BY DAVID BARSAMIANEDUARDO GALEANO is one of Latin America's most distinguished writers, storytellers, journalists, and historians. His classic work is Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent (Monthly Review Press, 1973). His other books include Book of Embraces (Norton, 1992), We Say No: Chronicles 1963-1991 (Norton, 1992), and the award-winning trilogy Memory of Fire, reissued by Norton last year. His latest book, also published last year by Verso, is Soccer in Sun and Shadow.
Under the soft languid tones of Galeano's Uruguayan speech is a razor-sharp intellect infused with a poetic sensibility, a biting wit, and a commitment to social justice. He apologizes to Shakespeare and to any other native speaker for his English. But I found in listening to him that his creative and accented version actually made me hear more.
Born in Montevideo in 1940, he was a kind of prodigy. At thirteen, he was already submitting political commentary and cartoons to a local socialist weekly. Later, he was the editor of various journals and newspapers, including the daily Epoca. In 1973, he went into exile in Argentina, where he founded and edited the magazine Crisis. He lived in Spain from 1976 to 1984 and then returned to Uruguay.
A scathing critic of the media and consumerism, Galeano writes in We Say No: "The mass media does not reveal reality; it masks it. It doesn't help bring about change; it helps avoid change. It doesn't encourage democratic participation; it induces passivity, resignation, and selfishness. It doesn't generate creativity; it creates consumers."
In his book Days and Nights of Love and War (Monthly Review Press, 1982), he explains why he does what he does: "One writes out of a need to communicate and 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. . . . To awaken consciousness, to reveal identity--can literature claim a better function in these times?"
Galeano takes readers on a tour of Latin America--"the continent," as Isabel Allende describes it, "that appears on the map in the form of an ailing heart." His imaginative writing style supplies oxygen to patients in all hemispheres. Here's the mythic opening of Faces and Masks, part two of Memory of Fire:
"The blue tiger will smash the world. Another land, without evil, without death, will be born from the destruction of this one. This land wants it. It asks to die, asks to be born, this old and offended land. It is weary and blind from so much weeping behind closed eyelids. On the point of death, it strides the days, garbage heap of time, and at night, it inspires pity from the stars. Soon the First Father will hear the supplications, land wanting to be another, and then the blue tiger who sleeps beneath his hammock will jump."
Galeano was in Santa Fe in late April to receive the first $250,000 Prize for Cultural Freedom from the Lannan Foundation. In addition, another $100,000 was given to three alternative cultural institutions, designated by Galeano, in Uruguay. Lannan, an upstart in the foundation world, has progressive politics, though its wealth comes from a former director of the multinational company ITT. Lannan hit the news in March when it boldly stepped in to cover the printing costs for a bilingual children's book Historia de los Colores: The Story of Colors (Cinco Puntos Press), written by Subcomandante Marcos. The original funding from the National Endowment for the Arts was abruptly canceled when it learned the identity of the book's author.
At the reception following his prize ceremony, Galeano tried to whittle down our interview time by pleading a busy schedule. I told him it was for The Progressive. He relented. Now that's clout!
Q: Open Veins of Latin America has sold more than a million copies. It's been translated into many languages. You wrote it in three months, which is a phenomenally short period of time. How did you generate such a burst of energy?
Eduardo Galeano: Coffee. The real author of this book was coffee. I drank oceans of it because at that time, 1970, I was working in the mornings at the university in Montevideo. I was the editor of university publications. In the afternoons, I was working for private publishers also as an editor, rewriting and correcting books on any subject you can imagine, like the sexual life of mosquitoes. Then, from 7:00 or 8:00 in the evening to 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning, I was writing Open Veins. I didn't sleep for three months. But it was an advertisement for coffee's virtues. So be careful with coffee if you don't want to become a leftwinger.
Q: What accounts for the book's staying power?
Galeano: Perhaps masochism. I can't understand it. The book brings to the nonspecialized reader a lot of historical information. I didn't discover the facts I'm telling in Open Veins. I tried to rewrite history in a language that could be understood by anybody. Perhaps this is why the book has had such success. At the beginning, it had no success at all. But later, it opened its own road and went on walking, and it's still walking.
