(Photograph by Carlos Caillabet, 2003)
Fernando [Zapicán] (1924-2005),
revolutionary and historian of anarchism in Uruguay, was born on
15 September 1924 in Mercedes, capital of the Department of
Soriano, Uruguay, the eldest son of Fernando O’Neill Parada
(1890-1976) and his wife, Aurora Cuestas Acosta (1897-1977). O’Neill’s first known ancestor in Uruguay on
his father’s side is his grandfather, Daniel O’Neill. Daniel
O’Neill, an Irish immigrant and non-practising Catholic, settled
in the countryside of the Department of Flores around 1870.
There he married a Spanish-Uruguayan, Rosa Parada, and the
couple had eleven children. The second youngest, Fernando
O’Neill Parada, worked as an estancia foreman
before becoming a landowner and attaining a comfortable economic
position in Soriano. Fernando O’Neill Parada married a woman
from Mercedes, Aurora Cuestas Acosta, with whom he
had four children: Fernando (1924-2005), Amanda (1927-2003),
Jorge (1929-1999), and finally, Teresa (b.1934), a piano teacher
living in the city of Paysandú.
O’Neill Cuestas, nicknamed Zapicán since his early years, attended
primary school in the Salesian College of San Miguel de Mercedes
and received a Catholic education, which he later renounced. Of
a rebellious character, he did not complete his secondary
education as he was expelled from school for bad behaviour. Many
of O’Neill’s relations were involved in violent incidents; an
uncle on his mother’s side was stabbed to death in a dispute
with a neighbour, two uncles on his father’s side committed
murder and a third was killed in the battle of Tupambaé (24 June
1904) during the last Uruguayan civil war. Before reaching the
age of twenty, O’Neill was involved in many knife fights in
Mercedes, earning him fame as a man of arms from a young age. In
the course of various confrontations and in defence of what he
considered family honour, O’Neill killed one person and gravely
injured two. Convicted of murder and grievous harm, he was
incarcerated in Miguelete Prison, and subsequently in Punta
acknowledged that before serving time in Miguelete Prison, he
had had little interest in political activism and that his life
'was that of a middle-class boy who felt a deep rejection of, or
indifference to, the moral values of his class: economic
success, attainment of a respected position in society and a
university profession' (O’Neill 1993: 57). In Miguelete Prison,
the Catalonian anarchist Pedro Boadas Rivas developed a
friendship with O’Neill. Boadas, together with other active
anarchists, served a sentence for various attacks, murders and
armed robberies, among them that of Cambio Messina in 1928 in
Montevideo. This group was recaptured subsequent to undertaking
a bold escape in 1931, led by Argentine anarchist Miguel
Arcángel Roscigna and Italian anarchist Gino Gatti. The group
had escaped through a tunnel leading to Carbonería El Buen Trato,
a coalyard situated opposite the penitenciary. On foot of
conversations with these anarchists and reading the books with
which they provided him, O’Neill adopted a libertarian ideology
and supported direct action as a method of political agitation.
This was despite the fact that during that era in Uruguay,
anarcho-syndicalism - a movement pursuing industrial actions,
especially the general strike - predominated over active
1952, O’Neill joined the ranks of Libertarian Youth in
Montevideo. That same year he published a 48-page pamphlet
entitled Un ex penado habla (An ex-prisoner
speaks) in which he denounced the terrible treatment
meted out to prisoners in Uruguayan prisons. He further accused
the police and political authorities of committing acts of
corruption. The pamphlet, which was widely distributed, provoked
a debate in the press. O’Neill’s accusations landed him with a
lawsuit for defamation and slander.
years, O’Neill went to live with his family, who in 1951 had
settled on rented land about fifteen kilometres from the city of
Paysandú. There he cultivated sugar beet and established
contacts with a group of independent leftist intellectuals,
whose principal reference was Carlos Quijano (1900-1984), lawyer
and founder-director of the Uruguayan weekly paper "Marcha".
Montevideo in 1956, O’Neill participated in ten days of debate
culminating in the foundation of the Uruguayan Anarchist
Federation (FAU). Catalan anarchist refugees from the Spanish
revolution (1936-1939) and some Argentine active anarchists had
a particular impact on this organisation. The Uruguayan
anarchists who had founded the Community of the South in 1955
did not join the FAU. They set up a printing press and moved to
the outskirts of Montevideo, where they dedicated themselves to
working the land on a communal basis. Others, dubbed orthodox or
pure anarchists, similarly refused to join the FAU as they
opposed an organisation which required obedience to leaders.
O’Neill, despite voicing his dissatisfaction with the lack of
clear and concrete political projects on the part of the FAU,
remained within its organic structure until 1968.
his methodical character and his passion for books, between 1965
and 1967 the FAU entrusted O’Neill with sorting and categorising
the International Anarchist Library Archive with headquarters in
Montevideo. This undertaking had been commenced by the Romanian
Eugen Relgis (1895-1987), an anarchist and pacifist intellectual
taking refuge in Uruguay. At the same time, O’Neill worked in a
union with an anarcho-syndicalist slant, centred around the
workers of FUNSA, a Uruguayan tyre factory. During this period,
he established close relations with some of the most prominent
libertarian activists of the era: brothers Gerardo and Mauricio
Gatti, Carlos Mechoso and Ruben Barcos, among others.
of the Cuban revolution and the subsequent ideological and
political declarations of its leaders provoked divisions in the
Uruguayan anarchist movement, despite the fact that all of those
involved supported some of the political measures adopted by the
Cubans, such as agrarian reform. In 1968 O’Neill found it
contradictory to consider himself an anarchist and at the same
time to support the Cuban revolution. The revolution was defined
as Marxist-Leninist and had embarked upon a process to
consolidate a State sought to combat all forms of opposition.
anarchist doctrine negates the existence of the State whether it
be capitalist or socialist and the FAU proclaimed that 'its
fundamental political aim is the destruction of the State in the
form of institutional political domination, as well as the
suppression of governmental forms of power' (FAU 1986: 18).
