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Remembering Eduardo Galeano, Champion of Social Justice & Chronicler of Latin America's Open Veins

April 14, 2015
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Eduardo Galeano

one of Latin America’s most distinguished writers. He is the author of the three-volume Memory of Fire, Open Veins of Latin America, Soccer in Sun and Shadow, Upside Down, The Book of Embraces, We Say No, Voices of Time, Mirrors, Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History, among others. He died April 13 in Montevideo, Uruguay.

One of Latin America’s most acclaimed writers, Eduardo Galeano, died on Monday at age 74 in Montevideo, Uruguay. The Uruguayan novelist and journalist made headlines when Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez gave President Obama a copy of his classic work, "The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent." Since its publication in 1971, "Open Veins" has sold more than a million copies worldwide, despite being banned by the military governments in Chile, Argentina and his native country of Uruguay. While in exile after the Uruguayan military junta seized power in a 1973 coup, Galeano began work on his classic trilogy "Memory of Fire," which rewrites five centuries of North and South American history. He also authored "Soccer in Sun and Shadow," "Upside Down," "The Book of Embraces," "We Say No," "Voices of Time," "Mirrors," "Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History," among others. Galeano received numerous international prizes, including the Lannan Prize for Cultural Freedom, the Casa de las Américas Prize, and the First Distinguished Citizen of the region by the countries of Mercosur. We look back on Galeano’s life and hear from his Democracy Now! interviews in 2009 and 2013.


TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: One of Latin America’s literary giants, Eduardo Galeano, died on Monday in Montevideo, Uruguay. He was 74. The Uruguayan novelist and journalist made headlines when Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez gave President Obama a copy of his classic work, The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. Since its publication in 1971, Open Veins has sold over a million copies worldwide, despite being banned by the military governments in Chile, Argentina and his native country of Uruguay. While in exile after the Uruguayan military junta seized power in a 1973 coup, Galeano began work on his classic trilogy, Memory of Fire, which rewrites five centuries of North and South American history. He’s also the author of Soccer in Sun and Shadow, Upside Down, The Book of Embraces, We Say No, Voices of Time and Mirrors, among others. His most recent book was called Children of the Days. He received numerous international prizes, including the Lannan Prize for Cultural Freedom, the Casa de las Américas Prize and the First Distinguished Citizen of the region by the countries of Mercosur.

AMY GOODMAN: The writer John Berger said of Eduardo 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."

In 2013, Nermeen Shaikh and I spoke to Eduardo Galeano in our New York studio when his book, Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History, had first been published. Before we go to a clip of that interview, Juan, the significance of Eduardo Galeano?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, this is a huge loss, not only for Latin America, but for those who are fighting for social justice and for truth around the world. And, you know, it’s a remarkable reflection, the number of world leaders who made statements yesterday after learning of Galeano’s death. Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, said Galeano’s death was a "big loss," particularly for those fighting for a "Latin America that is more inclusive, just and united." And she went on to say, "May his work and example of struggle stay with us and inspire us each day to build a better future for Latin America." You had Evo Morales, the president of [Bolivia], call Galeano a "maestro of the liberation of the people." I’m sorry, Bolivia. And also, Greece’s president, Alexis Tsipras, noted that the death of Galeano affected "every citizen of Europe." So, there’s been an enormous outpouring of condolences and remembrances of the legacy of Galeano.

AMY GOODMAN: And we will continue to talk about him as we play excerpts of our interviews. First, this interview that Nermeen Shaikh and I did with him when his last book came out.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: You’ve often quoted Pablo Picasso saying that "art is a lie that tells the truth."

EDUARDO GALEANO: It’s true.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So what do you see as the significance of art and of your writing, in particular, its relationship to the truth and to politics?

EDUARDO GALEANO: And to politics and to everything else. For instance, what is a good writer, from my point of view? That was able to make the past become present telling a history of two centuries ago or three centuries or four or I don’t know how much, and the reader may feel it’s happening right here and now. The past turn to be present in the magic words of a good writer. That’s a lie, in the sense that what he or she is telling didn’t—is not happening now, but thanks to these art prodigies, their magic powers, it does occur in today.

