The Open Veins of Eduardo Galeano

In a recent Washington Post article entitled “Latin Americans Are Embracing Globalization and Their Former Colonial Masters,” written by a political science professor from the University of Colorado, the author begins with the following sentence: “Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano recently renounced his 1971 classic, Open Veins of Latin America, one of a few books admitted into the Latin American left’s pantheon.”  Some days before, the New York Times had fired off an article entitled “Eduardo Galeano Disavows His Book The Open Veins,” etc.

Similar examples abound in several languages, above all in the Spanish-language press.  For some days and weeks, gloomy articles and commentaries were popping up.  It seemed that we were witnessing, along with the corresponding euphoria of conservatives, the suicide of radical Latin American literary criticism.  Clearly, too much was being read into all of this.

When I read the first articles about the author’s recent statements in Brazil, I had a few words with Galeano himself about them.  I never was particularly crazy about that book, and I even wrote a pretty harsh paper on it, but in my view it was nonetheless still one of the most courageous books of its era, if not the most.  I feel that it is a crime to interpret it out of context, and I never dreamed that its own author might be capable of doing such a thing, as can be inferred from each of the opportunistic articles that followed.

I’ve never been a communist, nor have I worn a Che-styled beret, nor do I think that dissident Cubans are a bunch of gusanos (worms) just because they voice their disagreement and aren’t able to do so in their own country.  Not all of them are like Posada Carriles.  However, every time that someone lets me know that Che Guevara was a cruel guerrilla fighter (the summary executions that took place during the first year of the Cuban Revolution are completely unjustifiable), I take it as one historical fact among many others.  It follows that when one classifies him as a murderer, one does so by systematically omitting the historical context in which he lived — not only does one sidestep the fact that Che was always at the forefront of his revolutionary adventures against the imperial powers of the moment, not at the rear like powerful men throughout the ages, but one also omits, if not outright ignores, that as a youth Guevara was in Guatemala when the CIA bombed the capital city in 1954 for the purpose of destroying a rare example of Central American democracy, which was afterwards labeled a dictatorship by our noble press.

And it continued doing so in a variety of ways, as proven by Boston University professor Stephen Kinzer in his latest book The Brothers (about the paranoid Dulles brothers), and proven by thousands of declassified documents available for reading at George Washington University.

So, for the moment I’ll set aside some skeptical literary theories that find comfort in stating that only the text matters, not the author.  Although the author is no longer the authority on his own text, in this case ideological conclusions and the usual “I told you so” aren’t the text — the book — but rather the author’s own interpretation.  So, this time it does make some sense to turn to the author as a means of interpreting what was said.  I present here some passages from different exchanges of correspondence, some of the latest ones that I’ve had with Galeano, and which I obviously share with his approval.

Jorge: A couple of years ago you told me that it was really hard for you to read The Open Veins of Latin America, that it was a book with defects, that the reality at the beginning of this century differed substantially from the reality of the 20th century, etc.  I never commented on these opinions because they seemed reasonable to me, almost uninteresting, about a book published thirty-plus years ago, and above all because you shared them with me in a private conversation between two friends.  You’ve said more or less the same thing in Brazil some weeks ago, and since then the big media outlets throughout the world haven’t tired of publicizing that one of the top exponents of leftist thought has undergone a process of conversion, like Vargas Llosa but a bit late, that the committed intellectuals of the past century have acknowledged their mistakes, that beyond mistakes it would seem as if the Church were apologizing for the inquisition, as if China were to allow discussion on Tiananmen, and the United States were to acknowledge the tragedies of Vietnam and Iraq.  I once also told you that in my opinion The Open Veins of Latin America was a book with defects and only a partial look at reality (but what book gives a complete look, aside from The Aleph by Borges?), but it was and continues to be a courageous and stirring book.

Eduardo: The dogs are barking, Sancho.  It’s proof that writing is good for something, at least for inspiring celebration and protest, applause and also indignation.  The book, written ages ago, is still alive and kicking.  I am simply honest enough to admit that at this point in my life the old writing style seems rather stodgy, and that it’s hard for me to recognize myself in it since I now prefer to be increasingly brief and untrammeled.  This has nothing whatsoever to do with Vargas Llosa.

Jorge: Don’t you think that your otherwise useful self-criticism is being exploited for ideological purposes?  Or perhaps we’ve come to the end of history and we no longer see injustice or exploitation anywhere?

Eduardo: As former Costa Rican president Figueres once managed to remark, “What’s going wrong here is everything.”  Jorge, you can write down whatever you like.  I fully believe in your talent and honesty.  The other voices that have been raised against me and against The Open Veins of Latin America are seriously ill with bad faith.

Dr. Jorge Majfud, Jacksonville University.  Originally published in Spanish in Le Monde Diplomatique, June 2014.  Translation by Dr. Joe Goldstein, Georgia Southern University.