I have Eduardo Galeano to thank for helping my partner and me fall in love. His books were the subject of our first serious, in-depth conversations. So it is with an especially heavy heart that I’ve been reflecting on Galeano’s legacy, after word came yesterday that the 74-year-old writer had died from cancer.
My wife is an exile from Chile. Her parents were part of the revolutionary movement and had to flee soon after the 1973 coup against the democratic, socialist government of Salvador Allende. As a young girl, she remembers asking her mother why some of their books, including Galeano’s classic Open Veins of Latin America, were dirty and in poor condition. Her mother explained that they were forced to bury their books in the yard, because during those years the military regime regularly confiscated and even burned them.
Galeano, a precocious talent who started his career as a teenaged journalist in his home country of Uruguay, was a towering figure in Latin American literature and politics. It’s hard to overstate his influence. As Tariq Ali put it, “What Bolivar sought to accomplish with sword, Galeano did with his pen.” He never quite achieved the same universal fame and recognition as Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez, but Galeano had an unsurpassed influence on the politics of several generations of politicians and activists in Latin America.
To those unfamiliar with the region’s politics, culture and rhetoric, his prose could seem idiosyncratic or even over the top —sometimes, for example, he reeled off entire paragraphs of aphorisms or humourous, semi-absurd comparisons. His style had few analogues. Among contemporary writers, the political essays of Arundhati Roy sometimes come close, and the witty but scathing denunciations of injustice found in the work of Cherokee author Thomas King sometimes feel Galeano-ish. (This will be a much better world if King’s The Inconvenient Indian attains anything near the influence in North America as Open Veins achieved in the South.)
The content and form of Galeano's writing came from a deep appreciation of his region’s history and its determined resistance movements. He never tired of vividly describing the cruelty of imperialism and colonialism, but his hope in the regeneration of the forces fighting for justice was always at least implicit. Despite the indignation and fury with which he described these atrocities, his prose always conveyed something like optimism. For Galeano, every crime contained the seeds of its undoing. He liked to relate the last words of Indigenous resistance leader Tupac Katari, who died leading a rebellion against the Spanish in what is now Bolivia. Before he was executed, Katari said, “When I return I will be millions.”
Galeano was at his most prolific at a time when hope was hard to find, during the years of dictatorship and U.S.-backed death squads in the 1970s and ’80s. In a remarkable passage concluding an updated edition of Open Veins in 1978, Galeano predicted the fall of the Pinochet regime and other Southern Cone dictatorships years before they were dismantled.
“The limitless popular imagination keeps hatching new forms of struggle . . . and solidarity finds new channels for escape from fear. Numerous unanimous strikes occurred in Argentina through 1977, when fear of losing one’s life was as real as the risk of losing one’s job. A stroke of the pen can’t destroy the power of the response of an organized working class with a long fighting tradition . . . The system has its paradigm in the immutable society of ants. For that reason it accords ill with the history of humankind, because that is always changing. And because in the history of humankind every act of destruction meets its response, sooner or later, in an act of creation.”
In 1978, ten years before the plebiscite that would defeat Pinochet, and still a year before the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, many would have seen such hopeful talk as Pollyanna naivety. But recent Latin American history has indeed seen the multiplication of acts of creation. Generations of politicians and activists who grew up reading Galeano now hold office in left or centre-left governments, or lead powerful social movements. Images of Tupac Katari now hang on the walls of the presidential palace occupied by Evo Morales, the Indigenous president of Bolivia.
The sea change in the politics of the Americas was brought home by the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who in 2009 theatrically gifted U.S. President Obama with a copy of Open Veins in front of the cameras at a Summit of the Americas meeting in Trinidad. In just one day, the book shot up the Amazon.com bestseller list from 54,295th to sixth place.
By the time of Chavez’s well-executed stunt, the hemispheric contagion of socialism, or at least leftism of various shades, which the United States and its allies had worked so viciously to contain to the island of Cuba, had spread throughout South and Central America. Galeano, as the foremost popularizer of radical ideas, played a big part in helping the Latin American left go viral. Just last week Obama sat down with Raul Castro, signalling the beginning of a new relationship with Cuba and a recognition that Latin America is no longer just a backyard for Uncle Sam to trample.
Eduardo Galeano used his craft as a writer to convey basic principles of social justice with wisdom and compassion, not just denunciation. He hated sterile sloganeering, and was nobody’s apparatchik. His honest assessment of Cuba, in fact, written in 2003, annoyed or angered many on the Latin American left.
My partner and I frequently talked about bringing Galeano to speak in Vancouver. We never quite pulled it off. Two years ago, we came close. His tour organizer e-mailed us the bad news: “I am really heartsick to be writing this email, but as you may have heard, Eduardo was ill last fall. He is recovering nicely, but he has to take it slow, and will sadly have to miss Vancouver and Seattle. He was so looking forward to coming to Vancouver as he has never been there and he has heard how beautiful it is."
A few months later, we decided to incorporate some of Eduardo Galeano’s words into our wedding ceremony. It seemed like the least we could do. We chose a passage from his prose poem “The Right to Dream”:
The United Nations has proclaimed long lists of human rights, but the immense majority of humanity enjoys only the rights to see, hear and remain silent. Suppose we start by exercising the never-proclaimed right to dream? Let's set our sights beyond the abominations of today to divine another possible world:
In the streets, cars shall be run over by dogs;
People shall work for a living instead of living for work;
Written into law shall be the crime of stupidity, committed by those who live to have or to win, instead of living just to live like the bird that sings without knowing it and the child who plays unaware that he or she is playing;
In no country shall young men who refuse to go to war go to jail, rather only those who want to make war;
Economists shall not measure living standards by consumption levels or the quality of life by the quantity of things;
Politicians shall not believe that the poor love to eat promises;
No one shall be considered a hero or a fool for doing what he believes is right instead of what serves him best;
The world shall wage war not on the poor but rather on poverty, and the arms industry shall have no alternative but to declare bankruptcy;
Street children shall not be treated like garbage, because there shall be no street children;
The Church shall proclaim another commandment, the one God forgot: You shall love nature, to which you belong;
The despairing shall be paired and the lost shall be found, for they are the ones who despaired and lost their way from so much lonely seeking;
We shall be compatriots and contemporaries for all who have a yearning for justice and beauty, no matter where they were born or where they lived, because the borders of geography and time shall cease to exist.
Eduardo Galeano, presente! Ahora y siempre.