Many years ago, when I was young and still believed that the world could be shaped according to our best intentions and hopes, someone gave me a book with a yellow cover that I devoured in two days with such emotion that I had to read it again a couple more times to absorb all its meaning: Open Veins of Latin America, by Eduardo Galeano.
In the early 1970s, Chile was a small island in the tempestuous sea in which history had plunged Latin America, the continent that appears on the map in the form of an ailing heart. We were in the midst of the Socialist government of Salvador Allende, the first Marxist ever to become president in a democratic election, a man who had a dream of equality and liberty and the passion to make that dream come true. That book with the yellow covers, however, proved that there were no safe islands in our region, we all shared 500 years of exploitation and colonization, we were all linked by a common fate, we all belonged to the same race of the oppressed. If one had been able to read between the lines, one could have concluded that Salvador Allende’s government was doomed from the beginning. It was the time of the Cold War, and the United States would not allow a leftist experiment to succeed in what Henry Kissinger called “its backyard.” The Cuban Revolution was enough; no other socialist project would be tolerated, even if it was the result of a democratic election.
On September 11, 1973, a military coup ended a century of democratic tradition in Chile and started the long reign of General Augusto Pinochet. Similar coups followed in other countries, and soon half the continent’s population was living in terror. This was a strategy designed in Washington and imposed upon the Latin American people by the economic and political forces of the right. In every instance the military acted as mercenaries to the privileged groups in power. Repression was organized on a large scale; torture, concentration camps, censorship, imprisonment without trial, and summary executions became common practices. Thousands of people “disappeared,” masses of exiles and refugees left their countries running for their lives. New wounds were added to the old and recent scars that the continent had endured. In this political context, Open Veins of Latin America was published. This book made Eduardo Galeano famous overnight, although he was already a well-known political journalist in Uruguay.
Like all his countrymen, Eduardo wanted to be a soccer player. He also wanted to be a saint, but as it turned out, he ended up committing most of the deadly sins, as he once confessed. “I have never killed anybody, it is true, but it is because I lacked the courage or the time, not because I lacked the desire,” He worked for a weekly political magazine Marcha, and at twenty-eight he became the director of the Important newspaper Epoca, in Uruguay. He wrote Open Veins of Latin America in three months, in the last ninety nights of 1970, while he worked during the day in the university, editing books, magazines, and newsletters.
Those were bad times in Uruguay. Planes and ships left filled with young people who were escaping from poverty and mediocrity in a country that forced them to be old at twenty, and that produced more violence than meat or wool. After an eclipse that had lasted a century, the military invaded the scene with the excuse of fighting the Tupamaro guerrilla. They sacrificed the spaces of liberty and devoured the civil power, which was less and less civil.
By the middle of 1973 there was a military coup, he was imprisoned, and shortly afterward he went into exile in Argentina, where he created the magazine Crisis. But by 1976 there was a military coup also in Argentina, and the “dirty war” against intellectuals, leftists, Journalists, and artists began. Galeano initiated another exile, this time in Spain, with Helena Villagra, his wife. In Spain he wrote Days and Nights of Love and War, a beautiful book about memory, and soon after he began a sort of conversation with the soul of America: Memories of Fire, a massive fresco of Latin American history since the pre-Colombian era to modern rimes. “One imagined that America was a woman and she was telling in my ear her secrets, the acts of love and violations that had created her.” He worked on these three volumes for eight years, writing by hand. “I am not particularly interested in saving time; I prefer to enjoy it.” Finally, in 1985, after a plebiscite defeated the military dictatorship in Uruguay, Galeano was able to return to his country. His exile had lasted eleven years, but he had not learned to be invisible or silent; as soon as he set foot in Montevideo he was again working to fortify the fragile democracy that replaced the military junta, and he continued to defy the authorities and risk his life to denounce the crimes of the dictatorship.
Eduardo Galeano has also published several works of fiction and poetry; he is the author of innumerable articles, interviews, and lectures; he has obtained many awards, honorary degrees, and recognition for his literary talent and his political activism. He is one of the most interesting authors ever to come out of Latin America, a region known for its great literary names. His work is a mixture of meticulous detail, political conviction, poetic flair, and good story telling. He has walked up and down Latin America listening to the voices of the poor and the oppressed, as well as those of the leaders and the intellectuals. He has lived with Indians, peasants, guerrillas, soldiers, artists, and outlaws; he has talked to presidents, tyrants, martyrs, priests, heroes, bandits, desperate mothers, and patient prostitutes. He has been bitten by snakes, suffered tropical fevers, walked in the jungle, and survived a massive heart attack; he has been persecuted by repressive regimes as well as, by fanatical terrorists. He has opposed military dictatorships and all forms of brutality and exploitation, taking unthinkable risks in defense of human rights.
