We spend the hour with one of Latin America’s most acclaimed writers, Eduardo Galeano. The Uruguayan novelist and journalist recently made headlines around the world when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gave President Obama a copy of Galeano’s classic work, The Open Veins of Latin America. Eduardo Galeano’s latest book is Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone. We speak to Galeano about his reaction to the Chavez-Obama book exchange, media and politics in Latin America, his assessment of Obama, and more. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re joined today for the hour by one of Latin America’s most acclaimed writers, Eduardo Galeano. The Uruguayan novelist and journalist made headlines last month when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gave President Barack Obama a copy of one of Galeano’s books during a brief encounter at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent soon shot to near the top of the bestseller list.
Hugo Chavez later told reporters, quote, “This book is a monument in our Latin American history. It allows us to learn history, and we have to build on this history.”
Since its publication in 1971, The Open Veins of Latin America has sold over a million copies worldwide, despite being banned in the 1970s by the military governments in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay.
AMY GOODMAN: In 1973, a military junta came to power in Uruguay. Eduardo Galeano was briefly, then he went into exile. He lived in Argentina and then Spain until 1984, when he returned to Uruguay. While in exile, he began writing his classic trilogy Memory of Fire, which rewrites five centuries of North and South American history.
The writer John Berger said of Galeano, quote, “To publish Eduardo Galeano is to publish the enemy: the enemy of lies, indifference, above all of forgetfulness. Thanks to him, our crimes will be remembered. His tenderness is devastating, his truthfulness furious.”
Eduardo Galeano’s latest book is called Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone. He joins us today in our firehouse studio.
EDUARDO GALEANO: Hello, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us, Eduardo.
EDUARDO GALEANO: Good for me.
AMY GOODMAN: Stories of Almost Everyone is the subtitle.
EDUARDO GALEANO: Yes, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: “Almost everyone,” what do you mean?
EDUARDO GALEANO: Well, it was — it sounded, I don’t know, so solemn and serious to say “a universal history” or something like this. I’m not a historian. It was such a mad project. It was really a crazy adventure, trying to go beyond all the frontiers, all boundaries, boundaries of maps and time. It comes from 600 short stories trying to rebuild, to rediscover the human history from the point of view of the invisibles, trying to rediscover the terrestrial rainbow mutilated by racism and machismo and militarism and elitism and so many isms. That was the intention, at least, to speak about nobodies from nobodies’ voices.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And why the short stories or the vignettes that you’ve increasingly gravitated to in recent decades? Why that form to express these huge stories?
EDUARDO GALEANO: I am fighting against inflation, not monetary inflation, but the inflation of words. So many words to say nothing. I am trying to say — to tell more with less. This is a challenge. And so, each one of the stories I tell has been written and rewritten ten times, fifteen times, I don’t know how many times, ’til I get the words that really deserve to exist, which are the words that I feel are better than silence.
AMY GOODMAN: One of the things we want you to do this hour is just read some of these short stories. And you can’t add any extra words. But before we do, when President Chavez of Venezuela handed President Obama of the United States Open Veins of Latin America, your classic work, what were your thoughts? And how did you find out about it? You weren’t at the Summit of the Americas, were you?
EDUARDO GALEANO: I didn’t know it. But I went to have my usual promenade with my dog Morgan, who’s died recently — he died after that — one of our last promenades together. And I was surprised, because my neighbor said, “Congratulations, Eduardo. You are selling so much. You’re a bestseller, Eduardo.”
And I was horrified. Bestseller? I don’t want to be sold. What’s this? Something terrible must happened. What’s this “congratulations, you’re so successful”? I don’t want to be successful. “What’s this? Successful in the market?”
“Yes, you’re the bestselling man now in the world. The world’s so proud.”
And it was terrible news for me. I don’t want to be the first in the market. I just want to get in touch with people, writing.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Chavez has become like the new Oprah now. You know, he did it for Noam Chomsky and made Noam Chomsky a bestseller. Now he’s done it for you.
