Eduardo Galeano, one of Latin America’s most beloved writers, died on Monday in a hospital in Montevideo, after a long battle against lung cancer. His first book, Las venas abiertas de América Latina, which the late Hugo Chávez famously presented to Barack Obama as a present, appeared in 1971 (published in English by Monthly Review Press in 1973 as Open Veins of Latin America). In 1973, Galeano was driven out of his home country of Uruguay following a US-supported coup. Then, after yet another US-supported coup in Argentina, he found exile in post-Franco Spain, where, in 1978, he published Días y Noches de Amor y de Guerra (Days and Nights of Love and War, in English) and began his famous trilogy, Memory of Fire. These books are the highest expression of a genre that Galeano perfected. He somehow managed to be at once fragmentary and meta, impressionistic and expansive, weaving together fact, pre-Columbian myth, and snippets from everyday life into sprawling people’s epics.
Galeano’s death comes just a few days short of the first anniversary of the passing of Gabriel García Márquez. Galeano, born in 1940, was younger than García Márquez. But the works that made each of them famous came out in Spanish within years of each other. Cien años de soledad appeared in 1967; Las venas abiertas four years later. Both were translated into dozens of languages, and sold millions and millions of bonafide copies, along with the countless bootlegs hawked by street vendors from Santiago to Mexico City.
One Hundred Years of Solitude is a work of dense allegory operating on a bewildering array of levels and could be mistaken for something other than political. But for the artists, writers, and activists of Galeano’s and García Márquez’s generation, whatever else that storm was that wiped away Macondo, it was also capitalism. As if to underscore the point, Galeano subtitled the preface to Open Veins: “120 Million Children in the Eye of the Tempest.”
As they did with García Márquez, English-speaking audiences tended to like the sentimental Galeano, the Galeano who wrote of quixotic dreams and forgetting, who spoke in enigmas and historical metaphors. Me, I prefer the Galeano who used poetry to leaven an analysis of “modes of production” and “class structure,” of “endless chains of dependency that have been endlessly extended” and of a Latin America that had been force-fitted into the “universal gearbox of capitalism.”
Galeano himself came to think his early writing was too pessimistic and schematic, when last year an off handed remark was amplified into a New York Times' headline: "Galeano Disavows his Book." But economic reductionism possesses its own kind of lyricism: “The more freedom that is granted trade,” Galeano wrote in 1971, “the more prisons are needed for those who suffer from that trade. . . . The massacres caused by poverty (miseria) in Latin America are secret: every year, three Hiroshima bombs explode, silently, over its communities that are used to suffering with clenched teeth. This systematic violence, unseen but real, increases: the crime is covered not in the sensationalist press but in the statistics of the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization.”