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Last spring at a Summit of the Americas, President Obama received a gift from the frequently anti-American president of Venezuela. Hugo Chavez gave Mr. Obama the book "Open Veins of Latin America." It's a history of, according to the subtitle, five centuries of the pillage of a continent.

The nonfiction work written almost 40 years ago leaped to number two on Amazon's top seller list following the presentation by Chavez. In Uruguay recently, NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg spoke with the author.

SUSAN STAMBERG: The name Eduardo Galeano is unfamiliar to us, but in South America he's a legend - revered in some circles, reviled in others. At his favorite café in Montevideo, fans leave letters and books for Galeano to sign.

They'll phone to ask if he's there or when he's expected. Galeano goes most days to this familiar sanctuary.

Mr. EDUARDO GALEANO (Author, "Open Veins of Latin America"): This one, Brasilero, is the last one of the cafes in which I was formed. These were my universities. Here, in the cafés, is where I learned the art of storytelling -the great anonymous storytellers that taught me how to do it. So I'm very grateful to the cafés and I love these places in which we still may have time to lose time, which is a luxury in this world.

STAMBERG: A left-wing intellectual arrested and forced out of Uruguay after the 1973 military coup put on the Argentine military government's death list in exile for 12 years. Now, at the age of 68, Eduardo Galeano has the luxury of time, writing in his hometown cafe about themes that have preoccupied him for a lifetime.

Mr. GALEANO: Always, in all my books, I'm trying to help to reveal the hidden greatness of the small, of the little, of the unknown and the pettiness of the big.

STAMBERG: And so if Barack Obama reads "Open Veins of Latin America" — an indictment of capitalism, corporations, colonialism and, yes, the U.S. What would Galeano hope the president might get from it?

Mr. GALEANO: Perhaps a certain idea about the fact that no richness is innocent. Richness in the world is a result of other people's poverty. So we should begin to shorten this abyss between the have and have not.

STAMBERG: This is - in North America, we would call this a good old lefty idea.

Mr. GALEANO: Yes, yes, of course. It's absolutely out of fashion. And I am quite prehistoric, absolutely prehistoric.

STAMBERG: Galeano's prehistoric preoccupations are also quite current. War, for instance.

Mr. GALEANO: Each time a new war is disclosed in the name of the fight of the good against the evil, those who are killed are all poor. It's always the same story repeating once and once and again and again.

STAMBERG: Poverty, injustice, powerlessness, exploitation — no wonder people keep asking Eduardo Galeano whether he finds any cause for hope in this world. I ask. His answer:

Mr. GALEANO: It depends on the hour of the day. Sometimes, I am optimistic at noon, and then at 3 o'clock I am absolutely down in the floor. And later, I recover and then I fall again and so on.

(Soundbite of harmonica playing)

STAMBERG: Behind the bar at this intimate café in Montevideo, a waitress practices on her harmonica. And for a fan, Eduardo Galeano autographs his latest book, "Mirrors," his unofficial history of the world — 5,000 years' worth — told in short squibs, quick paragraphs here, a few lines there.

Again, Galeano re-imagines history through the stories of unknowns or the resurrection of a better-known — the great jazz man Django Reinhardt.

Mr. GALEANO: Resurrection of Django. He was born in a gypsy caravan and spent his early years on the road in Belgium, playing the banjo for a dancing bear and a goat.

He was 18 when his wagon - wagon?

STAMBERG: Wagon.

Mr. GALEANO: Wagon. He was 18 when his wagon caught fire and he was left for dead. He lost a leg, a hand. Goodbye road, goodbye music. But as they were about to amputate, he regained the use of his leg. And from his lost hand, he managed to save two fingers and became one of the best jazz guitarists in history.

There was a secret pact between Django Reinhardt and his guitar. If he would play her, she would lend him the fingers he lacked.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GALEANO: You know, this is a revealing story about paradoxes as a source of hope, because you see, this man with how many fingers, two?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GALEANO: He was the best.

STAMBERG: Eduardo Galeano loves the paradox of Django Reinhardt as he loves the paradox of slaves in the American South creating the freest music, jazz.

In a small cafe, in the small capital of one of South America's smallest nations, a man can ponder such paradoxes and write his wistful musings.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: Eduardo Galeano takes his leave now. A friend is outside to give him a lift. Galeano doesn't drive, doesn't use his cell phone much and suspects his computer — all computers — drink whiskey at night when nobody's watching.

Mr. GALEANO: And that's why next day, they do some enigmatic things that nobody can understand.

STAMBERG: I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: You'll find some of Eduardo Galeano's writing at the new npr.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

(Soundbite of music)

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