EDUARDO GALEANO: No, it was a generous action. And indeed, the book tends to be, out of so many — there’s almost forty — sort of a symbol.
My style has changed a lot. Now I write in a very different way, but I’m not repentant of it, no estoy arrepentido, not at all, not a single comma, not a single period.
And I think it may be a useful book, yes, to understand how richness and poverty are intimately connected, and also freedom and slavery are intimately connected. And so, there are no richness really innocent of any poverty, and there are no freedom that hasn’t — nothing to do to be with slavery.
This was the intention of the book, trying to interlink histories that have been before told separately and in this codified language of historians or economists or sociologists. And so, I tried to write it in such a way that it could be read and enjoyed by anyone. And that’s why it lost the Casa de las Americas Prize, because a jury considered it was not serious. At that time, the left-wing intellectuals were sure that to be serious, you ought to be boring. And it was not boring, so it was not enough serious. Afterwards, fortunately for me, the military dictatorships considered it was quite serious, and they burned it. And this was my best publicity and my best marketing —-
JUAN GONZALEZ: Market tool.
EDUARDO GALEANO: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to break with some music of Victor Jara, back in the news now.
EDUARDO GALEANO: OK.
AMY GOODMAN: But when we come back, want to ask you if President Obama could read one of the stories in Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, which would you like him to read? Our guest today is Eduardo Galeano for the hour, the Uruguayan writer and journalist. He has a new book out; it’s called Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest for the hour is Eduardo Galeano, the great writer and journalist. He is up from Uruguay. His new book is called Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan Gonzalez.
That question of Barack Obama being handed, by President Hugo Chavez, Open Veins of Latin America, your classic work, what you would like him to learn from this book, President Obama?
EDUARDO GALEANO: No, I don’t want to teach anybody anything. Never. I even insisted last evening, when I was talking in that theater -—
AMY GOODMAN: At the Ethical Culture Society.
EDUARDO GALEANO: Yes — the fact that I would be glad if Obama and all the USA progressive governors or people here begin to change the word — the word “leadership” by the word “friendship,” because leadership implies the resistance in someone over, above the other ones. And in the real human relationships, the real ones are horizontal, horizontal, not vertical; solidarity instead of charity; and no borders and no classes to receive from anyone, because the Northern world acts as if God would made them the teachers of the South, and they are taking examination all the time. To Venezuela, for instance, is it really democratic country? We’ll decide, because we are the teachers on democracy.
And paradoxically, the teachers on democracy are the factories of military dictatorships. I mean, the United States, and not only the United States, also some European countries, have spread military dictatorships all over the world. And they feel as if they are able to teach democracy.
So I don’t want to teach anything to anybody. I just want to tell stories deserve to be told. That’s all.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, tell us a story of Open Veins before we get to readings of Mirrors.
EDUARDO GALEANO: It’s a funny story. I have — yeah, I may tell the — when you were saying that the best promotion for Open Veins were the military dictatorships, which prohibited it and burned it, but in Uruguay, something really strange happened. In the first months of the military dictatorship, Open Veins entered freely in the military jails, because the censors looking at the title, Open Veins of Latin America, thought it was a textbook on anatomy, a textbook on anatomy. And so, the medicine books were not forbidden, and the books enter during five or six months. And afterward —-
JUAN GONZALEZ: ’Til somebody read it.
EDUARDO GALEANO: —- they noticed that something was not exactly that.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And when you say this issue of leadership, Latin America obviously has changed dramatically, and the American people, in their election, they more or less sort of followed a trend that was already going on in Latin America. Your own country has changed dramatically. Can you talk about that, what has happened now that there are the —-
EDUARDO GALEANO: There is a new energy, which is not new at all. I think that history never ends. Some histories inside history have no happy ends, unhappy ends. But history doesn’t end. She’s a stubborn lady, and she goes on walking, sometimes crying, sometimes laughing. But it never ends. When histories say goodbye, history is really saying, “See you. See you later. See you soon.” So this is like a subterranean river, who went on flowing and nowadays is reappearing with a very important energy coming from people, from the [inaudible] river -— how is it? From —-
JUAN GONZALEZ: Below to above.
