Friday, November 12, 2010

'All belongs to all!' Against Veterans' Day, with Eduardo Galeano

Last month I happened to finish reading Genesis by Eduardo Galeano just in time for Columbus Day, the celebration of the European invasion of and genocide in the Americas. Now, again by happenstance, I finished reading Faces & Masks—the second book in Galeano's Memory of Fire trilogy, a sweeping, literarily gripping history of the Western Hemisphere presented in brief vignettes based on voluminous research—just in time for yesterday's repugnant national adoration of imperialist war known as Veterans' Day. Faces & Masks, like Genesis, is a stunningly written (and beautifully translated, an acknowledgment I too often forget to make but must here for the translator, Cedric Belfrage, is a gifted artist) exegesis of the whole record of the years 1700-1900 and what befell the peoples of the Americas in those two centuries. Unending horrors against the indigenous peoples. Slavery and the slave trade, across oceans and continents. The crimes of the church. The sacking of natural riches. Wars, wars, wars, over territory, resources, trade routes, labor. Wars, above all, that is, over ownership and control of capital and commodities driven by the quest for profit. As with the first volume, much of what Galeano presents is terrible—awful, painful, almost unbearable to face. And much is inspiring—stories of courage, humanity, struggle. All is moving. And all, each brief entry, is so packed with information, ideas and emotion that the reader has to stop and think about and recover from each one before moving on, which is why it takes a full week to read this relatively short book. Or at least that was my experience, now with the first and second volumes of the trilogy.

If Genesis tells the truth of invasion and colonialism, and boy does it ever, and is therefore a great antidote to the lies of Columbus Day, Faces & Masks tells the truth about what came next, the passage into imperialism, leading up to and ending with the bloodbath birth of U.S. imperialism at the turn of the last century, and so it is a great antidote to the lies of Veterans' Day.

Here are some excerpts. This first one struck me because last April tens of thousands of people gathered in Cochabamba, Bolivia, for the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. I have to admit I'd never heard of Cochabamba before then, but as I read about and watched videos from this event, and then heard about it directly from people who'd gone including my lover Teresa, what stood out most was the leadership of the indigenous women of that region. So when I came across this passage in Galeano's book, it sent a shiver through me; it made me feel as if the echoes of the war cries of the brave martyred women in their last stand against the Spaniard despoilers almost 200 years earlier had reverberated at the April conference.
1812: Cochabamba—Women
From Cochabamba, many men have fled. Not one woman. On the hillside, a great clamor. Cochabamba's plebeian women, at bay, fight from the center of a circle of fire.

Surrounded by five thousand Spaniards, they resist with battered tin guns and a few arquebuses; and they fight to the last yell, whose echoes will resound throughout the long war for independence. Whenever his army weakens, General Manuel Belgrano will shout those words which never fail to restore courage and spark anger. The general will ask his vacillating soldiers: Are the women of Cochabamba present?
One of the recurring themes in Faces & Masks is how European and North American capital impoverished the rich lands of the Americas—not only directly, by expropriating the lands and resources and enslaving millions and super-exploiting the nominally free labor force, but by imposing unfair trade measures that made the market economy anything but free and equal. Today's equivalent is NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which since its imposition in 1994 has devastated the Mexican economy and fueled massive migration of Mexicans to the U.S. forced by the collapse of agriculture and related industries; because of NAFTA, corn imported from the U.S. has driven Mexican-grown corn out of the market and deprived untold numbers of campesinos of their livelihoods. I learned from this book that NAFTA is only the latest expression of a two-century-long pattern of trade wars. Here's an example, and there are many others throughout the book.
1826: Buenos Aires—Rivadavia
On the crest of the River Plata ravines, above the muddy bank of the river, lies the port that usurps the wealth of the whole country. …

From the Thames flows the torrent of merchandise manufactured, to Argentine specifications, in Yorkshire and Lancashire. In Birmingham they imitate to the last detail the traditional copper boiler that heats water for maté, and they produce exact replicas of the wooden stirrups, bolas, and lassos used in this country. Workshops and textile mills in the provinces have scarcely a chance of resisting the assault. A single ship brings twenty thousand pairs of boots at bargain prices and a Liverpool poncho costs five times less than one from Catamarca.

Argentine banknotes are printed in London and the National Bank, with a majority of British shareholders, monopolizes their emission. …
Then there's this. I've written before about the wonderful essay "The Right to Be Lazy" by Paul Lafargue. I knew Lafargue was Karl Marx's son-in-law. I did not know he was Cuban, of African and Native heritage. Check it out:
1869: London—Lafargue
When Paul Lafargue began laying siege to Laura Marx, the founder of scientific socialism was finishing the correction of the first volume of Capital. Karl Marx took a dim view of the Cuban's ardent assaults, and told him to court his green-eyed daughter with quieter English manners. He also asked him for economic guarantees. Ousted from Germany, France, and Belgium, Marx has gone through hard times in London, devoured by debt, sometimes without a penny to buy a newspaper. The miseries of exile have killed three of his children.

But he cannot scare off Lafargue. He always knew he couldn't. Lafargue was very young when he and Marx began to fight and to love each other. And now Marx's first grandson is born of the Cuban mestizo, great-grandson of a Haitian mulatta and an Indian from Jamaica.
Finally, as the book closes at the start of the 20th century, Galeano brings onto the page the brothers Flores Magón—Jesús, Ricardo and Enrique. Actually, we were briefly introduced to them earlier, as children, when their father Teodoro Flores, a Native man whose every breath rebelled against all that the colonial invasion and occupation had done to his land, inculcated them with an egalitarian ethos, making them repeat day and night the principle "all belongs to all." Now they are grown, and actively rebelling, and will soon become leading lights of the Mexican revolution.
1900: Mexico City—The Flores Magón Brothers
…This is the day of Our Lady of the Angels, which in Mexico lasts for a week of balls; and on the margin of the violent joy of people, as if wishing to merit it, a new newspaper is born. It is called Regeneration. It inherits the enthusiasm and debts of The Democrat, closed down by the dictatorship [of Porfirio Diaz]. Jesús, Ricardo, and Enrique Flores Magón write it, publish it, and sell it.

The Flores Magón brothers grow with punishment. Since their father died, they have taken turns between jail, law studies, occasional small jobs, combative journalism, and stones-against-bullets street demonstrations.

All belongs to all, they had been told by their father, the Indian Teodoro Flores, that bony face now up among the stars. A thousand times he had told them: Repeat that!
All belongs to all!