I remember that—you know, I didn’t receive a formal education. I was educated in the Montevideo cafe, in the cafes of Montevideo. There, I received my first lessons in the art of telling stories, storytelling. I was very, very young and sat at one table, neighbor of other table of people, old people, or more or less old, and they were telling stories, and I was hearing, because they were very good storytellers, anonymous. And one of them was telling a story about a battlefield at the beginning of the 20th century in Uruguay in a war period in the countryside. He was walking among the killed soldiers of both sides. They were distinguished by a ribbon on the front: the white and the red. And suddenly he found an angel. That was what he said: "I found an angel, with the arms open, laid in the grass." And a bullet had entered into his head, crossing the white ribbon. But he could read in the—in the white ribbon was a stain, mancha, stain of blood all along it. But something was written there: "For my country, for my countryside." No, patria? How is it, patria, in English? Country?

AMY GOODMAN: Country, for my country.

EDUARDO GALEANO: "For my country, and for her." And the bullet had entered in the word "her." And so, I felt I was looking at that man who had died 50 years ago or 60 years ago. So this was a lie, but a lie telling the truth. This was art, an art done by an anonymous person and with no pretensions of being, you know, selected, elected by the finger of God.

AMY GOODMAN: Eduardo—

EDUARDO GALEANO: There are some writers who feel they are elected by God. I am not. I am elected by the devil, this is clear.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the power of silence, as you talk about words. You were born in Uruguay. You left at the time of the coup. You were imprisoned briefly?

EDUARDO GALEANO: , briefly.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did they imprison you briefly?

EDUARDO GALEANO: I never know, never knew. Everybody was imprisoned, even if you feel or you were, you know, practically free. But it—and it was an entire country in prison. And Uruguay was at that time world champion of torture. Everybody was tortured. I wasn’t. I was lucky enough to avoid it. And torture was quite efficient, not in the sense that it’s told by some friends of torture. No, not in this sense. It’s not—never—it’s almost never useful to get information. And the purpose of torture is not getting information. It’s spreading fear. And in this sense, torture was really efficient in Uruguay. It was an entire country sick, enfermo

AMY GOODMAN: Sick.

EDUARDO GALEANO: —of fear. I remember I received in exile in Barcelona some letters, anonymous letters with no indications of address, of names or nothing, no, of course. And one of the letters said, "It’s terrible, learn to lie. But, you know, we had no choice. We’re obliged to lie, day and night lying. And it’s horrible. But worse than learning to lie is teaching to lie. And I have three children."

AMY GOODMAN: Three children?

EDUARDO GALEANO: That was what the letter said. "Worse than learning to lie was teaching to lie. And I have three children."

AMY GOODMAN: On the issue of silence, you went from Uruguay to Argentina. And there, the torture, the repression was intense.

EDUARDO GALEANO: Yes, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: You were editor of a magazine, and you answered the censorship with silence. Explain.

EDUARDO GALEANO: Yes. Yes, finally, I fled away from Argentina also, because—I couldn’t stay in Uruguay, because I don’t like to be in jail, and I didn’t stay in Argentina. I could not, because I didn’t want to lay in a cemetery, because, as I told you before, death is very boring.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: You’ve said that a lot of your work—I mean, it’s obvious from even what you’ve read—a lot of your work is about reclaiming different histories, not only in Latin America, but also in Latin America, to overcome what you’ve called the problem of amnesia. Could you elaborate on what you mean by that?

EDUARDO GALEANO: Amnesia?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Yes.

EDUARDO GALEANO: Well, we have a memory cut in pieces. And I write trying to recover our real memory, the memory of humankind, what I call the human rainbow, which is much more colorful and beautiful than the other one, the other rainbow. But the human rainbow had been mutilated by machismo, racism, militarism and a lot of other isms, who have been terribly killing our greatness, our possible greatness, our possible beauty.

AMY GOODMAN: Eduardo Galeano, acclaimed Uruguayan writer and journalist, speaking on Democracy Now! in 2013. Eduardo Galeano died on Monday in Montevideo, Uruguay. We’ll come back to more of our interviews with him in a moment.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Eduardo Mateo, the Uruguayan songwriter, "Quien te viera." This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We continue our look back at the life of the great Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. He died on Monday at the age of 74 in Montevideo. He was author of many books, including Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent.

AMY GOODMAN: He was the editor of a major publication in Uruguay, but ultimately, after a military coup took power there in 1973, he left for Argentina. And there, he also was an editor of major publications, but when military coup took over there, he ultimately left for Spain. I want to turn back to our 2013 interview when Nermeen Shaikh and I spoke to Eduardo Galeano here in New York, when his book, Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History, had just been published. I started by asking him about the title of the book.

