The Corruption of Memory

September 25, 2007

Just like the Mexican buildings that collapsed
in the earthquake, Latin American democracy
has been robbed of its foundations. Only
justice could have provided the solid
underpinnings; but instead of justice,
we have obligatory amnesia.
Goiania City, Brazil, Sep- tember, 1987: two paper- pickers come a- cross a metal tube
in an empty lot.
They hammer it
open and find a
glowing blue stone
inside. The magic
stone shines, turns
the air blue, and
makes everything it
touches sparkle.
The paper-pick- _
ers break up this
lightning-bug of a
stone, and give
pieces to their The aftermath of the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City. Old buildings withstood neighbors. Whoev- the quake. New ones fell as if they had no foundations, because they had none. er rubs it on his
skin shines in the night. The entire barrio glows like a America is condemned to obli
lamp. The poor, suddenly endowed with light, cele- took in the children of Goiania
brate. tion sickness, and gave them fi
The next day the paper-pickers start to vomit. This event was met with the sa
They'd eaten mangoes and coconut: that must be why. part of the mass media, even tt
But the entire neighborhood is vomiting and swelling ers of public opinion are alwa
and burning up inside. The light devours and mutilates concerned about Cuba.
and kills; and it is carried everywhere by the wind and Mexico City, September, 19
rain and flies and birds. A thousand houses and building
This was the worst nuclear catastrophe after Cher- three minutes.
nobyl. Many died, no one knows how many. Many We don't know, nor will we
died in that moment of horror i
fragile city in the world. When
dig through the rubble, the go
Later, it stopped saying. The fi
more were maimed
for life. In that bar-
rio on the outskirts
of Goiania, no one
knew the meaning
of the word radio-
activity, and no one
had ever heard of
Nothing hap-
pened to those
responsible. The
clinic that discarded
the cesium tube
functions normally.
Latin America is the
land of impunity.
Chernobyl re-
sounds in the ears
of the world. Who's
ever heard of Goia-
nia? As news, Latin
vion. Last year, Cuba
suffering from radia-
ree medical treatment.
me indifference on the
hough the manufactur-
ys, as we know, very
85: the earth trembles.
gs collapse in less than
ever know, how many
n the largest and most
people first began to
,vernment said 5,000.
first bodies they pulled
VOL XXVII, No 3 Nov/DEc 1993 35
Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan essayist, is the author most
recently of We Say No: Chronicles 1963-1991 (Norton, 1992).
Translated from the Spanish by Mark Fried.
out carpeted an entire baseball field. They ended
up in common graves.
Old buildings withstood the quake. New ones
fell as if they had no foundations, because they
had none, or had them only on the blueprints.
Years have passed and nothing has been done to
those responsible: the developers who built and
sold these modern sand castles; the officials
who authorized skyscrapers in the most sunken
area of the city; the engineers who lied murder-
ously in their calculations; the inspectors who
grew rich looking the other way. The rubble is
gone, they've rebuilt what was destroyed, and
everything continues as if nothing had ever hap-
At the end of 1991, the Economist and the '
New York Times published a World Bank inter-
nal memorandum. The Bank's Harvard-trained 0
chief economist, Lawrence Summers, admitted
to being the author. According to the document, 0
the World Bank ought to stimulate the migra- dildo tion of dirty industries to less developed coun- (Who tries for three reasons: economic logic, which the a
favors dumping toxic waste in poor countries;
the low pollution levels of lightly populated countries;
and the low incidence of cancer among people who
die young anyway.
Some raised their voices in protest, because such
things are done but not said. The international tech-
nocracy earns its high salaries by coining
euphemisms. But Lawrence Summers is no surrealist
poet; he's a successful exponent of capitalist realism.
The South has long been the garbage dump of the
North, a toilet for nuclear and industrial shit. The
memorandum said nothing new.
Usury follows a similar pattern. Seventeen centuries
ago, Saint Ambrosio, priest and doctor of the Catholic
Church, outlawed usury among Christians but autho-
rized it as a weapon against barbarians. "If war
exists," that pious man said, "the right to usury
exists." Today, what is bad for the North is good for
the South, in accordance with the right of the few who
usurp nearly everything to wage war against the many
who have practically nothing. Beyond the walls of
order and civilization, that undeclared war justifies
everything. The kingdom of impunity extends south
from the banks of the Rio Grande and the Mediter-
ranean, and down the peaks of the Himalayas.
