I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
My mind reeling after reading Eduard Galeano’s new volume Upside Down, I prepared a questionnaire of 23 topics that I wanted to discuss with him. Nervous to be interviewing a man whose audacious thinking dazzles like fireworks, I went to meet the Uruguayan author at the hotel where he was staying during his recent visit to Manhattan.
Galeano is the most relaxed, famous author I’ve ever met. He offered me a cup of coffee, lit a thin, long, dark French cigarette, and made himself comfortable on the couch of his suite. Then disaster struck. I could not get the new digital tape recorder I had brought with me to work, though the day before I had repeatedly tested the machine in my apartment. A gallant Galeano decided to try to figure out the contraption. Before we knew it an hour had flown by. I felt thoroughly humiliated until Galeano said, “In the big scheme of things, this doesn’t matter. Let’s reschedule the interview.”
Take two: A few days later in the same hotel suite. This time I brought an ancient tape recorder that only required pushing a button and talking into the microphone. I produced the list with my 23 questions but, as I was about to read the first one, because so much of Galeano’s work begins with the reading of daily newspapers, I decided to bring up the presidential election in the United States. Once I had deviated from my script there was no turning back. Ninety minutes later when I ran out of tape and Galeano finished talking, I had not asked him any of the questions I had prepared. What’s more, I had no idea what he had said. I was so caught up in the razzle-dazzle of his free associations, and the ravening quality of his probing mind, that I felt as if I had been riding in a high-speed vehicle over which I had no control.
I’ve saved my list of 23 questions. Some day I hope to get the chance to do that interview.
Jaime Manrique George W. Bush is now the president of the United States. What does it say about the American people—that they prefer him because he is anti-intellectual and they resent Al Gore because he is too, as they say, intelligent?
Eduardo Galeano I cannot really perceive a strong difference between the two.
JM Bush promotes himself as an anti-intellectual.
EG I don’t know if that can be a fundamental distinction. When you read or hear the speeches, or the debates on TV, they sound almost the same. On the issue of foreign policy during the second debate, both of them, Bush and Gore, agreed with the invasion of Granada, the invasion of Panama, the bombing of Iraq, and the bombing of Yugoslavia. Perhaps I can’t perceive the differences because my English is so poor. In any event, the image of Bush is that he will apply a stronger domestic policy in terms of security, and security has been the obsession of the world in these last years—the increment of crime and violence in the streets. During the war in the former Yugoslavia a group of psychiatrists here in the US recommended that parents teach their children to distinguish between fictitious violence and real violence. At that same moment in time, they were bombing Serbia and I thought, if there is anyone capable of distinguishing between fiction and reality in relation to violence, then that person is a magician. Look at the scripts and you’ll see it’s the same thing. I don’t understand how violence can be applied with such impunity on a universal scale from a center of power like the US. The explanation, I believe, is that this country hasn’t been invaded since 1812; two centuries without suffering invasions, and it has never been bombed, but it has bombed many countries, invaded many countries.
JM Germany was bombed during World War I. Nevertheless, it wasn’t a lesson to them. The former Yugoslavia also suffered a lot during World War II, and they ended up bombing Bosnia. It seems to me that violence only generates more violence.
EG But there is a sense of impunity here in the use of violence against other countries and this has to do with the fact that this country has never been bombed. And this impunity has to do with what occurs in the world today, a world where power is concentrated in very few hands. It also has to do with a culture of violence that is being imposed upon all four cardinal points of the globe. So I don’t know if there is a big difference in this sense between Gore and Bush. I get chills when I hear that both of them agreed it was acceptable to destroy Granada or bomb the poorest neighborhood in Panama City, killing thousands of innocent people.
JM Both of them are defenders of imperialism. When England or Spain or the Romans dominated the world, it was the same attitude—impose the imperialist vision by force.
EG There has never been a power structure like there is today. And violence can be exercised in more invisible ways than before. Violence is not just bombing a country, it’s imposing your way on another country. Or how the technocrats of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank practice an economic fundamentalism, imposing the “right” way on the whole world. In fact, they are governing other countries’ governments, but they weren’t elected by anyone. And the economic ministers come flocking to Washington to beg for absolution for every measure taken. This has never happened before, it’s the first time in world history that this has occurred. One asks, how do these universal government organisms function? Are they invisible dictatorships on a worldwide scale? The IMF is run by five countries, the World Bank is a little more democratic, run by seven countries, the United Nations is run by the five countries with veto power in the Security Council. The International Commerce Organization has the right to vote but doesn’t use it. This is a fundamental difference in relation to other historic periods, because it implies the imposition of a monetarily free political economy that is oppressive to people; it’s liberty for money above liberty for people, with catastrophic consequences for the majority of humanity.
