Six years ago, at the Summit of the Americas, Hugo Chavez, sprung a surprise on the unsuspecting Barack Obama by presenting him, with great fanfare, a copy of the original Spanish edition of Open Veins of Latin America. Obama would later notice the subtitle: “Five centuries of the pillage of a continent”. The incident was noticed for the trademark audacity of the Venezuelan president, the Bolivarian pride and élan with which he carried himself. What went unmarked was the singular place Open Veins and its author, Eduardo Galeano, had in the hearts and minds of Latin Americans. It is the single most important weapon that could be aimed at Western powers. All left-leaning and liberal leaders of Latin America recognised its significance and were influenced by it.
Open Veins was first published in 1971, and soon acquired a life of its own. It has the sweep of One Hundred Years of Solitude and the scathing quality of Marx’s prose. In his last years, Galeano himself got wary of the book’s power and popularity. He felt it overshadowed his later work, except his other universally revered classic, Football in Sun and Shadow.
Galeano’s death on April 13 is like the death of Gabriel García Márquez last year. The departure of both is a huge loss for the continent. Both knew how to tell a tale: one could bring his literary talent into play in histories of imperialism, of everyday life, of football; the other his historical sense and chronicler’s skill into fiction. Both started as journalists and remained rooted in the tradition of radical reporting. Their approach to writing has sometimes been described, quite carelessly, as “idiosyncratic” and “magical”; something to be clubbed with gonzo journalism. That is nowhere near a fair description of the style, let alone the substance, of their work and lives.
Galeano “served” his exile in Argentina when military dictatorship descended on his native Uruguay in 1973. He went on a second exile in Spain when Argentina fell under military dictatorship in 1976. In Spain, he wrote his autobiographical book, Days and Nights of Love and War, and later, Memory of Fire, his trilogy on the history of the Americas. He could return to Montevideo only in 1985, after the fall of the dictatorship.
A great teacher without a classroom, this independent writer taught Latin America and the Spanish-speaking world what the empire was about and what it had done to them for five long centuries. To the rest of the world, he was the greatest chronicler of Latin America. He once said that he was not a professional historian but a witness, and his job was to rescue Latin American history from academics who had “kidnapped” it.
If deconstruction is an art, Galeano was its master, in the tradition of Howard Zinn, the great oral historian, documentarian and archivist, Studs Terkel. Galeano knew and taught others how to be radical and present a coherent vision without throwing theory at your face. He taught people how to bring passion to their politics and their professional work. This was a part of his appeal: many of his readers would have learnt the radical method, Marxist or otherwise, without even realising it. He taught boldness and clarity, and the art of writing and conceptualising without ifs and buts. In an era where academics take pride in declaring that their basic duty is not to simplify but to problematise, Galeano demonstrated how to cut through the obfuscation and webs of complexity to reach the heart of the matter.
With him gone, so unexpectedly and suddenly, one cannot avoid asking oneself and counting: How many are gone, and how many of his kind are left?
We in India hardly know who Galeano was or what his work has meant for the Americas and countries in the developing world. The same is true of other icons of popular history, like Zinn and Terkel. Although, Noam Chomsky and Edward Said are rightly well known. This is partly the “collateral damage” of the intricacies of the publishing world and its rights system, and partly the consequence of a decline in the ethos of internationalism and an academic disdain for anything radical or partisan. Latin America and Africa certainly do not figure in the political imagination of the youth or the political leadership as they did in the Sixties and Seventies. Galeano’s books were never seen in the Indian market before the Indian edition of Open Veins was published in 2008. The world rights in English for most of his books are guarded by forces who seem unsympathetic to publishers outside the Western world; even an internationalist like Galeano didn’t have much say in it.
Great optimist though he was, he did not write much on the recent resurgence of anti-capitalist and left-wing movements across South America and the rise of Bolivarian formations in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and other countries. He sympathised with them but perhaps understood their limitations and feared they could get lost in the intricacies of their struggle for welfarism and against neoliberal austerity. “Anti-capitalism is all right but what is the long-term plan?” he seemed to think but didn’t ask.
Since I never met him, my difficulty with Eduardo starts and ends with his face. He had a slightly hard, massive face, as if carved out of a monolith, the face of an unforgiving god or an unsmiling general. But those who met him have a different story to tell. They speak of his warmth, humbleness and wicked humour. After all, who else would describe the Soviet system after Lenin as “orthopedic socialism?”
Zaidi is a poet and runs the independent publishing house, Three Essays Collective. The Indian edition of ‘Open Veins of Latin America’ is published by Three Essays Collective.