Where the People Voted Against Fear

25 November 2004 |



by Eduardo Galeano; Inter Press Service; November 18, 2004

A few days before the election of the President of the planet in North America, in South America elections and a plebiscite were held in a little-known, almost secret country called Uruguay. In these elections, for the first time in the country's history, the left won. And in the plebiscite, for the first time in world history, the privatization of water was rejected by popular vote, asserting that water is the right of all people.



* * *

The movement headed by President-elect Tabare Vazquez ended the monopoly of the two traditional parties--the Blanco and the Colorado parties--which governed Uruguay since the creation of the universe.

And after each election you would hear this exclamation: 'I thought that we Blancos won but it turns out we Colorados did"--or the other way around. Out of opportunism, yes, but also because after so many years of ruling together, the two parties had fused into one, disguised as two.

Tired of being cheated, this time the people made use of that little-used instrument, common sense. The people asked, Why do they promise change yet ask us to chose between the same and the same? Why didn't they make any of these changes in the eternity they have been in power?

Never had the abyss between the real country and electioneering rhetoric been so evident. In the real country, badly wounded, where the only growth is in the number of emigrants and beggars, the majority chose to cover their ears to block out the oratory of these Martians competing for the government of Jupiter with highfalutin words imported from the moon.

* * *

About thirty or so years ago, the Broad Front (Frente Amplio) sprouted on these southern plains. 'Brother, don't leave,' the new movement implored. 'There is hope.' But crisis moved faster than hope, and the hemorrhaging of the country's youth accelerated. The dream of a Switzerland of the Americas ended, and the nightmare of violence and poverty began, culminating in a military dictatorship that converted Uruguay into a vast torture chamber.

Afterward, when democracy was restored, the dominant politicians destroyed the little that remained of the system of production and converted Uruguay into a giant bank. And as is often the case when it is assaulted by bankers, the bank went bust and Uruguay found itself emptied of people and filled with debt.

In all these years of disaster after disaster, we lost a multitude. And as if in a bad joke, not content to just force its youth from the country, this sclerotic system also prohibits them from voting-one of a small number of countries that do so. It seems inexplicable, but there is an explanation: Who would these emigrants vote for? The owners of the country suspect the worst, and with good reason.

In the final act of his campaign, the vice presidential candidate for the Colorado Party announced that if the left won the elections, all Uruguayans would have to dress identically, like the Chinese under Mao.

He was one of the many involuntary publicity agents of the victorious left. Not even the most tireless electoral workers did as much for this victory as the tribunes of the homeland who alerted the population to the imminent danger if democracy were to fall to the tyrannical enemies of freedom and the terrorists, kidnappers, and assassins who oppose democracy. Their attacks were extremely efficient: The more they denounced the devils, the more people voted for hell.

Largely thanks to these heralds of the apocalypse, the left won by an absolute majority, without a runoff. The people voted against fear.

* * *

The plebiscite on water was also a victory against fear. Uruguayans were bombarded with extortion, threats, and lies: A vote against privatizing water will condemn you to a future of sewage-filled wells and putrid ponds.

As in the elections, in the plebiscite common sense triumphed. In their vote, the people asserted that water, a scarce and finite natural resource, must be a right of all people and not a privilege for those who can pay for it. The people also showed they know that sooner rather than later, in a thirsty world, the reserves of fresh water will be as, or more, coveted than oil reserves. Countries that are poor but rich in water must learn to defend themselves. More than five centuries have passed since Columbus. How long can we go on trading gold for glass beads?

Wouldn't it be worthwhile for other countries to put the issue of water to a popular vote? In a democracy, a true democracy, who should decide? The World Bank, or the citizens of each country? Do democratic rights exist for real, or are they just the icing on a poisoned cake?

In 1992, Uruguay was the only country in the world to put the privatization of public companies to a popular vote: 72 percent opposed. Wouldn't it be democratic to do the same in every country?

* * *

For centuries, Latin Americans have been trained in impotence. A pedagogy passed down from the colonial times, taught by violent soldiers, timorous teachers, and frail fatalists, has rooted in our souls the belief that reality is untouchable and that all we can do is swallow in silence the woes each day brings.

The Uruguay of other days was the exception. That Uruguay instituted free public education before England, women's suffrage before France, the eight-hour workday before the United States, and divorce before Spain-seventy years before Spain, to be exact.

Now we are trying to revive this creative energy and would do well to recall that the Uruguay of that sunny period was the child of audacity, and not fear.

* * *

It will not be easy. Implacable reality will promptly remind us of the inevitable distance between the desired and the possible. The left is coming to power in a shattered country, which, in the distant past, was at the vanguard of universal progress but today is one of the furthest behind, in debt up to its ears and subjected to the international financial dictatorship, which doesn't vote but simply vetoes.

