(Originally published in Peace & Justice News, May 2015).
Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan writer and journalist, and latterly ‘poet laureate’ of the anti-globalisation movement, passed away on 13 April aged 74, leaving us with a dazzling body of work which refracts the beauties and possibilities of what he loved to call ‘the human rainbow’. Galeano’s inimitable style blended history, poetry and social critique, and has served as both an inspiration and a tool in struggles for justice and peace, both within and far beyond the shores of his native Latin America.
Galeano’s early classic, ‘Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent (1971)’, underscored the central role of the colonisation and exploitation of America’s peoples and resources in the emergence of global capitalism and Euro-American hegemony. Written at a moment when military dictatorships were seizing power across the Southern Cone and spreading the viruses of torture, disappearances and censorship, ‘Open Veins’ recounted how the continuous extraction of slaves’ labour-power, gold, silver, sugar, guano and other commodities since the days of the conquest had enriched Europe’s centres of power, while impoverishing and marginalising American peoples. The book was soon banned by the military governments of Uruguay, Chile and Argentina, and Galeano, like so many others, was forced into exile in 1973. He resided first in Argentina, until that country too was subverted by a military coup, after which he escaped to Spain in order to evade the death squads.
It was in Spain that Galeano embarked upon writing ‘Memory of Fire’ (1982–86), a trilogy that sought to recover the voices which were usually suppressed in conventional histories of Latin America: the indigenous peoples, the escaped slaves, the rebellious women and children, the outcasts; those who dared to dream and to create a different world. Galeano saw social struggles as rooted in the struggle against amnesia, as he told Democracy Now in 2009:
“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 colourful 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.”
Galeano displayed an immense talent for describing the many ways in which our world has been mutilated with sharp lucidity and humour. Nowhere is this clearer than in his work, ‘Upside-Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World’ (2001), presented as a mock-guide to the modern world, covering topics like ‘The Impunity of Power’ and ‘The Sacred Car’. I can vividly recall reading ‘Upside-Down’ when I was living in the Amazonian city of Iquitos; Galeano’s words were lively, clear-eyed companions in a period of trying to make sense of the searing inequalities and often harsh conditions of urban life in a Southern country at the beginning of the 21st century, and the profound ecological degradation caused by an insatiable capitalism. This latter point is important, as Galeano long stood out on the Latin American Left for his ecological perspective, presaging contemporary debates and struggles around the extractive industries and climate justice.
We can all learn much from Galeano’s histories of human possibilities, and especially from his unflinching, radical analyses of the root causes of poverty and war, amongst other distortions. Galeano often liked to quote Simón Rodriguez, the 18th-century mentor to Venezuelan revolutionary and liberator, Simón Bolivar, that to really teach, is to teach to question. As we question what it will take to create a more just Scotland and to dismantle the structures of violence which sustain inequalities and oppression, Galeano’s writings continue to provide a lens through which to view our upside-down world. I close with a short passage from the last work Galeano published before he lost his life to cancer, ‘Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History’ (2013); for those of us striving to ensure that Trident is scrapped, it contains an echo of the flimsy justifications of our critics:
FAREWELL TO ARMS
Costa Rica’s president Don Pepe Figueres once said: “Here, the only
thing wrong is everything.”
And in the year 1948 he disbanded the armed forces.
Many were those who decried it as the end of the world, or at least the
end of Costa Rica.
But the world kept on turning, and Costa Rica was kept safe from
wars and coups d’état.
Eduardo Galeano, presente! (1940–2015)