The Current Situation in Latin America


duardo Galeano was born in Montevideo, Uruguay
in 1940. During the military dictatorship he lived in exile, first
in Argentina, later in Spanish Catalonia. In 1985 he returned to
Montevideo. Galeano is an icon of progressive Latin American literature.
His two monumental works,

Open Veins of Latin America

and the trilogy

Memory of Fire

(1982, 1984, 1986), made a
tremendous impact on Latin American and world intellectuals, unveiling
the brutality of colonialism and post-colonialism, but also capturing
readers into their original, magic, and poetic prose. His latest
book is

Bocas del Tiempo


VLTCHEK: How would you compare the situation now and during the
time when you were writing

Open Veins of Latin America


Memory of Fire

GALEANO: I would say that now the tendency is to vote in progressive
governments that are trying to change things. This means a tremendous
challenge, but also a tremendous responsibility because these new
progressive governments that can be found in several countries of
Latin America are carriers of collective hope, which was not yet
dead but seriously wounded. Latin America is part of the world which
was for many years condemned to the system of power where intimidation
had more strength than the vote. It began in 1954 when the democratically
elected government of Guatemala attempted to make agrarian reforms,
to return dignity to indigenous people; all that was later destroyed
by foreign invasion. Then it continued: invasions and coups against
any positive changes—progressive or nationalistic—concerning
natural resources, independence, national dignity. Governments that
intended to implement changes were destroyed. It happened in Brazil,
Dominican Republic, Bolivia, and in Chile, which became the most
famous case because Salvador Allende was converted to an international
symbol. Then the Sandinistas in Nicaragua; again the same thing—they
were destroyed after ten years of war because they intended to create
a country where there was only a colony before. 

So all this is a very long story of frustrations, failures, of hope
washed in blood. All this created the situation in which we are
now. How can I explain it? Change is possible, but to implement
change, one has to fight against not only the painful and fucked
up experiences of the last half century, but also against the long
betrayal and something that I call “the culture of impotence.”
It is a culture that has roots in the colonial period when the continent
was controlled by Spain and Portugal and that was later broken up
and consolidated by the military dictatorships and fatalistic brothers
from the church. All this helped to create a culture of impotence
that manages to paralyze people with fear. These days this culture
of fear has a spokesperson who is a universal god—the god of
the market. 

In Latin America it is common to criticize the foreign policy
of the United States. On the other hand, it often appears that centuries
of European colonialism are forgotten and forgiven. Can you this? 

I think this sentiment exists because there is nostalgia for the
multi-polar world. From the weak nations’ point of view, it
is better if there are many powerful countries than if there are
just a few. The more concentrated is power, the fewer opportunities
there are to move. Space for change, space for freedom to implement
change is then very narrow; very small. A unipolar world—one
with only one power—makes sure that this space almost disappears.
In a multi-polar world this space multiplies. Therefore, there is
nostalgia for a multi-polar world. For some 50 years we had something
that was called the “socialist world,” which was of course
not really socialist, but it managed to create another pole. During
those times, Europe had at least some energy to implement its own
development. Many people see the disappearance of that period as
a loss. Now it seems like faraway history.

Things fundamentally changed; look at an extreme case like the one
of the UK. Not long ago I was visiting London and I happened to
be invited to speak at the Royal Festival Hall. It was packed with
people. During my first lecture someone from the audience asked
me whom would I vote for in the upcoming elections? I said that
I’m not going to sell ice to the Eskimos; that I am not going
to tell English people for whom they should vote. But people kept
insisting, kept pushing: “Whom would you vote for?” At
the end they reduced their questions to: “So at least say what
would be your message to the English public.” So I told them:
“I don’t think it is a very dignified position to be a
colony of your former colony.” They were laughing a lot after
I said that; they thought it was a great joke. But it wasn’t
a joke. It’s true. Europe is now very much under the control
of dictatorship; of only one power, which is represented by one
guy from Texas presiding over the degradation of the political process,
reducing it to the level of low quality comics. 

