Eduardo Galeano

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1210

Eduardo Hughes Galeano (gal-ee-AH-noh) has emerged as one of the leading socialist critics of South and North America. The son of Eduardo Hughes and Ester (Galeano Muñoz) Roosen, he attended high school in Montevideo and began his career as a socialist spokesman at the age of thirteen. In 1953 he began publishing political cartoons in El Sol, a weekly socialist paper. By his late teens Galeano’s drawings and articles had become regular features in Marcha, a weekly journal of opinion; in 1961 he was named editor-in-chief. From 1964 to 1966 he served as director of Montevideo’s daily newspaper Epoca before being appointed editor-in-chief at the University Press of Montevideo, a position he held until 1973.

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During Galeano’s rapid ascent to influential editorial positions he was also developing his craft of writing in other genres. His career as a journalist provided opportunities for travel and time to write. An early novel, Los días siguientes (the days that follow), and the short stories collected in Los fantasmas del día del león, y otros relatos (the ghosts of the day of the lion, and other stories) demonstrate a lyrical inclination to explore the tensions of myth and history as well as a youthful optimism for Marxist reforms. His nonfiction of the period constituted an informal broadening of his political education as he traveled in China, in Guatemala, and throughout South America. In China 1964: Crónica de un desafío (China 1964: chronicles of contention), his account of travel and interviews with Pu Yi, the last emperor of China, Galeano went far beyond the typical travel story, analyzing the Chinese revision of Soviet Communism and evaluating the Sino-Soviet disputes over doctrine.

In Guatemala Galeano criticized the influence of the United States in that country, especially in the wake of the U.S. government’s complicity, through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), in the 1954 overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz. Developing a blend of discourses that was to become his hallmark in later prose, he devoted several chapters to contemporary Guatemalan history, cited examples of the United States’ collaboration with North American corporations in controlling the economy of Guatemala, reported on his experiences with guerrilla forces, and refuted thoroughly the charges of a Cuban-inspired insurgency. (He found only Cuban exiles working with the CIA to administer prison camps.) The commentary on history and tactics, however, did not preoccupy Galeano; instead, much of the book focused on social, political, and economic ideas as they emerged from discussions with a variety of people. As Galeano’s research in Guatemala and his reflections on other countries in which he traveled began to assume a further blending of genres, he combined his studies in political history with his previous autobiographical lyricism and political journalism. In a study much like that which he had developed from his time in Guatemala, Galeano expanded his concerns to all South and Central America in The Open Veins of Latin America.

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By 1973 Galeano had become one of the leading left-wing journalists in South America. When a right-wing military coup overturned the Uruguayan government in that year, Galeano fled across the border into Argentina. Soon after his arrival he founded the magazine Crisis and served as its director until 1976, when a right-wing coup by the military in that country forced Galeano into exile in Spain. Crisis reached a monthly circulation of forty thousand copies, the highest circulation of a Spanish-language cultural publication in history. Although clearly political in its ideology, the journal emphasized art, literature, and popular culture. A second novel, La canción de nosotros (our song), won for him the Premio Casa de las Américas in 1975. His experience with the relatively rapid rise of two military dictatorships led to a fragmented lifestyle, but Galeano seemed determined to transform individual turmoil into collective hope.

Living in exile in Spain, Galeano began reexamining his life. Now in a third marriage in a third country, he reflected on his personal and political activities, publishing, in 1978, Days and Nights of Love and War, for which he won the Premio Casa de las Américas a second time. Focusing on the twin themes of the power of fear to silence a nation and the greed that motivated the quest for power, Galeano created a verbal collage of memoirs, facts, speeches, political ideas, fictions, and interviews that was to complete his growth as an innovative stylist. Fragmented in textual construction as life in that era was constantly disoriented, the triumph of Days and Nights of Love and War was to grant each character’s voice and experience equal stature among the rest, thereby creating an ethic of hope and a vision for a democratic, socialist future in Latin America.

While still exiled in Spain, Galeano built upon the aesthetic developed in Days and Nights of Love and War and initiated a massive, ten-year research project intended to unmask the colonial historians’ views of the New World. Searching through thousands of documents, he began his “subjective” three-volume history, Memory of Fire. Using a refined, spare method of collage, brief vignettes, shifting voices, and multiple points of view but keeping a strict chronological record, Galeano’s first volume, Genesis, established a symphonic structure in which themes could emerge, wane, and then surface again. Although the anecdotal entries were pared to discrete prose poems in their tone, they created an immediacy that accentuated the intensity of events from the origin myths of native peoples to the contemporary political struggles documented in the third volume. The entries, however, were keyed carefully to sources listed in the back of each volume. Consequently, the history emerged much like a well-documented, realistic novel: personal but mythic in its range. Memory of Fire was to be one of the very few examples of a postmodernist epic.

As Memory of Fire proceeded through the second volume, Faces and Masks, and the third, Century of the Wind, Galeano’s enormous project became a unified history of the Western hemisphere that included the experience of Aztecs, Incas, and Mayans as well as that of many native North American peoples. It traced the arrival and integration of the French, British, Spaniards, and Africans and followed the subsequent interactions of generations of descendants into the twentieth century tensions between the United States and Latin America.

Although he is known primarily for his historical and political writings, Galeano, through Memory of Fire, became associated with the Magical Realism of South American writers in the 1980’s. The easing of political restrictions in Uruguay, which permitted Galeano’s return to the country in 1984, and the critical attention devoted to Latin American writers by the world’s reviewers and writers have brought Galeano a growing readership, if primarily in translated works. Some critics have found him excessive in his critique of capitalism and in his propensity for violent images, but many have also granted that the violence is a genuinely accurate portrayal of life under colonial rule and military dictatorships and that his focus on the dynamic of fear and greed in those governments surpasses doctrinaire ideological analysis. Galeano’s insistence on freedom of expression and human rights, coupled with his rejection of totalitarian methods by either right-wing or left-wing politicians, underscores the universal value of individual human dignity. Literature, for Galeano, is truth and hope.

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