Utopia lies at the horizon. When I draw nearer by two steps, it retreats two steps. If I proceed ten steps forward, it swiftly slips ten steps ahead. No matter how far I go, I can never reach it. What, then, is the purpose of utopia? It is to cause us to advance.
― Eduardo Galeano
In a single day the deaths are announced of two figures of literary and political importance – Germany’s Gunter Grass and the Uruguayan journalist, activist and assembler of fragmented kaleidoscopes of Latin American history, Eduardo Galeano. Grass has received plenty of coverage, but here in the UK there’s been hardly a mention of Galeano.
John Berger once said of him, ‘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.’
My first encounter with Galeano was in the 1970s, in the days when I’d haunt radical bookshops, searching for the latest indictments of international capitalism. When I chanced upon The Open Veins of Latin America I knew I had found something that differed from the automaton-like style of most Marxist texts at the time. Now regarded as a classic work, Galeano’s book analysed ‘five centuries of the pillage of a continent’, contending that Latin America had been exploited mercilessly by its European invaders (and later by US corporations) who had plundered its natural resources, ranging from gold and silver to cocoa and cotton, and impoverished its peoples.
The book was revelatory not only for its value as a text of economic history, but, more significantly in terms of Galeano’s future direction, for the style in which it was written. On the one hand Galeano dissected how, in the five centuries after Columbus, a continent blessed with bountiful natural resources had been systematically stripped of its gold, silver, tin, copper, oil, nitrates, manganese and rubber, while its peoples had in turn been the victims of genocide, exploitative trade deals and, more recently, a string of murderous US-backed dictators, remaining among the most impoverished on earth.
Latin America is the region of open veins. Everything, from the discovery until our times, has always been transmuted into European— or later United States – capital, and as such has accumulated in distant centres of power. Everything: the soil, its fruits and its mineral-rich depths, the people and their capacity to work and to consume, natural resources and human resources. Production methods and class structure have been successively determined from outside for each area by meshing it into the universal gearbox of capitalism.
But Galeano was not by trade an economic historian; rather he was a writer, his craft honed by years of radical journalism, who was reaching towards a way of articulating the impact of colonialism and international capitalism through the stories, myths and legends that people might share with one another. So, for example, he offers the parable of the Nobodies:
Fleas dream of buying themselves a dog, and nobodies dream of escaping poverty: that one magical day good luck will suddenly rain down on them – will rain down in buckets. But good luck doesn’t rain down yesterday, today, tomorrow, or ever. Good luck doesn’t even fall in a fine drizzle, no matter how hard the nobodies summon it, even if their left hand is tickling, or if they begin the new day with their right foot, or start the new year with a change of brooms.
The nobodies: nobody’s children, owners of nothing. The nobodies: the no ones, the nobodied, running like rabbits, dying through life,
screwed every which way.
Who are not, but could be.
Who don’t speak languages, but dialects.
Who don’t have religions, but superstitions.
Who don’t create art, but handicrafts.
Who don’t have culture, but folklore.
Who are not human beings, but human resources.
Who do not have faces, but arms.
Who do not have names, but numbers.
Who do not appear in the history of the world, but in the police
blotter of the local paper.
The nobodies, who are not worth the bullet that kills them.
I can still recall the impact of Galeano’s vivid portrayal of that symbol of colonial pillage – Potosi, the mountain of silver in Bolivia, discovered by the Spanish conquistadors in their quest for mythical El Dorado:
They say that even the horses were shod with silver in the great days of the city of Potosi, The church altars and the wings of cherubim in processions for the Corpus Christi celebration in 1658, were made of silver: the streets from the cathedral to the church of Recoletos were completely resurfaced with silver bars. In Potosi, silver built temples and palaces, monasteries and gambling dens; it prompted tragedies and fiestas, led to the spilling of blood and wine, fired avarice, and unleashed extravagance and adventure.
The sword and the cross marched together in the conquest and plunder of Latin America, and captains and ascetics, knights and evangelists, soldiers and monks came together in Potosi to help themselves to its silver. Moulded into cones and ingots, the viscera of the Cerro Rico – the rich hill – substantially fed the development of Europe.
“Worth a Peru” was the highest possible praise of a person or a thing after Pizarro took Cuzco, but once the Cerro had been discovered Don Quixote de la Mancha changed the words: “Worth a Potosi,” he says to Sancho. This jugular vein of the vice-royalty, America’s fountain of silver, had 120,000 inhabitants by the census of 1573. Only twenty-eight years had passed since the city sprouted out of the Andean wilderness and already, as if by magic, it had the same population as London and more than Seville, Madrid, Rome, or Paris.
