issue 230 - April 1992
MARK EDWARDS / STILL PICTURES
'There is just one place where yesterday and today meet, recognize each other and embrace,
and that place is tomorrow.' The world - both gentle and brutal - according to Eduardo Galeano.
Alastair Reid writes for the New Yorker but rarely goes to New York.
He prefers to live on a remote beach in the Dominican Republic. Christopher Columbus landed on this beach several centuries ago on one of his excursions to Japan, and nothing has changed since.
From time to time, the postman appears among the trees. The postman arrives staggering under his load. Alastair receives mountains of correspondence.
From the US he is bombarded with commercial offers, leaflets, catalogues, luxurious temptations from the consumer civilization that exhorts him to buy.
On one occasion he found in the mass of paper an advertisement for a rowing machine. Alastair showed it to his neighbours, the fisherpeople.
'Indoors? They use it indoors?'
The fisherpeople couldn't believe it:
'Without water? They row without water?'
They couldn't comprehend it:
'And without fish? And without the sun? And without the sky?'
The fisherpeople told Alastair that they got up every night long before dawn and put out to sea and cast their nets as the sun rose over the horizon, and that this was their life and that this life pleased them, but that rowing was the one infernal aspect of the whole business.
Rowing is the one thing we hate,' said the fishermen.
Then Alastair explained to them that the rowing machine was for exercise.
'Ah. And exercise - what's that?'
The big bankers of the world, who practise the terrorism of money, are more powerful than kings and field marshals, even more than the Pope of Rome himself. They never dirty their hands. They kill no-one: they limit themselves to applauding the show.
Their officials, international technocrats, rule our countries: they are neither presidents nor ministers, they have not been elected, but they decide the level of salaries and public expenditure, investments and divestments, prices, taxes, interest rates, subsidies, when the sun rises and how frequently it rains.
However, they don't concern themselves with the prisons or torture chambers or concentration camps or extermination centers, although these house the inevitable consequences of their acts.
The technocrats claim the privilege of irresponsibility: 'We're neutral' they say.
Fleas dream of buying themselves a dog, and nobodies dream of escaping poverty: that, one magical day, good luck will suddenly rain down on them - will rain down in buckets. But good luck doesn't rain down, yesterday, today, tomorrow or ever. Good luck doesn't even fall in a fine drizzle, no matter how hard the nobodies summon it, even if their left hand is tickling, or if they begin the new day on their right foot, or start the new year with a change of brooms.
The nobodies: nobody's children, owners of nothing. The nobodies: the no-ones, the nobodied, running like rabbits, dying through life, screwed every which way.
Who are not, but could be.
Who don't speak languages, but dialects.
Who don't have religions, but superstitions.
Who don't create art, but handicrafts.
Who don't have culture, but folklore.
Who are not human beings, but human resources.
Who do not have faces, but arms.
Who do not have names, but numbers.
Who do not appear in the history of the world, but in the crime reports of the local paper.
The nobodies, who are not worth the bullet that kills them.
It steals with one hand what it lends with the other.
The more they pay, the more they owe.
The more they get, the less they have.
The more they sell, the less they earn.
To the South, repression. To the North, depression.
More than a few Northern intellectuals marry southern revolutions for the sheer pleasure of becoming widowers. They ostentatiously weep buckets, oceans of tears over the death of each illusion, and they never stop learning enough to discover that socialism is the longest road from capitalism to capitalism.
It is fashionable in the North, throughout the world, to celebrate neutral art and applaud the snake that bites its tail and finds it tasty. Culture and politics have become consumer goods. Presidents are chosen on television like soap, and poets perform a decorative function. The only magic is that of the market, and bankers are the only heroes.
Democracy is a Northern luxury. The South is permitted its show, which is denied to nobody. And in the final analysis, it doesn't bother anyone very much that politics be democratic so long as the economy is not. When the curtain falls, once the votes are deposited in the ballot boxes, reality imposes the law of might is right, which is the law of money, the pleasure of the natural order of things. In the Southern half of the world, so the system teaches, violence and hunger belong not to history but to nature, and justice and liberty have been condemned to mutual hatred.
Functionaries don't function.
Politicians speak but say nothing.
Voters vote but don't elect.
The information media disinform.
Schools teach ignorance.
Judges punish the victims.
The military makes war against its own compatriots.
The police don't fight crime because they are too busy committing it.
Bankruptcies are socialized while profits are privatized.
Money is freer than people are.
People are at the service of things.
THE KINGDOM OF THE COCKROACH
MARK EDWARDS / STILL PICTURES
When I visited Cedric Beifrage in Cuernavaca, Los Angeles contained 16 million personmobiles, people with wheels instead of legs, so it did not much resemble the city he had known when he arrived in Hollywood during the silent film era, nor did it resemble the city Cedric still loved when Senator McCarthy expelled him during the witch hunts.
Since his expulsion, Cedric has lived in Cuernavaca. Certain friends, survivors of the old days, turn up from time to time at his roomy and luminous house; and also, from time to time, comes a mysterious white butterfly that drinks tequila.
I was coming from Los Angeles and had been in the area where Cedric had lived, but he did not ask me about Los Angeles. Los Angeles did not interest him, or he acted as if it didn't. Instead, he asked me about my time in Canada and we got to talking about acid rain. The poisonous gases from the factories, which the clouds returned to earth, had already exterminated 14,000 lakes in Canada. Those 14,000 lakes no longer sustained any life: neither plants nor fish. I had had a glimpse of that catastrophe.
Old Cedric looked at me with his big, clear eyes and feigned observances to those soon to reign over the earth:
'We human beings have abdicated the planet,' he proclaimed, 'in favour of the cockroaches.' Then he took the bottle and filled our glasses: 'A spot more while we may.'.
Sometimes, at the end of the summer when the tourists left Calella, you could hear howls coming from the forest. They were the cries of dogs tethered to the trees.
The tourists used the dogs to relieve their loneliness during their vacation, and then, when the time came to leave, tied them up deep in the woods to keep them from following.
TRADITIONS OF THE FUTURE
There is just one place where yesterday and today meet, recognize each other and embrace, and that place is tomorrow.
Certain voices from the American past, long past, sound very futuristic. For example, the ancient voice that still tells us we are children of the earth. While dead birds rain on Mexico City and rivers are turned into sewers, oceans into dumps and forests into deserts, this voice, stubbornly refusing to die, heralds another world different from this one that poisons the water, soil, air and soul.
The ancient voice that speaks to us of community heralds another world as well. Community - the communal mode of production and life - is the oldest of American traditions, the most American of all. It belongs to the earliest days and the first people, but it also belongs to the times ahead and anticipates a new New World. For there is nothing less alien to these lands of ours than socialism. Capitalism, on the other hand, is foreign: like smallpox, like the flu, it came from abroad.
Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan writer, lived in exile in Spain for several years and now works and travels from Montevideo once more; his books include The Open Veins of Latin America and the historical trilogy Memory of Fire. The Book of Embraces is his most recent work. From: THE BOOK OF EMBRACES, translated by Cedric Beifrage, Copyright © 1989 by Eduardo Galeano; Copyright © 1991 by Cedric Beifrage. Published by W W Norton & Company, Inc., New York 1991. Originally published in Spanish as EL LIBRO DE LOS ABRAZOS by Siglo Veintiuno. Reprinted by permission of Susan Bergholz Literary Services, New York.