The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent by Eduardo Galeano. Translator: Cedric Belfrage
I read this book out of curiosity—and interest in Latin America. I was advised that it was just rant or left-wing rant, but decided to see for myself. I came away with this as the main idea: “in Latin America, free enterprise is incompatible with civil liberties” as Galeano says in his commentary on the book in an afterward. The book catalogues the exploitation of “the people” —usually the indigenous people—by South American oligarchies and by their European and North American affiliates.
It’s certainly been a controversial book. First published in 1971 and often condemned and frequently banned in Latin America, I doubt it’s been on the radar in North American very long. The current edition was published in 1997 with a foreward by Isabel Allende. It’s been in the news recently when President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela gave a copy to Obama and then when commentators speculated on whether or not he would read it. Actually, I hope he did. (http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1892801,00.html)
My first impression was that Galeano’s detractors were right, the book was just rant. Galeano is a journalist and he knows how to use words to move readers. My impression was that every sentence in the first chapter had emotionally-loaded words. If his ideas hadn’t piqued my curiosity I might have put it down. Ensuing chapters might come to emotionally-loaded conclusions, but the presentation of evidence was impressive. I can’t endorse the ideas completely because I don’t know enough to evaluate everything he says, but I was impressed.
Galeano’s thesis is that the first the European conquerors (Spain and Portugal), later European business interests—mainly the British—and finally the US (government and business) have promised developmental assistance but delivered subservience largely by economic means—by keeping production costs low using raw materials and cheap labor from Latin American and then selling products for large profits, even selling them back to Latin American countries at the same time as they prevent them from producing their own products. In what seemed to me a telling comparison he contrasts conquistadors arriving in Latin American with the expectation of taking riches home to Europe with settlers in New England fleeing Europe and determined to grow their food and make the products they need for themselves—and to stay, not seek treasure to bring home. In what turned out to be an advantage for North America, there was no gold or silver, not even promising farms land so the British, in comparison to the Iberians, tended to ignore the colonies rather than plunder them.
In this idea, Galeano reminds me of Fareed Zakaria’s thesis in The Future of Freedom where he explains that wealth in the form of natural resources is actually a deterrent to democracy because it leads to a ruling class that appropriates the resources and uses them to develop the country (or to line their own pockets) rather the depending on the population to supply funds for the government in the form of taxes. Elections don’t mean much if the people doing the electing have no power. And clearly immigration to America took a far different path in the North than in the South. The result was the development of a growing middle class of local producers in North America--something that didn't happen in most Latin American countries which developed local oligarchies who themselves continued to be exploited by powerful patrons.
Galeano’s text is colorful and impressive, even for someone like me for whom the names and historical events are not familiar. He’s a master of the powerful and memorable phrases than sum up (probably somewhat simplistically but I ended up thinking often right nonetheless) the problem. “Underdevelopment in South America is a result of development elsewhere”, “ a Volkswagen Republic is much like a banana republic”, “nationalization doesn’t necessarily redistribute wealth”. Over and over again he talks about the wealth concentrated among an oligarchy and the widespread poverty at the bottom that has characterized many Latin American countries for centuries, making it clear over and over again that “the outposts pay the price for the wealth of the centers”. The centers were usually the ports that grew up to serve the Europeans and later North Americans who needed to ship the gold, the silver, the meat, the rubber, the bananas or whatever.
It’s easy for a US citizen to agree with all the details about exploitation by Europeans, harder to deal with exploitation by North Americans. Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner (20070 confirms US involvement in supporting the oligarchies that support the US companies. It struck me reading about the maneuverings of American companies that, whether needing bananas or rubber or petroleum, they were operating not all that differently from how we’re discovering they operate at home and it’s abundantly clear at this point that the US is moving toward something like the Latin American republics with wealth increasingly concentrated among the few while the middle class which enabled the US to be different from its Latin American neighbors is dwindling. Power in the US is increasingly in the hands of corporations—often multi-nationals with loyalties primarily to their own interests which may or may not be the people of the United States. But perhaps I push this too far.
I have to note that Galeano, as many other Latin Americans, deplores the fact that the US has even co-opted the name “America”. (I had a hard time avoiding it in this review.)
Bottom line: This is a highly emotional book, but the logic and the evidence is quite definitely not lacking. I tend to compare him to Michael Moore, who goes after public attention with emotionally charged rhetoric, but backs it up with facts and details that prove the need for drawing attention to the issue. I cannot evaluate the detail and no doubt Galeano exaggerates and rants but it’s still a compelling book that’s worth the attention of a thinking person.