EDUARDO GALEANO: It comes from something I heard years ago in a Mayan community in Guatemala. Somebody said, "We are children of the days. We are sons and daughters of time." And this began working inside me, and it finally resulted in this book. Each day has a story to—deserves to be told, because we are made of stories. I mean, scientists say that human beings are made of atoms, but a little bird told me that we are also made of stories. And so, each one has something to tell that deserves to be heard. And the structure of the book is the structure of a calendar: each day, one story, one story for each day.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Eduardo Galeano, how did you choose the stories that you would tell for each day?

EDUARDO GALEANO: They chose me. You know, they touched my shoulder or my back, saying, "Tell me. I am a wonderful story and deserve to be diffused by you, written by you. So, please, write me." And I said, "Well, I’m so busy. No." "No, that’s an alibi. You must write me," the story said. And so I began—I ended writing the stories, and later have a very hard process of selection, trying to say more with less. And after this process, the only surviving texts or stories are the ones I feel that are better than silence. It’s a difficult competition against silence, because silence is a perfect language, the only language which says with no words.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you share some of your—

EDUARDO GALEANO: Yes, I brought some.

AMY GOODMAN: —dates with us?

EDUARDO GALEANO: No, not too much, just four or five only, because this is a problem I—I liked a lot. We have been—I have been with you another years, times, always—I’m—always felt that it was really a way open to get a real democracy in a world which is not democratic at all. It’s managed by five, six countries, big corporations and so-called international institutions, which are not at all international. The World Bank is not worldly, and the International Monetary Fund and so on and the big corporations. So, it’s like—like war. Most of wars or military coups or invasions are done in the name of democracy against democracy.

I was remembering these days, 1964. I was in Brazil at that time. And then a military coup destroyed a democracy government—democratic government, elected by people freely. And João Goulart, the president, was condemned to exile. And I was there, and I remember once and again and once again a graffiti I saw in a wall in the days of the military coup, saying, "No more intermediaries, Lincoln Gordon, president." Lincoln Gordon was the ambassador of the United States. And it was a perfect portrait about what was happening. So, some of the texts I’ve chosen, and today I chose to read, have something to—some connections with this sort of things.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Eduardo Galeano reading from Children of the Days.

EDUARDO GALEANO: March 9, The Day Mexico Invaded the United States:

“On this early morning in 1916, Pancho Villa crossed the border with his horsemen, set fire to the city of Columbus, killed several soldiers, nabbed a few horses and guns, and the following day was back in Mexico to tell the tale.

"This lightning incursion is the only invasion the United States has suffered since its wars to break free from England." There was an English invasion in 1812, I think, but it was not a real invasion, just a chapter of a long history of fighting for independence. But this one was real last one, the Pancho Villa invasion. So, this was the only—the only invasion.

“In contrast, the United States has invaded practically every country in the entire world.

“Since 1947 its Department of War [changed the name,] has being called the Department of Defense, and its war budget [is now called] the defense budget.

"The names are an enigma as comparable with the Holy Trinity."

Something about A Defeat for Civilization, terrible day. It’s terrible, traumatic. And my advice for people with problems, cardíacos, cardiologic and so on, because it is moving and very, very tragic.

“In the year 2002, eight McDonald’s restaurants closed their doors in Bolivia.

“Barely five years had this civilizing mission lasted.

“No one forced McDonald’s out. Bolivians simply turned their backs, or better put, McDonald’s turned their stomachs. The most successful company on the planet had generously graced the country with its presence, and these ingrates refused to acknowledge a noble gesture.

“A distaste for progress dissuaded Bolivia from embracing either junk food or the dizzying pace of contemporary life.

“Homemade empanadas derailed development. Bolivians, stubbornly attached to the ancient flavors of the family hearth, continue eating without haste in long, slow ceremonies.

"Gone forever is the company"—forever gone, the company—"that everywhere else makes children happy, fires for workers who try to unionize and jacks up the rate of obesity."

Something about—a couple of texts about terrorism. July 1st, One Terrorist Fewer. This is almost unknown here. For me, it was surprising, because it’s important, really important, what happened.

"In the year 2008, the government of the United States decided to erase Nelson Mandela’s name from its list of dangerous terrorists." Nelson Mandela was a dangerous terrorist, terrorist dangerous for the national security of the United States during 60 years.

"The most revered African in the world had featured on that sinister roll for sixty years."