Uncharacteristically for an economic history, Galeano told how it had all begun before the conquest, when an Indian shepherd who was forced to spend the night on the mountain, started a fire and ‘saw a white and shining vein – pure silver’. While Galeano’s description of Potosi at the height of its wealth and notoriety reached beyond the data of exploitation to fire the imagination:
By the beginning of the seventeenth century it had thirty-six magnificently decorated churches, thirty-six gambling houses, and fourteen dance academies. Salons, theatres, and fiesta stage-settings had the finest tapestries, curtains, heraldic emblazonry, and wrought gold and silver; multicoloured damasks and cloths of gold and silver hung from the balconies of houses. Silks and fabrics came from Granada, Flanders, and Calabria; hats from Paris and London; diamonds from Ceylon; precious stones from India; pearls from Panama; stockings from Naples; crystal from Venice; carpets from Persia; perfumes from Arabia; porcelain from China. The ladies sparkled with diamonds, rubies, and pearls; the gentlemen sported the finest embroidered fabrics from Holland.
Bullfights were followed by tilting contests, and love and pride inspired frequent medieval-style duels with emerald-studded, gaudily plumed helmets, gold filigree saddles and stirrups, Toledo swords, and richly caparisoned Chilean ponies.
In 1579 the royal judge Matienzo complained: “There is never a shortage of novelty, scandal, and wantonness.” Potosi had at the time 800 professional gamblers and 120 famous prostitutes, whose resplendent salons were thronged with wealthy miners.
In 1608 Potosi celebrated the feast of the Holy Sacrament with six days of plays and six nights of masked balls, eight days of bullfights and three of fiestas, two of tournaments and other dissipations.
Nevertheless, Galeano’s text also analysed the consequences of the wealth flowing out of Potosi:
The metals taken from the new colonial dominions not only stimulated Europe’s economic development; one may say that they made it possible. Even the effect of the Persian treasure seized and poured into the Hellenic world by Alexander the Great cannot be compared with Latin America’s formidable contribution to the progress of other regions. Not, however, to that of Spain, although Spain owned the sources of Latin American silver. As it used to be said in the seventeenth century, “Spain is like a mouth that receives the food, chews it, and passes it on to the other organs, retaining no more than a fleeting taste of the particles that happen to stick in its teeth.”
Galeano provides an example of how the process enriched the burgeoning regions of Europe:
The laces of Lille and Arras, Dutch fabrics, Brussels tapestries, Florentine brocades, Venetian crystal, Milanese arms, and French wines and cloths swamped the Spanish market, at the expense of local production, to satisfy the ostentation and consumer demands of ever more numerous and powerful parasites in ever poorer countries.
Two decades later I would recommend The Open Veins of Latin America to Access to HE students who had opted to study an option in Development Studies (a subject that, like European Studies I also taught, has since more or less vanished from the English university curriculum). Galeano wrote at a time when Dependency theory – the idea that resources flow from a ‘periphery’ of poor and underdeveloped regions to the central ‘core’ of wealthy states, enriching the latter at the expense of the former – was highly influential. I would encourage my students to consider how Dependency theory had arisen as a rejection of the Modernization theory of development which held that all societies progress through similar stages of development – meaning that underdeveloped areas would inevitably progress in the same way as, through international trade and investment, wealth ‘trickled down’ from rich nations to the poor. (See: ‘Dependency theory – is it all over now?‘ by Jonathan Glennie and Nora Hassanaien, Guardian 2012)
The Open Veins of Latin America has had a vigorous after-life: it is now a set text for students in many Latin American countries, while Isabel Allende took a copy with her when she fled Chile after the 1973 coup. Most famously, Hugo Chávez presented a copy to Barack Obama when they met at the White House in 2009. Galeano himself later admitted to mixed feelings about the book: ‘It was trying to be a work of political economics, but I just didn’t have the right training. I don’t regret writing it, but I’ve moved beyond that stage.’
The next stage proved to be Memory of Fire, a trilogy that consists of the volumes Genesis, Faces and Masks, and Century of the Wind. Above all else, they are the works for which I revere Eduardo Galeano. Shamefully, searching Amazon today to replace my own mislaid copies, it appears that the trilogy is currently out of print in English translation.
In one sense you might describe these books as constituting a history of the Americas (North, Central and South). But, although Galeano does follow a chronological timeline from pre-history to the present, that fails to adequately describe a trilogy which consists of a series of vignettes or prose poems, none of them longer than half a page or so.
Memory of Fire is no academic history: each chapter tells a small story, and each story serves as an anecdotal, mythical or factually-based fable that contributes to a single long history of the rape of the Americas by both external and internal forces. Galeano once said, ‘Each fragment of this huge mosaic is based on a solid documentary foundation. What is told here has happened, although I tell it in my style and manner.’
