Cover image by Peter Henshaw.
All other photos courtesy of the author.
In the Pampas, the vast prairies of southern Latin America, there’s a tale that stretches back to colonial times: the legend of the luz mala, or the bad light. It appears just above the ground, in the hills, or in the sky, a foreboding and spectral fireball of fluorescent white, red, blue, or green that follows solitary travelers. In some versions, a white light represents good luck, while the green- or red-shaded luces will chase unfortunate gauchos to their death, cursing any survivors with a lifetime of bad luck and eventual doom.
The gaucho settlers of the colonial period believed the lights were the spirits of indigenous tribes they or their recent ancestors had slaughtered. This was a reasonable enough account for the time and place, envisioning a supernatural netherworld inhabited by the angels and demons of unknown thousands of native peoples. It wasn’t until the enlightened twentieth century that a new explanation was found. During World War II, U.S. Air Force pilots reported seeing similar bulbs of light appearing near their planes, just outside their cockpits. Post-war bomber pilot Kenneth Arnold claimed he saw nine half-moon shaped flat discs flying alongside him near Mt. Rainier. A couple weeks later, an Army base outside of Roswell, New Mexico issued a press release stating that they had recovered one of the crashed aircraft, ubiquitously known as “flying saucers.” Finally the ancient tales of vengeful native spirits could be put to rest—the bad lights were nothing more than extraterrestrial pilots.
This brief government confirmation of the flying saucer phenomenon rapidly spread the globe. Flaps of UFO sightings and close encounters followed in dozens of countries. As he read about the Roswell incident in a café in Buenos Aires, Dante Minazzoli, leader of the small Trotskyist party the Partido Obrero Revolucionario (Trotskista), said to his comrades, “To me, these are aliens.” That moment marked the genesis of a bizarre yet illuminating footnote in leftist history that led me to the mountain village of Capilla del Monte, known as Argentina’s Area 51. I was in South America conducting research for a project about Minazzoli’s party, which came to form the foundation of the Posadist Fourth International, and its leader, the now-infamous J. Posadas.
Born Homero Cristalli, Posadas was the son of immigrant cobblers from the impoverished south of Italy. He was brought up in the militant working class of Buenos Aires and he entered the Trotskyist movement in the 30’s as one of the sole workers among bohemian intellectuals. In the 40’s and 50’s he combined street cred and supernatural charisma to climb the ranks of the Fourth International, eventually becoming leader of the Latin American Bureau (BLA). But despite his competence as an organizer, the European leadership of the International saw Posadas as a simpleton and deflected his 1960 play for leadership.
Over the next two years, Posadas split the BLA and founded his own International, in which his more idiosyncratic ideas could advance unfettered. Dante Minazzoli was sent to Rome in 1962 to build the International’s European section. There, he found dozens of young recruits who agreed with Posadas that a nuclear war should be immediately initiated in the name of ending imperialism. As Minazzoli gained more authority within the organization, he pushed his belief that UFO phenomena proved that an advanced alien species was visiting Earth. From a Marxist perspective, he argued that any advanced civilization that visited our planet would surely help rectify the barbarous conditions of our own. Maybe they wouldn’t be red-flag-waving revolutionary socialists, but they would certainly not be malicious invaders, and the technology that allowed them interstellar travel would be enough to liberate all humans from scarcity.
This argument was convincing enough to Posadas that he published an essay on the subject in 1968, entitled “Flying saucers, the process of matter and energy, science, the revolutionary and working-class struggle and the socialist future of mankind.” In it, he argued: “We must unite with them, they who seem more powerful than human beings, such that they will come and help us resolve Earth’s problems.” These concepts were already in the ether. A number of ufologists held similar beliefs, as did Carl Sagan and the writers of Star Trek. But the essay made Posadas, already a marginal figure after a catastrophic loss in a Guatemalan guerrilla war and a falling out with Fidel Castro, a laughingstock amongst his fellow socialists. Although he never wrote about extraterrestrials again, the Posadist tendency has never lived down its reputation as a “socialist UFO cult.”
