In April 2009, fresh from his recent inauguration, President Barack Obama flew to Trinidad and Tobago to attend the 5th Summit of the Americas. Everyone was there, including President Felipe Calderón of Mexico, President Lula da Silva of Brazil, President Michelle Bachelet of Chile and President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras (who would be ousted by a U.S.-backed military coup before the 4th of July). Also in attendance was Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s bombastic socialist president, who had told the media he would use the occasion to push the U.S. president to life the decades-long embargo on Cuba. When all the heads of state were finally seated, Chávez rose from his seat, strode over to where President Obama was sitting at the head of a U-shaped table, and handed him a copy of Las venas abiertas de América Latina.
In the end, it’s Galeano. His 1971 poetic history of Latin America provided the first shot of antidote that began lifting the collective amnesia imposed on the region for over 450 years. Although he had already established a career as a journalist in his native Uruguay when a 30-year-old Eduardo Galeano began to write his classic text — finishing it only three months later — the book would see his name spread across Latin America, especially after it was banned by the military dictatorships which seized control in Uruguay, Argentina and Chile.
“The best promotion for Open Veins were the military dictatorships, which prohibited and burnt it,” Galeano recalled in a 2009 interview with Democracy Now!:
But in Uruguay, something really strange happened. In the first months of the military dictatorship, Open Veins entered freely in the military jails, because the censors looking at the title, Open Veins of Latin America, thought it was a textbook on anatomy … And so, the medicine books were not forbidden, and the books enter[ed] during five or six months. And afterward, they noticed [it] was not exactly that.
After the publication of the much more expansive trilogy Memoria del fuego, Galeano came to be considered the unofficial historian of Latin America, a title which he shunned. “I’m not a historian,” he said in the same 2009 interview. In discussing his collection of vignettes Espejos, he perhaps inadvertently touched on the role his entire works have played in trying “to rediscover the human history from the point of view of the invisibles, trying to rediscover the terrestrial rainbow mutilated by racism and machismo and militarism and elitism and so many isms. That was the intention, at least, to speak about the nobodies from the nobodies’ voices.”
That’s what made Galeano so beloved. Almost a decade before Howard Zinn published his People’s History of the United States, Galeano already had written a people’s history of Latin America, one written for them, in a voice that was their own. As its author would later admit, it was also a history written with a specific political bent and by a young writer with much to learn, but the greatness of Open Veins is that it represents a fierce attempt by a Latin American to recover his own history. When forgetting is a tool of the oppressors, remembering is a political act.
Galeano believed that every person’s history deserved to be told — not by an academic living halfway around the world, but by themselves:
Some left-wing intellectuals used to believe that people, normal people, ordinary people, workers, were only able to repeat the voices of the masters, they were only able to have echoes, not voices. But they do have voices. Even my friends, my close friends, from the priests of the theology of liberation, when they say, ‘We are the voice of those who have no voice,’ it’s a big mistake. Everybody has a voice. The problem is that they cannot be heard. But everybody has something to say that deserves to be heard, perhaps celebrated, perhaps at least forgiven.
Eduardo Galeano died earlier this year at the age of 74.
Remembering him — and all of the people and events from our collective past, those honored by this series and the millions of others left out — is how we celebrate our heritage.