Most Europeans are losing any desire to vote. As we saw during
the previous elections in the UK, the majority of people are voting
for politicians for whom they harbor no respect. 

There is a universal crisis of so called representative democracies
or democracies, which rely on the system of competing political
parties. This crisis is mostly reflected in the apathy of young
generations. If you ask young people whether they believe in democracy,
in the energy of changes in democracy, most young people just shrug
their shoulders and tell you that they don’t believe in it,
or believe just a little. This universal crisis—and Latin America
is part of this world and this crisis—takes place mainly because
politicians did very little in order to dignify democracy. Many
young people see democracy as some enormous circus where professional
politicians are performing incredible tricks. Once they reach the
government, they do everything possible not to fulfill what they
have promised during the election campaign. 

This is exactly against the essence of democracy and young people
at the end feel that they are invited to choose between the same
and the same. The goal now is to restore democracy to its deep essence:
as the power of the people. In this world, which is losing faith
in so called representative democracy, there are new developments
in participatory democracy. These are very interesting developments,
reflecting the revitalization of community power with a more and
more active presence of minorities in political life, including
the presence of women who are of course by no means a minority.
There is also the growing influence of the pacifists. Sometimes
one feels that pacifists are powerless since they were not able
to stop the war in Iraq. But we can’t forget that before the
war, for the first time in the history of humanity, there were enormous
demonstrations and protests against the war—before the war

This was important because at least it put on record how disconnected
many governments are from their people who were screaming slogans
against the war on the streets, but their voices are being ignored.
So at least it was important as a testimony. On the other hand,
it is also obvious how far we are from the time of political maturity
when we could be capable of punishing politicians for their betrayals;
to punish with the most powerful weapon—the ballot. There is
a saying that a lie has short legs. Not long ago I wrote an article
arguing that it is not true: a lie has very long legs. So long are
the legs of a lie that it is capable of running at full speed carrying
liars on its back. Because when Tony Blair and George Bush lied
about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, people in their countries
still awarded them with the vote in the following elections. So
we are still very far from the time when people will be realizing
how powerful a weapon their vote can be. 

You mentioned pacifism. Do you believe that it is possible to
fight against global dictatorship by pacifist means? 

I don’t believe in saying “The way to do it is armed struggle.”
I’ve met many people who were seriously involved in armed struggle,
but they were reacting to the will and desires of the people. They
never acted as if they were enlightened by some divine power or
by some chosen minority. Also, they say that if there were someone
shouting, “Armed struggle, let’s die,” they would
probably be working for someone and would be embarrassed to confess
for whom. They would be some professional provocateurs like Bin
Laden. Bin Laden is an official of fear, that’s clear. Bush
was just about to lose the elections, and then Bin Laden appears,
declares that he is going to eat all children in the raw, and Bush
wins. So there is  blackmail by the dominant power when it
uses the threat of terror. It happens very often: one’s enemies
are the best allies.

 I think the ways of change are dictated by the circumstances
of each country, each place, and each time. I don’t think that
arrogant intellectuals should be dictating to people which way they
should be heading. I think we should be listening to the people,
see in which directions things are developing. People are walking
where they can, not where they want to. But they are walking. One
has to have enough modesty and humility to listen to the sound of
their steps. 

Now one thing that I can say: experience shows that this formula
of universal capitalism is not working. It does not solve any basic
problems of humanity and, in addition, it is endangering the very
existence of our planet. Therefore, we have to be alert and follow
the contradictions created by this very system. Contradictions between
what the system says and what it does. Between what the system wants
and what it can do. From these contradictions grow the base of the
new world, which is not yet born. One has to be a realist, but also
to remember that reality is not only the world that we know, but
also the world that we need. And the world that we need is inside
the stomach of the present world. This new world often seems to
be too silent, but it exists. We have to be patient and humble to
hear how it is kicking inside. We have to see in which way each
situation is developing, at each and every moment, everywhere. By
doing this, we have to drop formulas. The 20th century was where
formulas failed. Formulas failed once, twice, 1,000 times. We already
experienced the pedantry with which the world was forced to adapt
to the formulas. 

