I was sorry to hear of the death of Eduardo Galeano this week. There was a time when he had a big impact on my own political formation and my own understanding of history. I first read Open Veins of Latin America sometime in the late 70s when I was reading a lot of Latin American writers, pretty much anything I could find in fact. Marquez, Carpentier, Cortázar, Roa Bastos, Asturias, I gobbled them all up.
Open Veins was a history book not a novel, but it was not like any history book I had ever read. It combined a furious and remorseless indictment of the impact of colonialism and neocolonialism on Latin America with a sweeping historical narrative, illuminated by compelling storytelling that brought the historical events and processes Galeano described vividly and unforgettably to life.
It was a book about political economy, about silver, coffee, copper, petroleum and agriculture, without any of the dry desiccated language that so many historians and economists use when they write about such things. It was not a book written for university seminars, but a call to arms, which reached out to a readership in a continent that was just beginning to speak with its own voice through literature, but whose voices were being muzzled across the continent by the dictatorships and national security states that Galeano saw as the natural descendants of the conquistadors.
And there is no doubt that he found that audience. One reader was too poor to buy it so he read the whole book by visiting bookshops and reading it standing up. Another woman stood up in a bus and began reading it aloud to the passengers. I like to imagine that unknown reader, stunning a crowded bus with these stirring first lines:
‘The division of labor among nations is that some specialize in winning and others in losing. Our part of the world, known today as Latin American, was precocious; it has specialized in losing ever since those remote times when Renaissance Europeans ventured across the ocean and buried their teeth in the throats of the Indian civilizations. ‘
In the early 80s I studied Third World History at the School of African Studies. In those days SOAS was a very different place to what it is today, with a fusty post-imperial feel that I felt distinctly uncomfortable with. Galeano was not a name to get much traction in such surroundings. His book was essentially a populist variant of the ‘dependency theory’ school of economics, most famously put forward by Walter Rodney, Andre Gunder Frank and others, which argued that Europe had systematically ‘under-developed’ the Third World as well as enriching itself through the exploitation of its people and resources.
When I was at SOAS these ideas were coming under sustained and sometimes contemptuous criticism. They were regarded as crude, reductionist, and over-simplistic, and their proponents were accused of making ideological rather than historical judgements and over-emphasising the impact of colonialism and neglecting the importance of domestic and indigenous factors in driving or inhibiting development etc, etc.
Some of these criticisms were undoubtedly warranted, and some of them can be applied to Galeano’s book. ‘Plunder’ is a word that features a great deal in Open Veins, and there are times when it becomes a crude shorthand to describe more complicated economic processes. But the ‘domestic factors’ argument also left out a great deal, and led far too easily to the smug assumption that some countries ‘developed’ because they were more politically and culturally able to do so, and that imperialism wasn’t really too bad when you thought about it and might even have been beneficial to the countries it supposedly exploited.
Galeano’s book was an assault on such complacency. When he wrote Open Veins he belonged firmly to the revolutionary left, and the optimistic hopes of the 1960s are stamped all over his earlier Guatemala: Occupied Country (1967), which I still have, in which he predicted that Guatemala would become the next Vietnam.
Galeano was wrong about that. But so were a lot of people from his generation who rushed to the mountains and jungles all over the continent, or waged urban guerrilla warfare in Montevideo, Caracas and Buenos Aires, in the heady aftermath of the Cuban revolution. Galeano was a witness to that struggle through his books and his work as a journalist with the Uruguayan Marcha and Crisis in Argentina.
He witnessed the continent-wide repression in which many of his comrades were killed, imprisoned or ‘disappeared’, and he was lucky to escape the same fate himself. Exiled from Uruguay during the dictatorship, he could easily have been killed in Argentina, where he was reportedly on the Junta’s death list.
He brilliantly described those years in Dias y noches de amor y guerra ( Days and Nights of Love and War, 1978), which remains my favourite of his books. It was in Dias y noches that Galeano first began to develop the short, aphoristic style that would characterize his later work, in a series of powerful and often lyrical vignettes that sounded like poetic dispatches banged out on a clandestine typewriter in an underground cellar with the police knocking on the front door.
Galeano survived those years. Maybe it was the chastening impact of witnessing so many revolutionary dreams drowned in blood, or middle age, or the impact of the ‘post-utopian’ Latin American left, but his writing became mellower, shorter, less journalistic and more poetic and reflective. That doesn’t mean that he ‘retreated into poetry’, as Camus put it, or that he went through the tedious trajectory from youthful radical to conservative followed by his contemporary Mario Vargas Llosa.
I saw him speak in Barcelona back in the ’90s and he was thoughtful, witty, and committed, and still very much a man of the left. Even then, with Latin America bent under the neoliberal cudgel, Galeano was still cautiously optimistic about the continent’s ability to remake itself. His writing had an influence over the Bolivaran revolution and the leftist surge. In 2009 Hugo Chavez presented Barack Obama with a gift of Open Veins.
Yet ironically last year, Galeano appeared to disavow his most famous book, when he told a Brasilian book fair:
‘”Open Veins” tried to be a book of political economy, but I didn’t yet have the necessary training or preparation. I wouldn’t be capable of reading this book again; I’d keel over. For me, this prose of the traditional left is extremely leaden, and my physique can’t tolerate it.’
I quite admired him for that, because the things we think and believe when we are younger are not always the same when we are older, or at least our way of expressing what we think and believe may not be, and it was honest of Galeano to hold his youthful self up to critical scrutiny. A number of newspapers, including the New York Times reported this statement with undisguised glee, sensing a repentant leftist ready to renounce his past ‘errors’.
But Galeano’s disavowal was not quite what it seemed. Asked in an exchange with Dr Jorge Mafjud in Le Monde Diplomatique last May to elaborate on his self-criticism, Galeano replied.
‘The book, written ages ago, is still alive and kicking. I am simply honest enough to admit that at this point in my life the old writing style seems rather stodgy, and that it’s hard for me to recognize myself in it since I now prefer to be increasingly brief and untrammeled.’
Mafjud asked him if his ‘otherwise useful self-criticism is being exploited for ideological purposes? Or perhaps we’ve come to the end of history and we no longer see injustice or exploitation anywhere?’ To which Gabo replied:
‘Jorge, you can write down whatever you like. I fully believe in your talent and honesty. The other voices that have been raised against me and against The Open Veins of Latin America are seriously ill with bad faith.’
Indeed they were. But Galeano was too hard on his youthful self. Whatever its analytical shortcomings, Opens Veins was not ‘stodgy’. For me, he was one of those all-too-rare leftist writers like Victor Serge and C.L.R James, who didn’t talk in clichés or recite shopworn doctrines and ideological certainties, but was able to make you feel the moral force of the left.
Galeano once described socialism as ‘the greatest dream that humanity ever had.’ There is a touch of post-utopian wistfulness in that observation, as if he were describing something that was no longer possible. But I don’t think that he ever abandoned his belief in the ability of the ignored and the voiceless to find a place in history and construct a better future. Maybe that faith was a little more tenuous in his later years, but the light still burned.
After this is the man who once wrote ‘Always in all my books I’m trying to reveal or help to reveal the hidden greatness of the small, of the little, of the unknown – and the pettiness of the big.’ It would be difficult to choose an epitaph for this most aphoristic and quotable of writers, but he did say on one occasion that ‘Many small people, in small places, doing small things can change the world.’
Every word he wrote was steeped in that conviction. I don’t think he ever lost it.