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Eduardo Galeano – a tribute


© Julio Etchart

Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan writer who died on Monday, aged 74, would sign his name with a little sketch of a flying pig, red rose firmly held in its teeth. For this reason he always carried with him a black and a red pen, in his top pocket.

It was the perfect icon for this ardent defender of the right to dream and struggle for a better world, whatever those in power might say or do. His was a fierce politics of hope – laced with idiosyncratic wit.

An outstanding intellectual of the Latin American Left, he was also a prolific and deeply original, genre-breaking writer. His eye for human foibles and the destructive follies of the systems by which we live was acute; his turns of phrase at once playful and deeply meaningful.

He started his career as a journalist in the early 1960s, becoming editor of the influential weekly Marcha, based in Uruguay. His 1971 book, The Open Veins of Latin America, which told the story of the (on-going) colonization of the continent in a way that was stunningly fresh and eye-opening, brought him international fame.

Galeano’s sharp insights and uncensored talent for turning things on their head to make you see the insanity of what passed for normality, were bound to offend the military rulers who seized power in his country two years later. He was imprisoned in 1973, fled to neighbouring Argentina, but three years later was placed on the military’s death list in that country after the 1976 coup.

His positive spirit seemed irrepressible. When interviewed by New Internationalist in 2013, he said: ‘My time in exile was at first hard, difficult, but then it opened doors for me to the many worlds that the world contains.’

That interview was one that I was supposed to have conducted with him a few months earlier, in his favourite haunt – El Brasilero, Montevideo’s oldest café. But events got in the way – enabling me, as it turned out, to see another side of Eduardo Galeano: the gentle, kind individual who visited me in hospital while I was recovering from a violent mugging, bearing roses – red like the one in the mouth of his signature flying pig.

At that time, he disclosed that he himself had just started a course of treatment, because the lung cancer he had survived in 2007 had returned. He was positive, hopeful, impressed by the pioneering treatment that he was getting within the Uruguayan public health service.

In the interview, he said: ‘I have died and been born several times.’ Whether it was meant literally or not, he had certainly had several near misses. He was a survivor who never lost faith, though it was not of the blind variety. Indeed, it was the blindness of amnesia, especially in Latin America, that he railed most vehemently against, saying that ‘impunity stimulates the criminal, both at a private and a collective level’.

The political fire in his belly could survive the disappointment of one sort of socialism (the co-opted neoliberal sort) and see the potential of emerging new movements, the ‘indignants in opposition to the undignified’, as he put it.

In the summer of 2013 he was due to go on a tour in the US, reading stories from his new book: Children of the Days – a calendar of human history. He would be reading from the English edition, but was worried that his Latin American accent might be an obstacle to understanding. 

So we went through it together, Eduardo reading out sections and I – when I could stop laughing out loud at the many moments of brilliant, zany humour – daring to correct his English pronunciation.

A fabulous story teller, he was not a fantasist, rooting his stories in the world he saw. When asked where he got his ideas from he replied: ‘Reality, that mad and generous lady, taps me on the shoulder or the back, and tap, tap, says: tell my story, it’s worth it.’

Eduardo Galeano put his body into his politics as well as his mind – just two years ago he was out on the streets of Montevideo protesting against the sacking of a judge who had defended human rights.

Passionate about football, he was able to write on the topic with such poetry than even the most uninterested could not but be left thinking they might be missing something.

He leaves several books (including the Memory of Fire trilogy, Upside Down, The Book of Embraces, Voices of Time, We Say No, Soccer in Sun and Shadow) and many more pieces of journalism, writing for publications around the world, including this one. He was always charming, generous and gracious to work with.

A genuine and original talent, Eduardo Galeano inspired generations of people to believe, and go on believing, that another world is possible. He is survived by his partner, Helena Villagra, and three children.

Finally, here is a poem by his compatriot and occasional collaborator, photographer Julio Etchart, written after a visit to Eduardo’s home in Montevideo, in April 2013.


Open sesame, open
on to an interior world
where the walls shake
from so many riches

Native symbolisms
from distant regions
share their historic weight
with impudent muses
that sway
to the beat of poetry

The walls vibrate
in Eduardo’s house
colourful altarpieces share daring
corners with naked ceramics
and wooden statues carved
with feverish enthusiasm

Women who work with wax and threads
devote their burnt hands
to the astonished spectator
sated with so much colour

The smiling letters
lie back in their folds
contemplating the universe of pigments
offered by humble constancy

The books come alive
on their shelves…
dance with the shadows,
flirt with the paintings,
sway to the last rays
of sun in Montevideo
that glint on our wine glasses

Everything comes to life
around us
water-colours and prose
in a virtual mix.
Brief, precise, eternal phrases
flying through the southern winds
and Caribbean hurricanes
envelop us
in their whirlwind

Outside, in the shade-filled garden
metals twist in a crepuscular rite.
Galeano leans back against a sculpture
forged from ancient metals
born in the bowels
of our total America,
whose veins have been opened
to the rhythm of his sinuous pen.

The sun sets with its magic palette
and a cacophony of glowing light
bids me farewell
from Eduardo’s house.

Poem by Julio Etchart
Translated by Nick Caistor

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