JM That’s one of the principle themes of your latest book, Upside Down; but many people here do not understand what the globalization of the economy signifies. I was in Peru recently and I saw its effects, people with access to dollars live very well, and the rest of the population, 99 percent of Peruvians, who do not have access to dollars and live using the local money, the sol, have been reduced practically to slavery in order to survive.
EG It’s the great contradiction of the world today: you have a system of power that needs cheap labor, but at the same time, it needs to sell, and in order to sell, it needs to amplify the markets. This contradiction does not have a solution within the limits of the system, because the difference between the haves and the have-nots is growing and growing, manifesting on a worldwide scale. The numbers of the international organisms are quite clear—these numbers are compiled by those who run the world—but sometimes they reveal the truth. In 1960, the difference between the haves and the have-nots was 30 times, now it is 90 times. In 40 years, the difference has tripled. The gap goes on growing and growing. Social contradictions are better expressed nowadays in the news about street crimes than in the political pages of the newspapers. I think this is the tragic daily testimony of social injustice inside each country, but it is also an expression of the very unfair organization of the world.
JM In Open Veins of Latin America, written 30 years ago, you say that Latin America is a ticking time bomb. Do you think the bomb is about to explode?
EG Take, for example, Haiti—the poorest country in America. It’s a newly born democracy that cannot walk. The social situation is like a ticking time bomb. And how does it help, the International Monetary Fund? The IMF technocrats have prohibited subsidies to the national production of rice. Of course, they didn’t at all prohibit subsidies to the national production of rice in the United States, which are much, much higher. The result is that Haitians eat North American rice and the Haitian rice farmers are ruined. People leave Haiti in those fragile little boats, and many of them die in the Caribbean Sea, like what happened a few months ago with 60 Haitian immigrants—all of them rice farmers who never arrived in Florida.
Security officers are coming to New York from several Latin American countries in a religious procession following Giuliani’s miracle, and learning from him. But it’s common sense that crime is dropping in the US, and not only in New York, because employment is up. The statistical connection between the rise in employment and the fall in crime is not a personal feat of the mayor.
In Latin America, the mythology of the heavy-handed government implies a certain nostalgia for military dictatorships. It’s very dangerous for democracy.
JM It seems to me that many Latin American countries are not prepared for democracy. Democracy implies an internal system of corrections, a government with a social conscience, sufficient open space to allow for a free exchange of ideas. In Colombia, we have a democracy only in name, and that applies to the majority of Latin American countries. Do you think democracy is really what third world countries need? And why is the United States obsessed with imposing democracy?
EG Well, in reality there’s a double standard. From the point of view of the United States, countries are democratic if they buy arms from the States. The country that violates the most human rights in the world is Saudi Arabia, but you never hear an official entity criticizing Saudi Arabia because it’s one of the principle buyers of arms from the United States.
JM And producer of oil.
EG It’s an exchange of oil for arms. The same thing happens with the worst dictatorships of all times, Sukarno in Indonesia, who experts say killed a million people. He was also a golden child of the North American government. Not to mention Latin America, of course. Look at what happened with Pinochet. Pinochet was applauded here in the States as the savior of Chile, the producer of the Chilean miracle—even the editorials in the New York Times gave thanks to him, because Chile was no longer a banana republic. Subsequently, Pinochet’s become the bad guy.
JM If Chile was in danger of falling into the hands of communism, the United States would not applaud the capture of Pinochet; they would demand he be released immediately.
EG If they really want to help impose democracy on the world, why does the US oppose the creation of an international penal court for crimes committed by state terrorism? They should be the first advocates of the cause. Instead they oppose it. How is it possible to talk about democracy when they are protecting the dictators, and when they are the center of a system of power that is antidemocratic in its essential relations with the rest of the world? Why deny countries the right to self-determination, not only through military intervention, but also through new forms of hegemony, using the high international technocracy to act as pirates in a cybernetic age? They don’t have parrots on their shoulders, they don’t use hooks; they use computers, they are the new pirates in the seas of the world.
