May 2015        

History, looking forward

Seán Edwards

When Eduardo Galeano died, the Uruguayan parliament held a special session to honour him; a previous regime put him in jail. This reflects the changes in Latin America, which Galeano’s writings helped bring about.
     He wrote The Open Veins of Latin America in 1971, reclaiming history for the people. The book is a historical account of how Latin America was pillaged over the centuries. After the wars of liberation from Spanish colonialism, those who came to power were not the people who fought in the wars but oligarchs who preferred to ally themselves with the British Empire rather than pursue a real independence, as they were not strong enough to rule on their own. They later transferred their allegiance to the new imperialist power, the United States of America.
     The book is written in a lively style, easy to read, and committed. It recounts terrible tragedies and defeats but never loses hope. It was an immediate hit with those involved in the struggle for a real independence and social progress, especially in Chile, where the Socialist government of Salvador Allende was elected. As Isabel Allende recounts, “this breath of hope is what moves me the most in Galeano’s work. Like thousands of refugees all over the continent, I also had to leave my country after the military coup of 1973. I could not take much with me: some clothes, family pictures, a small bag with earth from my garden, and two books: an old edition of the Odes by Pablo Neruda, and the book with the yellow cover, Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina.”
     There followed a decade of major counter-attack: “Operation Condor.” Following coups d’état made in the USA, brutal military-fascist regimes were installed, covering most of South America. The open veins bled more than ever. Galeano himself was jailed in Uruguay, moved to Argentina, and had to flee the fascist coup there in 1976.
     He continued to write—about sport, politics, and everything. Much of his work is light and cheerful, especially when he writes about football. (According to him, every Uruguayan child is born shouting “Goal!”) He had a talent for writing short pieces, witty, pithy, entertaining, but always with a serious purpose. An example: he recounts how the conquistadores, arriving in America, decided that the native people must be Muslims, because they washed themselves a lot, unlike Christians.
     He continued to be an inspiration to the people’s resistance, and contributed to their victories. This was acknowledged by Hugo Chávez when he presented Barack Obama with a copy of The Open Veins of Latin America, though I suspect that particular copy remained unread.
     Galeano was a great writer, and a great hero of the Latin American people.
■ A personal note: The first major book I read in Spanish was The Open Veins, which is relatively easy to read; also the short pieces from Football in Sunshine and Shade. I recommend them—and anything written by Galeano—to anyone learning Spanish.

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