The Fire From Below

I was at an event last night in Connolly Books in Dublin to mark the passing of Eduardo Galeano. I did a reading of a couple of excerpts from an essay of his written in 1986. The essay was titled The Dictatorship and After: The Secret Wounds. One could pick anything written by Galeano and it would be worth reading aloud, but I chose these excerpts and translated them because I thought they had contemporary resonance in Ireland. Was I suggesting Ireland is turning into a dictatorship like Uruguay in the 1970s? I hope not.

In a letter in the same collection in which I came across the essay, Galeano replies to a Mexican editor about the idea he should write something about fascism in Latin America. Whereas some politicians in Ireland are all too quick to speak of fascism at the drop of a water balloon, Galeano is very scrupulous about contrasting the experience in Germany and Italy with what is actually happening in Latin America.

In countries such as Chile, Uruguay and Bolivia, the dictatorships do not have the slightest capacity for popular mobilisation. The mystique of jingoism, copied from the Nazi-fascist model, only catches light in the heart of police officers and soldiers who get paid for it. These are lonely regimes, condemned to sad and lowly declines. They do not make fanatics of young people: they merely hate them, just as they hate joy and everything that grows. They rely on force of arms and they are incapable of transmitting any kind of faith, not even a fucked up faith, as was the faith of those characters in the superiority of their race or in the imperial destiny of their nations. Our dictators are, on the whole, patriots of a nation that is not their own, satellites of a distant empire: echoes, and not voices.

He goes on to speak of Uruguay.

The militarisation of society does not, in a small and depopulated country such as mine, correspond to some expansionist project; nor does it serve to defend its borders, which are threatened by no-one. Is a war economy generated in peace time? The arms come from outside and the enemies are within. Who are the enemies? How many are there left? In Uruguay there are between four and five million political prisoners. In proportion to the population of Mexico, for example, the equivalent would be ninety thousand people put behind bars for political motives. That is no small thing. First, it was the guerrillas. Then, it was militants in left wing parties. Then, trade unionists. Then, intellectuals. Then, various traditional politicians. Then, anyone. The machine does not stop, it demands fuel, it goes mad, it devours its inventor: the right-wing parties gave special powers and extraordinary resources to the armed forces to get rid of the Tupamaros and in a short space of time the army ended up in power and liquidated the parties. Twenty thousand people passed through the prisons and barracks between 1973 and 1974; torture became the habitual system of interrogation. In the chambers of torment, many men lost their lives. Some had their liver burst by kickings. Others had heart failure when they plunged their head into buckets of dirty water and shit. Others were killed by being made stand still with neither food nor drink for days and nights. Others, it was the picana electrica. And there was a girl who died suffocated by a nylon bag tied to her head.

Then he goes on to conclude:

If all this is not fascism, let us acknowledge that it looks a lot like it. The fascist repertoire of threat and repression is being put into practice, and it turns out to be useful. Not to conquer the world: to crush the internal forces of change, to decapitate the working class and annihilate intelligence. The ideology of petty-bourgeois history is being adapted, like a glove to a hand, to the needs of the regime. It is not the Jews who are the scapegoats of the crisis: it is the entire working class. The regime uses the big characteristic words, Nation, Family, Tradition, Property, to mask the oppression and the horror of dictatorship. Whoever dissents or rebels, is stripped of their life or their freedom or at least has their documents torn from them and they condemn them to wander the world, like a pariah, with neither nation nor legal identity.

We are living in our own time of contempt. The executioners rule and the snitches prosper. For the owners of power, who dream of a quiescent world, history is subversive, because it always changes. And they are right about that.

So, no, I do not think Ireland is turning into this. But this –what happened in Uruguay then- is part of the history of the institutions of our world, and a people that cannot distinguish between democracy, on the one hand, and the dictates of the IMF on the other, are headed nowhere good.

This was the first extract I read:

The model.

With light variations, the same model of repression and prevention was applied in various Latin American countries, in the 1970s, against the forces of social change. In applying the pan-American doctrine of National Security, soldiers acted as an occupying force in their own countries, serving as the armed wing of the International Monetary Fund and of the system of privileges that the Fund expresses and perpetuates. The threat from guerrillas was used as an alibi for State terrorism, which was set in train to cut workers’ wages by half, to wipe out unions and to suppress critical consciences. Through the mass diffusion of terror and uncertainty, the intention was to impose an order of the deaf-and-mute. In the computer of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Forces, all Uruguayan citizens were classified in three categories, A, B, and C, in accordance with the degree of danger from the point of view of the planned military reign of the sterile. One could not find work, nor hang onto it, without the Certificate of Democratic Credentials that this computer would emit, and which the police –who majored in Democracy in courses taught by Dan Mitirone, a North American chair in Torture Techniques- would issue. Even to hold a birthday party, it was essential to have police authorisation. Every house was a cell; every factory became a concentration camp, as did every office, every faculty.

And then, from a little further down in the essay, I read this:

The response

And yet, Uruguayan culture managed to go on breathing, inside and outside the country. In all its history, no greater praise did it receive than the ferocious persecution it suffered in those years. Uruguayan culture stayed alive, and it was able to give answers of life to the machinery of silence and death. It breathed, in those who stayed and those of us who had to leave, in the words that circulated from hand to hand, from mouth to mouth, in the underground or in contraband, hidden or disguised; in the actors who told truths about the present through Greek theatre and in those who were forced to wander through the world like nomadic comedians; in the banished troubadours and in those who inside the country defiantly sung out; in the scientists and artists who did not sell their soul; in the in-your-face murga groups in carnival, and in the newspapers that would die and then be born anew; in the cries written in the streets and in the poems written in the prisons, on cigarette paper.

But if by culture we understand a way of being and a way of communicating, if culture is the whole range of symbols of collective identity that are made in everyday life, resistance was not limited just to these signs, rather, it was even wider, even deeper.

Obdulio Varela, a famous football player who knew the people and the land very well, gave a bitter evaluation in the final days of the dictatorship:

We have become selfish –said Obdulio, at the start of 1985- we no longer recognise ourselves in other people. Democracy will be difficult.

And nevertheless, the Uruguayan people was able to respond with solidarity against the system that sought to break apart. There were many ways of meeting up and sharing –though it might be the little one had, though it might be nothing- that also form part, a shining part, of the Uruguayan cultural resistance of these years, and they multiplied, above all, in the most hard-pressed sectors of the working class. And I am not just talking about the major street demonstrations, but also to acts that were less spectacular, such as the people’s kitchens and housing co-operatives and other works of imagination and courage, which have confirmed that the energy from solidarity is inversely proportional to one’s income level. Or, to put it in the style of Martín Fierro, the fire that truly warms is the fire that comes from below.


Eduardo Galeano, 1940-2015

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