A Man and an Island: Eduardo Galeano and the Cuban Conundrum
Recordar: to remember, from the Latin, re-cordis, to pass back through the heart .
Eduardo Galeano, The Book of Embraces (1991)
T he death of Eduardo Galeano (1940-2015) removed from our midst not only one of Latin America's most eminent men of letters but a global citizen of immense stature, a writer unrivalled in documenting the world's weary ways and celebrating its myriad, marvellous joys. He held true to what he called a "fugitive faith," not in any deity but in humanity itself, above all its subversive inclination to thrive even in the face of dire adversity. "Courage is born of fear, certainty of doubt," asserted the Uruguayan maestro. "We are the sum of our efforts to change who we are." He confronted terminal illness stoically, but it wore him down, keeping him close to home in Montevideo. This meant not being able to come to Canada, where he had been nominated to receive an honorary degree from Queen's University. "That's the only way I'll get a doctorate," Galeano joked with me once in Cuba, on the occasion of his being awarded one from the University of Havana. "Someone will have to give it to me." The death of Fidel Castro also affords us opportunity to reflect on developments in the country that honoured Galeano with that doctorate, the enigmatic Cuba, whose revolutionary leadership he took pains to criticize as much as whose revolutionary achievements he was prone to laud.
B orn September 3, 1940, in Montevideo, Eduardo Hughes Galeano chose to be identified by his maternal surname, "Galeano," one with Italian roots in Genoa, not his paternal line, "Hughes," indicating immigrant Welsh ancestry. His formal schooling ended at age fourteen, when according to the dust jacket of his book Guatemala: Occupied Country (1969)--he began work "as a bill collector, commercial artist, caricaturist, stenographer, bank clerk, and fashion-page artist," after which he embarked on a career in journalism with the Uruguayan weeklies El Sol and Marcha and the daily La Época . He was in his mid-twenties when he ventured to the Oriente of Guatemala. There, in the Sierra de la Minas, a mountain chain in the east of the country, a guerrilla insurgency had sprung up, led by junior officers of the national armed forces outraged by their superiors' heavy-handedness. Idealist insurrection, however, proved no match for those long in control, who crushed any clamour for justice. Government response to any form of dissent in Guatemala turned out to be a harbinger (the tactic of "disappearance" but one among many) of what was to come in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, and elsewhere in Latin America. The country served as a model laboratory for the continent's brutal military dictatorships. Galeano the dogged investigative reporter bore witness in Occupied Country , Galeano the innovative writer in Days and Nights of Love and War (1983), a log in which his mastery of the vignette was pioneered. Other countries and other struggles commanded his attention, Cuba among them, but Guatemala exerted on him a peculiar, unrelenting hold.
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