Since Posadas’s death in relative obscurity in 1981, that notoriety has shifted from sectarian condemnation into (largely ironic) admiration. In June 2017, a friend and I gave a presentation about Posadas at New York’s Left Forum. Perhaps the largest yearly gathering of the U.S. left, the Forum has earned a reputation for attracting marginal Bolshevik groupuscules and deep-state conspiracy theorists of all stripes. My friend, who calls himself Comrade Communicator of the Intergalactic Workers’ League – Posadist, had the idea of satirizing the Forum with a talk about the need to “seize the means of detection,” sabotaging the apocalypse bunkers of the elite, and establishing communication with dolphins to “return to the aquatic origins” of our species.
Any advanced civilization that visited our planet would surely help rectify the barbarous conditions of our own. Maybe they wouldn’t be red-flag-waving revolutionary socialists, but their technology would liberate all humans from scarcity.
Compared to the notorious in-fighting for which the Forum is known [that year involving antisemitic 9/11 truthers and “trans-exclusionary radical feminists” (TERFs) obsessed with marginalizing trans women], our bullshit was a breath of fresh air, becoming one of its most anticipated non-headlining panels. It did, however, draw some controversy. One commenter was offended by the Facebook event image: the iconic line of Marxist leaders, topped with an extraterrestrial Grey. The commenter took issue with an event advertising itself with “only men,” to which Comrade Communicator gleefully replied that the society of the Greys is completely egalitarian and lacks gender entirely.
I attempted to write my own science-fiction narrative of the movement’s history for the presentation, but found the truth far more intriguing. I used Posadas’s Flying Saucers essay to compare narratives wherein aliens are depicted as hostile invaders (e.g., Independence Day) with right-wing anti-immigrant propaganda like Camp of the Saints. The aliens in Posadas’s essay represented several Others from which the masses are alienated—other humans sequestered by class, gender, race, nationality, walled off from the products of their own labor and any hope of a collective vision of a better future. Among the attendees of the Forum was a well-known writer on marginal left subjects who didn’t care for the satirical aspect of the panel but encouraged me to adapt my presentation into a book.
For the next year I dug through archives in Europe, the United States, and Latin America searching for the truth of this movement’s history and its ironic rebirth. Through a scholar of Argentinian socialism I made contact with an ex-Posadist in Cordoba, an 80-year-old Trotskyist who talked to me in Spanish for six hours straight about workers’ states, the colonial revolution, and the auto strikes of Cordoba in the ‘60s—but nothing about UFOs. I had the next two days open, so I took a three-hour bus ride into the mountains, to Capilla del Monte, a place many told me was South America’s Roswell. In 1986 a UFO was said to land on Uriturco, the mountain overlooking the town, leaving inexplicably indelible burn marks. As the story spread, visitors came to seek out the spot, many returning home with reports of lights in the clear sky at night. It became a popular weekend trip for tourists hoping to see some strange lights of their own. By the 2000s, kitschy alien-themed tourist shops lined the town’s main street and a yearly alien-themed cultural festival had begun; it still attracts thousands of believers and revelers.
Unlike Roswell and Area 51, Capilla del Monte’s story is more metaphysical than conspiratorial. Perhaps as a result of the area’s long history with the luces malas, the prevailing interpretation of the ET visitation has taken on an even more esoteric and bizarre character. As the story goes, Uriturco is a gateway to an underground civilization whose otherwise invisible inhabitants occasionally appear as the fluorescent wisps. Accordingly, a number of New Age cults have cropped up, offering meditation, yoga, and psychedelic rituals for visitors who want to see the lights and enter the mountain—spiritually, of course.
Dante Minazzoli, the Trotskyist leader, also believed that humanity would need to undergo a process of self-actualization, first becoming “fully human” and achieving cosmic consciousnesses, before making contact with the space comrades. His Marxist ufology was far more marginal, however, than its reactionary counterparts. The legend of Uriturco has far more in common with the theories of Miguel Serrano—a Chilean neo-Nazi who wrote a book popular in Argentina postulating that Hitler and the Nazis had not been defeated, but merely escaped into the hollow Earth through a portal in Patagonia. A rash of Argentinian UFO sightings in the late forties indicated the presence of a saucer-equipped Luftwaffe, he argued. Despite the outlandishness of his “esoteric Hitlerism,” (which combined South American spiritism, Hindu mythology, and Cold War-era parapolitics), his devotion to Nazism was influential among the supporters and agents of Chile’s Pinochet regime and Argentina’s Anti-Communist Alliance.
