New Internationalist

Betrayal and promise

Issue 309

The century may be dying but hope of a better world is not. According to Latin American writer Eduardo Galeano, we should not apologize for having tried to conquer heaven but should draw strength from the mosquito cloud of popular resistance.


The twentieth century was born under the sign of revolution, and it dies marked by despair. Stop the world, I want to get off: in these times of stupor and collapse, the ranks of the regretful are swelling – regretful of political passion and regretful of all passion. There are many who apologize for having believed that it was possible to conquer heaven; there are many who fervently seek to kick over their own traces and climb down from hope, as if hope were a worn-out horse.

End of the century, end of the millennium: end of the world? How much unpoisoned air have we still got left? How many unspoiled lands, how many waters not yet dead? How many non-ailing souls? In its Hebrew version, the word sick means ‘without a project’, and this is the gravest sickness among the many plagues of our times. But someone, who knows who, wrote in passing on a wall in the city of Bogotแ: ‘Let’s leave pessimism for better times.’

Whenever we take it into our heads to express hope in Spanish, we say: abrigamos esperanzas (‘we shelter hope’). Nice expression, nice challenge: sheltering it to prevent it from dying of cold in the implacably rough climate of our present times. According to a recent survey carried out in 17 Latin American countries, three out of four people describe their situation as stagnant or worsening. Is it necessary to accept misfortune as one accepts winter or death? It is time for we Latin Americans to start asking: are we going to resign ourselves to enduring life and to being no more than a caricature of the North? No more than a mirror which multiplies the distortions of the original image? The look-after-number-one attitude degenerating into ‘let them die if they can’t’? Swarms of losers in a race where the majority are pushed off the track? Crime turned to slaughter, urban hysteria elevated to total madness? Have we nothing else to say and to live through?

The civilisation that confuses clocks with the time also confuses nature with postcards

Fortunately, we hardly ever hear history described as infallible these days. We are well aware by now that history makes mistakes, that it gets distracted, falls asleep, loses its way. We make it, and it looks like us. But, like us, it is also unpredictable. It is with human history as with football: its best feature is its ability to surprise. Against all forecasts, against all evidence, the little guy sometimes leads the invincible giant a merry dance.

However messed-up the warp of reality, new fabrics are being woven on to it, and those fabrics are made up of a weft of many and diverse colours. Alternative social movements express themselves not only through parties and unions, but in other ways too. There is nothing spectacular about the process, and it happens mostly at a local level, but everywhere, on a worldwide scale, a thousand-and-one new forces are emerging. They sprout from the bottom up and from inside outwards. Without any fuss, they put their shoulder to the wheel of rebuilding democracy, nourished by popular participation, and are reclaiming the battered traditions of tolerance, mutual help and communion with nature. One of their spokespeople, Manfred Max-Neef, defines them as a cloud of mosquitoes launched against a system which spurns embraces and forces us to jostle. ‘The mosquito cloud,’ he says, ‘is more powerful than the rhinoceros. It grows and grows, buzzes and buzzes.’

In Latin America, they are a dangerous expanding species: the organizations of the landless, the homeless, the jobless, all the lesses; the groups working for human rights; the white scarves of the mothers and grand-mothers who oppose the impunity of power; the neighbourhood movements; the citizens’ groups fighting for fair prices and healthy products; those who struggle against racial and sexual discrimination, against machismo and against the exploitation of children; the ecologists; the pacifists; the health workers and popular educators; those who trigger collective creation and those who rescue collective memory; the co-operatives engaged in organic agriculture; community radio and television stations; and many other voices of popular participation which are neither the spare tyres of any party nor chapels subject to any Vatican. These driving forces of civil society are frequently persecuted by the powers-that-be, sometimes by means of the bullet. Some activists fall, riddled with bullets, on the way. May the gods and the devils rest their souls: it’s the fruit-yielding trees that the stones are thrown at.

With one or two exceptions, like the Zapatistas of Chiapas and the landless in Brazil, it is rare for these movements to be at the forefront of public attention; and not because they don’t deserve it. Just to mention one case, one of these popular organizations, born in recent years and unknown outside the borders of its own country, has set an example which the Latin American presidents ought to follow. El Barzón is the name of an organization of debtors who have joined together in Mexico to defend themselves against the usury of the banks. El Barzón sprang up spontaneously. Initially, they were few. Few, but contagious. Now they are a multitude.

