Tariq Ali in an interview with the Guardian on April 17, following the death of Eduardo Galeano on April 13, delivered a brief homage to the great Latin American writer, saying “Galeano’s entire life is suffused with the idea of mass democracy, whereby, the poor and oppressed can achieve self-esteem and emancipation through common action and solidarity.”
In all of Galeano’s work is the seminal, leftist thought that people can move beyond capitalist domination and ideology and become subjects in history, rather than objects of capitalist hegemony They can overcome capitalist alienation, and ultimately determine their own future.
You discover in his writing the recurring message that literature can be a very important social activity, when carried out in the context of larger social and economic forces. That literary production is eminently tied to historically dominant economic conditions and class relations. Galeano’s opus, Open Veins of Latin America, remains a classic illustration of his early Marxist influence.
An historian, Galeano knew what it must be like to live in a certain period of time, and how this experience can be best articulated and reproduced only in literature. In Open Veins, one of the paramount issues raised is when he talks of a total individual and social alienation as a pernicious consequence of capitalist expansion and control.
Nevertheless, the claim is made that men can fight against systematic individual and social estrangement by becoming advocates for the full development of their powers as human beings, while ensuring the possibility of the abolition of all economic imprisonment.
As the work of a young writer, Open Veins remains one of Latin America’s most enduring anti-capitalist classics. Written in a highly ideological and emotional way, Galeano applies his critique of capitalism to say that it was the major source of European colonization and U.S. imperialism.
“…the more freedom you award to business, the more jailhouses will be built for those who suffer business in their flesh…this is Latin America: the open veins region.”
The book is a rant, a long, incredibly outraged philippic about European colonization, foreign oppression, and modern U.S. imperialism. Open Veins chronicles five centuries of the “pillage of a continent” and centuries of economic and political exploitation of the region, first by Europe, then the United States.
“[T]his world is not democratic at all. The most powerful institutions, the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and World Bank belong to three or four countries. The world is organized by the war economy and the war culture.” These passages serve to illustrate Galeano’s major critique of an economic and political system whose enduring structures of inequity and underdevelopment continue to create havoc and misery in the Third World.
All of Galeano’s critical observations are vividly represented here: imperialism, the pharmaceutical industries, western-style government, the military, the church, corporations, and Hollywood.
It was his conviction that Latin America has always “specialized in losing” and “works as a menial.” Its only importance is to serve as a source of raw materials for rich nations. Galeano is giving expression to the analogy of core nations serving as a source of raw materials to the peripherally rich industrialized nations that profit from iniquitous trade arrangement with the South.
Galeano’s book came at a time of broad social and political unrest in the 1970s. The work became a touchstone of left-wing political discourse across the continent, but also in Europe and the United States. If his language became infused by dated Marxist commonplaces, his crucial points and arguments are still considered valid, and continue to exercise a great influence on political thinking in Latin America.
Later in his career, Galeano never ceased being a political writer. Rather, it is his literary strategies that changed. He was still engaged but became a more sophisticated creative author. His thinking began to move to a richer more contradictory view of the world, one that embraced political matters in a wider, thematic framework. And unlike Open Veins, which he later disavowed, his discourse took on a more imaginative mode of fiction and storytelling.
Galeano’s last book, Children of the Days, demonstrates his great mastery of the literary fragment and epigrammatical style. It is composed of an immensely varied gathering of facts truths and tales of every kind. Its basis is still a passionate and humane concern for the oppressed, the poor, and the forgotten. As in his earlier writing, Galeano gives expression to people who are marginalized, excluded, and discarded.
Children of the Days has been called a work rich in literary integrity and justice. But the recognition remains that “it’s a system of power that is always deciding in the name of humanity who deserves to be remembered and who decides to be forgotten … we are much more than we are told,” he muses. “We are much more beautiful.”
Reprinted with permission by CounterPunch
Eduardo Galeano photograph: Ezequiel Scagnetti/Eyevine