Attracted by tiny wages and the freedom to pollute,
several U.S. corporations have crossed the border into
Mexico in recent years. The frontier city of Mata-
moros is one place where the consequences are plain
to see: the drinking water is thousands of times more
toxic than in the United States. According to a recent
study by the Texas Center for Policy Studies, the
Meireles. Insertions into Ideological Circuits: Bank Note Project
Killed Herzog?). 1970. Rubber Stamp and bank note. Collection
water near the General Motors plant is 6,000 times
worse than the U.S. average, and in the river where
Stepan Chemical dumps its waste the water is 50,000
times more toxic.
Brazilian physicist Ennio Candotti has made the
point that the richest and most powerful countries can
no longer maintain their levels of well-being without
exporting devastation to other lands. Japan, for exam-
ple, no longer makes aluminum. Aluminum is pro-
duced in countries like Brazil, where energy is cheap
and the environment suffers in silence. If the price of
aluminum included the ecological cost of production,
the industry would be priced out of the market.
Colombia grows tulips for Holland and roses for
Germany. Dutch companies send tulip bulbs to the
plains of Bogot4; German companies send rose cut-
tings to BoyacA. After the flowers have bloomed on
these immense plantations, Holland gets its tulips,
Germany gets its roses, and Colombia is left with low
wages, damaged soil, and a diminished supply of poi-
soned water.
Colombian sociologist Maria Cristina Salazar is
researching the devastating consequences of these
industrial floral arrangements: the plains of BogotA are
drying out and sinking; and the workers and lands of
Boyaci are sick from the large-scale use of insecti-
cides and chemical fertilizers.
With impunity, Bayer and Dow Chemical make and
sell in Latin America the fertilizers and pesticides out-
lawed in Germany and the United States. With
impunity, Volkswagen and Ford make and sell cars
without the catalytic converters mandatory in Ger-
many and the United States. Over 200 pesticides on
the World Health Organization's black list are used in
Uruguay, a country that has one of the highest cancer
rates in the world. The inhabitants of Mexico City
have the highest concentration of lead in their blood.
The Indians who work on the coastal plantations of
Guatemala breastfeed their children with the most
toxic milk on the planet.
Economic logic is what the World Bank report
invokes; but what has been elevated to the cate-
gory of divine law is the law of profit, and it
rules with impunity. On its altars we sacrifice nature
and human dignity.
It's no news. After five centuries, scorn for human
life has become habitual. Impunity feeds off fatalism.
We're like the guy who to obey the law of gravity
jumped from the tenth floor. We've been raised to
believe that misfortune is a question of fate.
Just like the Mexican buildings that collapsed in the
earthquake, Latin American democracy has been
robbed of its foundations. Only justice could have pro-
There is nothing strange in
the fact that the very same people
who cheer the trials of human-
rights violators in Eastern Europe
applaud impunity in Latin America.
In the South, state terrorism is a
necessary evil.
vided solid underpinnings; but instead of justice we
have obligatory amnesia, a corrosive corruption of
memory. All the Latin American countries to emerge
from military dictatorship, from years of blood and
dirt and fear, have sprinkled holy water on the fore-
heads of torturers and murderers. The most recent
amnesia law was passed in El Salvador in March of
this year. And there is nothing strange in the fact that
the very same people who cheer the trials of human
rights violators in Eastern Europe applaud impunity in
Latin America. In the South, state terrorism is a neces-
sary evil.
Over the last 20 years, the gap between North and
South has doubled in size. We'll have to write a new
dictionary for the century to come. What we call uni-
versal democracy has little or nothing to do with
democracy, in the same way that socialism in the
Soviet bloc had little or nothing to do with socialism.
Never has the distribution of bread and fish been so
anti-democratic: there's enough for all, but few eat;
80% of humanity pays the bill for the extravagance of
the chosen few.
The state is being dismantled in Latin America.
Governments should exist only to pay off the foreign
debt and to guarantee social peace, which in proper
English means to stand watch and to punish. To keep
the invisible hidden, we need more guns and more
uniforms, while public financing of education, health
and housing take a free fall, and food subsidies disap-
pear altogether.
The system produces poor people, then declares war
on them. The numbers of the desperate and the impris-
oned multiply. The jails-branch offices of hell-
can't contain them. Last year 50 riots erupted in Latin
America's most overcrowded prisons. The riots left
900 people dead, nearly all of them prisoners, nearly
all of them executed in cold blood. Those who
reestablished order were congratulated.
