Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, Cedric Belfrage, translator (1973, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1997) 317 pages.
I read Open Veins of Latin America while traveling to and in
. Although Costa Rica is barely mentioned in the book, I ran into Costa Rican pastor who’d read the book and we had an interesting conversation. This book has been on my to-be-read stack for a number of years, but I hadn’t gotten around to it. It seemed appropriate to read it now, considering where I was traveling and also because of the book’s newfound fame. At a meeting of American Heads-of-States, Hugo Chavez, the rouge leader of Costa Rica , gave a copy to President Obama. When I picked up the book, I hadn’t even noticed that one of the comments on the cover of the book was from Chavez. Venezuela
Current politics aside, this is an interesting book and a pleasure to read. Galeano is a poet and although this is a translated work, his use of language comes across. This scope of this work is broad, as the author gives us half a millennium economic and political history of a continent. He often tends to view all of
Latin America as a whole, which allows him to jump around from one country to another as he lays out his understanding of history and economics. This expanded worldview that crosses borders sometimes created confusion, but his topic is so broad that I’m not sure how else he could have written it without doubling or tripling the number of pages.
The veins of Latin America are the ways the continent has been bleed. Mostly these veins are raw materials (first gold and silver, later agriculture products and labor). He traces the way the continent was robbed of its riches by Spain and Portugal (and how these European powers squander their wealth). He provides an interesting analogy to the United States development, noting that the original colonies were blessed not to have significant wealth and therefore had to struggle to become a viable economy. However, he does note that the antebellum South, with its dependence on slaves, was an economic system closely related to their Southern neighbors. In Latin America, there were many rich places in the 16th and 17th centuries, but when the ore ran out, there was nothing left but a few glorious churches and barren tailing piles. As agriculture became more important, large landowners and foreign powers controlled the land and focused on exporting. Over time, the profit for this labor was transferred to Europe and later to the United States.
In reading this book, I was surprised to learn about wars I’d never heard of. Although he doesn’t mention the Monroe Doctrine when discussing these wars, it’s easy to see how ineffective the doctrine was as European powers (especially Britain) was involved in our southern neighbor’s politics. One war, which reduced Paraguay into an improvised state, was financed by the British who felt threatened by Paraguay’s attempts to compete industrially with Britain in areas like iron and railroads. I’d never heard of this war, which started as the
’ Civil War was ending. In another war, which is called the War of the Pacific (I think it should be called the Bird-shit War), was over seagull centuries of seagull waste that Britain wanted for fertilizer. Of course, a few decades later, when a scientist learned how to harvest nitrogen from the air, the need for the commodity dried up. Much of Latin American economic history is sadly comic (my term, not Galeano’s). In discussing rubber production, he bemoans how the plants were stolen from Brazil by the British and introduced into Southeast Asia, creating a second market for the product and causing the price to fall. Over and over again, the region saw their competitive advantage slip to other shores. United States
In the second half of the book, the United States becomes a major player in the economic markets of Latin America. Land laws that would never have been allowed in the
are forced upon the countries south of the border, giving foreign companies a competitive edge over local enterprises. Galeano notes the close connections between the CIA and the United Fruit Board (113) and points out how much of what Latin America receives as aid is tied to trade deals that keep the region in a subsistence economy. (229) Writing in 1970, he sees free trade and international markets as a dictatorship of the developed world over the undeveloped. (237) He’s also very critical of Latin American leaders and note that the promise of land reform, raised by most politicians, has only led to more concentration of land into the hands of a few. (128) United States
Galeano gives insight into the brutal revolutions of Latin America, but his book is now 40 years old. Certainly, much of what he writes about is still true (there is probably more poverty today), but there has also been a rise in Latin American companies competing in international markets. Yet, I wouldn’t say the book is out-of-date. He certainly provides a historical and economic overview of
Latin America up through the last third of the 20th Century (as well as a primer on trade and capital markets). He writes from a Marxist slant, but the idea that economics plays a role in history should not be so quickly dispatched for its association with Marx. As we learned from Watergate, “follow the money.” Or, as the Bible teaches, “the love of money is root of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). I recommend this book; it provides an insight into our southern neighbors and on how international markets function.