Galeano vs. Rangel: A Conflict of Visions in Latin America

In 2009, President Hugo Chávez caused a stir when he presented President Barack Obama with a literary gift titled Open Veins of Latin America. The author, Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, an icon of the left, died last month. It so happens that 2015 is also the fortieth anniversary one of the best books about the developing world, The Latin Americans—qqqTheir Love-Hate Relationship with the United States, written by Venezuela’s Carlos Rangel. Unfortunately, the translation of the title misses the powerful connotations of the Spanish title.

Galeano spent his life mythifying Latin America; Rangel, who committed suicide in 1988, spent his demythifying it. The Uruguayan enjoyed the protection of a vast left-wing apparatus. The Venezuelan was one of the left’s favorite targets in the 1970s and 1980s.

Galeano said nothing new but had the talent to lend words and images to sentiments that were in the air and that others had expressed differently. He was more widely read, but his prestige was shallower than that of Rangel, who did the opposite by vesting words with ideas and trying to persuade a public that preferred political poetry and reassuring explanations instead of rational arguments and poignant truths.

Galeano swam with the current, but his river led straight to the falls that swallowed much of the left when the Berlin Wall came down. Rangel swam against the current; somewhere along the way that current changed course, and he was able to elude the precipice. Galeano was wrong, but toward the end of his life, a quarter century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he had the courage to acknowledge that his famous book was inadequate. Rangel died knowing he was telling the truth but not knowing he would soon win the battle of time, that most frustrating of victories.

Geleano’s intellectual tribe was born with the positivists who at the end of the 19th century brought to Latin America the ideas of Auguste Comte—qqq“scientific”, as opposed to Utopian, socialism. They placed them at the service of right-wing dictatorships—qqqPorfirio Díaz in Mexico, Juan Vicente Gómez in Venezuela, the Brazilian military at the beginning of the republic—qqqbut in time these intellectuals or their heirs veered to the left. In that transition various influences played a part, such as that of Argentina’s Manuel Ugarte (who appealed for unity against foreign exploitation) and Uruguay’s José Enrique Rodó (who extoled spiritual values and decried materialism).

The other side made the opposite journey. During the 19th century, the freedom-loving intellectuals were on the left in their fight against conservative authoritarianism. In their effort to dismantle the colonial legacy, they were inspired by the Enlightenment and the Founding Fathers of the United States. But in the early 20th century the geodesic lines of the intellectual map were rearranged: the socialists ended up on the left, the liberals on the right. Galeano’s tribe later added to its anti-imperialist victimism a dose of “indigenismo” (a nationalism centered on indigenous cultures) and of dependency theory (a denunciation of structural imbalances that favored rich countries).

Rangel’s tribe laid bare the dishonesty of that discourse, which was used to justify a mistrust of free enterprise, class warfare, the idolatry of the state, and protectionism. In so doing, it restored the liberal tradition that had been interrupted for many years. Rangel connected modern liberal thought with predecessors such as the “Generation of ’37,” that symbol of Argentina’s golden 19th century years.

French author Julien Benda wrote that the 20th century was the century of “the intellectual organization of political hatred.” In Latin America this was more true of the left than of the right because, unlike the left-wing terrorist groups and tyrannies, the right-wing dictatorships never sought to justify their atrocities with a totalizing vision. This continues to be the case, to judge by Venezuela’s Chavista regime and others. Rangel never accepted the distinction between the victims of communism and the victims of Pinochet. Galeano, like so many of his colleagues, looked the other way when the henchman served leftist masters.

Rangel offers Galeano’s tribe three profound lessons. The first is that anyone who defends political ideas has the responsibility to make sure they do not blur the truth. The second is moral integrity. The third is intellectual sovereignty. How many intellectuals opted to espouse ideas they knew to be fallacies simply because it was the safe thing to do in the academic and journalistic milieu?

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