Eduardo Galeano, the Western Hemisphere’s greatest historian and anti-imperialist voice, died April 13 from complications arising from lung cancer. He was 74.
Galeano had the indispensable quality of all truly great human beings – humility. I have only a tidbit, one small morsel, to offer on this wonderful, wondrous specimen of humanity. Sometime back in the early-to-mid- 90’s I had the great good fortune to meet the man and have a fun little exchange with him.
I had traveled the better part of the length of the hemisphere to arrive in Galeano’s hometown of Montevideo, Uruguay. On the first leg of the journey, in an epic act of foolishness, I flew from my sea-level home in Maine to La Paz, Bolivia, nestled in the Andes at 10,500 feet. For my troubles I received a massive, three-day attack of altitude sickness. In time I recovered and then took off overland to Montevideo.
I passed Potosi, Bolivia, a town that fascinated Galeano. In “The Open Veins of Latin America,” Galeano’s sweeping classic of Latin American history, Galeano wrote of how the Spaniards laid low the silver-laden mountains of Potosi – courtesy of underfed indigenous slave labor that was literally worked to death– and how the fantastic quantities of Potosi silver financed the industrial revolution.
And on I traveled, by ancient, squeaky train over the seemingly endless expanse of the Bolivian Altiplano. From the pre-dawn hours to well beyond dusk we traversed the barren landscape at an altitude comparable to that of La Paz. Each town, village and hole in the wall had a train station and a sign with place name and altitude, and not once on that long, long day did our altitude vary more than 20 meters. From time to time in the dusty distance I saw what looked like herds of llamas, alpaca or vicuna, but the sight had such a mysterious, magical, and surreal quality to it that I didn’t entirely trust my eyes.
On through the night we pushed, and in the morning we arrived at the Argentine border, where we were welcomed by a big billboard pronouncing “The Falkland Are Argentine!”
From there I took bus after bus across northern Argentina and on to Montevideo, where I participated in a volunteer work camp sponsored by Emmaus International and Emmaus Uruguay. Emmaus is a worldwide association of communities that create employment for, and provide services to, the poor and very poor. It was founded in Paris in the wake of World War ll, and in its early days was known as the Ragpickers of Paris. I work for an Emmaus community in the U.S.
Upon my arrival at the work camp, I was delighted to hear that none other than Eduardo Galeano was going to come to the camp and give a charla, a talk.
At the time of the work camp, the world was being washed over by the first big wave of so-called free trade agreements. Bill Clinton’s NAFTA and its ilk were pulling the rug out from under the working classes from Canada to Chile and around the world. NAFTA was just starting to drive Mexican peasants – wiped out by heavily-subsidized, industrial-scale U.S. corn – off the land of their ancestors and into the exploding slums of Mexico City, Monterrey and Ciudad Juarez. All this was just starting, but the writing on the wall was growing clearer by the day. This was all the buzz in progressive and radical circles, and I thought it might be the thrust of Galeano’s talk. I was wrong.
The day came, and it was yet another warm, sunny, languid Montevideo summer day. Montevideo is a laid back, mellow place, and proud home – at least back then – of retirement at 55 and what my father, a historian in his own right, told me was the world’s first Social Security system. Not bad for a nation of three million surrounded by mammoth Brazil and Argentina. It was well after the 1985 fall of the generals, and for many – among them, it seemed, Eduardo Galeano – life was not to be taken too seriously.
Galeano’s talk was much like his writing, but a little lighter, more whimsical and wandering, meandering. He was instantly likable and charming, with a wry, self-deprecating smile that would melt the heart of all but the most cynical. He spoke of the history of Latin America in his usual colorful way, with a particular bent on the history of his native land.
He spoke of how the local Uruguay aristocracy would entertain itself after church on Sunday by riding through the countryside picking off Natives from the comfort of its horse-drawn carriages. I think this little vignette made it into Open Veins, but I’m not sure. Galeano said we could all walk right out the door of the meeting hall and down the main commercial boulevard of Montevideo and buy in any one of a handful of shops a postcard of the literally half-dozen Natives left when the Uruguayan ruling class had finished having its fun. And he was right. We could. And I did. And 20 years later the content of that photo still burns in my memory.
Repeatedly in his talk, Galeano returned to what might have been the theme of his remarks, if indeed they had a theme. We must all return to the land, he said. We must go back to the countryside, to live, for there lies the salvation of human beings.
And when he was done he took questions. I waited my turn and raised my hand, and eventually he called on me. I cleared my throat and proceeded. “Repeatedly during the course of your remarks,” I said, “you have said that we must all move back to the land, that there lies our personal salvation and the salvation of humankind, but you live in a city of at least a million people. How do you square that?”
And I’ll never forget the beautiful, wry smile that immediately crossed the great man’s face. He chuckled, thought for a moment, and spoke. “You might find this hard to believe,” he said, “and indeed I can scarcely believe it myself, but that thought never occurred to me.” That was all he had to say about it, and indeed there was no more to say about it. He paused another moment, and then, with utmost humility and not a wisp of arrogance, he asked for the next question. We will miss you, Eduardo. Yours don’t come along every day.
Lawrence Reichard is a freelance journalist currently residing in Guatemala. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.