Were Capilla del Monte’s UFO communes and hippie visitors closer to Posadists, Serranoists, or just acid casualties? In my short stay I was unable to interview them. It was a quiet week in Capilla, towards the end of the Argentinian summer, and my cultist contacts were elsewhere. I checked into the kitschiest alien-themed hostel I could find. It was vacant except for its apparently sole employee—a young guy, about my age, who spoke no English. I took a bed in an empty dorm room, and, it being too late in the day to hike, grabbed a bottle of fernet to drink on the terrace. The hostel-keeper came out and we had a brief chat about my trip. I asked about hiking, UFOs and such. He said Uriturco was fine, but urged me to hike a different trail towards a hydroelectric dam. I asked where he was from. “CABA,” he said, the Capital Area of Buenos Aires. I noticed an “Oi!” tattoo on his arm and complimented it, but something stopped me before I could ask if he was aware of the antifascist skinhead space in Buenos Aires where I had recently attended a punk show. I saw then that an unmistakably white supremacist variety of the Celtic cross was inked on his leg. He noticed that I noticed. The conversation halted. “Ciao,” I said, and retreated to my room.
Argentinian nationalism has long been intertwined with white supremacy and fascism. Even after its Bolivarian revolution, when the country became independent from Spain and abolished slavery, its nationalist movement provided a stream of mercenaries for endless genocidal ethnic cleansing campaigns against indigenous people. The European working class that replaced the native peoples radicalized rapidly between 1890 and 1910, forming a powerful anarcho-communist movement that pushed the country to brink of revolution in 1919. That upheaval (one of Posadas’s earliest memories) was crushed in a wave of nationalist repression, culminating in the anti-Jewish pogroms of the Semana Trágica. A decade later came the coup of Colonel Felix Uriburu, then the pro-Axis coup in 1943 that would introduce the country to its great third-positionist patriarch, Juan Domingo Perón. Perón never embraced antisemitism like other conservative revolutionaries, but that didn’t stop him from taking money from the Third Reich to provide a safe haven to thousands of former Nazis. La Falda, a town between Cordoba and Capilla del Monte, even has a hotel that was designed specifically for the führer, should he ever need refuge. Still in operation, it unapologetically uses its fascist history to attract business.
Still, I tried not to jump to conclusions. I carefully searched the common area for any other indication of politics—finding only the typical hostel décor of Tibetan flags, photos of South American indigenous sites, a goofy UFO-themed mural. The hostel-keeper’s tattoo could have been a senseless product of the hooligan culture of Argentina’s true national ideology—soccer. Or perhaps he’d left that life behind and run away to the sleepy mountain village. Any story would do to keep me away from confrontation for the next twelve hours of my stay, where my closest ally was an octogenarian Trotskyist a hundred kilometers away.
The pretense of modernity rests on the abolition of myths and superstition, a “disenchantment of the world,” a new society built from rational blueprints.
This was the second time on the trip my UFO interest had put me in an awkward spot. In Montevideo, where I was able to visit the secretary of one of the last remaining Posadist parties, I stayed at bed-and-breakfast operated by an employee of the national theater. I told him about my project, and he told me he was a believer. His brother, he said, was a victim of the luz mala. It had happened when his brother was very young, riding his horse home through the Pampas one night. The light chased him, and although he escaped, he was never the same afterwards. He tried to put the event behind him, but true to the tradition, he was cursed, and took his own life in his twenties. The surviving brother was certain that reality was not what it seemed, subscribing to what I gathered to be a David Icke-inspired theory that the elite were interdimensional demons. They were not aliens, he clarified, whom he believed to be a sympathetic element in a cosmic hierarchy with advanced conceptions of order and justice. Earth’s ruling class were instead terrestrial bloodsuckers, perhaps from some crevice of the hollow Earth, who have reduced the fate of Latin America to its finances, the future of 700 million people yoked to the strength of their currency against the dollar.
