups such as the Palestinians to a complete intolerance of the poverty and extreme inequalities of 21st Century Latin America — are shared.

As an outfit, the Quebracho were born under the tradition of university campus radicalism of which the University of La Plata is a symbol. Yet they represent an altogether more uncompromising and aggressive attitude to that same social protest culture which also produced the Kirchners (and eventually the present stronghold of social democratic sentiment in Argentina — the FpV).

Despite the fact that their later tendencies to polarizing rhetoric may have encouraged the Quebracho, FpV officials tried to stay clear of the electorally toxic group as best they could by and large, following Cristina’s lead.

While they were still in government, Kirchner officials like former Security Secretary Nilda Garré spoke impressively on the effect the often-violent manifestations actually had.

“[These] minor political groups turned to violence to win media visibility that they cannot achieve by other means. The decision to antagonize society and create violent situations supports the cause they protest in no way at all,” she said in 2012.

Though it probably won’t bother them in the slightest, the Quebracho up until this point have not won the necessary mass support and consensus among progressives in Argentina surely necessary to achieve the things they would like to see, from widespread poverty reduction to the returning of the Malvinas to Argentine control. The way they have gone about fighting for these goals has so far been too controversial and divisive for that. But they have made one hell of a noise doing so.

As for Stiuso’s claim that they killed Nisman?

They are linked, albeit tenuously, with the Nisman case.  But does Stiuso really have a leg to stand on insinuating that they masterminded the whole thing for Cristina? Not according to Gasullo at any rate.

“I don’t think an organization like the Quebracho has the sort of power to pull off the murder of a national State prosecutor.”

Yes. What he said: It’s more of the same as far as Nisman-case-specific conspiracy theories go. It sounds as implausible as pretty much all of the others.