Galeano was born in Montevideo, Uruguay to a middle class Catholic family of European descent. Like many young Latin American boys, Galeano dreamed of becoming a football (soccer) player; this desire was reflected in some of his works, such as El Fútbol A Sol Y Sombra (Football In Sun and Shadow). In his teens, Galeano worked odd jobs — as a factory worker, a bill collector, a sign painter, a messenger, a typist, and a bank teller. At 14 years, Galeano sold his first political cartoon to the Socialist Party weekly, El Sol and married for the first time in 1959. He started his career as a journalist in the early 1960s as editor of Marcha, an influential weekly journal which had such contributors as Mario Vargas Llosa, Mario Benedetti, Manuel Maldonado Denis and Roberto Fernández Retamar. For two years he edited the daily Época and worked as editor-in-chief of the University Press. In 1962, having divorced, he remarried to Graciela Berro.
In 1973, a military coup took power in Uruguay; Galeano was imprisoned and later was forced to flee. His book Open Veins of Latin America was banned by the right-wing military government, not only in Uruguay, but also in Chile and Argentina. He settled in Argentina where he founded the cultural magazine, Crisis. In 1976 he married for the third time to Helena Villagra, however in the same year the Videla regime took power in Argentina in a bloody military coup and his name was added to the lists of those condemned by the death squads. He fled again, this time to Spain, where he wrote his famous trilogy: Memoria del fuego (Memory of Fire).
Galeano in 1984
At the beginning of 1985 Galeano returned to Montevideo, where he continues to live. Following the victory of Tabaré Vázquez and the Broad Front alliance in the 2004 Uruguayan elections marking the first left-wing government in Uruguayan history Galeano wrote a piece for The Progressive titled "Where the People Voted Against Fear" in which Galeano showed support for the new government and concluded that the Uruguayan populace used "common sense" and were "tired of being cheated" by the traditional Colorado and Blanco parties. Following the creation of TeleSUR, a pan-Latin American television station based in Caracas, Venezuela, in 2005 Galeano along with other left-wing intellectuals such as Tariq Ali and Adolfo Pérez Esquivel joined the network's 36 member advisory committee.
On January 26, 2006, Galeano joined other internationally renowned figures and Latin American authors such as Nobel-laureate Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Benedetti, Ernesto Sábato, Thiago de Mello, Carlos Monsiváis, Pablo Armando Fernández, Jorge Enrique Adoum, Luis Rafael Sánchez, Mayra Montero, Ana Lydia Vega and world famous singer/composer Pablo Milanés, in demanding sovereignty for Puerto Rico and adding their name and signature to the Latin American and Caribbean Congress' Proclamation for the Independence of Puerto Rico, which approved a resolution favoring the island-nation's right to assert its independence, as ratified unanimously by political parties hailing from twenty two Latin American countries in November 2006. Galeano's demand for the recognition of Puerto Rico's independence was obtained at the behest of the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP).
On February 10, 2007, Galeano underwent a successful operation to treat lung cancer. During an interview with journalist Amy Goodman following Barack Obama's election as President of the United States in November 2008, Galeano said, "The White House will be Barack Obama's house in the time coming, but this White House was built by black slaves. And I’d like, I hope, that he never, never forgets this." At the April 17, 2009, opening session of the 5th Summit of the Americas held in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gave a copy of Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America to U.S. President Barack Obama, who was making his first diplomatic visit to the region. This made the English language edition of the book go to #2 position and the Spanish version to #11 on the Amazon.com bestseller list.
In a May 2009 interview he spoke about his past and recent works, some of which deal with the relationships between freedom and slavery, and democracies and dictatorships; "... not only the United States, also some European countries, have spread military dictatorships all over the world. And they feel as if they are able to teach democracy...". He also talked about how and why he has changed his writing style, and his recent rise in popularity.