Writer Without Borders

Scott Witmer

Eduardo Galeano writes "only words that really deserve to be there."

Eduardo Galeano disdains borders, both in life and in literature. Exiled from his native Uruguay after the 1973 military coup, he returned to Montevideo in 1985, where he continues to live and write. Galeano’s books subvert the distinctions between history, poetry, memoir, political analysis and cultural anthropology. With a graceful sense of craft, he uses only words that really deserve to be there” to convey a humanely moral perspective on matters both personal and political. His writing honors the experiences of everyday life as a contrast to the mass media that manipulates consciousness, conceals reality and stifles the creative imagination … in order to impose ways of life and patterns of consumption.” By multiplying seldom heard voices, Galeano refutes the official lies that pass for history – his work represents an eloquent, literary incarnation of social justice.

His most recent book, Voices of Time: A Life in Stories (Metropolitan Books), combines 333 prose poems into a fluid mosaic of humor, despair, beauty and hope. During a recent visit to Chicago, Galeano talked with In These Times about his life and work.

Your book Open Veins of Latin America (1971) analyzes the brutal exploitation of Latin American resources by the U.S. and European powers. That book, now a classic, was published at the beginning of an especially turbulent period of Latin American history. What was your life like at that time?

I was working as a journalist, always in independent jobs, working for weeklies – the mad adventures of independent journalism. So I earned my living quite difficultly, writing other things or editing books on the sexual life of bees, or something like this. I was also working in the publishing department of the University of Montevideo. And at night I went home to work on the book. It took four years of researching and collecting the information I needed, and some 90 nights to write the book.

Did you ever sleep?

I suppose I did not. I remember now, I was drinking rivers of coffee. Later I developed an allergy to coffee, but fortunately I overcame it, and now I’m a very good coffee drinker. I love it.

You were then forced into exile in Argentina, where you edited Crisis.

In the beginning of 1973, I was in jail for a short period in Uruguay and I decided prison life was not healthy, so I went to Buenos Aires. The magazine was a beautiful experience. We invented it with a small group of friends, trying to open a new way of speaking about culture.

Did you continue to publish when the military regime initiated censorship?

For two or three months, and after that it was impossible to go on. We were obliged to choose between silence and humiliation. We could stay alive if we accepted the obligation to lie, or we could shut up. We decided to shut up entirely and not pretend to be free, because that would give an alibi to the military regime to say, See, there is freedom of expression here.” Many members of our staff were killed or disappeared or jailed or went into exile, and so it was a good decision to go away and abandon it. We left behind a very good memory of an exceptional cultural magazine. We showed that it was possible to have a different conception of culture. Not culture made by professional people to be consumed by non-professional people, like workers or anonymous people. Instead, we were trying to hear their voices. Not only to speak about reality, but asking reality, What would you tell me?” This conversation with reality was the key to our success. That’s why one of the first decrees of the military regime was to forbid the diffusion of non-specialized opinions.” We were trying to show that the best voices come from non-specialized mouths.

In the middle of 1976, I was obliged to fly away from Argentina because I was supposed to be on the death squad list to be killed. Many of my friends had been killed, and being dead is so boring, so I chose exile in Spain.

In Spain you began writing the Memory of Fire trilogy, an epic tapestry covering more than five centuries of American history and culture. What motivated you to undertake such a monumental project? 

It scared me at the beginning. It was first conceived as a way to tell Latin American history. Then a close friend of mine, the Argentinian poet Juan Gelman, told me, Why not go with all Americas, not just South America or Central America? We share a common origin and a lot of common stories interlinked, and we may perhaps have a common destiny. Not the official destiny built by the professional liars inside the sanctuaries of power, but a counter-history could help to find a counter-destiny.” He tempted me with his words and so I covered all the Americas as a way of promoting the fact that America” is all America, from Alaska to Chile. 

Immigration, which remains a crucial issue in the United States, recurs as an important motif in your new book, Voices of Time. Could you talk about how immigration is perceived in Latin America as opposed to how it is perceived here?

It always depends on your point of view. Immigration may be perceived as a menace, as intrusion, or as a legitimate right. We are all immigrants. Except for a few black people in South Africa, we all come from some other part of the world. We all come from Africa, which is not good news for the ignorant racists. I’m sorry, but we have all been blacks once upon a time. So we are all immigrants. This is our way of life since forever. It’s the same with butterflies, with animals, with birds. We humans are the only ones that create borders for immigration, saying, You cannot go inside this line. This is the end of a country, and here begins another one.” I’m afraid our time will be remembered as a sad period of human life in which money was free, but people were not.

Why are we seeing a resurgence of the left in Latin America?

This is the popular will, the will to change reality. They have been cheated by all those years of so-called liberal experience, which is not liberal at all. It’s just liberal for money. And it won’t be easy to get out of it, because we have become prisoners of what I call the culture of impotence.” It’s very difficult in Latin America to build a democracy after so many years of military terror and in a non-democratic world that will veto your attempt to change something. The experts will come. Not soldiers, now – experts. Sometimes experts are even more dangerous than soldiers. They say, You cannot. The market is irritated. The market may be angry.” It is as if the market is an unknown but very active and cruel god punishing us because we are trying to commit the cardinal sin of changing reality. 

Just look at Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia. Bolivia was the richest country in all of the Americas at the beginning of the conquest period. They were the owners of the silver, which made possible the enrichment of Europe. Bolivia is now the poorest country in South America. Her richness was her main damnation. Morales is now trying to break with this shameful and humiliating tradition of always working for another’s prosperity. When he nationalized the gas and the oil, it was a scandal all over the world. How could he? It’s terrible!” Why is it terrible? Because recovering dignity is a cardinal sin. But he’s also committing another cardinal sin: He’s doing what he promised he would do. We in Latin America are suffering with special intensity the divorce between words and facts. When you say yes, you do no. When you say more or less, you do less or more. So facts and words are never encountering each other. When they pass each other by random accident, they don’t say, Hello, how are you?” because they have never met before. We are trained to lie. We are trained to accept lies as a way of life.

You have said, Reality is not destiny; it’s a challenge. … We are not doomed to accept it as it is.” How do we avoid becoming cynical when change seems impossible?

By keeping alive the memory of dignity. It’s the only way. By telling and repeating that we are not born last year; we are born from a long tradition of betrayals, but also a long tradition of dignity. Here in Chicago, for instance, it is important to recover the memory of May First. The first time I came here, years ago, I was amazed that most people I encountered didn’t know that this universal worker’s fiesta – at once a tragedy and a fiesta, an homage paid to the Haymarket martyrs at the end of the 19th century – came from Chicago. And Chicago has deleted this memory, which is so important for the entire world. In present times, it’s more important than ever, because each May First, crowds and crowds of people, different languages, different cultures, different continents, all celebrate the right to organize. Nowadays, the most important enterprises in the world, like Wal-Mart, forbid unions. They are deleting a tradition of two centuries of working-class fights. It’s important for Chicago and for the entire world to recover memory. Not to visit it, like when you visit a museum, but to get from it fresh water for your thirst for justice, for beauty. It’s a way of knowing that tomorrow is not just another name for today, because yesterday tells you that time is going on.

The Rise of a New Left

“An engrossing, behind-the-scenes account of our decade’s breakout political movement.” –Atossa Araxia Abrahamian

For a limited time, when you donate $30 or more to support In These Times, we’ll send you a copy of the new book, The Rise of a New Left: How Young Radicals Are Shaping the Future of American Politics, by Raina Lipsitz.

Scott Witmer lives in Chicago. He is currently working on a comic book about the life of socialist agitator Eugene Debs.
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