EDUARDO GALEANO: —- below to above, yes, and not on the other side, on the other way.
AMY GOODMAN: Trickle up, not trickle down.
EDUARDO GALEANO: I have an engineer friend of mine who said, "Lo único que se hace desde arriba son los pozos," “The only thing that you can make from up to down are holes.” And it’s true. All the other things are made are created from the bottom. And that’s the way it’s going to be done, and it’s already going on doing in several Latin American countries, which is good news, indeed, for the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Eduardo Galeano, can you read from Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone? You choose.
EDUARDO GALEANO: I begin with the story of this cover. I mean, what’s this? This image, so beautiful image. Where does it come from? And what does it mean? And the story is inside the book on page 267, I think. Yeah, 267.
“West African sculptors have always sung while they worked. And they do not stop singing until their sculptures are finished. That way the music gets inside the carvings and keeps on singing.
“In 1910, Leo Frobenius found ancient sculptures on the Slave Coast that made his eyes bulge.
“Their beauty was such that the German explorer believed they were Greek, brought from Athens, or perhaps from the lost Atlantis. And his colleagues agreed: Africa, daughter of scorn, mother of slaves, could not have produced such marvels like this one.
“But it did, though. And those music-filled effigies had been sculpted a few centuries previous in the bellybutton of the world, in Ife, the sacred place where the Yoruba gods gave birth to women and men.
“Africa turned out to be an unending wellspring of art worth celebrating. And worth stealing.
“It seems Paul Gaugin, a rather absent-minded fellow, but his name on a couple of sculptures from the Congo. And the error was contagious. From then on Picasso, Modigliani, Klee, Giacometti, Ernst, Moore, and many other European artists made the same mistake, and did so with alarming frequency.
“Pillaged by its colonial masters, Africa would never know how responsible it was for the most astonishing achievements in twentieth-century European art.”
JUAN GONZALEZ: One of the amazing things to me in your writing is how you’re able to get a nugget of historical fact that has been largely overlooked by others and then weave it into a story that really sort of shines a spotlight on an aspect of human conflict that others have not paid attention to. One that struck me especially was the origin of concentration camps that you wrote, which relates very much to the last one you wrote, about Africa. I’m wondering if you could read that one.
EDUARDO GALEANO: Concentration camps, yes. Let me see where it is. 243, yes. This is also an unknown story, because this book is made — comes from 600 unknown stories, or at least not so known as they deserve to be, because they’re stories about the invisibles, women, black, Indians, the South of the world, China India. Who knows? Who knows? We are much more than we are told we are and we were told we are, the human terrestrial rainbow with so many colors, mutilated, mutilated by racism. And this is another story about racism. When Obama was elected, I wrote an article, months ago, remembering that the White House was built by black hands and asking him, please, do not forget it, never, never. So this is about the origin of concentration camps.
“When Namibia won its independence in 1990, the main avenue of the capital city still bore the name Goring. Not for Hermann, Hermann Goring, the Nazi, but in honor of his father, Heinrich Goring, one of the perpetrators of the first genocide in the twentieth century.
“That Goring, who represented the German Empire in the south-west corner of Africa, kindly approved in 1904 an annihilation order given by General Lothar von Trotta.” [inaudible] General Lothar von Trotta was the grandfather or father of this great German movie director, cinema director, Margarethe von Trotta, which is a source of optimism, because it should prove that humankind is not doomed to decay, I mean, that we may improve the quality of our products. Well, “an annihilation order given by General Lothar von Trotta.”
“The Hereros, black shepherds” — shefferds or shepherds?
JUAN GONZALEZ: Shepherds.
EDUARDO GALEANO: Shepherds — “had risen up in rebellion. And the colonial authorities expelled them all and warned that any Herero found in Namibia, man, woman, or child, armed or unarmed, would be killed.