A theory so ludicrous on its face becomes more understandable in light of the horrors to which the world’s rulers, Latin American and Western alike, have subjected the global South. The elite who run this world do so for their own purposes. They are cruel, even inhuman, metaphorically speaking. The bosses, aristocrats, gangsters, and warlords have achieved rank in an absurd hierarchy, tacitly accepted but deeply illegitimate, that could collapse if prodded with enough collective force from its lower rungs. But I dropped the conversation, in the interest of avoiding a negative guest reference labeling me as a reptilian agent.
Here in the United States, we have felt threatened by our own technological inferiority perhaps only once in the latter half of the 20th century: the period between the launch of Sputnik in 1958 and the moon landing in 1969. But that superiority has also come with a dialectical paranoia. Do we deserve this power? What happens if we lose it? The UFO phenomena, which at the time were believed by many to be clandestine and vastly superior Soviet aircraft, have always been threatening to the exceptionalism of humanism, nationalism, private property, and anthropocentrism.
In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer describe how the pretense of modernity rests on the abolition of myths and superstition, a “disenchantment of the world,” a new society built from rational blueprints. For example, scientists say the luces malas are caused by the oxidation of phosphine and methane, which occurs naturally during organic decay. Though they can be explained away by science, the luces malas represent a far more potent force in the local culture: either a malicious spiritual energy that should be avoided at all costs, or, as in the extraterrestrial theories of their origins, a chance to redeem the horrors of the past by starting anew. Adorno and Horkheimer argue that, similarly, modernity purports to wield objectivity and foists upon us mythic pretenses of total knowledge while sublimating the mythical and irrational assumptions that are required to organize every institution, structure, and desire around capitalist production.
Both the paranormal UFO phenomenon and Latin American Trotskyism are based on subversive premises with which I (along with many young socialists) broadly agree—that the vast potential of social, scientific, and technological truth is being constrained for the benefit of the rulers of the current order instead of benefiting humanity at large. Ordinary people can uncover these hidden truths and take matters into their own hands. Yet both became dominated with fantasies of an objective force arriving from the blue to do that heavy lifting on the masses’ behalf. Flying saucers were little different than the Red Army tanks that streamed into Prague in the Spring of 1968—machines that, however fearsome, were there to liberate humanity from itself. Now that the Soviet Union has been devoured by capitalism and ufology is in the hands of New Age-y entrepreneurs, it’s hard to understand why anyone believed in a better world, a better future, or even, awful as we are, something elsewhere better than ourselves. The tragedy of my generation is that we want to believe in something different, but can’t.
I made my way to Uriturco at dawn, dropping my room key at the front desk while the tattooed hostel-keeper slept on the lobby’s couch. I had the hike to myself. Taking my time, I ambled up a dirt path that cut through dusty rocks and dry tall grasses and opened onto a vista of mountainous summits. It was noon by the time I descended. Back in Capilla del Monte, dusty and sweaty, I bought a bottle of fernet at a Chinese grocery and napped in the shade of the UFO statue in Plaza San Martín. I still had hours to go until the overnight bus left for Buenos Aires. The welcoming attitude that the people of Capilla del Monte held towards the local phenomena and those who sought it certainly had a lot to do the influx of tourist dollars, but still—it seemed so far removed from that poisonous fear of the unknown that breeds reactionary politics and forecloses on our future.
By late afternoon, I was ready to admit to myself that I was too hot and filthy to keep bumming around town. I sucked up my pride, went back to the hostel, and asked the Nazi guy if I could return to my room to bathe. He seemed relieved to see me again and led me to the shower. Afterwards I thanked him. He didn’t have to let me in after checkout. Few hostels would. He asked me about the hike. I told him it was fine, not that interesting. It was as if I’d passed a test. “It’s the least interesting hike you can do around here,” he admitted. “Una estafa”—a scam—“por extranjeros”—for tourists, strangers, foreigners, or aliens. ♦
A.M. Gittlitz is an independent writer and paranormal investigator from Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Vice, The Baffler, and Commune Magazine. He co-hosts The Antifada and its spinoff Proletkult podcast. His upcoming book I Want to Believe: Posadism and Leftwing Ufology will be available April 20th, 2020 from Pluto Books. Follow him on Twitter or see more of his work at Gittlitz.space.