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Latin America A Kingdom of Paradoxes


[This is an abridged version of a speech by Eduardo Galeano on July 3 in Montevideo, Uruguay, on being accorded the title of the First Distinguished Citizen of the region by the countries of Mercosur. Paradoxically, the only Mercosur President not to congratulate him was his own, Tabare Vazquez of Uruguay.]

 

Our region is the kingdom of paradoxes. Take the case of Brazil: paradoxically, Aleijadinho, the ugliest man in Brazil, created the highest art of the colonial epoch; paradoxically Garrincha, ruined from childhood by poverty and polio, born to misfortune, was the player who offered the greatest pleasure in the history of football; and paradoxically Oscar Niemeyer, who has completed 100 years, is the freshest of the architects, the youngest of the Brazilians.

***

 

Or take the case of Bolivia: in 1978 five women overturned a military dictatorship. Paradoxically, all of Bolivia made fun of them when they started their hunger strike. Paradoxically, all of Bolivia ended up helping them until the dictatorship fell.

 

I had known one of these five stubborn ones: Domitila Barrios, in the mining town of Llaallagua. In an assembly of mining workers, all men, she had raised herself and quietened everyone. “I want to tell you this,” she said, “Our principal enemy is not imperialism, neither the bourgeois nor bureaucracy. Our principal enemy is fear, and we bear it inside.”

 

And years later, I met Domitila again, in Stockholm. She had been thrown out of Bolivia and had gone into exile with her seven children. Domitila was very thankful for the solidarity of the Swedes and admired them for their liberty, but it pained her how alone they were, drinking on their own, eating on their own, speaking on their own. And she gave them advice:

 

“Don’t be silly,” she told them, “get together. Us there in Bolivia get together. Even if it to fight among ourselves, we get together.”

 

And how right she was. Because I say: do teeth exist if not joined together in the mouth? Do fingers exist if not joined together in the hand?

***

 

All through the first half of the nineteenth century, a Venezuelan called Simón Rodríguez, travelled through the roads of our America, on a mule, challenging the new holders of power: “You,” Simon would cry out, “you who so imitate the Europeans, why don’t you imitate from then what is most important – originality?”

 

Paradoxically, he was heard by nobody, this man who so deserved to be heard. Paradoxically, they called him loco because he had the sense to think that we should think with our own head, because he had the sense to propose education for all and one America for all… and because he had the sense to doubt the independence of our newly-born countries.

 

“We don’t own ourselves,” he said, “we are independent but we are not free”.

***

 

Fifteen years after the death of mad Rodríguez, Paraguay was exterminated. The only truly free Hispanic American country was paradoxically assassinated in the name of liberty. Paraguay wasn’t in the prison of external debt because it did not owe anyone a cent and did not practise the dishonest freedom of commerce which imposed on us, and imposes on us, an economy of imports and an impostor culture.

 

Paradoxically, after five years of a ferocious war, amid so much death, the origin survived. According to the most ancient of its traditions, the Paraguayans had been born of the language that named them. And amid the smoking ruins, that sacred language survived, the first language, the Guarani language. And still Paraguayans speak in Guarani in the hour of truth, which is the hour of love and humour. In Guarani, ‘ñe’é’ means word and also means soul. Who lies with the word betrays the soul. If I give you my word, I give myself.

***

 

A century after the Paraguayan war, a President of Chile gave his word and gave up himself. The planes spat bombs on his government palace, also machine-gunned by troops on the ground.

 

He had said: I will not leave here alive.

 

Paradoxically, one of the principal avenues of Santiago is still called, Eleventh of September. And it is not named for the victims of the Twin Towers of New York. No, it is named in homage to the executioners of democracy in Chile. With all respect to that country which I love, I dare to ask, out of common sense, would it not be time to change the name, would it not be time to name it Salvador Allende Avenue in homage to the dignity of democracy and dignity of the word-soul?

***

 

And leaping over the mountain I ask myself: why is it that Che Guevara, the most famous Argentinean of all time, the most universal Latin American, has the habit of keep being born? Paradoxically, the more he is manipulated, the more he is betrayed, the more he is born. He is the most born of all.

 

And I ask myself, will it not be because he said what he thought and did what he said? Will it not be that for this he remains so extraordinary in this world where words and deeds very rarely meet and when they do they don’t greet each other because they do not recognise each other.

 

 

 

Translated from Spanish by Supriyo Chatterjee. More Latin America reports at Meeting Point

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