“Of every four Hereros, three were killed, by cannon fire or the desert sun.
“The survivors of the butchery ended up in concentration camps set up by Goring. And Chancellor Bernhard von Bulow pronounced for the very first time the word ‘concentration camp’ in German language [Konzentrationslager].
“The camps, inspired by a British forerunner in South Africa, combined confinement, forced labor, and scientific experimentation. The prisoners, emaciated from a life in the gold and diamond mines, served as human guinea pigs for research into inferior races. And in those laboratories worked Theodor Mollison and Eugen Fischer, who later became the teachers of Josef Mengele.
“Mengele carried forth their work as of 1933, the year that Goring, Goring the son, set up the first concentration camps in Germany, following the model his father pioneered in Africa.”
This is one of the many unknown stories that I think we should remember, for obvious reasons, because if you don’t know your past, you are doomed to repeat it. It’s an old proverb, but it’s true.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about President Obama, a little more about him. We recently had on the Pan-Africanist scholar Ali Mazrui, who’s a Kenyan scholar, a chancellor at a Kenyan school and also at Binghamton University in New York. He said Barack Obama has become “the most powerful single black individual in the history of civilization.” What about the significance of Barack Obama becoming president?
EDUARDO GALEANO: Well, it’s a very important — a very important victory in a long, long and difficult and painful fight against racism, especially in this country, in the United States.
Here in the book, I tell some stories, unknown or almost unknown, happened fifteen minutes ago in historical terms. For instance, in 1942, 1942, the Pentagon, when the United States was entered in the Second World War, the Pentagon forbade, prohibited the transfusions of black blood. And at that time, the director of the plasma bank in the Red Cross was a scientific called Charles Drew, and he denied the order. He denied to obey it, saying it’s stupid. Such a thing, such a thing, black blood, does not exist. Blood is red; it’s not black. Blood is red. And he knew what it was he was speaking about. He was almost the inventor of the plasma, or at least the scientific who made it possible. He saved million of lives in the Second World War. But besides being a scientific of very high reputation, he was black. And he was black. And so, he was not — he knew perfectly well what he was speaking about, and that’s why he resigned or was resigned. And this happened just a while ago, it’s yesterday.
So it’s very important, the fact that Obama is now president of the United States, being, as he is, black or half-black, no? The problem is that nobody is better or worse for being black or white, like — this book also, Mirrors, contains a lot of stories about women, this half of humanity. I don’t know why called a minority. I’m not strong in mathematics, but how half of humanity may be a minority? And I tell a lot of stories that are badly known or unknown. Then, my friends —- I have some terribly perverse friends, saying, “Well, now the system gave you as a gift that wonderful woman called Condoleezza Rice.” And I say, “Well, yes, it’s true, because a woman is not better than a man or a man better than a woman. We are all made, you know, half-garbage and half-marble, half-beauty and half—[expletive].” But we should have the same opportunities. And that’s a problem. The discrimination have condemned so many people to be invisible. And this book tries to recover their memories and to recover their presence.
The fact that Obama is black is very important in the fight against racism, but it’s also a challenge. I mean, he should prove that blacks can do it better than whites, like women in power, which is unfortunately not the case of Margaret Thatcher, for instance. But they are at least — at least Margaret Thatcher had the opportunity to show it. And sometimes I think Obama is doing it well, and sometimes not. But it must be very difficult for him.
Yesterday I said perhaps he’s lost in the bush, and meaning that there is all this war machine, for instance. He improved the war budget. He improved it. In the campaign, he was promising a quite different attitude. But he ended raising the war budget, which is mysteriously named in the United States “defense budget.” I don’t know defense against who, because the last time this country was invaded was in 1812. Well, later there was a short invasion by Pancho Villa, but this was almost nothing, I mean. And I believe we should — we should propose a new model of world, not consecrated to this human passion of killing each other. We are the only animal specialized in mutual extermination.