He has more first-hand knowledge of Latin America than anybody else one can think of, and uses it to tell the world of the dreams and disillusions, the hopes and the failures of its people. He is an adventurer with a talent for writing, a compassionate heart, and a soft sense of humor. “We live in a world that treats the dead better than the living, We, the living, are askers of questions and givers of answers, and we have other grave defects unpardonable by a system that believes death, like money, improves people.”
All these talents were already obvious in his first book, Open Veins of Latin America, as was his genius for story-telling. I know Eduardo Galeano personally: he can produce an endless scream of stories with no apparent effort, for an undetermined period of time. Once we were both stranded in a beach hotel in Cuba with no transportation and no air-conditioning. For several days he entertained me with his amazing stories over pina coladas. This almost superhuman talent for storytelling is what makes Open Veins of Latin America so easy to read — like a pirate’s novel, as he once described it — even for those who are not particularly knowledgeable about political or economic matters. The book flows with the grace of a tale; it is impossible to put it down. His arguments, his rage, and his passion would be overwhelming if they were not expressed with such superb style, with such masterful timing and suspense. Galeano denounces exploitation with uncompromising ferocity, yet this book is almost poetic in its description of solidarity and human capacity for survival in the midst of the worst kind of despoliation. There is a mysterious power in Galeano’s story-telling. He uses his craft to invade the privacy of the reader’s mind, to persuade him or her to read and to continue reading to the very end, to surrender to the charm of his writing and the power of his idealism.
In his Book of Embraces, Eduardo has a story that I love. To me it is a splendid metaphor of writing in general and his writing in particular. There was an old and solitary man who spent most of his time in bed. There were rumors that he had a treasure hidden in his house. One day some thieves broke in, they searched everywhere and found a chest in the cellar. They went off with it and when they opened it they found that it was filled with letters. They were the love letters the old man had received all over the course of his long life. The thieves were going to burn the letters, but they talked it over and finally decided to return them. One by one. One a week. Since then, every Monday at noon the old man would be waiting for the postman TO appear. As soon he saw him, the old man would start running and the postman, who knew all about it, held the letter in his hand. And even St. Peter could hear the beating of that heart, crazed with joy at receiving a message from a woman.
Isn’t this the playful substance of literature? An event transformed by poetic truth, Writers are like those thieves, they take something that is real, like the letters, and by a trick of magic they transform it into something, totally fresh. In Galeano’s tale the letters existed and they belonged to the old man in the first place, but they were kept unread in a dark cellar, they were dead. By the simple trick of mailing them back one by one, those good thieves gave new life to the letters and new illusions to the old man. To me this is admirable in Galeano’s work: finding the hidden treasures, giving sparkle to worn-out events, and invigorating the tired soul with his ferocious passion.
Open Veins of Latin America is an invitation to explore beyond the appearance of things. Great literary works like this one wake up consciousness, bring people together, interpret, explain, denounce, keep record, and provoke changes. There is one other aspect of Eduardo Galeano that fascinates me. This man who has so much knowledge and who has — by studying the clues and the signs — developed a sense of foretelling, is an optimist. At the end of Century of the Wind, the third volume of Memory of Fire, after 600 pages proving the genocide, the cruelty, the abuse, and exploitation exerted upon the people of Latin America, after a patient recount of everything that has been stolen and continues to be stolen from the continent, he writes:
The tree of life knows that, whatever happens, the warm music spinning around it will never stop. However much death may come, however much blood may flow, the music will dance men and women as long as the air breaths them and the land plows and loves them.
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 dirt 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 America Latina. More than twenty years later I still have that same book with me. That is why I could not miss the opportunity to write this introduction and thank Eduardo Galeano publicly for his stupendous love for freedom, and for his contribution to my awareness as a writer and as a citizen of Latin America. As he said once: “it’s worthwhile to die for things without which it’s not worthwhile to live.”