Perhaps the central idea of the book, which may work as a spinal cord, is that you cannot confuse a dwarf with a child. They have the same size, but they are quite different. So when you hear all the technocrats speaking about developing countries, they are implying that we are living in a sort of infancy of capitalism, which is not true at all. Latin America is not a stage on the way toward development. It is the result of development, the result of five centuries of history.
Q: You could have had a comfortable life writing for magazines or teaching in universities, but a long time ago you decided to labor on behalf of the voiceless.
Galeano: I don't feel there is anyone who is voiceless. Everybody has something to say, something that deserves to be heard by others. So I never shared this attitude of becoming the voice of the voiceless. The problem is that just a few have the privilege of being heard. I'm not a martyr, not a hero.
We all have the right to know and to express ourselves, which is nowadays very difficult as long as we are obeying the orders of an invisible dictatorship. It is the dictatorship of the single word, the single image, the single tune, and perhaps it's more dangerous than other dictatorships because it acts on a world scale. It's an international structure of power which is imposing universal values that center on consumption and violence. It means that you are what you have. If you don't have, you are not. The right to be depends on your ability to buy things. You are defined by the things you have. It's like you are driven by your car. You are bought by your supermarket. You are seen by your TV screen. You are programmed by your computer. We have all become tools of our tools.
Q: Is there any end to this cycle?
Galeano: If the consumption society imposes its values all over the world, then the planet would disappear. We cannot afford it. We don't have enough air, earth, or water to pay the price for such a disaster.
The model imposed on all of Latin America is not Amsterdam or Florence or Bologna; in these cities, cars are not the owners of the streets. These are cities with bikes, with public transport, with people walking. Cities that people feel they own. Cities that provide a common place. Cities were born from the human necessity of encounter. Cities were born as a result of, "I want to meet friends. I want to be with other people." Today, cities are places where machines encounter machines. We humans have become intruders.
And what do we want to become like? Los Angeles, a city in which cars own much more space than people. This is an impossible dream. We cannot become them. If the entire world has the same quantity of cars as the U.S. with its one-person, one-car, then the planet will explode. We have poisoned the air, poisoned the earth, poisoned the waters, poisoned the human souls. Everything is poisoned.
When a Latin American president in his speech says, "We are becoming part of the First World," in the first place he's lying. Second, this is practically impossible. And in the third place, he should be in jail because this is an incitement to crime. If you say, "I want Montevideo to become Los Angeles," you are inviting the destruction of Montevideo.
Q: A lot of people in the United States, when they think of Latin America, see a vast beach, a playground, from Cancún and Acapulco to Copacabana and Mar del Plata. Or they see a threatening and menacing face: narcotraffickers, leftist guerrillas, favelas, and shantytowns. What do you make of the U.S. attitude toward Latin America?
Galeano: I am astonished each time I come to the U.S. by the ignorance of a high percentage of the population, which knows almost nothing about Latin America or about the world. It's quite blind and deaf to anything that may happen outside the frontiers of the U.S.
I was a professor at Stanford University three years ago. Once I was talking with an old professor, an important and cultured man. Suddenly, he asked me, "Where do you come from?"
I said, "Uruguay."
He said, "Uruguay?"
As I knew that nobody knows where Uruguay is, I quickly tried to change the subject and talk about something else.
But he was gentle enough to say, "Well, we have been doing terrible things there."
I suddenly realized that he was speaking about Guatemala because The New York Times had just published some articles about CIA involvement in Guatemala.
I said, "No, this is Guatemala."
This ignorance of what's happening outside the States implies a high degree of impunity. The military power can do whatever it wants because people have no idea of where Kosovo is or Iraq or Guatemala or El Salvador. And they have no idea that, for instance, centuries before New York was established, Baghdad had one million inhabitants and one of the highest cultures in the world.
The same is true for "our" America, the other America--we are not just echoes of the master's voice.