By the way, advertising, I’m a member of a vast movement working for a big giant march for peace and against violence on October 2 in all countries, in all countries. And I hope we may have millions and millions of feet walking in the whole planet, in all cities, in all parts of the world, against the war, against this crazy mad world living against itself, this big factory of death that the world is nowadays. Each minute, each minute, the last official figures say, each minute, the world gives, each minute, $3 million to military expenses, $3 million per minute for military expenses, for the industry of death. And each minute, fifteen children die from hunger or curable diseases. So we’ll march against it, because we believe another world is possible.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Eduardo Galeano, and we’re going to be back with him in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest for the hour is the great writer Eduardo Galeano. His most celebrated book, decades ago, Open Veins of Latin America. President Chavez of Venezuela just gave it to Barack Obama. Well, he’s out with a new book, and it’s called Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone. And he doesn’t come to this country very much, so we’re very glad to have him in our studio for the hour. Juan?
JUAN GONZALEZ: Eduardo, I’d like to ask you — our show yesterday was about President Obama’s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the US Supreme Court, born here in the United States of Puerto Rican parents. And I know you have over the years expressed yourself on the status of Puerto Rico itself. I think 2007 you joined with Garcia Marquez and other Latin American writers, calling for Puerto Rico’s sovereignty. Could you let our listeners and viewers know how in Latin America this relationship of Puerto Rico and the United States is viewed?
EDUARDO GALEANO: It’s viewed, yes, as a colonial remain, a shameful situation, because Puerto Rico should be independent, obviously, as Guantanamo should be part of Cuba instead of being a colonial enclave consecrated to torture people. Obviously, yes. These are remains of all past times. And the worst thing about this is that there are so many people everywhere trained to accept these situations like normal, and they are not normal at all. So I’m a friend of this stubborn, marvelous Puerto Rican people, women, men, that they fight for their right to freedom and independence. They are a minority of minorities, I know. But this is something — speak — to speak for them and not against, because it’s very easy to be on the side of the majorities.
The problem is when you are telling the truth and you are almost alone. That’s the situation of so many, so many gullible persons and movements in the world. And we are prisoners of a dominant culture, who punished the failure instead of rewarding success and obliging each one to be successful. We are trained to consider the other one as a competitor, as a menace, as an enemy, not as a promise. The world is very well designed to change.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the state of Latin America today, and particularly about the media in Latin America? I mean, you were the editor of Crisis magazine.
EDUARDO GALEANO: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: It was censored. You decided the magazine should not publish —-
EDUARDO GALEANO: Yeah, yes, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —- in the time of censorship.
EDUARDO GALEANO: Yeah, I was working for several magazines and newspapers, and this Crisis was a very nice experience. It was a cultural magazine, consecrated to cultural subjects and items.
AMY GOODMAN: In Argentina?
EDUARDO GALEANO: In Argentina, when I was in exile. Once a month, a very, very beautiful magazine who sold about 35,000, 40,000 copies, which is a record in the Spanish language, because we could diffuse a new conception of culture. Instead of repeating the old story about culture being the specialized work of artists and perhaps scientists, we tried to recover culture as a collective expression of identity.
And so, we were talking to people, but also hearing what people had to say, in the walls with the graffitis, in the factories. We went with recorders trying to ask what they thought, for instance, the worker thought about the sun, because we were speaking to workers that never saw the sun, except on Sundays. They were working the whole day. Or to the drivers, the bus drivers, who sometimes were working in Argentina that years, fifteen, twenty hours per day. It was unbelievable. So, with our records — registers, no? Grabadoras
AMY GOODMAN: Tape recorders.
EDUARDO GALEANO: Tape recorder, tape recorders. We went there, asking them, “When you can sleep, what do you dream? What are your dreams? Do you have dreams? Nightmares?” And this was culture for us also. So it was a quite an original experience, really strange. And it was very, very successful, ’til first the economy and later the dictatorship finished it. And when words cannot be better than silence, it’s better to shut up.
