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Eduardo Galeano: Latin America’s social justice laureate


This article first appeared in Social Justice journal. The original can be read here.

When legendary Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano died on April 13, 2015 at age 74, radio and television stations in many Latin American countries interrupted their regular programming to pay tribute. Argentina’s daily newspaper Página 12 published 33 tributes on April 15.  The headline in Mexico’s La Jornada read, “The invisible [people] lose their chronicler.”

Galeano’s message was a Latin American cry for social justice. He laid bare the workings and the effects of US imperial invasions of various types and their collaborators among local elites. Argentine writer and journalist Stella Calloni tells us that he considered the fundamentalisms of IMF and World Bank technocrats to be more powerful than Islamic fundamentalisms. He shone a laser-beam exposing the crimes of the military dictatorships in nearly every Latin American nation during the 1970s.[1] He wrote sometimes in prose, as in his early book, The Open Veins of Latin America (1971), but primarily in collections/collages of stories and vignettes.[2]

In the words of Chilean author Ariel Dorfman, Galeano’s passion was to tell the stories that would have been unknown or forgotten, and were ignored by other writers. In a Democracy Now interview, Galeano answered a question about how he chose his stories for Children of the Days (2011): “They chose me. You know, they touched my shoulder or my back, saying ‘Tell me. I am a wonderful story and deserve to be… written by you’… After the process [of selection], the only surviving texts or stories are the ones I feel that are better than silence.”

Galeano wrote and spoke often in lyrical tones, punctuated by humor, irony, and tenderness—even about very dark subjects, and even in searing, razor-sharp analyses of injustice. He had a unique ability to inspire, to comfort, or to enrage us against the power elites—or, alternatively, to make us smile, sometimes to laugh out loud, or to shake our heads in disbelief. And he delighted the entire continent with his ode to Football (Soccer) in Sun and Shadow.

Writer with a Latin American voice

As noted in recent tributes, Galeano wrote and spoke with a Latin American voice. But at the same time, in many countries, readers and listeners felt him to be “theirs.” As one friend wrote, “When he was in Uruguay, he was Uruguayan; when he was in Cuba, he was Cuban; when he was in Guatemala, he was Guatemalan.” He was Zapatista when he was in Chiapas. In El Salvador, he was considered “one of ours.” All the more so in Argentina, where he lived in exile for several years.

Beyond nation-states, Galeano also inhabited other worlds of social justice: the worlds of indigenous and Afro-Latino peoples throughout Latin America, and the world of women’s rights. Salvadoran feminist Silvia Ethel Matus wrote about “the feminine in Galeano”; and when he died, felt that “We women have lost an ally.” He once wrote, “Human rights begin in the home.” His political hero was Rosa Luxemburg. His last book, published days after his death, is the anthology Mujeres, stories about real and mythical women, from Marilyn Monroe to Scheherazade.

Children of the Days

Guatemala was the thread that linked me to Galeano and gave me the privilege of knowing him personally. His very early book, Guatemala: Clave de Latinoamérica (Key to Latin America; 1967), was the first I read on Guatemala, and it drew me into the country’s endlessly byzantine, convoluted dramas.[3] That was the Guatemala of the first-wave 1960s leftist guerrilla insurgency. Guatemala was the “key” to Latin America, Galeano wrote, “not as a mirror” of all other countries, but as the first laboratory of dirty wars (counterinsurgency) and “as a source of great lessons, painfully learned.”

Even as he became the chronicler of all Latin America, Galeano remained engaged with Guatemala and referenced its painful lessons. In Days and Nights of Love and War, he wrote about the 1971 daytime assassination of a wheelchair-bound Congressman who had criticized exploitative foreign nickel company investments. Galeano served on the jury of the 1983 Permanent People’s Tribunal (Madrid), which focused on the army’s scorched-earth, genocidal response to the second-wave insurgency in the Mayan highlands. From the Maya he also learned hope: “‘What is a man on the road?’ asks a sacred Maya book. And answers, ‘Time.’ [In]…Guatemala, the tormented present remembers a different possible future.”

In July 1996, Galeano revisited Guatemala, this time as an honored speaker in a large auditorium at the national university’s historic cultural complex. His reading gave that overflow crowd a great gift, a balm for the war-torn country’s dark secrets and its ideological, class, and racial fissures. He magically lifted our spirits to another plane: “The right to dream should be part of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.”

“Violence gives birth to violence, as we know: but it also generates profit for the industry of violence, which markets it as spectacle and converts it into a consumer good.”

Beyond his public readings, Galeano said he was also back to continue learning. He met with the Archbishop’s Recovery of Historical Memory commission investigating war crimes; some of those horrific war stories later appeared in Children of the Days. He also visited the Mayan highlands with Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchú. And from the Mayas he took the title of Children of the Days: as he later told Democracy Now, it came “from something I heard years ago in a Mayan community of Guatemala. Somebody said, ‘We are children of the days. We are sons and daughters of time.’”

No retraction of Open Days

In recent years, several debates have arisen in the United States over Galeano’s legacy. The most prominent materialized when a New York Times article (5/24/2014) proclaimed in Manichaean terms Galeano’s own “disavowal” of Open Veins of Latin America, his 1971 critique of the foreign pillage and raging capitalism that created the hemisphere’s inequalities and injustices. As evidence of his disavowal, the NYT article cited Galeano’s humorous comment at a 2014 Brazilian Book Fair, “I wouldn’t be capable of reading this book again; I’d keel over… my physique can’t tolerate it.” Upon his death, numerous U.S. mainstream media repeated the disavowal tale – but they missed the point: Galeano was poking fun at the writing style of his younger self. He told Democracy Now—and other interviewers, in a similar vein—“My style has changed a lot… but I’m not repentant [of Open Veins]… not a single comma, not a single period.”

Eduardo Galeano’s passing leaves a painful human and cultural void, but his spirit remains embedded in our minds and hearts. As Roberto Fernández Retamar, head of Cuba’s Casa de las Américas, has said, “What is left is his extraordinary presence.” As if to affirm his presence, Galeano has left us one more forthcoming book—as yet untitled.

[1] His essay on Uruguay, “The Dictatorship and its Aftermath: The Secret Wounds,” appeared in the last issue of Contemporary Marxism, #14, Fall 1986 — one of the journals now incorporated into Social Justice. He subsequently became a member of the International Advisory Board of Social Justice.
[2] For a list of most of his 40+ books, including English translations, see
[3] Parts of that book were incorporated into Guatemala; Occupied Country, published in both Spanish and English in 1969.

* Susanne Jonas ( taught Latin American & Latino Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, for 24 years, and received a Distinguished Teaching Award. Her most recent book, coauthored with Nestor Rodríguez, is Guatemala-U.S. Migration: Transforming Regions (University of Texas Press, 2014). She has been a scholar and activist on Latin America for over 45 years, with particular focus on Guatemala/Central America and on Latino migration. Susanne is a member of the Editorial Board of Social Justice.
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