So, I would—I would like to celebrate September 11 as A Day Against Terrorism. That’s the name of the day, for obvious reasons: September 11, A Day Against Terrorism. And I would like to celebrate the day, you know, pasting posters against terrorism all around the world, posters saying:

“Wanted: for kidnapping countries.

“Wanted: for strangling wages and slashing jobs.

“Wanted: for raping the land, poisoning the water and stealing the air.

"Wanted: for trafficking in fear."

And the last one, a homage to my idol, Rosa Luxemburg. She was a woman, and this was un defecto grave, a sin, being a woman. So, she’s not very, very, very well known. But for me, in my formation, when I was very, very young, I understood—I could understand, for the first time, through the life and in the words of Rosa Luxemburg, what socialism could be—was not, but could be.

“In 1919, Rosa Luxemburg, the revolutionary, was murdered in Berlin.

“Her killers bludgeoned her with rifle blows and tossed her into the waters of a canal.

“Along the way, she lost a shoe.

“Someone picked it up, that shoe dropped in the mud.

“Rosa longed for a world where justice would not be sacrificed in the name of freedom, and freedom would not be sacrificed in the name of justice.

“Every day, some hand picks up that banner.

"Dropped in the mud, like the shoe."

AMY GOODMAN: Eduardo Galeano, speaking on Democracy Now! in 2013. He died Monday at the age of 74 of lung cancer in his home city, Montevideo, Uruguay. In May 2009, Juan González and I spoke to Eduardo Galeano following the publication of his book, Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone. It was a month after Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez gave President Obama a copy of Galeano’s book The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, and, Amy, I don’t know—for those who haven’t read it, folks don’t know maybe the impact that that book has had on generations of Latin Americans, in terms of shaping their view of the troubles in their land. I want to just read a section relating to Venezuela from that book that Eduardo Galeano wrote. He was talking about the oil of Venezuela and Lake Maracaibo.

And he says, "the profits milked from this wonderful cow, in proportion to capital invested, are only comparable with those obtained by old-time slave merchants and pirates. No country has yielded as much for world capitalism in so short a time: the wealth drained from Venezuela, according to Domingo Alberto Rangel, exceeds what the Spaniards took from Potosí or the English from India. Some estimates put the real profits of Venezuelan oil concerns at 38 percent in 1961 and 48 percent in 1962."

But then he goes on to describe, in a poetic fashion, the impact of that oil exploitation on the lake: "The lake is a forest of towers. Within these iron structures the endlessly bobbing pumps have for half a century pumped up all the opulence and all the poverty of Venezuela. Alongside, flames lick skyward, burning the natural gas in a carefree gift to the atmosphere. There are pumps even in houses and on street corners of towns that spouted up, like the oil, along the lakeside-towns where clothing, food, and walls are stained black with oil, and where even whores are known by oil nicknames, such as 'The Pipeline,' 'The Four Valves,' 'The Derrick,' 'The Hoist.' Here clothing and food cost more than in Caracas. These modern villages, of cheerless birth but quickened by the euphoria of easy money, have discovered that they have no future. When the wells die, survival becomes something of a miracle: skeletons of houses remain, oily waters lick abandoned shores and poison the fish. Mass firings and growing mechanization bring misfortune, too, to cities that live from exploiting still-active wells."

And that Eduardo Galeano describing what oil has brought to Venezuela.

AMY GOODMAN: In Open Veins of Latin America, his most famous book. Well, we’re going to go back now to 2009, when Juan González and I talked to Eduardo here in New York, and I asked Eduardo Galeano about the title of his latest work at that time, Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone.

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 the nobodies from the nobodies’ voices.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: 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 10 times, 15 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 Chávez 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 best-seller, Eduardo."

And I was horrified. Best-seller? 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 best-selling 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 GONZÁLEZ: Well, Chávez has become like the new Oprah now. You know, he did it for Noam Chomsky. He made Noam Chomsky a best-seller. 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 40—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 Américas 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 GONZÁLEZ: Market tool.

EDUARDO GALEANO: Yes.

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.

AMY GOODMAN: The great Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano speaking on Democracy Now! in 2009. He died on Monday at the age of 74 of lung cancer in Montevideo, Uruguay. You can visit our website for our full archive of interviews with Galeano, including my 2000 interview with Eduardo Galeano and the Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado. We were in Santa Fe. We’ll also post online a 2006 conversation between Eduardo Galeano and Arundhati Roy here in New York. That’s democracynow.org This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.


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