Open Veins of Latin America

317 pages.Monthly Review Press. New York, 1997 (25th Anniversary Edition)  $17.95 soft.

In the first line of his 1971 work, Eduardo Galeano clearly states, “the division of labor among nations is that some specialize in winning and others in losing.” (Page 1)  For Galeano, the economic well being of the United States and Europe rested on the back of Latin America.  First pillaged for its gold and silver, then for it’s human resources, Latin America served as the foundation for capitalist interests.  This is the thesis for the book, and the author spends over 300 pages expounding on the “horrors” and “injustices” that the western world has plagued on Latin America.  “Latin America’s industry,” the author writes, “lies at the bottom of the Imperium’s digestive apparatus.  Our union makes their strength to the extent that our countries, not having broken from the molds of underdevelopment and dependence, integrate their own respective serfdoms.” (Page 254)  This, according to Galeano, resulted in the dividing up of Latin America’s population into disjointed nation states, as each section of the countryside was developed to capitalize on one resource.  “Today,” Galeano writes, “any of the multinational corporations operate with more coherence and sense of unity than the congeries of islands that is Latin America.” (Page 260)

In presenting his argument Galeano divides his book into three parts.  Mankind’s Poverty as a Consequence of the Wealth of the Land, Development Is A Voyage With More Shipwrecks Than Navigators, and an update to the original work added in 1977 simply titled, Seven Years After.  Unfortunately Galeano provides a very one-sided overview of Latin American history from the time of Columbus to the late 1960s.  Within the first section’s three chapters, the author paints a greed driven picture of Spanish explorers bent on finding gold at all cost, followed by European, and then American exploiters, manipulating the sugar and coffee industry for their own gains at the cost of the native peoples.  While spending a large amount of text in describing the first Spanish expeditions, Galeano neglects to mention the then current situation among the Native American Indians.  He never mentions the ambiguous relationships that certain Indian cultures had with their own neighbors, or the fact that the Aztecs were oppressing their own people.  No mention is given at all to the fact that Cortés had help from neighboring tribes in the overthrow of the Aztec Empire. The Indians are portrayed as simple peace loving people.

Galeano also seems to make assumptions that do not stand the test of time.  In writing about the Spanish-American War and the acquisition of Puerto Rico the author states, “at the same time the Philippines and Puerto Rico dropped into the United States’ lap.” (Page 71)  He then goes on to expound, in a footnote almost half the page long, the horrors the people of Puerto Rico have faced (no say in Congress, trade controlled, Puerto Ricans drafted to fight in Vietnam) as a “colony” of the United States.  He fails to point out, and as time has shown, that since the late 1970s Puerto Rico has been given the choice of either remaining the way they are, becoming independent, or becoming the 51st state.  Although the margin is narrowing with every election they have always chosen to remain a commonwealth (My second wife was of Puerto Rican decent with family still living on the island.  A heated debate over this issue always ensued as most of her family did not want to see Puerto Rico gain independence or statehood because it would affect their property holdings on the island.  This, I later discovered, was the position most Puerto Ricans living in the U.S. but owning property on the island held).  In Galeano’s defense one can argue that this was not the case in 1970 when he had written the book, but as the work had been updated in 1977, and a 25th Anniversary Edition was published in 1997, this fact could have easily been added.

Another case-in-point is the author’s examination of Cuba, and the effects that the sugar industry has had on that nation.  While one is not arguing with his take that the “fate of the ‘sugar islands’ to be incorporated one by one into the world market…condemned [them to produce] sugar until our day,” (Page 65) has had an adverse affect on the economies of these nations, his ideological look towards the Castro revolution seems a little off base.  “Cuba,” Galeano writes, “continues to depend on the sale of sugar, although the agrarian reforms of 1959 sparked an intensive diversification of the economy.” (Page 65)  For Galeano, the throwing off of American interests has allowed the Cuban economy to expand, thus ending seasonal unemployment and allowing Cubans to work beyond the “five or so months of the sugar harvest, but for twelve months in the continuous job of building a new society.” (Page 65)  What Galeano fails to have foreseen, is that in the 30 odds years since he penned this work, Cuba, which has had no influence from the United States, and trades freely with most of the outside world (a source of Cuban cigars from Canada flows steadily into the United States), is still one of the poorest nations in Latin America.  Castro’s great social revolution, even with billions of Soviet dollars poured into the country, has failed to raise the living standard of the average person, and Cuba remains one of the poorest nations in the region.

It is clear that Galeano failed to look at both sides of the issue, and fell into the trap many who study history fall into: judging historical events by late 20th century standards.  The Spanish did not leave their shores with the expressed intent of destroying Latin American culture, nor did the concept of accepting native religions even occur to them.  The view of the world of 1500 was a very narrow one, where the Church ruled and if you did not follow their example then you were a pagan, ripe for conversion. To the Spanish, and later British and Americans, Latin America was a resource to exploit while bringing “civilization” to this region of the world.  Yes, it is true that imposing European ideals and customs on the natives destroyed their culture, just as it is true that imposing the Requerimiento, the telling of native peoples that if they did not accept Christ as their savior, then the Church would sanction the enslavement and exploitation of their cultures, was calculated and brutal. These acts however, were not a distinctly European invention, although reading Galeano would make one think it was.  While raking-over-the-coals European and American involvement in the region, the author fails to mention the same conditions embarked upon by non-whites, like West African nation’s participation in the slave trade, the Japanese slaughter of Chinese nationals, and in our own part of the world, (as I have already pointed out), the Aztec civilization being an oppressive culture, whose empire was built on the labor of conquered peoples also.