For each vignette Galeano cites the source that inspired it, and his bibliography shows that Galeano’s research has been extensive. He has consulted the original chroniclers of the conquest, such as Bernal Diaz, Bartolomé de Las Casas and the English Dominican Thomas Gage, in addition to the work of modern scholars.
The first volume, Genesis, delves back into pre-history and the many origin stories of the tribes of the Americas, and portraying life in the Americas before the age of the conquistadors. The second book, Faces and Masks, spans the two centuries between the years 1700 and 1900, in which colonial powers plundered their new-found territories, while in the third volume, Century of the Wind, Galeano brings the story into the twentieth century, as popular revolts against dictators backed by the USA blaze from Mexico to Chile.
Galeano’s constant theme is the crushing defeat and exploitation of the defenceless by the powerful. Here are episodes – many of them little known or forgotten – in the narrative of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, the Africans who were brought to the Americas as slaves, and the peons, indentured servants, and peasants rendered landless by oligarchs. From the pre-Columbian era to the late 20th century, Galeano weaves their story, told in fragments composed as a symphony structure in which certain themes or motifs appear and reappear. This fragmentary history reflects Galeano’s perception of the history of the Americas: land that is splintered into individual countries, each splintered into factions and classes, with the result that there is no one Latin American identity, only a cacophonous multitude of voices. Nevertheless, for Galeano this history is one of conflict, of resistance to injustice and oppression.
Reviewing the trilogy in the New Statesman, Amanda Hopkinson spoke of Galeano’s ‘unsentimental tenderness for those who suffer’ that ‘defies geography as much as history, insisting on the Americas as a common continent’.
In 1492, the natives discovered they were indians, discovered they lived in America, discovered they were naked, discovered that the Sin existed, discovered they owed allegiance to a King and Kingdom from another world and a God from another sky, and that this God had invented the guilty and the dress, and had sent to be burnt alive who worships the Sun the Moon the Earth and the Rain that wets it.
― Eduardo Galeano, Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History (2013)
This is not a historian’s history, and it is certainly not an objective analysis. Galeano’s sources are myths and magical tales as well as documentary reports. But Galeano repeatedly asks us to question the nature of what is recorded in official histories, and how the historical record should be interpreted. He seeks to unmask how lies in history can become the official version. For example, in vignettes entitled ‘The Government Decides That Peronism Doesn’t Exist’ or ‘The Government Decides That Truth Doesn’t Exist’. Another episode records how the President of Guatemala proclaims the Santa Maria volcano dormant despite the lava destroying Quetzaltenango. Galeano’s ironic title reads, ‘The Government Decides That Reality Doesn’t Exist.’
There is a cyclical element to Memory of Fire, first introduced in Genesis in which the first fragments deal with the birth of creation in a dream by God. The myth introduces the idea of cyclical time by stating that woman and man will be born and die again and again: ‘They will never stop being born, because death is a lie.’ While much of the first section of Genesis focuses on indigenous myths of nature and creation, later comes the prophecy of the ‘rule of greed’ : ‘Men will turn into slaves … the world will become small and humiliated.’
Here are two examples of Galeano’s style, vignettes which record episodes in which the resistance of indigenous peoples is crushed by the Spanish conquistadors. The first, entitled ‘1524: Quetzaltenango The Poet Will Tell Children the Story of This Battle’, tells of the battle of Quetzaltenango in which the people of the 300 year-old city of the Maya (in present-day Guatemala), led by their ruler Tecún Umán, are defeated and killed by the Spanish led by Pedro de Alvarado:
The poet will speak of Pedro de Alvarado and of those who came with him to teach fear.
For a long time Alvarado contemplated his beaten enemy, his body slashed open, the quetzal feathers sprouting from his arms and legs, the wings broken, the triple crown of pearls, diamonds and emeralds.
The children seated in a circle around the poet will ask: “And all this you saw? You heard?”
‘You were here?’ the children will ask.
‘No. None of our people who were here survived.’
The poet will point to the moving clouds and the sway of the treetops.
‘See the lances?’ he will ask. ‘See the horses’ hooves? The rain of arrows? The smoke? Listen,’ he will say, and put his ear against the ground, filled with explosions. And he will teach them to smell history in the wind, to touch it in stones polished by the river, and to recognize its taste by chewing certain herbs, without hurry, as one chews on sadness.
This second extract, dated 1525, concerns the defeat and execution of the last Aztec Emperor, Cuauhtemoc, at Tenochtitlan (now the site of Mexico City):
From the branch of an old ceiba tree, hung by the ankles, swings the body of the last king of the Aztecs.
Cortes has cut off his head.
He had arrived in the world in a cradle surrounded by shields and spears, and these were the first sounds he heard: “Your real home is elsewhere. You are promised to another land. Your proper place is the battlefield. Your task is to give the blood of your enemy to the sun to drink and the body of your enemy to the earth to eat.”
