He let us imagine our future

April 20, 2015

Eduardo Galeano was embraced by the left and reviled by those in power, and for good reason. Khury Petersen-Smith reflects on his legacy.

"One writes out of a need to communicate and to commune with others, to denounce that which gives pain and to share that which gives happiness. One writes against one's solitude and against the solitude of others. One assumes that literature transmits knowledge and affects the behavior and language of those who read, thus helping us to know ourselves better and to save ourselves collectively."
-- Eduardo Galeano, In Defense of the Word, 1976

WHEN EDUARDO Galeano passed away from cancer on April 13, those of us who hunger for freedom lost a writer, an historian, a journalist and, above all, a fighter who could articulate both the beauty and the horror of this world like no other.

Galeano was shaped by Latin America in a time of rising hopes, mass upheavals and brutal, dictatorial repression. He was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1940. The 1954 U.S.-backed coup in Guatemala that toppled progressive reformer Jacobo Arbenz and began the "dirty wars" of counterinsurgency and repression against the left was a seminal event in 20th century Latin America and in Eduardo's life. This was also true of the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

Eduardo Galeano
Eduardo Galeano (Mariela De Marchi Moyano)

Eduardo became a writer and activist as a teenager, first writing and drawing cartoons for the Uruguayan socialist paper El Sol. He matured as a reporter writing for the political and cultural publication Marcha, and then became editor of the left-wing daily El Epoca. As a radical journalist, Galeano traveled to Guatemala and reported on the struggle of the guerrillas there. He criticized the regimes that defended inequality in the face of rising resistance movements, including the government of his own country.

In 1971, Galeano published one of his most influential books, Open Veins of Latin America. The book, which remains essential reading for radicals today, presents a political-economic history of his home region since colonization by European empires. Unlike dry histories written from an academic distance, Open Veins is a passionate, poetic and no less thorough and materialist account of what the subtitle calls "five centuries of the pillage of a continent."

Embraced by people on the left and reviled by those in power, the book became both popular in the years after its publication and banned by the governments of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.

The price that Eduardo paid for writing the truth was exile. When the military seized power in Uruguay in 1973, Galeano was forced out of the country. He fled to Buenos Aires, where he became the editor of the left cultural publication Crisis. Following a coup in Argentina, Galeano escaped death squads again, this time landing in Spain.

Eduardo chronicled the experience of fleeing country after country in his book Days and Nights of Love and War. He weaves the story of his radicalization, flight, exile and survival with those of others in his generation across Latin America. These included famous leftists like Salvador Allende and Che Guevara and many of the countless activists, torture victims and other ordinary people of the time. The book is vivid and haunting, and it embodied the writing style that Eduardo became known for--using a mosaic of stories from which a larger history emerges.

In the early 1980s, Galeano published his Memory of Fire Trilogy, which is the masterpiece for which he is probably best known. With the ambitious goal of "rescuing the kidnapped memory of Latin America," the series of books paints a picture of the region from its first indigenous societies to the present.

IN AN essay about writing published in 1976, Galeano wrote, "[T]he act of creation is an act of solidarity which does not always fulfill its destiny during the lifetime of its creator." No doubt Galeano had in mind comrades who had been murdered for their writing, but who had an impact nonetheless. And there is no doubt that Eduardo Galeano's work will far outlive his time alive. But even in his lifetime, Galeano became a giant among political writers as his body of work moved across time and national boundaries.

In 2009, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez presented a copy of Open Veins to Barack Obama as a gift at the Fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad. Reintroducing the book to a new generation, its popularity skyrocketed on Amazon overnight.

The renewed popularity of the book speaks to the power of Galeano's writing and the enduring relevance of his perspective. That perspective remained contested even after Galeano survived the attempts to silence him and suppress his writing at the height of Latin American reaction.

Just last year, the New York Times claimed that Galeano had "disavowed" Open Veins. The article, which excitedly attempts to revise history and sweep aside the inequality that pervades Latin America at present, responds to statements made by a self-conscious Galeano at a book fair in Brasilia in April 2014. In those comments, Galeano essentially said that he would write the book differently if given the opportunity.

That the New York Times jumped at the opportunity to undermine Galeano's radical legacy is a warning to those of us who know the truth. The legacies of radical figures who were hunted by those in power during their lives tend to be sanitized in their deaths.

Truthfully, Eduardo Galeano never went back on his principles. His last book of original work, Children of the Days, was published in 2011. It features in its stories--one for each day of the year--people of the audience who Galeano said he wrote for in 1976: "the hungry, the sleepless, the rebels and the wretched of the earth."

This group of people transcends borders, and the world that Galeano represents is one of global solidarity against the forces of inequality and destruction. His opposition to the destruction of the environment and his sensitivity to oppression along the lines of gender and sexuality only became more urgent over time. Galeano's final book is a collection of his writings about women over the years, entitled Mujeres.

While his contempt for the rulers of the world comes through in all of his writing, Eduardo Galeano's writing just as colorfully celebrates the beauty of the world and human achievement. This is especially true in his writing about his favorite sport, soccer. Galeano's 1995 book, Football in Sun and Shadow, is a loving history of the game.

Most writers hope to be known for one or a few great works in their lifetimes. But Galeano was so prolific that any number of works of his, including but not limited to Book of Embraces, and more recently Upside Down and Mirrors, were beloved in and of themselves, but also served as gateways to his earlier works.

Above all, Galeano was committed to remembering. His defense of what Howard Zinn called "people's history" was key to understanding a world that begs to be changed. As Galeano wrote in 1982, "I believe in memory not as a place of arrival but as a point of departure--a catapult throwing you into present times, allowing you to imagine the future instead of accepting it."

Further Reading

From the archives