The internationally-renowned history of colonial exploitation of Latin America
Barack Obama looked bemused when, during his first visit to Latin America as US President in 2009, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez thrust a book into his hands. Within days, the book, Open Veins of Latin America by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, had become a bestseller.
Obama thought he was being given a sort of ‘little red book’ of Chávez’s sayings, but Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America was a book that had been cherished by the left in Latin America for decades. It was one of only two books novelist Isabel Allende hurriedly packed in her suitcase when she fled Chile, after her cousin, the democratically-elected President Salvador Allende, was overthrown in Pinochet’s coup in 1973. Galeano himself was most proud of the impact it had on the streets. He recalled a young woman quietly reading it to her companion on a bus in Bogotá, and then standing up to read it aloud to all the passengers. As Chávez told reporters after meeting Obama: ‘This book is a monument in our Latin American history.’
First published in 1971, Galeano’s work is a devastating account of the impoverishment of Latin America by foreign powers and multinational companies. Written deliberately in the ‘style of a novel about love and pirates’, the author explained: ‘I confess I get a pain from reading valuable works by certain sociologists, political experts, economists and historians who write in code.’
Galeano’s story-telling powers are used to conjure up vivid images of colonial Latin America: how the Spanish stripped the veins of white silver from Bolivia’s Cerro Rico, a mountain of ‘reddish hues, slender form and giant size’, leaving Potosí one of the most impoverished cities in the world, and how European hunger for sugar left the humid coastal fringe of north-eastern Brazil a dry scrubland. The colonialists built churches that ‘glistened with pure gold on their altars’ and squandered their riches on spectacles, ‘processions in triumphant mother-of-pearl, silk and gold chariots, with fantastic costumes and dazzling settings’.
Open Veins of Latin America relies heavily on the work of the dependency theorists of the 1960s, particularly the US-German Marxist Andre Gunder Frank, and the early works of the Brazilian sociologist Celso Furtado. Dependency theory grew out of frustration at the failure of post-war industrialisation, by populists such as Argentina’s Juan Perón and Brazil’s Getúlio Vargas, to free the region from underdevelopment. Industrialisation benefited foreign multinationals, which acquired cheap labour and captive markets, and exported the profits, while Latin American economies were left reliant on importing high-tech capital goods.
Dependency theorists wanted radical popular action to change society. Many were inspired by the Cuban revolution of 1959, and a cautious enthusiasm for the Cuban revolutionary experiment ripples through Galeano’s pages. The 1960s and early 1970s were an exciting period for the left. Che Guevara left Cuba to foment revolution on the mainland and many guerrilla organisations were formed: the Sandinistas (Nicaragua), Montoneros (Argentina), Tupamaros (Uruguay) and FPL (El Salvador). A seminal moment was the election in 1970 of Salvador Allende, a Marxist promising a peaceful road to socialism. But within five years of the publication of Galeano’s work, military coups had overthrown governments in Chile, Argentina and his native Uruguay. Galeano fled into exile and his book was banned in all three countries. Thousands of civilians were tortured and murdered. A chilling new word emerged: ‘the disappeared’.
The cruder forms of dependency theory – such as the thesis that rich countries’ wealth was dependent solely on the exploitation of the third world, when in fact foreign trade and investment in Latin America made up a tiny proportion of the world total – were flawed; and the implication that poorer countries were consigned to underdevelopment has apparently been undermined by the rise of China, India and Brazil. Galeano last year renounced some elements of his famous book – although he remains on the left.
However, the many favelas in Rio de Janeiro and the sprawl of foreign-owned assembly plants, maquilas, along the Mexican-US border today show that the themes raised by the dependentistas have relevance today. Latin America is now dominated by left-wing governments. They have redistributed wealth but still have to grapple with economies heavily reliant on the export of primary products such as oil, gas, copper, grain and soya. Galeano’s enduring influence was shown in a recent speech by Evo Morales, the left-wing indigenous president of Bolivia, who said his government’s task was to ‘close the open veins of Latin America’.
Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent
Eduardo Galeano (Monthly Review Press, 1971)
Translated by Cedric Belfrage
This article was originally published in Alborada magazine issue one (Spring/Summer 2015)
A version of this review was first published by Red Pepper www.redpepper.org.uk