At least we know that we don’t want to repeat mistakes, which
occurred in the past when one half of the world had to sacrifice
freedom in the name of justice, while the other half had to sacrifice
justice in the name of freedom. Now we know that this will not do:
that justice and freedom are Siamese twins. They were born back
to back—attached to each other and they want to live together.
At least this we know, so we don’t have to repeat what has
been done; what went wrong with some terrible consequences. Remember,
when the so-called “real socialism” collapsed without
one drop of blood, nobody gave a shit. I knew many leaders of the
Communist Parties from the former Eastern Block; they converted
themselves into businesspeople, overnight. These are the countries
that were claiming they were governed by the proletariat. 

After all that, do you still maintain some belief in socialism
or communism? 

Of course I do. I don’t think there has been anything yet that
we could call real socialism. There were developments, some experiences
that were correct. But the system was divorced from the people.
It was operated in the name of the working people, but it was not
the case in reality and the proof was in the incredible simplicity
by which it decomposed.

What an arrogance of that bureaucracy that later recycled itself
in just ten minutes into a bourgeois class. They became capitalists.
They changed one type of oppression for another, but one way or
the other continued to function as an oppressive force. So all this
has obviously nothing to do with ideals of socialism. But it is
also obvious that if capitalism doesn’t work for the majority
of people, sooner or later we will have to lift up the old banners,
which were made dirty and were abused. 

Back to Latin America: it is clear that most of the people here
still desire social justice and a system that would be able to guarantee
it. However, after they vote in progressive governments, these are
not always able to deliver their promises. 

People here want very basic things. They still can’t find the
answers or solutions to their very simple demands like dignity,
peace, and work. People are searching, but they are not finding
solutions. They are walking and searching on different roads. They
are being betrayed—we have a long tradition of betrayal here.
They are now, generally and to a certain point, thinking that these
new governments, which have lately appeared in several parts of
South America, will act more or less in accordance with the hope
that they managed to evoke. That’s why I always say, careful,
one doesn’t play with people’s hope. Hope is very fragile.
If people deposited this hope in your hands, comrades—be very
careful. Don’t betray this hope. Because hope can’t be
recovered easily. When it is lost, it takes a long time to bring
it back. New progressive governments in South America are facing
tremendous historic responsibility. One of the writers and journalists
who had a profound influence on me kept repeating: one sin that
can’t be forgiven is a sin against hope. Everything can be
forgiven, but not this. That’s why progressive governments
have to be extremely careful not to destroy hope. 

A lot is being written lately about betrayal of hope. Some point
fingers at Lula’s government in Brazil. But how much space
do these governments have to maneuver? 

Space is very limited and they have to fight an uphill battle. But
one has to have something clear: if you are going to repeat history,
it is better if you leave in power those who are already there.
If your point is that you will not be able to change things, then
don’t promise that you will. If you do and don’t deliver,
you are lying to the people. If you can’t change things, let
capitalists preside over capitalism. But if you are going to get
your hands on power in the name of change, in the name of national
sovereignty or human dignity, then you have to be responsible for
your promises. If you can’t do it, just go home, turn on the
television and let politicians take care of politics. In the moment
when Lula or others propose changes, they are responsible for their
promises. One of Lula’s politicians recently responded to the
accusations about corruption in the present government: “But
these things have always occurred in Brazil.” But if this is
always going to happen, why didn’t they leave those who were
doing it to continue?


Vltchek is a writer, journalist, filmmaker, and co-founder of Mainstay
Press, a publishing house for progressive political fiction. He is
senior fellow at the Oakland Institute and author of several fiction
and non-fiction books. His most recent is

Point of No Return

Mainstay Press