Remembering Eduardo Galeano, Champion of Social Justice and Chronicler of Latin America’s Open Veins

One of Latin America’s most acclaimed writers, Eduardo Galeano, died on Monday at age 74 in Montevideo, Uruguay. The Uruguayan novelist and journalist made headlines when Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez gave President Obama a copy of his classic work, The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. Since its publication in 1971, Open Veins has sold more than a million copies worldwide, despite being banned by the military governments in Chile, Argentina and his native country of Uruguay. While in exile after the Uruguayan military junta seized power in a 1973 coup, Galeano began work on his classic trilogy Memory of Fire, which rewrites five centuries of North and South American history. He also authored Soccer in Sun and Shadow, Upside Down, The Book of Embraces, We Say No, Voices of Time, Mirrors, Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History, among others. Galeano received numerous international prizes, including the Lannan Prize for Cultural Freedom, the Casa de las Américas Prize, and the First Distinguished Citizen of the region by the countries of Mercosur. We look back on Galeano’s life and hear from his Democracy Now! interviews in 2009 and 2013.

TRANSCRIPT:

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: One of Latin America’s literary giants, Eduardo Galeano, died on Monday in Montevideo, Uruguay. He was 74. The Uruguayan novelist and journalist made headlines when Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez gave President Obama a copy of his classic work, The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. Since its publication in 1971, Open Veins has sold over a million copies worldwide, despite being banned by the military governments in Chile, Argentina and his native country of Uruguay. While in exile after the Uruguayan military junta seized power in a 1973 coup, Galeano began work on his classic trilogy, Memory of Fire, which rewrites five centuries of North and South American history. He’s also the author of Soccer in Sun and Shadow, Upside Down, The Book of Embraces, We Say No, Voices of Time and Mirrors, among others. His most recent book was called Children of the Days. He received numerous international prizes, including the Lannan Prize for Cultural Freedom, the Casa de las Américas Prize and the First Distinguished Citizen of the region by the countries of Mercosur.

AMY GOODMAN: The writer John Berger said of Eduardo Galeano, quote, “To publish Eduardo Galeano is to publish the enemy: the enemy of lies, indifference, above all of forgetfulness. Thanks to him, our crimes will be remembered. His tenderness is devastating, his truthfulness furious.”

In 2013, Nermeen Shaikh and I spoke to Eduardo Galeano in our New York studio when his book, Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History, had first been published. Before we go to a clip of that interview, Juan, the significance of Eduardo Galeano?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, this is a huge loss, not only for Latin America, but for those who are fighting for social justice and for truth around the world. And, you know, it’s a remarkable reflection, the number of world leaders who made statements yesterday after learning of Galeano’s death. Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, said Galeano’s death was a “big loss,” particularly for those fighting for a “Latin America that is more inclusive, just and united.” And she went on to say, “May his work and example of struggle stay with us and inspire us each day to build a better future for Latin America.” You had Evo Morales, the president of [Bolivia], call Galeano a “maestro of the liberation of the people.” I’m sorry, Bolivia. And also, Greece’s president, Alexis Tsipras, noted that the death of Galeano affected “every citizen of Europe.” So, there’s been an enormous outpouring of condolences and remembrances of the legacy of Galeano.

AMY GOODMAN: And we will continue to talk about him as we play excerpts of our interviews. First, this interview that Nermeen Shaikh and I did with him when his last book came out.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: You’ve often quoted Pablo Picasso saying that “art is a lie that tells the truth.”

EDUARDO GALEANO: It’s true.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So what do you see as the significance of art and of your writing, in particular, its relationship to the truth and to politics?

EDUARDO GALEANO: And to politics and to everything else. For instance, what is a good writer, from my point of view? That was able to make the past become present telling a history of two centuries ago or three centuries or four or I don’t know how much, and the reader may feel it’s happening right here and now. The past turn to be present in the magic words of a good writer. That’s a lie, in the sense that what he or she is telling didn’t—is not happening now, but thanks to these art prodigies, their magic powers, it does occur in today.