Q: Or the shadow of his body.
Galeano: Even the ruling classes in Latin America dream to become shadows and echoes. I'm always saying that our worst sin in Latin America is the sin of stupidity because we enjoy looking at our own caricature. For instance, when I meet Latin Americans here in the States, they say, "Now I am in America." Ah, you're in America now, because you are in the States. Before you were where? Greenland? Asia? Japan? We have accepted this distorted vision of ourselves looking at the mirror which despises and scorns us.
Q: You write about the injustice of poverty.
Galeano: In this world, you have injustice on such a broad scale. The difference, the gap, between rich and poor people in material terms has been multiplied in these thirty years since I wrote Open Veins.
The last U.N. report says that in 1999, 225 persons own a fortune equivalent to the total amount of what half of humanity earns. It's a very unjust distribution of bread and fishes.
But at the same time, the world is equalizing in the habits it imposes. We are condemned to accept the global uniformization, a sort of McDonaldization of the entire world. This is a form of violence against all the worlds that the world contains. I usually say that I reject the idea of being obliged to choose between two possibilities: Either you die of hunger or you die of boredom. We are practicing each day--and we don't notice it because it's invisible, it's secret--a sort of massacre of our capacity to be diverse, to have so many different ways to live life, celebrate, eat, dance, dream, drink, think, and feel. It's like a forbidden rainbow. Now we are being more and more obliged to accept a single way. And this single way is being mainly produced in U.S. factories.
Q: You took to radical politics at a very early age. Was it family influence?
Galeano: No, it was my liver. Perhaps I'm still trying to organize indignation. My mind, which is not especially brilliant, is sometimes useful to organize my feelings, trying to make sense of them, but the process is coming from the feeling to the thoughts and not in the opposite way.
In politics, as in everything else, I am always seeking a perhaps impossible but desirable communion between what I think and what I feel, which is also an intention to develop, to win, to conquer, to discover a language able to express at once emotions and ideas, what Colombians in the small towns on the Caribbean coast call the "feel-thinking language." It's a language which is able to reunite what has been divorced by dominant culture, which is always breaking in pieces everything it touches. You have a language for ideas and another language for emotions. The heart and the mind divorced. The public speech and the private life. History and present, also divorced.
Q: You say that history is not a Sleeping Beauty in some museum.
Galeano: Official history is a Sleeping Beauty, sometimes a sleeping monster, in the museums. But I believe in memory not as an arrival place but as a point of departure, a catapult throwing you to present times, allowing you to imagine the future instead of accepting it. Otherwise it would be absolutely impossible for me to have any connection with history if history were just a collection of dead people, dead names, dead facts. That's why I wrote Memory of Fire in the present tense, trying to keep alive everything that happened and allow it to happen again as soon as the reader reads it.
Q: Your trilogy, Memory of Fire, is a dramatic departure from traditional history. You use an amalgam of poetry, news items, and scholarship. What inspired you to do that?
Galeano: I never accepted the frontiers of the soul, nor did I accept frontiers in the art of writing. When I was a child, I had a Catholic education. I was trained to accept that the body and the soul were enemies, that the body was the source of sin, guilt, pleasure, infecting the soul like the Beauty and the Beast.
It was very difficult for me to internalize this idea, this divorce. I always noticed the contradiction between what I really felt inside me and what I was receiving as revealed truth, coming from God. At that time I believed in him and I believed that he believed in me, so it was not easy to live this contradiction.
When I was ten or eleven, I had this terrible crisis. I felt this panic of feeling guilty about my body--associated, I suppose, with the fact that I was becoming sexual. My body was something like a source of perdition for me, condemning me to hell. Now I accept it. I know perfectly well that I'm going to hell, and I'm getting trained in warm tropical countries to accept the flames. It won't be so terrible.
When I began writing, I felt I had to respect the border separating essays and nonfiction from those other genres, like poetry or short stories or novels.