Today, we have very little maneuvering room. But what is usually difficult, even impossible, can be imagined and even achieved if we join together with neighboring countries, just as we have joined together with our neighbors.

* * *

In the Broad Front's very first demonstration, which flooded the streets with people, someone shouted, half-joyous, half-scared, 'Let's dare to win.'

Thirty or so years later, it came true.

The country is unrecognizable. Uruguayans, so unbelieving that even nihilism was beyond them, have started to believe, and with fervor. And today this melancholic and subdued people, who at first glance might be Argentineans on valium, are dancing on air.

The winners have a tremendous burden of responsibility. This rebirth of faith and revival of happiness must be watched over carefully. We should recall every day how right Carlos Quijano was when he said that sins against hope are the only sins beyond forgiveness and redemption.


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Eduardo Galeano

Uruguayan essayist, journalist and historian. Galeano's best-known works include Memoria del fuego (1982-1986, Memory of Fire) and Las venas abiertas de América Latina (1971, The Open Veins of Latin America), which have been translated into some 20 languages. Galeano defies easy categorization as an author. His works transcend orthodox genres, and combine documentary, fiction, journalism, political analysis, and history. The author himself has denied that he is a historian: "I'm a writer obsessed with remembering, with remembering the past of America above all and above all that of Latin America, intimate land condemned to amnesia."

- The woman and the man dreamed that God was dreaming about them.
--God was singing and clacking his maracas as he dreamed his dream in a tobacco smoke, feeling happy but shaken by doubt& mystery.
--The Makiritare Indians know that if God dreams about eating, he gives fertility and food. If God dreams about life, he is born and gives birth.

(from Genesis, part one of Memory of Fire, 1982)

Eduardo Galeano was born in Montevideo into a middle-class Catholic family of Welsh, German, Spanish and Italian ancestry. He was educated in Uruguay until the age of 16. In adolescence Galeano worked in odd jobs - he was a factory worker, a bill collector, a sign painter, a messenger, a typist, and a bank teller. At the age of 14 Galeano sold his first political cartoon to El Sol, the Socialist Party weekly, and in the 1960s he started his career as a journalist. He was the editor-in-chief of Marcha, an influential weekly journal, which had such contributors as Mario Vargas Llosa, Mario Benedetti, Manuel Maldonado Denis and Roberto Fernández Retamar. For two years he edited the daily Épocha and worked as editor-in-chief of the University Press (1965-1973). As a result of the military coup of 1973, he was imprisoned and then forced to leave Uruguay. In Argentina he founded and edited a cultural magazine, Crisis.

After the military coup of 1976 in Argentina his name was added to the lists of those condemned by the death squads and he moved to Spain. Galeano lived mainly on the Catalan coast and started to write his masterpiece, Memory of Fire. At the beginning of 1985 Galeano returned to Montevideo.

Las venas abiertas de América Latina won a Casa de las Américas Prize in 1970 and was the first book by the author to be translated into English. It is a series of essays in which the central theme is the exploitation of natural resources of Latin America since the arrival of European powers at the end of the 15th century. The well-documented analysis of political and social consequences of economic imperialism is written "in the style of a novel about love or about pirates", as the author himself describes his book.

Memoria del fuego is a story of America, North and South, in which the characters are real historical figures, generals, artists, revolutionaries, workers, conquerors and the conquered. It starts with pre-Columbian creation myths and ends in the 1980s. The text of the trilogy consists of short chapters, episodes which portray the colonial history of the continent. "Each fragment of this huge mosaic is based on a solid documentary foundation. What is told here has happened, although I tell it in my style & manner," Galeano wrote about his work. He also often used non-literary sources, songs, letters, newspaper advertisements, oral tradition. Fragmentary Memoria del fuego turns its back on pseudo-objective history - it is subjective, the prose is poetic and the author's own vision comes clearly through the elaborate web of historical scenes and facts. Among the central characters of the last part, Century of the Wind, is Miguel Marmol, a revolutionary labor organizer, who survives tortures and escapes execution. eescapes execution.

- ...They are not giving him rum to drink or the water of life brought from Malaga, because nothing is left but to wait for the convulsion that will tear him from the world.
--...Madrid is full of potholes and garbage and armed vagabonds; and the soldiers, who keep alive on the thin soup of monasteries, do not put themselves out to defend the king.
--...Charles II, his bulging eyes red, trembles & raves. He is a small piece of yellow flesh that runs out beneath the sheets as the century also runs out, & so ends the dynasty that conquered America.

(from Genesis, part one of Memory of Fire, 1982)

Memoria del fuego was widely praised by reviewers. The structure of the book was considered as fascinating as the history it related, and Galeano was compared to John Dos Passos and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Ronald Wright wrote in the Times Literary Supplement: "Great writers... dissolve old genres and found new ones. This trilogy by one of South America's most daring and accomplished authors is impossible to classify."

"Reality speaks a language of symbols. Each part is a metaphor of the whole."
(from An Uncertain Grace, 1990)

In his childhood Galeano had dreamed of becoming a soccer player, as do many Latin American young boys. In Soccer in Sun and Shadow (1995) the author covers the history of soccer and gives highlights of the best games and goals throughout history. Galeano compares soccer with a theater performance and with war; he criticizes its unholy alliance with global corporations but attacks leftist intellectuals who reject the game and its attraction to the broad masses because of ideological reasons. Galeano's other major work includes We Say No (1989), a collection of essays, autobiographical El libro de los abrazos (1989, The Book of Embraces), and Las palabras andantes (1993, Walking Words). It combines urban and rural oral tradition and insights into Latin-American reality with illustrations typical of the popular literatura de cordel. Galeano has received several awards, among them Premio Casa de las Américas (1975) and the American Book Award (1989). Galeano has been married three times - in 1959 to Silvia Brando, in 1962 to Graciela Berro and in 1976 to Helena Villagra.

"From the standpoint of the great communications media that uncommunicate humanity, the Third World is peopled by third-class inhabitants distinguishable from animals only by their ability to walk on two legs. Theirs are problems of nature not of history: hunger, pestilence, violence are in the natural order of things." (from An Uncertain Grace)
For further reading: Encyclopedia of Latin American Literature, ed. by Verity Smith ( 1997); World Authors 1985-1990, ed. by Vineta Colby (1995); Silencio, voz y escritura en Eduardo Galeano by Diana Palaversich (1995); El vendedor de reliquias by Mauricio Rosencof (1992); 'Hope Springs Eternal' by Gerald Martin (1992, in History Journal Workshop 34); Spanish American Authors, ed. by A Flores (1991); Literary Exile in the Twentieth Century, ed. by M. Tucker (1991); Latin America: the Writer's Journey by Greg Price (1990) - Links: Eduardo Galeano; Los Mejores Textos; Eduardo Galeano en el Web - SPECIAL THANKS to Rasunah Marsden who gave the idea for this page, helped with its material, and selected quotations from Memory of Fire: Genesis.

Selected works:

  • Los días siguientes, 1963
  • China, 1964, 1964
  • Guatemala, 1967 - Guatemala: Occcupied Country
  • Reportajes, 1967
  • Los fantasmas del día del léon, y otros relatos, 1967
  • Su majestad el fútbol, 1968
  • Las venas abiertas de América Latina, 1971 - The Open Veins of Latin America
  • Siete imágenes de Bolivia, 1971
  • Violencía y enajenación, 1971
  • Crónicas latinoamericanas, 1972
  • Vagamundo, 1973
  • La cancion de nosotros, 1975
  • Conversaciones con Raimón, 1977
  • Días y noches de amor y de guerra, 1978 - Days and Nights of Love and War
  • La piedra arde, 1980
  • Voces de nuestro tiempo, 1981
  • Memoria del fuego, 1982-86. 1. Los nacimientos, 1982 - Genesis - Tuulen muistot: Vanha ja uusi maailma; 2. Las caras y las máscaras, 1984 - Faces and Masks - Tuulen muistot: Kasvot ja naamiot - 3. El siglo del viento, 1986 - Century of the Wind - Tuulen muistot: Tuulen vuosisata
  • Aventuras de los jóvenes dioses, 1984
  • Ventana sobre Sandino, 1985
  • Contraseña, 1985
  • El descubrimiento de América que todavía no fue y otros escritos, 1986
  • El tigre azul y otros artículos, 1988
  • Entrevistas y artículos (1962-1987), 1988
  • El libro de los abrazos, 1989 - The Book of Embraces
  • Nostros decimos no, 1989 - We Say No
  • América Latina para entenderte mejor, 1990
  • Palabras: antología personal, 1990
  • An Uncertain Grace: Essays by Eduardo Galeano and Fred Ritchin, photographs by Sebastiao Salgado, 1990
  • Ser como ellos y otros artículos, 1992
  • Amares, 1993
  • Las palabas andantes, 1993 -Walking Words
  • Úselo y tírelo, 1994
  • El fútbol a sol y sombra, 1995 - Soccer in Sun and Shadow - Jalkapallo valossa ja varjossa
  • I Am Rich Potosi: The Mountain That Eats Men, photographs by Stephen Ferry, 1999
  • Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World, 2000 (trans. Mark Fried)

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