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Eduardo Galeano died in April, 2015. He was a Uruguayan journalist, best-selling author, and one of the most prominent Latin American writers. This book about the last five centuries of Latin American history focuses on the genocide, abuse and exploitation that started with the Spanish conquistadors and colonization. It continued with foreign economic domination of the banana republics and the brutal dictators -- many imposed and supported by the CIA -- during the twentieth century. Open Veins of Latin America was initially banned in several Latin American nations, including Uruguay.
Galeano’s thesis is that Latin America, “has specialized in losing ever since those remote times when Renaissance Europeans ventured across the ocean and buried their teeth in the throats of the Indian civilizations. Centuries passed, and Latin America perfected its role…our region still works as a menial…Latin America is the region of open veins. Everything, from the discovery until our times, has always been transmuted into European – and later United States – capital, and as such has accumulated in distant centers of power…The history of Latin America’s underdevelopment is an integral part of world capitalism’s development.”
The pre-Columbian population of the Americas totaled no less than 70 million when the foreign conquerors arrived. A century and half later, they had been reduced to 3.5 million, just five percent of the original number. It was a virtual death sentence for millions of indigenous peoples who were forced to work in the mines, clawing out gold, silver, and other metals for shipment to Europe. When there weren’t enough Indian slaves, millions of Africans were imported to work the mines and plantations. The African death rate in Latin America was far higher than in the United States.
Pope Francis, the first Latin American Pope, apologized for his Church’s role in the colonial invasion of the Western Hemisphere and the violent subjugation of its indigenous inhabitants. “Many grave sins were committed against the Native people of America in the name of God,” Pope Francis said. “I humbly ask for forgiveness, not only for the offense of the church itself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”
The Pope’s critique of capitalism echoes Galeano’s. It is said that Pope Francis has embraced liberation theology, which led Christian resistance to the right-wing regimes in Latin America during the 1970s and 80s. The Pope calls upon us to rethink capitalism, indicting the global economic system with its “deified market” that vastly enriches a few while leaving billions behind in misery. Galeano asserts that the economic system is Latin America has almost always enriched a few while leaving the masses in abject poverty. In short, Francis and Galeano are singing from the same hymnal.
One fascinating event Galeano describes is how in 1864, Paraguay was invaded in “a war of extermination which was the most infamous chapter in South American history.” The government of Paraguay had been the most progressive in Latin America, fomenting internal development using protectionism and without foreign investment. Britain encouraged Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay to invade their neighbor. The war lasted five years, killed more than 80 percent of the Paraguayan population, and led to the annexation of large parts of the country by Brazil and Argentina.
Though formal colonization had ended in Latin America, foreign domination did not. U.S. President William H. Taft said in 1912 that the correct path in foreign policy “may well be made to include active intervention to secure for our merchandise and our capitalists opportunity for profitable investment.”
Looking at just tiny Panama, American troops intervened there twenty times, most recently in the invasion of 1989. The US occupied Haiti for twenty years. Marine General Smedley D. Butler, who had led many military expeditions south of the border, said in 1935 that, “I spent my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street, and for the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism.”
When Latin Americans resisted brutal oligarchies, the US typically backed the generals, such as the notorious Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, who ruled from 1932-1944. The US overthrew the democratically elected reform government in Guatamala in 1954, and this led to 15 years of violence.
Economic development in Latin America, Galeano writes, has been held back by producing only certain crops, such as bananas, sugar cane, and coffee, by the lack of agrarian reform and by dependence on Britain or the US. His heroes are the land reformers, who inevitably faced foreign opposition and reversal of reform, such as the liberator Simon Bolivar, Jose Arrigas in Argentina, and Emiliano Zapata in Mexico. Both the US and Britain long used tariffs to protect their infant industries from foreign competition, while pressuring Latin America to lower it tariffs for British or American goods. In other words, do as I say, not as I do.
Several chapters in the book are devoted to the Twentieth Century, focusing on the American desire for oil, iron ore, copper and other metals. Latin Americans got little of the benefit from the sale of their natural resources -- workers got very low pay, and the governments typically got modest tax revenues or concession payments – while the profits went to the multinational corporation that controlled the process. Dictators “hawked the country to foreign capitalists as a pimp offers a woman.” In this way, countries rich in natural resources remained poor. “What Latin America sells gets constantly cheaper and what is buys gets constantly dearer.” Thus economic inequality grows.
If there were any benefits to Latin Americans from economic domination, other than for a few oligarchs, Galeano does not mention them. He does not acknowledge the improvements in Latin American living standards and life expectancy that have occurred despite the obstacles, though it is true Latin America remains relatively poorer than North America.
Some readers will take exception to Galeano’s sympathy for Castro, and may be uncomfortable with the forward by Isabel Allende, who describes how the democratically elected president of Chile – Salvador Allende -- was overthrown by the CIA in 1973, installing General Pinochet and his long and brutal reign.
These reservations aside, Galeano is a gifted story-teller who can turn a phrase, and if he is a dangerous radical, then so is the Pope. ###