I hate to be classified. This world has an obsession with classification. We are all treated like insects. We should have a label on the front. So many journalists say, "You are a political writer, right?" Just give me the name of any writer in human history who was not political. All of us are political, even if we don't know that we are political.
I feel that I am violating frontiers, and I am very happy each time I can do that. I suppose I should be working as a smuggler instead of a writer, because this joy of violating a frontier is, indeed, revealing a smuggler inside me, a delinquent.
Q: You recently received a prize from the Lannan Foundation, which was established from funds from a former director of International Telephone and Telegraph, ITT, a multinational corporation which you've written very critically about and which figured prominently in the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile.
Galeano: I didn't receive the prize from ITT. I received the prize from the Lannan Foundation.
Q: But the seed monies came from there.
Galeano: It's a good trip from hell to heaven.
Q: Why do you think the U.S. is such a violent society?
Galeano: I wouldn't say the U.S. is a violent society. It contains also energies of beauty and democracy. I wouldn't fall in my own trap, saying, "The big bad guy in the world is the U.S." It would be too easy. Reality is much more complex.
There is a culture of violence, a military culture, impregnando todo, marking everything, spreading, permeating everything it touches. You have, for instance, the entertainment industry, which is thick with violence, oceans of blood coming from the TV or the big screens. Everything is exploding all the time--cars, people. It is a sort of continuous bombing of everything. It is the old story of the chicken and the egg, which came first? The entertainment industry says, "We are innocent. A violent reality is reflected by the mirror of films or TV. We are not inventing violence. Violence comes from the streets." But in this circle, the media are having an influence.
So there is perhaps an invisible connection between Yugoslavia and Littleton, Colorado. Both are expressions of the same culture of violence. Wars are made in the name of peace, and military actions always are called humanitarian missions. We are receiving daily doses of violence through the news, films, and in the streets.
The world is a violent place. And it's very easy to condemn poor people who steal or kidnap or kill. It's like condemning drug addicts. But it's not so easy to find the roots and condemn the system which generates crime and the use of drugs. There is much anxiety and anguish that everybody is eating and drinking each day.
Q: What about the Pentagon's role?
Galeano: The huge U.S. military budget is preposterous. Who is the enemy? It's like a Western movie. You need a bad guy. If he doesn't exist, then you invent him. In the States, you need new villains. Saddam Hussein this morning, Milosevic this afternoon. But you need a bad guy. What a poor God without a Satan to fight against!
One of the big paradoxes in this upside-down world is that the five countries empowered to take care of peace are also the five biggest producers of arms. Almost half of the total weapons in the world are made by the United States, followed by Great Britain, France, Russia, and China. These are the countries with the right of veto in the U.N. Security Council. The U.N. was born to bring peace to the world, but the five countries with this sacred, beautiful, poetic mission of peace are also the five ones conducting the business of war.
Uruguay is in the U.N. General Assembly. It's absolutely symbolic. The Assembly can make suggestions, but the decisions are made by the five countries that own and control the world. ?
The twentieth century has been a century of wars--more than 100 million people killed. This is a great quantity of persons, a multitude. Each time I hear about wars in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Africa, and anywhere else, I always ask the same question, with no answer: "Who is selling the arms? Who is making profit from this human tragedy?" I have never found the answer in the media, and it's the main question you should ask when you hear about a war. Who is selling the arms? The five dominant countries that are taking care of peace. It's terrible, but it's a reality.
Q: What can we learn from indigenous people?
Galeano: A lot. First, the certitude of communion with nature. Otherwise you may confuse ecology with gardening. You may take nature for a landscape. Nature is you, me. We are part of nature, so any crime committed against nature is a crime committed against humanity. But I don't share the view that we're committing suicide because I'm not committing suicide. It's just 20 percent of the human population wasting natural resources and poisoning the earth; 80 percent are suffering the consequences.
