Tom Hennigan writes:
With the death of Eduardo Galeano from lung cancer at the age of seventy-four, Latin America has lost one of its most loved public intellectuals and a fierce proponent of social justice. The Uruguayan was the author of some of the region’s most influential twentieth century political essays as well as of an extensive body of journalism and fiction and an acclaimed trilogy of memoirs.
Difficult to pigeonhole, Galeano’s work was often a fragmentary collage-like mixture of genres combining journalism, history, literature, political analysis and memory. The latter, he said, had always obsessed him “above all that of those condemned to be forgotten”.
Of partly Welsh descent, Eduardo Germán María Hughes Galeano was born in Montevideo into a fallen branch of Uruguay’s gentry. His family’s diminished circumstances meant he had to start work at fourteen, trying his hand at an extensive list of jobs before turning to journalism. During the 1960s he was editor of several Uruguayan vehicles including the influential weekly Marcha, which counted among its contributors writers of the calibre of Mario Vargas Llosa, Ricardo Piglia and Mario Benedetti.
Caught up in the intellectual ferment that swept the region after the Cuban revolution of 1959, Galeano increasingly came to focus on the causes of the miserable condition of most of the region’s inhabitants and the struggles of those sworn to change them. This direction culminated in his most famous work and the one for which he is still best remembered, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent (1971). In it he tackled the question of Latin America’s deformed development, which had produced the world’s most socially unequal region. Following its history from the conquista right through to its troubled modern period, Galeano blamed the region’s problems on its rapacious exploitation by first Europe and then the United States.
His thesis made the book an instant classic not just for the revolutionary left but also among the region’s more traditional populist movements and reading it continues to be a rite of passage for many young Latin Americans. At the Summit of the Americas in 2009 Hugo Chávez gave Barack Obama a copy and the gesture won the book a new public in the English-speaking world as it quickly jumped from 60,280th on Amazon’s bestseller list into the top ten.
But Galeano, always noted for his intellectual honesty and rectitude, was unwilling in recent years to defend his most famous thesis after its scholarly weaknesses had been exposed by rigorous academic scrutiny. Speaking in Brazil last year he explained: “…Open Veins tried to be a political economy book, but I simply didn’t have the necessary education. I do not regret writing it, but it is a stage that I have since passed.”
Today the book is less important as a history of Latin America’s political economy than as a key text for understanding the intellectual and emotional landscape of the region’s left during its most turbulent decade and its continuing appeal is testimony to that generation’s enduring grip over the emotions of many born after its defeat.
Open Veins meant Galeano was a marked man once the military seized power in Uruguay in 1973. He was jailed and then forced into exile in Argentina, where he launched the cultural magazine Crisis. But right-wing oppression followed him across the River Plate and after Argentina’s own coup in 1976 he fled again, settling in post-Franco Spain. There he started on his acclaimed trilogy Memory of Fire, which mixed autobiography with meditations on Latin American history and literature which would start to appear after he returned to Uruguay following the restoration of democracy in 1985.
Though he may have moved on from the arguments presented in Open Veins, Galeano never abandoned his indignation at the social cruelties he saw across Latin America and much of his later work sought to understand better than in his famous 1971 screed the roots of the misery that continued to afflict the region. These enduring obsessions are on display in his much quoted 1989 poem Los Nadies (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.
Always one of the most popular draws on the continent’s lecture circuit, Galeano also had a huge readership thanks to his writing on football. His 1995 classic Football in Sun and Shadow was his own contribution to the rich River Plate tradition of football-mad intellectuals writing on the game and he always claimed his literary career grew out of his failure to cut it as a player.
Intellectually. Galeano said he was a product of Montevideo’s cafés and along with Benedetti and Juan Carlos Onetti he could frequently be found in the cafe Brasilero in Montevideo’s decaying Old City. In an interview there with a Brazilian newspaper he once described himself as “a son of cafe culture, son of a Montevideo that is disappearing. For me, the conversations heard, the readings or the reflections that I do here alone are where I best learn.”
On news of his death, Uruguay’s left-wing Broad Front government, whose arrival in power in 2005 Galeano had celebrated, said his body would lie in state in the country’s congress building.