Eduardo Galeano, one of Latin America’s most fiery authors, died Monday at 74, after a long bout with lung cancer. The Uruguyan writer, who did with prose what Ernesto “Che” Guevara did with a bandoleer and inspired rebels around the globe, had already seen the world turn.
The coup de barre must have been the seventh Summit of the Americas, in Panama City, where President Barack Obama shook hands with Raul Castro, breaking a taboo that had been the organizing principle of political thinking in the Americas since the Cold War. If the handlers of El Imperio could share a photo op with an icon of the Cuban Revolution, what was left to believe in or berate?
Long before he fell ill, Galeano had already retreated. Last year, at a book fair in Brazil, he said he cringed at the mere thought of rereading his most famous work, “Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent.”
It was perhaps Galeano’s curse, but also a tribute to his star power, that the man who wrote more than 50 books, including novels, journalistic essays, sports reportage, history and even odes to remarkable women, would be remembered for one title.
“Open Veins” sold upward of a million copies in a dozen languages since it was published in 1971; it was to Latin America what Frantz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth” was to Africa’s freedom fighters. To declaim its pages, as devotees did in classrooms and safe houses, was to make young hearts race and send fists into the air.
Galeano’s skill was to turn the dreary “code” of historians and economic eggheads into prose that sang and could fire imaginations. Along with Jack Kerouac and LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), he was obligatory reading on college campuses, and I remember toting around the 338-page Monthly Review paperback edition in my book bag as if I were packing heat.
His novelized history inspired generations of Latin Americans and their sympathizers up North, many of whom swapped spring break in Cancun for cutting Cuban sugar cane with the Venceremos Brigades.
The durability of Galeano’s brand was on full display in 2009, at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez ambushed an unguarded Obama, handing his Yankee hermano a copy of Galeano’s “Open Veins.” The book saw an instant surge in sales.
In many ways, Chavez would not have been possible without that philippic, and when the Andean strongman dreamed up his so-called Bolivarian revolution in homage to the South American liberator, Simon Bolivar, he had Galeano’s muse at his elbow.
In time, the story changed in Latin America, where the rising poor and aspiring middle classes wanted to own a piece of global capitalism and no longer to smash it. The new rock star of Latin letters is Thomas Piketty, the soft-left champion of economic equality, while regional leaders who cut their teeth on Galeano are busy trying to woo the capitalist investors he rued.
Even Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who has repeatedly accused the U.S. of trying to overthrow him, sat down in Panama City for a “serious” and “honest” meeting with Obama.
It was only a 10-minute talk, but telling. Now Galeano has rested, and Latin America seems ready to turn the page.
Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg View contributor based in Rio de Janeiro.