issue 213 - November 1990
He's late. To commute: to transform, to change utterly: what a way to describe the daily grind! Fred makes for the door. A barricade of junk mail. But hold hard. The NI's there. 'What Next?' Good question. Eduardo Galeano. The Open Veins of Latin America. Read the book years ago. Changed Fred's mind. Memories of fire. Wonder what he thinks now?
The other wall
The view from the South. Eduardo Galeano looks north,
over the high wall of power, and finds contempt
disguised as destiny at 'the end of history'.
The end of history? That's nothing new for us. Five centuries ago Europe decreed that in America memory and dignity were crimes. The new owners of these lands banned the remembrance and the making of history. All we have been permitted to do since is to accept it.
Dark skins, white wigs, crowns of lights, cloaks of silk and jewels: at the Rio de Janeiro carnival the starving dream together and for a while are Kings and Queens. For four days the most musical people in the world live out their collective delirium. And on Ash Wednesday, at midday, the party is over. The police arrest anyone who stays in disguise. The poor take off their feathers and paint, rip off the visible masks, the masks that unmask, the masks of fleeting freedom, and put on different, invisible masks, negating the human face: the masks of routine, obedience and misery. Until the next carnival, the Queens go back to washing dishes and the Princes to sweeping the streets.
They sell newspapers they cannot read, sew clothes they cannot wear, polish cars they will never own and construct buildings where they will never live. With their cheap arms they present cheap products to the world market.
They made Brasilia, and from Brasilia they were thrown out. They make Brazil, day after day, and Brazil is their land of exile.
They cannot make history. They are condemned to suffer it.
The end of history. Time has been pensioned off, the world has stopped turning. Tomorrow is another name for today. The places at the table are set, and Western civilization denies no-one the right to beg for crumbs.
Ronald Reagan wakes up one day and says: 'The Cold War is over. We've won'. Francis Fukuyama, a functionary in the US State Department, achieves sudden fame and success by discovering that the end of the Cold War is also the end of history. In the name of liberal democracy, capitalism becomes the last port of call for all journeys, 'the final form of human government'.
Hours of glory. The class struggle no longer exists, and to the East there are no longer enemies but allies. The free market and the consumer society have won universal consensus, no more than delayed by the historical diversion of the communist mirage. Just as the French Revolution wanted it we are now all free, equal and fraternal, And property owners too. Kingdom of greed, paradise on Earth.
Like God, capitalism has the highest opinion of itself and has no doubts about its own immortality.
Welcome to the fall of the Berlin Wall! So says the Peruvian diplomat Carlos Alzamora in a recent article; but the other wall, the wall that separates the poor world from the opulent world, is higher than ever. A universal apartheid: racism, intolerance and discrimination erupt increasingly in Europe, punishing all intruders who scale the wall to reach the citadel of prosperity.
It's plain to see. The Berlin Wall has died a timely death. But it lived no more than 30 years. The other wall will soon be celebrating its fifth centenary. Unequal exchange, financial extortion, capital bleeding away, monopoly over technology and information, cultural alienation - these are the bricks that build up day by day, as wealth and sovereignty drain ever faster from the South to the North of the world.
Money works in the opposite way to people; the freer it gets, the worse it becomes. Economic neo-liberalism, imposed by the North on the South as 'the end of history', as the only and ultimate system, consecrates oppression under the banner of freedom. In the free market the victory of the strong is natural and the annihilation of the weak is legitimate. Racism rises to the status of economic doctrine. The North confirms divine justice: God rewards the chosen people and castigates the inferior races, condemned by their biological make-up to violence and inefficiency. In a single day, a worker from the North earns more than a worker from the South can in half a month.
Starvation wages, low costs, ruinous world market prices. Sugar is one of the Latin American products condemned to instability and decline. For many years there was just one exception: the Soviet Union paid (and still does) a reasonable price for Cuba's sugar. Now, in its euphoria, capitalism triumphant rubs its hands with glee. There are plenty of signs that this commercial pact will not last much longer. No-one thinks to say that this exemplary exception shows how to create a new, fairer international order, an alternative to the systematic plunder called 'deteriorating terms of trade' by the technicians. No: if the Soviets still pay a good price for Cuban sugar, that only goes to show the diabolical designs that guided Moscow's steps, poking its nose in where it did not belong, in the days when it sported horns, a trident and a tail.
The prevailing order is the only possible one: thieving commerce is the end of history.
Preoccupied by cholesterol, hunger long forgotten, the North nonetheless practises charity. Mother Theresa of Calcutta is more efficient than Karl Marx. Aid given by the North to the South is much less than the alms solemnly pledged before the United Nations, but it allows the North to dump its war junk, its surplus goods and development projects that underdevelop the South and spread the haemorrhage to cure the anaemia.
Meanwhile, over the last five years, the South has donated to the North an infinitely larger sum, the equivalent of two Marshall Plans at constant prices, in the form of interest payments, profits, royalties and all kinds of colonial tribute. And meanwhile, the creditor banks of the North have gutted the debtor states of the South and ended up owning our public sector in exchange for nothing.
Just as well that imperialism does not exist. No one mentions it any more, therefore it does not exist. That history, too, has ended.
But, if empires and their colonies have come to rest behind glass in the museum of antiquities, why are the dominant countries still armed to the teeth? Because of the Soviet threat? Not even the Soviets believe that alibi anymore- If the Iron Curtain has melted away and the bad guys of yesterday are the good guys of today, why do the powerful continue to manufacture and sell weapons and fear?
The budget of the US Air Force exceeds the total of the budgets for the education of all children in the so-called Third World. A waste of resources? Or resources to defend waste? Could the unequal organization of the world, which pretends to be eternal, be sustained a single day longer if the countries and the social classes that have bought up the world disarmed?
This system, sick with consumerism and arrogance, which launched so voraciously into the destruction of land, sea, air and sky, now mounts guard at the foot of the high wall of power. It sleeps with one eye open, and with good reason.
The end of history is its message of death. The system that sanctifies a cannibalistic international order tells us: 'I am everything. After me, nothingness'.
From a computer screen, the fate of millions of human beings is being decided. In the era of super-enterprises and super-technology, some are merchants, others are merchandise. The magic of the market fixes the value of things and people. Latin American products are worth less every day. So are we, the Latin Americans.
The Pope in Rome forcefully condemned the brief blockade, or threatened blockade, of Lithuania. But the Holy Father has never uttered a word against the blockade of Cuba, now in its thirtieth year, or of Nicaragua, which lasted a decade. That's normal. And it's normal, too, that since we Latin Americans are worth so little while still alive, then the value placed on our dead should be a hundred times less than on the victims of the now disintegrated Evil Empire. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman have taken the trouble to measure the space we merit in the leading North American media. Jerzy Popieluszko, the priest murdered by state terror in Poland in 1984, took up more space than the sum total of 100 priests murdered by state terror in Latin America in recent years.
They have imposed contempt on us as a custom. Now they sell us contempt as destiny.
The South learns its geography from world maps which reduce its actual size. Will future maps blot it out altogether?
Latin America was always the land of the future.
Cold comfort. But it was something.
Now we are told that the future is the present.
Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan writer and historian, lives in Montevideo. His most recent work is the widely acclaimed trilogy Memories of Fire, an imaginative reconstruction of Latin American history, which is published in paperback by Methuen. This article was translated by Ana Ransom.