Politicians say one thing and do another, obligated by the international structure of power dominating them. Here’s a story told as a joke, although it’s true to life: A Latin American president comes to Washington to negotiate outstanding debt. Upon his return, he announces to his country, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is we no longer owe a cent, the bad news is we have 24 hours to leave the country.” I suppose that if the United States is going to give the world lessons on democracy, one is allowed to ask questions like why do so few people participate in elections here? In little Uruguay more than double the percentage of people participate in elections than here. And why do candidates here depend on fortunes given to them by large corporations? Only two percent of the North American population contributes those huge amounts and those two percent are the ones who decide. What really makes me panic is when I see the United States judging which countries are democratic and which aren’t; the fact is that the people of the US are, in general, very misinformed about what happens in the world.
JM They’re not interested.
EG Television news about foreign countries here in the States does not occupy any time, the rest of the world is hardly mentioned. Using the term World Series for a baseball competition between North Americans with only two Canadian teams is like saying, “We are the world.” That degrades the rest of the world. The rest of the world, beyond this country is like a black hole, a threatening zone.
How many people know where Guatemala is on the map? In Guatemala, 200,000 people have been killed by military dictatorships financed, organized and supported by Washington DC. How is it possible that this country decides the destiny of the rest of us, but its citizens don’t even know who we are?
We should be careful about the so-called globalization. It’s not internationalism, but rather the universal imposition of a culture of consumerism and violence.
JM The strongest values within the United States, and in the dominant classes of the world, seem to be exclusively materialist.
EG Perhaps they are more practical, who knows? But the world contains other sources of energy. This is real richness: so many worlds within the world, so many worlds the world contains! Sources of energy and hope. We are not doomed to a way of life that obliges you to choose between dying of hunger and dying of boredom. But it’s not easy nowadays to rediscover these alternative fountains. They are suffering, let’s say, a crisis of low esteem. And the system of power is moved by two very efficient engines: fear and greed. It works.
Look, when I wrote Open Veins in the 1970s, there was universal unanimity in the belief that poverty was the result of social injustice. That was common sense, preached by the Left. The center accepted it and the Right didn’t dispute it. Yes, there is social injustice and it is the cause of poverty. Thirty years later, ideas have changed radically: now poverty is considered the fruit of inefficiency, and if you are poor, it is because you deserve to be poor, because you are inefficient.
JM I’m intrigued by a contradiction: The concept of diversity originated and developed in the United States. In Colombia, my country, they are now talking a little bit about diversity, but it has always been, above all, a reactionary society. Even intelligent people are openly racist, anti-Semitic, classist, and they believe poverty is a kind of contagious disease. And I won’t even mention how they feel about homosexuality! In the United States, on the other hand, a change is evident. But whenever I visit Latin America the powerful and intellectual class is still racist, classist, sexist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic.
EG The world is deaf and blind. We can’t hear the voices that deserve to be heard, and we are blind to the rainbow of human diversity. Racism, elitism, sexism, and homophobia are not, unfortunately, a sad privilege of Latin America. You find these marks everywhere. It’s a systemic, and frequently criminal, denial of the right to diversity.
In addition to discussing diversity, we can put it into practice, beginning with the recuperation of solidarity. To me, solidarity is horizontal while charity is vertical. Solidarity is practiced among equals, born from mutual respect; charity is practiced from above to those below—and this is important to underline, because charity is practiced every day and solidarity is discredited. We need to restore one another’s vision, which is the key to the real possibility of accepting our diversity as our reality.
JM Thinkers are no longer interested in imagining the world as it could be. In the United States, where there is so much prosperity, people think that everything is okay and that it will stay that way. Where do you think this devaluation of utopic thinking is going to take us?