Of the dead, some had committed crimes which
were child's play compared to the feats of more than
one decorated general. Others were guilty of thefts
which seem like jokes compared to the frauds perpe-
trated by our most successful businessmen and
bankers, or compared to the commissions charged by
certain politicians every time they sell off a piece of
the country. And many were imprisoned by mistake,
or just in case.
The owners of this fin-de-sidcle world have
achieved astonishing levels of perfection in the tech-
nology of information and death. Never before have
so few been able to manipulate or suppress so many.
The electronic dictatorship bestows immunity on the
worldwide military dictatorship of the ruling powers:
those who have the monopolies on guns and televi-
sion, the consumers of consumer society who devour
the earth, and in the heavens gobble up the ozone
layer. The most atrocious acts of humiliation against
people and violation against nature are in reality
attempts to corroborate and perpetuate this world
Take the war in Iraq, the largest and most expensive
television show in history: a million extras, a billion
dollars a day. Saddam Hussein, once a favored child
of the West, suddenly turned into Hitler because he
invaded Kuwait. George Bush led the call for punish-
ment in the name of the world: "The world," he
declared, "cannot wait any longer." The super extrava-
ganza left scads of dead Iraqis,
though TV avoided any unpleas-
ant images.
One year before, Bush did not
turn into Hitler when he invaded
Panama, and he did not punish
himself in the name of the world.
After all, the United States had
previously invaded Panama 20
times this century; invasion
number 21 was televised as a
docudrama on this time-honored
To capture the infidel General
Manuel Noriega, his former
employee in the CIA, Bush
bombed the poorest neighbor-
hoods of Panama City and fol-
lowed that up with the largest ' mobilization of ground troops Street children--and a guardian--consuming cocaine in Rio. Drug trafficking comes from mobilization of ground troops he TV a way of life that requires the massive consumption of chemical consolations. since the Vietnam War. The TV
counted 100 bodies. The official statistics later
claimed 500. Now we know it was in the thousands.
The occupying troops produced a president, Guiller-
mo Endara, sworn in at Fort Clayton, a U.S. army
base. Three and a half years later, this unpresentable
character out of a Botero painting organized a
plebiscite. Three out of every four citizens voted
against him. Illegitimacy could not scream any louder;
but impunity could not rule if it were not deaf.
U.S. writer Bud Flakoll says that news and
entertainment are becoming ever more alike.
Drug trafficking, which was the alibi in Pana-
ma, remains the pretext of choice for violating nation-
al sovereignty in Latin America. On the news, as in
the movies, there are good guys and bad guys, victims
and executioners. Colombia, for example, usually
plays the villain, and the consumer the innocent vic-
But the business of drugs, an industry of death no
less virtuous than the arms industry, would not exist if
it were not fed by prohibition and if the market did not
give it a reason to be. Drug traffickers are the best stu-
dents of neoliberal economics: they understand the
laws of the market and provide the supply that
demand requires. The most lucrative business in the
world is the result of a way of life that generates anxi-
ety, solitude and anguish through the vertigo of unbri-
dled competition, where the success of a few implies
the failure of many. This way of life-projected daily
on the small screen as a universal panacea-requires
the massive consumption of chemical consolations.
Last year in Colombia there were 26,000 murders
and 2,000 kidnappings. Are Colombians violent by
nature? Are they people with happy trigger fingers
whom violentologists ought to place under a micro-
scope? Or is this obstinate violence the child of scorn
and desperation? Why is it that when the economy
grows, people shrink? The social contradictions in this
country of the richest rich and the poorest poor are
more explosive than all the bombs that go off daily in
Medellfn. Just as drug trafficking isn't made from a
sow's ear, neither do guerrillas leap forth from the
Devil's mouth.
Many of the crimes are the direct work of state ter-
rorism, backed up by the complicit silence of the mass
media. Human rights organizations in Colombia
recently published a detailed list of 250 military brass
and 100 police officers responsible for murders, disap-
pearances, massacres and torture between 1977 and
1992. Only 10 of them have been punished. The rest
are still in charge.
We don't need the ends to justify the means any-
more. Now the means of communication justify the
ends. Social injustice gets reduced to a police matter.
If groups of individuals are consumer societies instead
of peoples, and consumption is outlawed for 80% of
humanity, then world order depends on the relentless
application of the technologies of repression and
The mask of impunity is woven with threads of
impotence and resignation. But there is a latent threat
in each of the victims of this system which struggles
against the consequences of its own acts. Even while
celebrating the annihilation of its enemies, the system
cannot fail to suspect that it is condemned to beget

Tags: corruption, Eduardo Galeano, impunity, neoliberalism

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