Eduardo Galeano: Reluctant Hero of Latin-American Populists

Galeano reconoció que se había quedado obsoleto, dinamitando su propia estatua.
Galeano publicly criticized his seminal 1971 work, Open Veins of Latin America, in 2014. (Libre Red)

EspañolWas it coincidence, one of those ironies of fate, or a whim of the gods, that Günter Grass and Eduardo Galeano died within a few hours of each other on Monday?

The Uruguayan, a Montevideo resident born and bred, just like the German native of Gdansk (another historic and often fought-over port city), was of the class of heroes that, in the words of another immortal wordsmith — Gabriel García Márquez, in The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor — had “the courage to dynamite his own statue.”

Galeano, of course, didn’t have the same literary status as Grass or García Márquez, both winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was more a journalist to the left, devoted to his scribblings, the author of endearing books like Days and Nights of Love and War, a chronicle of his exile in the Caracas of the 1970s, and We Say No, a long-form piece of reportage on how Uruguay’s military leaders lost the referendum that returned the country to democracy in the 1980s. He wrote with a delicate and light prose, in many ways similar to that of his countryman and colleague Mario Benedetti.

They were small but essential works, vital for explaining the Uruguay and South America of the final decades of the last century, just like Grass’s Tin Drum dissected, on an epic scale, the huge post-war hangover from Nazism that afflicted Germany. Galeano, nevertheless, will always be associated with his Open Veins of Latin America, the Bible of Dependency Theory the Chilean-Brazilian school of the late 1960s that sought to explain the continent’s perpetual underdevelopment as the fault of others.

Open Veins is a great work. It’s a work that has to be read, even if it’s no longer in fashion, because it correctly attributes the woes of Latin America to its delusions of grandeur and the grotesque corruption of its political and economic elites. It details how said elites never viewed their countries as places in which to establish themselves and prosper in the long-term, instead exploiting them and relocating with their ill-earned wealth to other lands, less hostile, more developed, and less savage.

Nations viewed as little more than treasure chests, profits blown on useless deeds; another great misunderstood figure of regional political literature, the Venezuelan Carlos Rangel, arrived at the same conclusion, but by a very different route. But Rangel’s Third-Worldism, which almost became the anti-Open Veins text of choice, was always bound to have much less success than Galeano’s bestseller in a continent perpetually in thrall to Marxist thought.

Open Veins went from being in fashion in the 1970s and 80s to becoming anathema in the 1990s, when economic liberalization movements returned to the region. In the digital era, it fast became a trending topic when the ever-anachronistic Hugo Chávez gave the work to Barack Obama at the Summit of the Americas in 2009. The US president initially thought his Venezuelan counterpart had written it, but Chávez was unfortunately never able to set down his enormous capacity for soaring political rhetoric in print.

Chávez’s present saw Open Veins briefly rocket from 66,000th place on the Amazon bestseller list to within the top 10, and helped make Galeano’s old age more comfortable. Yet soon after, the Uruguayan journalist and intellectual chose to dynamite his own statue, admitting that the book was now obsolete.

“Open Veins tried to be a book of political economy, but I wrote it when I was 31, I didn’t yet have the training,” he told a book fair in Brazil in 2014. “Neither Obama nor Chávez understood the text … he gave it to Obama with the best will in the world, but he gave Obama a book in a language that he didn’t understand. So it was a generous act, but a little cruel,” Galeano added.

The literary world reeled with shock at Galeano’s declarations, marveling that he could renounce his magnum opus and criticize his own “leaden” prose. The same surprise greeted Grass’s revelations in his autobiography Peeling the Onion that he himself had been conscripted into the Waffen-SS.

Just as the German conscience struggled to come to terms with the legacy of Nazism, so did Latin America’s intellectuals find themselves unprepared for Galeano’s admission that he didn’t have the full leftist pedigree that everyone thought.

Sometimes, the pedestals on which we put statues are of clay, and men eventually no longer want to be heroes. Recognizing their own mistakes is the greatest show of wisdom that Galeano and Grass left behind, within a few short hours of each other.

Galeano, or at least the ideas set down in Open Veins, survive in regimes such as that of Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner or Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro: the same compulsion to blame others, while ducking their own responsibility and facilitating abominable levels of corruption.

The country is still used as a source of cheap profit, while the poor stay poor and redemption remains little more than a word. It’s the Latin America that we continue to be — to our shame.

Translated by Laurie Blair.

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