at Café Brazilero, in historic center city Montevideo
Q: Eduardo Galeano, after so many years are the veins of Latin America still open?
A: Yes; obviously yes. I think they are. Not long ago I met count Dracula in Buenos Aires. He was looking for an Argentinean psychoanalyst. Argentina produces many psychoanalysts. Dracula was told by someone that he can still be cured by an Argentinean psychoanalyst. I found count Dracula in a terrible state; really depressed, thin, terrible…
Q: There is plenty of competition around, isn’t there?
A: Exactly. He was suffering from a tremendous complex of inferiority, seeing how the great corporations of the modern world are behaving. So he was walking through the streets, searching for someone to cure him.
Q: But in this world he probably has many friends, not only competitors…
A: He saw them all as competition. And he told me that nothing was making much sense, anymore. Seeing how this world is behaving, he said that nothing was making any sense to him.
Q: What can you say about the present situation in Latin America? There are so many developments in Brazil, Venezuela, in Bolivia. Some changes are outright progressive, others are semi-progressive. How would you compare the situation now and during the time when you were writing “Open Veins of Latin America” and “Memory of Fire”?
A: I would say that now the tendency is to vote in progressive governments that are trying to change things. This means a tremendous challenge but also a tremendous responsibility, because these new progressive governments that can be found in several countries of Latin America are carriers of collective hope which was not yet dead but seriously wounded; in terrible shape. Latin America is part of the world which was for many years condemned to the system of power where intimidation had more strength than the vote. It began in 1954 – more than half a century ago – when the democratically elected government of Guatemala attempted to make agrarian reforms, to return dignity to indigenous people; all that was later destroyed by foreign invasion. And then it continued: invasions and coups against any positive changes – progressive or nationalistic – concerning natural resources, independence, national dignity… Governments that intend to implement changes are destroyed. It happened in Brazil, Dominican Republic, Bolivia, in Chile which became the most famous case because Salvador Allende was converted to an international symbol. Then the Sandinistas in Nicaragua; again the same thing – they were destroyed after ten years of war because they intended to create a country – fatherland – where there was only a colony before. So all this is a very long story; a story of frustrations, failures, of hope washed in blood. All this created the situation in which we are now. How can I explain it? Change is possible, but to implement the change, one has to fight against not only the painful and fucked up experiences of the last half century but also against the long betrayal and something that I call “the culture of impotence”. It is a culture that has roots in the colonial period, in the period when the continent was controlled by Spain and Portugal and that was later broken up and consolidated by the military dictatorships and the fatalistic brothers from the church. All this helped to create a culture of impotence that manages to paralyze people with fear. It tells you that reality is untouchable; reality can’t be touched, can’t be changed. These days this culture of fear has a spokesman who is a universal god – the god of the market, gangrenous figure. He is checking on us from above and tells us what we can do and what we can’t.
Q: In Latin America it is common to criticize the foreign policy of the United States. That’s understandable, given the experience of many decades of terror spread by the US in Central and South America. On the other hand it often appears that centuries of European colonialism are forgotten and forgiven. Many here see present-day Europe as a sort of counterbalance to the United States, not as part of an oppressive world power structure. Can you explain why this is happening?
A: Correct. I think this sentiment exists because there is nostalgia for the multi-polar world. From the weak nations’ point of view, it is better if there are many powerful countries then if there are just a few. The more concentrated is power, the fewer opportunities there are to move. Space for change, space for freedom to implement change is then very narrow; very small. A unipolar world – one with only one power – makes sure that this space almost disappears. In a multipolar world this space multiplies. Therefore, there is nostalgia for a multipolar world. For some fifty years we had something which was called the “socialist world”, which was of course not really socialist, but it managed to create another pole. During those times, Europe had at least some energy to implement its own development. And many people see the disappearance of that period as a loss. Now it seems like faraway history. Things fundamentally changed; look at an extreme case like the one of the UK. Not long ago I was visiting London and I happened to be invited to speak at The Royal Festival Hall. It was packed with people. During my first lecture someone from the audience asked me whom would I vote for in the upcoming elections? I said that I’m not going to sell ice to the Eskimos; that I am not going to tell English people for whom they should vote! But people kept insisting; kept pushing: “Whom would you vote for?” At the end they reduced their questions to: “So at least say what would be your message to the English public”. So I told them: “I don’t think it is a very dignified position to be a colony of your former colony”. They were laughing a lot after I said that; they thought it was a great joke. But it wasn’t a joke. It’s true. Europe is now very much under the control of dictatorship; of only one power, which is represented by one guy from Texas with terrible taste; a guy who is humiliating the world by speaking like some bartender… He is presiding over the degradation of the political process, reducing it to the level of low quality comics.
Q: Most Europeans are losing any desire to vote. As we saw during the previous elections in the UK, the majority of people are voting for politicians for whom they harbor no respect. Before, this was happening only in the colonies or former colonies; now we can see the same trend in colonial powers themselves. It seems that the system has no respect even for its own citizens.
A: There is a universal crisis of so called representative democracies or democracies which rely on the system of competing political parties. This crisis is mostly reflected in the apathy of young generations. If you ask young people whether they believe in democracy, in the energy of changes in democracy, most of the young people just shrug their shoulders and tell you that they don’t believe in it, or believe just a little. This universal crisis – and Latin America is part of this world and this crisis – takes place mainly because politicians did very little in order to dignify democracy. Many young people see democracy as some enormous circus where professional politicians are performing incredible tricks. Once they reach the government, they do everything possible not to fulfill what they have promised during the election campaign. This is exactly against the essence of democracy and young people at the end feel that they are invited to choose between the same and the same. The goal now is to restore democracy to its deep essence: as the power of the people. In this world which is losing faith in so called representative democracy, there are new developments in participatory democracy. These are very interesting developments, reflecting the revitalization of community power with a more and more active presence of minorities in political life, including the presence of women who are of course by no means a minority… There is also the growing influence of the pacifists. Sometimes one feels that pacifists are powerless since they were not able to stop the war in Iraq. But we can’t forget that before the war, for the first time in the history of humanity there were enormous demonstrations and protests against the war – before the war began. This was important, because at least it put on the record how disconnected are many governments from their people who were screaming slogans against the war on the streets but their voices are being ignored. So at least it was important as a testimony. On the other hand it is also obvious how far we are from the time of political maturity, when we could be capable of punishing politicians for their betrayals. To punish with the most powerful weapon – the ballot. There is a saying that a lie has short legs. Not long ago I wrote an article arguing that it is not true: a lie has very long legs. So long are the legs of a lie that it is capable of running at full speed carrying liars on its back. Because when Tony Blair and George Bush lied about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, people in their countries still awarded them with the vote in the following elections. So we are still very far from the time when people will be realizing how powerful a weapon their vote can be.
Q: You mentioned pacifism. Do you believe that it is possible to fight against the global dictatorship by pacifist means? While we are being peaceful, simply protesting against brutality, right now there are millions and millions of people dying from hunger and incurable diseases, while billions of men, women and children are living in the most despicable conditions… Can pacifism achieve changes or should there be more direct actions taken on the part of the resistance?
A: I don’t believe in saying “the way to do it is…”. “The way to do it is armed struggle…” I met many people who were seriously involved in armed struggle. But they were reacting to the will and desires of the people. They never acted as if they were enlightened by some divine power or by some chosen minority. Also, they say that if there were someone shouting: “Armed struggle! Let’s die!” – He would probably be working for someone and would be embarrassed to confess for whom… He would be some professional provocateur like Bin Laden. Bin Laden is an official; an official of fear; that’s clear. Bush was just about to lose the elections, and then Bin Laden appears, declares that he is going to eat all children in the raw and Bush wins! So there is blackmail by the dominant power when it uses the threat of terror. It happens very often: one’s enemies are the best allies. I think the ways of change are dictated by the circumstances of each country, each place and each time. I don’t think that arrogant intellectuals should be dictating to the people which way they should be heading. I think we should be listening to the people, see in which directions things are developing. People are walking where they can, not where they want to. But they are walking! And one has to have enough modesty and humility to listen to the sound of their steps. Now one thing that I can say: the experience shows that this formula of universal capitalism is not working. It does not solve any basic problems of humanity and in addition, it is endangering the very existence of our planet. Therefore, we have to be alert and follow the contradictions created by this very system. Contradictions between what the system says and what it does. Between what the system wants and what it can do. And from these contradictions grow the base of the new world which is not yet born. One has to be a realist but also to remember that reality is not only the world which we know, but also the world which we need. And the world that we need is inside – in the stomach of the present world. This new world often seems to be too silent, but it exists. We have to be patient and humble to hear how it is kicking inside. We have to see in which way each situation is developing, at each and every moment, everywhere. By doing this, we have to drop formulas. The 20th century was the century where formulas failed. Formulas failed once, twice, a thousand times. We already experienced the pedantry with which the world was forced to adapt to the formulas. So at least we know that we don’t want to repeat mistakes which occurred in the past. In the recent past, one half of the world had to sacrifice freedom in the name of justice, while the other half had to sacrifice justice in the name of freedom. Now we know that this will not do: that justice and freedom are two Siamese twins. They were born back to back – attached to each other – and they want to live together. At least this we know, so we don’t have to repeat what has been done; what went wrong with some terrible consequences. Remember, when the so-called “real socialism” collapsed without one drop of blood, nobody gave a shit. I knew many leaders of the Communist Parties from the former Eastern Block; they converted themselves into businesspeople, overnight. Yes, they became successful businesspeople! And these are the countries that were claiming they were governed by the proletariat.
Q: The collapse of the Eastern Block was, of course, immediately utilized by the West for propaganda purposes.
Q: Mistakes of so called real socialism were supposed to prove, by some twisted logic, that capitalism was the only natural system for humanity. The West managed to sell its formula extremely well.
A: It was obvious that they would utilize the situation this way. If I had been in their shoes, I would have done the same. But the collapse of the system can’t be blamed on imperialist conspiracy. Obviously there was an internal crack in the system and when the time arrived, everything just fell apart.
Q: After all that, do you still maintain some belief in socialism or communism?
A: Of course I do. I don’t think there has been anything yet that we could call real socialism. There were developments, some experiences that were correct. But the system was divorced from the people. It was operated in the name of the working people, but it was not the case in reality and the proof was in the velocity with which it collapsed, the incredible simplicity by which it decomposed. There are some things I can’t share with you because I have to protect the identity of the people, but I discussed this with very important leaders of the system when it was already in trouble. We spent hours and hours talking and they kept repeating: “this is not going to be the end because socialism is immortal!” Immortal?! They brought in some theological categories; some religious stuff, confusing it with political reality, with human life. We are human beings, persons; we are all mortal. Of course we are all mortal; we, our world and the systems which we create. The world is going to die one day, in thousands of millions of years from now; hopefully not too soon. But what an arrogance of that bureaucracy which later recycled itself in just ten minutes into a bourgeois class! They became capitalists! They changed one type of oppression for another, but one way or the other continued to function as an oppressive force. So all this has obviously nothing to do with ideals of socialism. But it is also obvious that if capitalism doesn’t work for the majority of people, sooner or later we will have to lift up the old banners which were made dirty and were abused. But we will have to lift them up again, of course.
Q: Back to Latin America: it is clear that most of the people here still desire social justice and the system which would be able to guarantee it. However, after they vote in progressive governments, these are not always able to deliver their promises, adopting a centrist course.
A: People here want very basic things. They still can’t find the answers or solutions to their very simple demands like dignity, peace and work. People are searching but they are not finding solutions. They are walking and searching on different roads. They are being betrayed – we have a long tradition of betrayal here. And they are now, generally and to a certain point, thinking that these new governments, which have lately appeared in several parts of South America, will act more or less in accordance with the hope which they managed to evoke. That’s why I always say: careful; one doesn’t play with people’s hope. Hope is very fragile. If the people deposited this hope in your hands, comrades – be very careful! Don’t betray this hope. Because hope can’t be recovered easily! When it is lost, it takes a long time to bring it back. New progressive governments in South America are facing tremendous historic responsibility. One of the writers and journalists who had a profound influence on me kept repeating: one sin which can’t be forgiven is a sin against hope. Everything can be forgiven, but not this. That’s why progressive governments have to be extremely careful not to destroy hope.
Q: A lot is being written lately about betrayal of hope. Some point fingers at Lula’s government in Brazil. But how much space do these governments have to maneuver in the real world?
A: Very little. It is very difficult for them. You and I discussed this before; space is very limited and they have to fight an uphill battle. But one has to have something clear: if you are going to repeat history, it is better if you leave in power those who are already there. If your point is that you will not be able to change things, than don’t promise that you will. If you do and don’t deliver, you are lying to the people. If you can’t change things, let capitalists preside over the capitalism. But if you are going to get your hands on power in the name of change, in the name of national sovereignty or human dignity, then you have to be responsible for your promises. If you can’t do it, just go home, turn on the television and let politicians take care of the politics. But in the moment when Lula or others propose changes, they are responsible for their promises. One of Lula’s politicians recently responded to the accusations about corruption in the present government: “But these things have always occurred in Brazil.” But if this is always going to happen, why didn’t they leave those who were doing it to continue?
Q: What books are you now working on? What are your creative plans for the near future?
A: I prefer not to discuss this, because if I talk too much about what I am writing, I lose desire to continue. The most recent book I’ve published is a saga – a continuation of several previous books; consisting of very short texts. It forms a sort of mosaic and it comes from the people. I am a hunter of stories; I listen to the stories, then I give this back to the people after putting the stories through a creative process. My position is always that in order not to be mute, one shouldn’t be deaf. One has to be able to listen in order to speak. I am a passionate listener. I listen to reality. Reality is a magic lady, sometimes very mysterious. To me she is very passionate. She is real not only when she is awake, walking down the streets, but also at night when she is dreaming or when she is having nightmares. When I am writing, I am always paying tribute to her – to that lady called Reality. I am trying not to fail her.
EDUARDO GALEANO was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1940. He began working as a journalist at the age of 14, publishing drawings and stories in the weekly “El Sol”. At 24 he published his first novella “Las dias siguientes”. Between 1959 and 1963 he worked for the weekly “Marcha” and later (1964-1966) became director of the daily “Epoca”. During the military dictatorship he lived in exile first in Argentina, later in Spanish Catalonia. In 1985 he returned to Montevideo.
Galeano is an icon of progressive Latin American literature. His two monumental works “Open Veins of Latin America” (1971) and the trilogy “Memory of Fire” (1982, 1984, 1986) made a tremendous impact on Latin American and world intellectuals, unveiling the brutality of colonialism and post-colonialism, but also capturing readers into its original, magic and highly poetic prose.
The latest book of Galeano is called “Bocas del Tiempo” (2004).