JUAN GONZALEZ: But now there is — in many Latin American countries, you have, on the one hand, the huge media giants, Globovision, Venevision and these others.
EDUARDO GALEANO: Yeah.
JUAN GONZALEZ: But you also have all this community media now. I think in Uruguay in 2007, they passed la Ley de Radiodifusion Comunitaria —-
EDUARDO GALEANO: Yes.
JUAN GONZALEZ: —- for community media. What is the impact of these community media operations now on the people?
EDUARDO GALEANO: Yes. Now it improved a lot, because community radios and even TV had been persecuted and chased and prohibited during years and years and years, but now they’re spreading all over the region, and they are very successful. And they can tell the other side of — like Democracy Now! — the other side of events and other — you know, there is a private property of news like there is a private property of memory, a private property of the right to talk, to the right to say, to the right to be heard. And against this monopoly, which is an enemy of democracy, we have some democratic answers coming from the bottom of society, from people themselves, saying themselves, telling themselves.
And this is quite important. It’s a change. Usually even some left-wing intellectuals used to believe that people, normal people, ordinary people, workers, were only able to repeat the voices of the masters, they were only able to have echoes, not voices. But they do have voices. Even my friends, my close friends, from the priests of the theology of liberation, when they say, “We are the voice of those who have no voice,” it’s a big mistake. Everybody has a voice. The problems is that they cannot be heard. But everybody has something to say that deserves to be heard, perhaps celebrated, perhaps at least forgiven.
AMY GOODMAN: You were a pallbearer in the last weeks for the great writer Mario Benedetti —-
EDUARDO GALEANO: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —- who died at the age of eighty-eight, a fellow Uruguayan.
EDUARDO GALEANO: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: What did Mario Benedetti mean to you? What was your relationship with him?
EDUARDO GALEANO: Well, he was very generous with me, a very generous person, since I began writing. I was lucky with the old writers, twenty, thirty years older when I — when I began writing, I received help from Benedetti, from Onetti also. They were patient and generous with me. And Mario was especially generous, like Julio Cortazar, for instance, strange rara avis, strange specimen —-
AMY GOODMAN: Specimen.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Specimen.
EDUARDO GALEANO: —- in the writers’ — in the writers’ community, because if the world is a zoo, we should be in the jail reserved for, I would say, pavos reales, peacocks, right? Pavos reales?
JUAN GONZALEZ: Pavos reales, real —-
EDUARDO GALEANO: The pavos reales are the turkey.
JUAN GONZALEZ: The turkey.
EDUARDO GALEANO: Yeah, but the turkey with this beautiful, colorful -—
AMY GOODMAN: Plume.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Peacock.
EDUARDO GALEANO: — feathers.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Peacock.
EDUARDO GALEANO: The peacocks? So, the peacocks. We will be in the jail of peacocks. And each victory is not celebrated. When you find a colleague in the street, “How are things going?” Then, if he says, “Fine. Great. Great. You can’t imagine,” then a liver attack is happening, and you can see it. The face turns green. You need immediately a doctor, an urgent service from a doctor. And Mario Benedetti or Julio Cortazar were able to celebrate other one’s success. They were very generous, both of them.
AMY GOODMAN: We just have a minute, and you have just recovered from cancer and lost half your lung.
EDUARDO GALEANO: Yes, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: In this last minute, what gave you hope and strength to battle your own cancer?
EDUARDO GALEANO: What gave me strength, to write. I wrote Mirrors. It was an answer to this challenge. Perhaps we are always challenged by death, by the certitude that someday we will die. It’s true. It’s our destiny. But also, the possibility of doing some things, I mean, to go on believing that there is a possible way of stay alive in your queridos querientes, in the people you loved and were loved by.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, thank you for sharing this book and your recovery with us through Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone. Thank you, Eduardo Galeano, for being in the studio with us.
EDUARDO GALEANO: Thank you, Amy.