In Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo, the eponymous antihero is confronted by his student, who is livid that the great man has recanted: “Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.” Galileo’s response is calm: “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.” And he continues to work on his manuscript, which he then hands to his estranged pupil, who realises at the end of the play that what is really important has been achieved. The ideas will survive. My late friend and comrade, the Uruguayan journalist and historian Eduardo Galeano, who died this week, never recanted his beliefs in private or in public. Nor did he believe in heroes.
His entire work is suffused with the idea of mass democracy, whereby the poor and oppressed achieve self-emancipation through common action for limited or broader goals. Galeano was a modern-day Simón Bolívar, trying to achieve with his pen what the liberator had attempted with the sword: the unity of their continent against empires old and new. He spoke for the underground voices of the continent when US-backed military dictatorships crushed democracy in most parts of South America; he spoke for those being tortured, for indigenous people crushed by the dual oppression of empire and creole oligarchs.
Was he optimistic or pessimistic? Both, often together, but he never gave up hope. The right to dream, he insisted, should be inscribed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That remained strong all his life. It is visible in his lyrical works on South American history. History written as poetry, three volumes of vignettes, each of them a pearl that went to make a stunning necklace. It is there in his journalism from Marcha in 1960s Uruguay to La Jornada in Mexico today. He was never dogmatic, always open to new ideas.
After the tyranny of the military dictatorships he realised that the armed road had been a disaster, that the Cuban revolution could not be imitated blindly. The birth of new social movements and the Bolivarian victories were both a source of inspiration and concern. He did not want to see old mistakes repeated. Whenever we met this was very strong in him. We were not simply defeated by the enemy, he would insist, but also, to a certain extent, by ourselves. Revolutionaries are not infallible.
Taken from the Guardian.