Twenty-nine years ago, the soothsayers poured water over his head and pronounced the ritual words:”Where are you hiding, misfortune? In which limb do you conceal yourself? Away from this child!”
They called him Cuauhtemoc, eagle that falls. His father had extended the empire from sea to sea. When the prince took over the throne, the invaders had already come and conquered. Cuauhtemoc rose up and resisted. Four years after the defeat of Tenochtitlan, the songs that call for the warrior’s return still resound from the depths of the forest.
Who now rocks his mutilated body? The wind, or the ceiba tree? Isn’t it the ceiba from its enormous crown? Does it not accept this broken branch as one more arm of the thousand that spring from its majestic trunk? Will red flowers sprout from it?
Life goes on. Life and death go on.
Born in Montevideo, with Welsh, Spanish, German and Italian blood in his veins to a family belonged to the fallen Uruguayan aristocracy, Eduardo Galeano began working as a journalist in the 1960s, editing Marcha, one of Latin America’s top political and cultural weekly journals. In 1973, following a military coup in Uruguay, Galeano was imprisoned and later was forced to flee to Argentina where he founded the cultural magazine, Crisis. His book The Open Veins of Latin America was banned by the military government in Uruguay.
In 1976, Argentina also fell to a military coup and Galeano’s name was added to the lists of those condemned by the death squads in the brutal period of the ‘dirty war’ against leftist. He fled again, this time to Spain where he wrote his the Memory of Fire trilogy, described by one reviewer as ‘the most powerful literary indictment of colonialism in the Americas’.
I find it hard to categorize any of the books I’ve written. It’s difficult to draw the line between fiction and fact. What I like best is telling stories. I feel I’m a storyteller. I give and take, back and forth. I listen to voices and transform them through the creative act into a story, an essay, a poem, a novel. I try to combine genres to go beyond the standard divisions and convey a complete message because I believe you can create such a synthesis with human language.
In an article for the Guardian in 2013, Gary Younge observed that, despite the catalogue of genocide, cruelty, abuse, and exploitation exerted upon the people of Latin America which he sets forth in Memory of Fire, Galeano ‘is an optimist’. Younge cites the closing paragraph of Century of the Wind, the third volume of Memory of Fire:
The tree of life knows that, whatever happens, the warm music spinning around it will never stop. However much death may come, however much blood may flow, the music will dance men and women as long as the air breaths them and the land ploughs and loves them.
Younge writes that Galeano’s world view is not complicated – military and economic interests are destroying the world, amassing increasing power in the hands of the wealthy and crushing the poor. He understands the present situation not as a new development, but a continuum on a planet permanently plagued by conquest and resistance. ‘History never really says goodbye,” he says. “History says, see you later.’
Galeano told Younge, ‘My great fear is that we are all suffering from amnesia. I wrote to recover the memory of the human rainbow, which is in danger of being mutilated.’ Younge asks who is responsible for this forgetfulness? ‘It’s not a person,’ Galeano replies. ‘It’s a system of power that is always deciding in the name of humanity who deserves to be remembered and who deserves to be forgotten … We are much more than we are told. We are much more beautiful.
The big bankers of the world, who practise the terrorism of money, are more powerful than kings and field marshals, even more than the Pope of Rome himself. They never dirty their hands. They kill no-one: they limit themselves to applauding the show. Their officials, international technocrats, rule our countries: they are neither presidents nor ministers, they have not been elected, but they decide the level of salaries and public expenditure, investments and divestments, prices, taxes, interest rates, subsidies, when the sun rises and how frequently it rains. However, they don’t concern themselves with the prisons or torture chambers or concentration camps or extermination centres, although these house the inevitable consequences of their acts. The technocrats claim the privilege of irresponsibility: ‘We’re neutral’ they say.
The Open Veins of Latin America opens with a preface, entitled, ‘In Defense of the Word’:
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 behaviour and language of those who read. One writes, in reality, for the people whose luck or misfortune one identifies with – the hungry, the sleepless, the rebels, and the wretched of this earth – and the majority of them are illiterate. […]
By writing it is possible to offer, in spite of persecution and censorship, the testimony of our time and our people – for now and for later. One may write as if to say: ‘We are here, we were here; we are thus, we were thus’.
Footnote: an affectionate appreciation of Galeano, ‘my late friend and comrade’ by Tariq Ali in the Guardian, Saturday 18 April:
His entire work is suffused with the idea of mass democracy, whereby the poor and oppressed achieve self-emancipation through common action for limited or broader goals. … History written as poetry, three volumes of vignettes, each of them a pearl that went to make a stunning necklace.