Monthly Archives: April 2015

Memories of Galeano’s Fire: My Afternoon with the Late Uruguayan Writer

by Danny Postel

eduardo-galeano

My heart has been heavy since learning over the weekend of the death of the radical and marvelously lyrical Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, whom I had the enormous pleasure of meeting some 20 years ago.

Galeano was an iconic literary and intellectual figure of the Latin American Left, but his work has a global footprint. Arguably among the most influential books of the second half of the 20th century, his landmark 1971 Open Veins of Latin America has been translated into more than a dozen languages and sold over a million copies. It stands with Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized, and Gillo Pontecorvo’s film The Battle of Algiers, as part of the pantheon of anti-colonialism and Third Worldism. Hamid Dabashicalls Galeano a “creative voice of an alternative historiography, a mode of subaltern thinking and writing before a number of Bengali historians made the term globally popular.”

Open Veins of Latin America was banned under the murderous military dictatorships in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay alike, and Galeano himself was driven into exile under his country’s regime during the 1970s. In 2009 the book made international headlines—and saw a major surge in sales—when Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez personally presented Barack Obama with a copy.

But while Open Veins was Galeano’s best-known work, his magnum opus was a trilogy titled Memory of Fire. My friend Scott Sherman captures it beautifully:

Unquestionably Galeano’s masterwork, Memory of Fire is a kind of secret history of the Americas, told in hundreds of kaleidoscopic vignettes that resurrected the lives of campesinos and slaves, dictators and scoundrels, poets and visionaries. Memoirs, novels, bits of poetry, folklore, forgotten travel books, ecclesiastical histories, revisionist monographs, Amnesty Inrnational reports — all of these sources constituted the raw material of Galeano’s sprawling mosaic.

Indeed, Galeano “rivals such masters of the fable as Kafka,” the literary critic Michael Dirda once wrote.

Galeano’s Book of Embraces occupies a special place in my heart, in part because it was a gift from my then-girlfriend, Debbie Bookchin. Our mutual love of Galeano was bond-forming. “A Diego Rivera mural in words,” the literary critic John Leonard felicitously called it. I read it the way I read Adorno’s Minima Moralia (another book Debbie and I bonded over), sipping from its aphorisms here and there, drawn back in by its charms over years, decades now.

Walking-WordsThe Galeano book that has always meant the most to me as a physical object isWalking Words. Illustrated by the Brazilian woodcut artist José Francisco Borges, it is work of arresting, hypnotic visual beauty. One reviewer called it an “assemblage of tales, fables and parables [full of] intense lyricism, subversive humor and spellbinding storytelling.”

I feel deeply fortunate to have spent an afternoon with Galeano almost exactly two decades ago, in the summer of 1995. I hosted a radio show in Chicago at the time. When I found out that Galeano was coming to Chicago to do a literary reading, I scrambled to get an interview with him. I contacted his US publisher, W. W. Norton. They were not encouraging. It was too late, they informed me. Galeano’s itinerary was already full and in any case he was in Seattle and out of contact (this was before cell phones and e-mail). And besides, who was I? I hosted a show on a college radio station.

I refused to take no for an answer. I asked them which hotel he was staying at in Seattle. They somewhat reluctantly told me. I called and got the hotel’s fax number. I rushed over to a nearby printing and computer shop (I didn’t own my own computer) and composed a desperate but serious letter to Galeano requesting an interview. I poured my heart into the letter, expressing my profound admiration for his books. I also mentioned how much I liked an article he had just published in the magazine NACLA: Report on the Americas (a staple of the left-wing Latin Americanist diet) on the tyranny of cars (cleverly titled“Autocracy: An Invisible Dictatorship”). I faxed the letter to the hotel and called (more than once) to make sure that the front desk had received it and gotten it into Galeano’s hands.

The next day, my roommate, Benjamin Ortiz, called me at work and said, incredulously, “Yo, there’s a message for you on our answering machine from Eduardo Galeano!” Time stopped. It was one of the coolest moments in my life. Galeano would later tell me that it was the specificity of my letter that won him over: in particular the fact that I had read his NACLA article. He was impressed by this obsessive metabolism and by my stalking techniques, he told me. It was a refreshing departure, he said, from many of the media requests he got, for example, in New York — from journalists who had never even heard of publications like NACLA, let alone read them.

galeano-caricaturaI met Galeano at the hotel he was staying at in downtown Chicago and we conducted the interview in his room. I was in such awe of his presence, and so captivated by his eyes, that I can barely remember what he said. It torments me to no end that no recording of that interview has survived. (If anyone reading this happened to be listening to WLUW when it was broadcast, and recorded it, and saved the recording, please contact me!) One of the great regrets of my career is that I never transcribed that interview and published it…

The one thing I vividly recall from the interview is that when I said, by way of introduction, “My guest on this week’s program is Eduardo Galeano, author of the classic Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent…” he stopped me in my tracks and asked me to start the interview over (I was recording it for later broadcast). He explained that he hated the subtitle and wanted me to leave it out. It was only the English edition that carried that subtitle, he told me. The original Spanish edition had no subtitle, just Open Veins of Latin America. The book’s US publisher, Monthly Review Press, was a Marxist operation that specialized in political nonfiction. It was they who added Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent as a subtitle, which Galeano, a prose stylist of the first order, found utterly leaden.

I didn’t dare tell Galeano that I loved that subtitle. I remember the first time I held the book in my hands and took in those words on its cover. Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. Veins. Pillage. Centuries. A cascade of images, ideas, sensations. I knew I had to read the book and that doing so would turn my world upside down.

But I was a poetically tone-deaf leftist. Galeano was an artist. I of course obliged and started the interview over.

It’s because of that experience that I wasn’t as shocked as some were when it wasreported last year that Galeano had disavowed that book, or at least distanced himself from it. “I wouldn’t be capable of reading this book again,” he remarked at a book fair in Brazil. “I’d keel over. For me, this prose of the traditional left is extremely leaden, and my physique can’t tolerate it.”

But this recoil was more than just stylistic. He went on to say in Brazil:

Reality has changed a lot, and I have changed a lot. … Reality is much more complex precisely because the human condition is diverse. Some political sectors close to me thought such diversity was a heresy. Even today, there are some survivors of this type who think that all diversity is a threat. Fortunately, it is not.

As far as I know, Galeano never wrote an essay or gave a full-blown interview elaborating on the this line of thinking. I interpret his comments not as an abandonment of leftism as such but as an affirmation of pluralism. In a brilliant talk at a recent conference at Columbia University, the Tunisia scholar Monica Marks distinguished between the politics of “purists” and “pluralists”. I read Galeano’s comments in Brazil as an expression of disdain for the former and sympathy for the latter.

Walking Words. Memory of Fire. What fitting images Galeano conjured with these titles. His words will continue to walk, to wander the earth, to inhabit our thinking, and to ignite our imaginations. Thank you, Eduardo, for the memory of your marvelous fire.

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What Do Syrians Want? The Syrian Freedom Charter

by Danny Postel

Resposted from: http://pulsemedia.org/2015/04/06/what-do-syrians-want-the-syrian-freedom-charter/

Syrian-Freedom-Charter-logo

Planet Syria – كوكب سوريا‎ has declared today — 7 April — a global day of solidarity with the people of Syria. In the spirit of this important effort, I present the following interview with Talal Barazi, Program Associate with the

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Foundation to Restore Equality and Education in Syria (FREE-Syria), a civil society development and humanitarian support organization, about the Syrian Freedom Charter, a momentous initiative inspired by the South African Freedom Charter.

The Syrian Freedom Charter is a national unity document based on tens of thousands of face-to-face interviews with Syrians, in every governorate of the country, about what kind of society they want. Over the course of a year, a team of over a hundred activists assembled by FREE-Syria and the Local Coordination Committees (LLC) of Syria, completed more than 50,000 surveys.

How did the South African Freedom Charter influence the Syrian Freedom Charter?

The Syrian Freedom Charter used the South African Freedom Charter as a model from which to work. The biggest influence the South African Freedom Charter had on the Syrian counterpart was in the idea. We also leveraged the expertise of a university professor who was involved with South Africa’s ANC for more than 30 years, and other experts with experience in other conflicts (Ireland, South America). In the final analysis, we consider the Freedom Charter a national unity document, in which the vision of the Syrian people is the only component. We also used the format of the South African predecessor to lay out the vision of the Syrian people. 

How representative is the Freedom Charter? The introduction refers to Syrians “from our diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and religious sects”. How much of a cross-section of Syrian society does the document represent? Were Syria’s minority communities genuinely included? Can you provide some numbers?

As a document of national unity, the target number of surveys for the Freedom Charter was done proportionally based on districts, not based on ethnicities or religious sects. To get a proportional representation of all districts, we looked at the percentage each district made up of the total population, and set our goal for each district, proportionally, based on that. We did work in areas with prominent minority presence such as Sweida, a governorate known for the high presence of Druze, and Hassaka, a governorate with a large number of Kurds. The work was harder in predominantly Alawite areas and Damascus proper.

With that, we see that 50% of people chose not to disclose their ethnicity, and 36% of people chose not to disclose their religious beliefs. Below are the graphs for the demographic questions.

EthnicityReligionAge-Group

How would you respond to the argument that the sentiments and ideals expressed in the Freedom Charter represent only a thin layer of Syrian society — an elite sector that is educated, westernized, urban, and/or living in exile — and that the sectarian violence the country has descended into is a more realistic reflection of popular sentiments and political loyalties? This view has been advanced by Joshua Landis, for example, but it’s widely shared across all sorts of ideological boundaries.

There is nothing elitist about the Freedom Charter — in fact, it is truly “the voice of the people.” The Freedom Charter represents the opinions of ordinary Syrians — more than 50,000 — the majority of whom live inside Syria under abysmal conditions imposed by the Assad regime and other militarized groups. The actual surveys were conducted at the grassroots level. Activists surveying in a specific district were locals of the district. 99% of surveys done were completed inside Syria and in neighboring countries that currently host a large number of refugees. The only precondition for surveys was that respondents be Syrian, without regard to ethnicity, religious affiliation, political affiliation, or social/economic status.

There’s a lot of discussion now of finding a political solution in Syria  some sort of negotiated settlement. Of course that’s not a new idea, but for a while it seemed to have receded from the horizon with the failure of the Geneva process, the exasperated resignation of both Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi as Special Envoy for Syria, and the seemingly intractable geopolitical deadlock over Syria. Recently, however — with the new geostrategic equation created by the intervention against ISIS  the push for a political solution is being revived. Various proposals have been floated, and virtually all of them involve Assad staying in power in some form. So my question for you is: the Freedom Charter doesn’t directly address the issue of political transition  how to get from the current moment to the political order outlined in the document  but from your point of view is there ANY scenario in which it would be acceptable for Assad to remain in power, or does the Freedom Charter necessarily preclude that?

For more than three years, Syrians have taken to the streets in both nonviolent and armed resistance to state what they do not want. The goal for the Freedom Charter was to express to the world what Syrians do want. The document does not discuss the transition period, nor the current situation; it is purely a statement of what Syrians are demanding. The Freedom Charter articulates the desires and goals of the Syrian people, not the process to achieve them.

With regard to the political process, FREE-Syria certainly advocates nonviolent solutions. However, the Assad regime has proven, through the failed initiatives of Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, that it is not prepared to pursue a political process. Rather, the regime has and continues to use deadly force, including chemical weapons, against civilians, particularly children. We do not foresee a future in which Assad or those regime supporters with blood on their hands can play a lasting role in a peaceful, democratic Syria.

For more on the Syrian Freedom Charter, go here. For more on ‎Planet Syria‘s global day of solidarity with the Syrian people, go here.

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