EG Straight to paralysis. There is a story of utopia that to me is very revealing—it happened in your country, Colombia, which has been suffering from violence for many years. After lecturing at the University in Cartagena de Indias with Fernando Birri, a film director, one of the students asked Fernando the reason for utopia. He said, “Utopia is on the horizon and I will never reach it because if I walk ten steps toward the horizon, the horizon moves ten steps further, and if I walk 20 steps toward the horizon, I will be 20 steps further away. The reason we believe in utopia is because it makes us walk.” That is the most beautiful way to define utopia. In today’s world, utopia has a bad image, because it’s not profitable. I remember Antonio Machado, the great Spanish poet. Some 80 years ago he wrote, “Now any fool confuses value and price.” Utopia doesn’t have a price, you can’t make money off it, it’s not efficient, and therefore it doesn’t deserve to be alive.
These days, I’ve been thinking about the expression “value added tax.” You have it in Colombia, and in Uruguay we do too. There is also an invisible tax we are all paying every day even if we don’t notice it, something that could be called the “pain added tax.” There are some pains that you cannot avoid, inevitable pains in life from which no one is spared, pains from human passions, time, and death. But there are additional pains that come from a worldwide system of power which spreads hunger, violence, fear, and solitude. Reading the official reports of the World Bank and the United Nations, you realize that using the money wasted on buying arms during 12 days would be enough to give food, schools, and medical attention to all the poor children in the world. Just 12 days. Perhaps utopia may be a way of walking towards a world with no “pain added tax,” in which money is used to save life instead of multiply death.
JM An acquaintance referred to you the other day as the voice of a new process in Latin America in the 21st century. A movement of Indians, of blacks, homosexuals, women, all minorities.
EG Women are not exactly a minority; they’re more than half of humanity. But women’s rights are indeed denied all over the world. This is also true in Latin America, of course, even if the situation is improving as a result of organization and fight.
JM And the indigenous people?
EG Thankfully, there is a resurrection of the indigenous movement in the Americas from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. The conquest continues under other names, and resistance goes on riding. Indigenous people incarnate traditions that by some miracle haven’t been lost, I don’t know how, after five centuries of persecution, massacres, scorn. They have suffered the seven plagues of Egypt, and many more. But they have perpetuated traditions coming from their ancient times; and these voices from the past speak to the future of all humankind. For example, the tradition of community, a way of life and work entirely strange to greed. For example, the tradition of communion with nature: all of us should share this faith before it’s too late. Ecological organizations have demonstrated that the world lost one-third of all its natural resources in the last 30 years. Can we go on accepting a system that poisons the air, the earth, the water, and the soul? Most people still look at nature as you may see a postcard or a garden.
JM They don’t see human beings as part of nature.
EG But the oldest tradition in the Americas, the great cultural heritage, teaches that we are brothers and sisters of everything that has legs, paws, wings, or roots. The so-called Civilization has been fighting against this certitude since the so-called Discovery of America. First in the name of God, later in the name of Progress. Who knows how many Indians were tortured or killed for the sin of idolatry? Nowadays, everybody speaks about protecting nature. But nature continues to be something strange to us, something seen as a landscape. We don’t belong to nature, and we are unable to realize that any crime against her becomes a suicide. We are still suffering this cultural divorce.
JM After reading the last pages of Upside Down, about utopian thought, I said to myself, “I didn’t think Galeano was so optimistic.”
EG My certitudes have doubts for breakfast. I distrust full-time optimism. But there are diverse movements in the world that are answering the message of universal power—movements based in solidarity and mutual respect: ecological movements, movements for homosexual rights, human rights, respect for diversity and for differences, feminist movements that sometimes commit barbarities such as reverse sexism, but in general, I would say that this is all good news for the world. Movements for local power—sometimes they are in small villages or neighborhoods, but they are still very large in affirming democracy and participation. It seems to me there are many reasons for optimism, so we don’t have to stare at the ground and feel like it’s all over, there are beautiful energies changing the world. I’m not, of course, the interpreter of all these movements. But it brings me great joy to feel like I contribute to these changes.
JM Everyone talks about socialism as though it were dead. Do you think there can be a socialism in the future that would be different? What worries me about the failure of communism and even socialism is that they always depended on patriarchy, the patriarch dictating what people think and do.
EG Another divorce. Justice and freedom have been divorced, like the divorce of people from nature, the soul from the body, the past from the present, emotion from reason. The capitalist system, the so-called “market economy,” has sacrificed justice in the name of freedom, and the so-called “real socialism” has sacrificed freedom in the name of justice. Beginning the new millennium, this is the challenge: we want justice and freedom, Siamese twins, living and walking together.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee