Eduardo Galeano and Gunter Grass died within a few hours of each other Monday. Most of the Mexico City dailies give equal play to the German novelist and the Uruguayan chronicler of Latin America’s historically dispossessed.
Reforma’s approach was much like the others, running a black-and-white reefer-photo of each writer under the common head “Two critical voices are silenced.”
La Jornada is the exception, filling most of its front page with Galeano’s image and a superimposed headline, “Good-bye, chronicler of the invisible.” Grass is relegated to the back cover.
The preference might have something to do with cultural affinity. The Mexican papers will naturally lean to the Latin American over the European, all other things being equal.
In fact, it’s somewhat surprising that the other four gave the two equal billing. Perhaps the editors didn’t think all other things were equal. Grass won the Nobel prize for literature, after all. That’s something.
More likely, the stories were twinned without much thought going into it. Two literary figures die at the same time, run ’em together. No brainer.
La Jornada didn’t see it that way,. Geography wasn’t the only reason. Author and publication shared an identity with the left — opposition to neo-liberalism, support for the poor and outrage at any kind of intervention in Latin America, primarily by the United States, some of it perceived but most of it real.
And then, of course, there’s the relevant fact that Galeano was a La Jornada contributor for almost four decades.
All the papers’ coverage points out that Galeano is best known for his economic history “Open Veins of Latin America.” This is both good (because it’s an eye-opening compendium of what the sub-title describes as "Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent") and bad (because it overshadows the rest of his body of work).
Galeano was born in 1940. His paternal last name is Hughes, his father’s side having Welsh descendency. He used his maternal last name.
His political awakening came with the 1954 U.S. overthrow of Guatemala’s elected president, whose offense was proposing reforms almost identical to what Franklin Roosevelt had begun to implement two decades earlier.
“Open Veins” runs down countless other such events in Latin America, both discrete and ongoing. It begins with Columbus and ends with the book’s publication in 1971. Two years later, the U.S. under Nixon overthrew Chile’s president, The generals took over Argentina, Uruguay and several other countries in that decade as well. Galeano was not making this stuff up.
Not everybody loved the book, least of all the generals who banned it and sent the author into exile. It’s tone is bitter. It’s sheer relentlessness can be disconcerting even to those who are with it in spirit, the way Noam Chomsky’s unsweetened critiques can make American liberals squirm.
"Open Veins" can go overboard. Family planning, we’re told, is a plot by “the Imperium” (i.e. the U.S and its allies) “to kill guerrilleros in the womb.” One right-wing wag summarized the book in six words: “We’re poor and it’s your fault.”
A new generation became aware of “Open Veins” in 2009, when Hugo Chávez presented Barack Obama with a copy of it at an America’s Summit. One result of this grandstanding was a spike in the book’s sales.
Galeano considered that “terrible news.” He told Pacifica Radio’s Amy Goodman in an interview later, “I don’t want to be successful. I don’t want to be first in the market. I just want to get in touch with people, writing.” He did, however, call Chavez's action "generous."
Then came even more publicity for “Open Veins.” Galeano recently told a Brazilian audience that he regretted the way he wrote the book, noting that “this prose of the traditional left is extremely leaden.”
That’s interesting, because he had always maintained that he intentionally wrote “Open Veins” to be accessible to the lay reader, the opposite of leaden. He was even criticized for that by the notoriously stodgy Latin American academic left, who dedicate their lives to writing indigestible tracts.
Be that as it may, too much has been made of these comments. In its obit today, the New York Times says, not for the first time, that Galeano “disavowed” “Open Veins.” That’s not right.
He may have disavowed the language, the approach and the limitations, but not the content. The full quote from Brazil, as well as his subsequent public comments, make it clear that any talk of Galeano recanting his famous critique is a pipe dream of the right.