Some surprise has been expressed in the Anglo-Saxon world that Hugo Chavez should have presented a book to Barack Obama by Eduardo Galeano. Ignorance can be the only defence, the very fault that the Venezuelan president had earlier accused his US counterpart of suffering from. For Galeano is one of the most well-known and celebrated writers in Latin America, up there with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and his huge output of fact and fiction, as well as his journalism, has been published all over the continent. His books have been continuously in print since the 1960s, read voraciously by successive generations.
It was a brilliant idea of Chavez’s to give Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America to Obama, since this book, first published in 1971, encapsulates a radical version of the history of Latin America with which most Latin Americans are familiar. Its subtitle, Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, gives a flavour of its contents, which discuss the way in which Latin America has been dominated and exploited by its European invaders (and later by US corporations) for hundreds of years. Written in short episodes, sometimes just paragraphs, it is very characteristic of Galeano’s highly original style, comparable in some ways to that of the Swedish writer Sven Lindqvist, who has a similar capacity to write about history and current affairs in a language that is both poetic and passionate. The late Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski might be mentioned in the same breath.
Some resistance to Galeano’s writings in the mainstream conservative culture of the US may have been caused by the fact that his books were published by the socialist Monthly Review press and translated by Cedric Belfrage, a British-born journalist who emigrated to work in Hollywood and became a member of the US Communist party. Belfrage was deported back to England in 1955, in the waning years of the McCarthy era, before establishing himself as a Spanish translator in Mexico, where he translated many of Galeano’s books.
Galeano was born in Montevideo in Uruguay in 1940 and became the editor in the 1960s of Marcha, Latin America’s best and most influential political and cultural weekly. Galeano took refuge in Buenos Aires in 1973, after a military coup in Uruguay closed down his magazine, and founded a comparable review, Crisis, in Argentina, chronicling the events of the dramatic Peronist years between 1973 and 1976, when another coup sent him into exile in Spain. Galeano then expanded his Open Veins into a three-volume cultural and political history of Latin America, titled Memories of Fire, with thoughts and reflections on the events of almost every year throughout the continent.
Chavez will certainly have read Obama’s own biographical writings and will know that Obama is an intelligent and creative writer himself. He would also have guessed that Obama would enjoy and appreciate the writings of Galeano as he seeks to recast US policy towards Latin America. As a North American, unfamiliar with the Latin American passion for soccer, Obama might also benefit from reading Galeano’s Football in Sun and Shadow, a wonderful account of the history of the game, published in 1995. The book was written largely to convince leftwing intellectuals (and Cubans obsessed with baseball), some of whom had a supercilious attitude towards the game, of its political and cultural significance. Galeano celebrated soccer’s broad appeal to the great mass of the people of Latin America, an aspect of the southern continent’s culture that North Americans ignore at their peril.
Richard Gott is a writer and historian. He worked for many years at the Guardian as a leader-writer, foreign correspondent and as the features editor.