I remember that—you know, I didn’t receive a formal education. I was educated in the Montevideo cafe, in the cafes of Montevideo. There, I received my first lessons in the art of telling stories, storytelling. I was very, very young and sat at one table, neighbor of other table of people, old people, or more or less old, and they were telling stories, and I was hearing, because they were very good storytellers, anonymous. And one of them was telling a story about a battlefield at the beginning of the 20th century in Uruguay in a war period in the countryside. He was walking among the killed soldiers of both sides. They were distinguished by a ribbon on the front: the white and the red. And suddenly he found an angel. That was what he said: “I found an angel, with the arms open, laid in the grass.” And a bullet had entered into his head, crossing the white ribbon. But he could read in the—in the white ribbon was a stain, mancha, stain of blood all along it. But something was written there: “For my country, for my countryside.” No, patria? How is it, patria, in English? Country?

AMY GOODMAN: Country, for my country.

EDUARDO GALEANO: “For my country, and for her.” And the bullet had entered in the word “her.” And so, I felt I was looking at that man who had died 50 years ago or 60 years ago. So this was a lie, but a lie telling the truth. This was art, an art done by an anonymous person and with no pretensions of being, you know, selected, elected by the finger of God.

AMY GOODMAN: Eduardo—

EDUARDO GALEANO: There are some writers who feel they are elected by God. I am not. I am elected by the devil, this is clear.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the power of silence, as you talk about words. You were born in Uruguay. You left at the time of the coup. You were imprisoned briefly?

EDUARDO GALEANO: , briefly.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did they imprison you briefly?

EDUARDO GALEANO: I never know, never knew. Everybody was imprisoned, even if you feel or you were, you know, practically free. But it—and it was an entire country in prison. And Uruguay was at that time world champion of torture. Everybody was tortured. I wasn’t. I was lucky enough to avoid it. And torture was quite efficient, not in the sense that it’s told by some friends of torture. No, not in this sense. It’s not—never—it’s almost never useful to get information. And the purpose of torture is not getting information. It’s spreading fear. And in this sense, torture was really efficient in Uruguay. It was an entire country sick, enfermo

AMY GOODMAN: Sick.

EDUARDO GALEANO: —of fear. I remember I received in exile in Barcelona some letters, anonymous letters with no indications of address, of names or nothing, no, of course. And one of the letters said, “It’s terrible, learn to lie. But, you know, we had no choice. We’re obliged to lie, day and night lying. And it’s horrible. But worse than learning to lie is teaching to lie. And I have three children.”

AMY GOODMAN: Three children?

EDUARDO GALEANO: That was what the letter said. “Worse than learning to lie was teaching to lie. And I have three children.”

AMY GOODMAN: On the issue of silence, you went from Uruguay to Argentina. And there, the torture, the repression was intense.

EDUARDO GALEANO: Yes, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: You were editor of a magazine, and you answered the censorship with silence. Explain.

EDUARDO GALEANO: Yes. Yes, finally, I fled away from Argentina also, because—I couldn’t stay in Uruguay, because I don’t like to be in jail, and I didn’t stay in Argentina. I could not, because I didn’t want to lay in a cemetery, because, as I told you before, death is very boring.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: You’ve said that a lot of your work—I mean, it’s obvious from even what you’ve read—a lot of your work is about reclaiming different histories, not only in Latin America, but also in Latin America, to overcome what you’ve called the problem of amnesia. Could you elaborate on what you mean by that?

EDUARDO GALEANO: Amnesia?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Yes.

EDUARDO GALEANO: Well, we have a memory cut in pieces. And I write trying to recover our real memory, the memory of humankind, what I call the human rainbow, which is much more colorful and beautiful than the other one, the other rainbow. But the human rainbow had been mutilated by machismo, racism, militarism and a lot of other isms, who have been terribly killing our greatness, our possible greatness, our possible beauty.

AMY GOODMAN: Eduardo Galeano, acclaimed Uruguayan writer and journalist, speaking on Democracy Now! in 2013. Eduardo Galeano died on Monday in Montevideo, Uruguay. We’ll come back to more of our interviews with him in a moment.

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