When political leaders sometimes say, with hand on heart, "We are committing suicide," they are referring to a crime committed by the most profitable industries in the world. Las que más dañan son las que más ganan, those that damage the most, gain the most. And they are all green. When I was young, green were the valleys, verdes valles, green were the jokes, chistes verdes, and green were the old men pursuing girls, los viejos verdes. Now, everybody is green. The World Bank is green. The International Monetary Fund is green. The chemical industry is green. The automobile industry is green. Even the military industry is green. Everybody's green.
It's interesting because in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when Europe conquered America, lots of Indians were punished or burned alive because they were committing the sin of idolatry. They were adoring nature.
Today, the system of power no longer speaks of nature as an obstacle that should be overcome in order to get profits. Conquering nature, nature as something to be vanquished--this was the old language. The new language now is about protecting nature. But in both cases, language is revealing the divorce. We human beings and nature are different.
We should learn from Indian culture the deep sense of communion. This is something for God to include in the Ten Commandments. It would be the Eleventh Commandment: "You should love nature, to which you belong."
Q: How did you react to the collapse of the Soviet Union?
Galeano: I never felt myself identified with the so-called socialism of the Soviet Union. I always felt it wasn't socialism at all. It was an exercise in bureaucratic power with no connection to people. They were acting in the name of people, but they despised them. They were paying tribute in their speeches and all the official language, but they were treating people as a minority, as children or sheep.
So I didn't feel that socialism was dead when the Soviet Union collapsed. That it collapsed in such an easy way was eloquent enough: There was almost no blood, no tears, no nothing. But socialism is not dead because it hasn't been born. It's something I hope that humanity may perhaps find.
The present situation--from the point of view of the poor countries, the outskirts of the world--is much worse than before because with the Soviet Union you had at least a certain balance of power. Now this balance of power has disappeared, and so we have no choices. The possibilities of acting with a sense of independence have narrowed.
Q: Are there any hopeful signs you can point to?
Galeano: There are a lot of signs of hope inside the U.S. and Mexico, and inside other countries, as well. You have a lot of movements but most of them have no echoes in the media. They are more or less secret because they act on a local level. Sometimes they are very small. But they are incarnating an answer, looking for a different world, not accepting the present world as their destiny but living it as a challenge. You have a lot of small movements everywhere fighting for human rights, against sexual discrimination, against injustice, against exploitation of children, preserving and developing agricultural forms which are not damaging to the earth.
There is a popular movement in Mexico called El Barzón. Nobody knows about it outside Mexico, but it's very important. It's a spontaneous movement born from the necessity to resist the pressures of Mexican banks. In the beginning, it was no more than a hundred or so people defending what they had--their homes, their businesses, their farms--against the voracious financial powers. But it grew and grew, and now there are more than one million persons. They have become so important that when a delegation from El Barzón went to Washington, it was received by the vice president of the International Monetary Fund. I suppose this is such an important man he doesn't even speak to his wife, but he received El Barzón.
A lot of movements are telling us hope is possible, tomorrow is not just another name for today.
Q: You make a distinction between charity and solidarity.
Galeano: I don't believe in charity; I believe in solidarity. Charity is vertical, so it's humiliating. It goes from top to bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other and learns from the other. I have a lot to learn from other people. Each day I'm learning. Soy un curioso. I'm a curious man, always devouring other people, their voices, their secrets, their stories, their colors. I'm stealing their words; maybe I should be arrested.
Q: Explain the term abrigar esperanzas.
Galeano: A beautiful Spanish expression, abrigar esperanzas, to shelter hope. Hope needs to be abrigada, protected.
Q: Because it's fragile?
Galeano: She's fragile, and a little delicate, but she's alive. I have friends who say, "I'm entirely hopeless. I don't believe in anything." But you go on living. How is it? I hope I never lose hope, but if that day comes and I'm sure that I have nothing to expect, nothing to believe in, and that the human condition is doomed to stupidity and crime, then I hope I will be honest enough to kill myself. Of course, I know that the human condition is something at once horrible and marvelous. Estamos muy mal hechos, pero no estamos terminados. We are very badly made, but we are not finished.
David Barsamian is the director of Alternative Radio in Boulder, Colorado. He interviewed Edward W. Said in the April issue.
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