Our presidents would do well to learn from that experience, enabling countries to unite, as people did in Mexico, and form a single front against the financial despotism which imposes its will by negotiating with each country separately. But the presidents’ ears are full of the resonant platitudes they exchange each time they meet and pose for the family photograph, with the President of the United States – the Mother Country – always in the centre.

It’s happening in many places on the Latin American map: people are uniting against the paralyzing gases of fear and, united, they are learning not to bow their heads. As Old Antonio says: ‘Everyone is as small as the fear they feel, and as big as the enemy they choose.’ No longer cowed, these people are saying their piece. To give another Mexican example, the Zapatistas’ Subcomandante Marcos speaks for the unders: the underdeveloped, the underfed, the undermined, the underheard. The indigenous communities of Chiapas discuss and decide, and he is their mouthpiece. The voice of those who have no voice? They, who have been forced into silence, are the voice. They speak through what they say and they speak through their silence.

Against all forecasts, against all evidence, the little guy sometimes leads the invincible giant a merry dance

The official history, a mutilated memory, is a long ceremony of self-praise by those who call the shots in this world. Their reflectors, which illuminate the peaks, leave the base in the dark. The usual invisible beings form part, at best, of the scenery of history, like Hollywood extras. But it is they, the actors in the real history, the denied, lied-about, hidden protagonists of past and present reality, who embody the splendid fan of another possible reality. Blinded by elitism, racism, sexism and militarism, America continues to ignore the plenitude within it. And this is doubly true in the South: Latin America is endowed with the most fabulous human and vegetal diversity on the planet. This is where its fecundity and its promise reside. As the anthropologist Rodolfo Stavenhagen puts it: ‘Cultural diversity is to the human species what biological diversity is to the world’s genetic wealth.’ To enable these energies to express the possible wonders of the people and the land, one would have to start by not confusing identity with archaeology, or nature with scenery. Identity is not something frozen in the museums, nor is ecology reducible to gardening.

Five centuries ago, the people and the lands of the Americas were incorporated into the world market as things. A few conquerors, the conquered conquerors, were able to fathom the American plurality, and they lived within it and for it; but the Conquest, a blind and blinding enterprise like all imperial invasions, was capable of recognizing the indigenous people, and nature, only as objects to be exploited or as obstacles. Cultural diversity was dismissed as ignorance and punished as heresy, in the name of a single god, a single language and a single truth, and this sin of idolatry merited flogging, hanging or the stake.

'Everyone is as small as the fear they feel, and as big as the enemy thei choose'

There is no longer talk of subjecting nature: now its executioners prefer to say that it has to be protected. But in either case, then and now, nature is external to us: the civilization that confuses clocks with the time also confuses nature with postcards. But the vitality of the world, which mocks all classifications and is beyond all explanations, never stays still. Nature realizes itself in movement, as do we, its children, who are what we are at the same time as we are what we do to change what we are. As Paulo Freire, the educator who died learning, said: ‘We exist in motion.’

The truth is in the journey, not in the port. There is no truth but the quest for truth. Are we condemned to criminality? We are well aware of the fact that we human creatures are very busy devouring our fellow beings and devastating the planet, but we also know that we wouldn’t be here if our remote Paleolithic ancestors had been unable to adapt to the nature they were part of, or not been willing to share what they hunted and gathered. No matter where, how or when a person may live, each one contains within themselves many possible persons, and it’s the ruling system, which has nothing eternal about it, that invites our basest occupants on to the stage every day, while preventing the others from growing and banning them from making an appearance. We may be badly made, but we’re not finished yet; and it’s the adventure of making changes and changing ourselves which makes this flicker in the history of the universe that we are, this fleeting warmth between two glaciers, worthwhile.

Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano is the author of such classics as The Open Veins of Latin America and Memory of Fire. He is a frequent contributor to the NI. His original Spanish was translated by Ana Ransom.

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on Betrayal and promise

Leave your comment