For this reason, and because the anarchists’ aims seemed to him
confused, O’Neill decided to distance himself from the FAU. In
1968 he approached the Tupamaros National Liberation Front (MNL),
an urban guerrilla organisation founded in 1966. The
organisation was initially intended as a form of resistance to
the repressive excesses of political power and to the threat of
a coup d’état.
Tupamaros, a revolutionary leftist organisation, predominantly
comprised middle-class activists with university education.
O’Neill felt comfortable within this organisation in spite of
the fact that distancing himself from his old comrades in the
FAU had produced a conflict of loyalties that plagued him
throughout his life. O’Neill participated in Tupamaro activism
such as bank robberies, and worked for the information service
of that organisation. Despite being detained by the police in
1969 and confined to a barracks, his connections with the
Tupamaros could not be proven and he was released after a few
faced with a military offensive against the Tupamaros, O’Neill
decided to move to Chile, carrying a letter of recommendation
from the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano addressed to the then
socialist president Salvador Allende. When general Augusto
Pinochet staged a military coup on 11 September 1973 and
overthrew Allende, O’Neill managed to obtain refuge in the
Argentine embassy and was moved to that country in January 1974.
O’Neill settled in Buenos Aires but did not participate in
Argentine guerrilla movements. His intention was to enter
Uruguayan territory via the north coast, but he desisted when he
learned that his name was included in the list of people
persecuted by the Argentine-Uruguayan paramilitary commandos
which operated in that city. When a number of his companions
were kidnapped and 'disappeared', O’Neill took refuge in the
Swedish embassy in November 1974. In December of that year he
arrived in Sweden as a political exile and settled in Stockholm.
O’Neill repeatedly planned to return to Uruguay in secret to
join the resistance movement against the dictatorship in power
in Uruguay since the coup d’état of 27 June 1973. Nevertheless,
his attempts to return failed because of practical impediments
and the defection of some of the exiles who accompanied him.
O’Neill then concentrated on becoming active in campaigning for
the release of Uruguayan political prisoners and denouncing his
conditions in prison. In 1982 he moved to Spain. In Madrid
O’Neill sold toys, and later in Málaga he sold refreshments on
the beach. There he contacted anarcho-syndicalist elements and
initiated and collaborated enthusiastically in the first stage
of the publication of the Rojo y Negro newspaper. 'O’Neill was a
person much loved by the CNT activists of those years in
the city of Málaga, where he left his mark and was exemplary for
his honesty' (Peña 2005). In 1984 O’Neill travelled to
Portugal. In Lisbon he made the acquaintance of Otelo Saraiva de
Carvalho, one of the leaders of the Claveles Rojos’ revolution
of 1974, and engaged in activities for this movement.
Uruguay recovered its democratic institutions and in mid-1986,
O’Neill returned to his native country, settling in the
Montevideo district of Cerro. There he re-established relations
with members of the Tupamaro movement and FAU activists,
organisations which had been legalised by the government chosen
in the national elections of November 1984. In Cerro, O’Neill
organised a residents’ civil defence movement to combat
delinquency in the district, for which he was questioned by his
anarchist companions. Distanced from them, in 1997, he settled
in Paysandú, where he gradually abandoned political activism,
but supported the leftist coalition of Frente Amplio, which
triumphed in the 2004 elections.
He wrote and
ex penado habla (Montevideo: author's edition, 1952), Anarquistas de acción en
Recortes, 1993); El caso Pardeiro: un ajusticiamiento
anarquista (Montevideo: Testimonio, 2001) and Búsqueda y
(Montevideo: Fin de Siglo, 2004).
a particularly slim man and his friends gave him the nickname
“Finito” (Little Thin Man). He was a kind and formal person,
methodical in the extreme and possessing incisive reasoning.
O’Neill was a compulsive reader, an autodidact who searched
tirelessly and in vain for responses to the ambiguity of the
human condition. During the closing years of his life, O’Neill
concluded that humanity was still not mature enough to generate
just and peaceful societies and he disavowed totalitarian world
In his last
testament Fernando O’Neill stipulated that religious symbols
should not be used during his wake, that any feelings of sadness
should be avoided and that those attending should take their
leave of him simply as a departing friend.
(translation, Claire Healy)
Carlos, "Los laberintos de un militante" in Semanario
Brecha N° 1038, p. 26 (Montevideo, 7 October 2005).
muerte del viejo O’Neill" in Semanario Brecha N° 1039,
p.10 (Montevideo, 14 October 2005).
Retratos con historias (Montevideo: Ediciones
del Sur, Primera Conferencia Anarquista
pronunciamientos, acuerdos, recomendaciones, declaraciones
(Montevideo: Edición de Comunidad del Sur, 1957).
Anarquista Uruguaya, Declaración de Principios
(Montevideo: Recortes, 1986).
Virginia, Ácratas, documentary in Beta SP, 73 minutes (Montevideo,
2000). Includes interviews with Fernando O'Neill and other
historians of anarchism in the River Plate.
Juan Carlos, Acción directa anarquista, una historia de FAU
(Montevideo: Recortes, 2002?).
Fernando, Anarquistas de acción en Montevideo 1927-1937
(Montevideo: Recortes, 1993).
Carlos, Rojo y Negro (Digital,