Review- Galeano, “Open Veins of Latin America”

Eduardo Galeano, “Open Veins Of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent” (1971) (translated from the Spanish by Cedric Belfrage) (narrated by Jonathan Davis) – I first became aware of this book during a walk in Harlem as a stripling grad student. I bought a copy of Elaine Brown’s “A Taste of Power” from a sidewalk used bookseller (one of the best things about New York, those booksellers), who, having spotted a fledgling white lefty buying a Black Panther memoir, tried to upsell me with a copy of “Open Veins of Latin America.” I’d’ve taken him up on it, too, if he hadn’t pegged me for the rich kind of grad student and charged full cover price for both (used) books. He was mistaken, and I went away with only “A Taste of Power,” which is well worth reading.

Either way, I knew “Open Veins” as an old lefty classic and finally got around to listening to it (changes in my work duties have me back listening to audiobooks for the time being). Eduardo Galeano, one of the grand old men of the Latin American literary left, goes through Latin America’s history and explicates a few simple principles that guided it from the Spanish conquest onward. Exploitation of Latin America’s natural wealth and the labor of its people enriched other parts of the world, mainly Europe and the United States; this exploitation left Latin America with a pittance and, seemingly intentionally, delayed its economic and social development; the Latin American class structure, topped by a numerically small landowning and mercantile bourgeoisie, prevents progress and only overthrow of this class structure from below can improve things.

Galeano drives these points home with gusto and, considering the geographical and temporal scope in play, with respectable elegance. American exploiters replace British ones who replaced Spanish conquistadors and encomenderos; cheap manufacturing (this was just as multinational manufacturers were figuring out the maquiladora strategy, perfected after NAFTA came into effect) supplemented cash crop cultivation which partially supplanted the mining of precious metals; civilian rulers, reformers, conservatives, and military dictators replace each other in varying rhythms and patterns in the different nations of Latin America; always, always the same dynamics. Always, exploiters plunder the land (often leaving it depleted, in the cases of mining and some types of destructive agriculture), and work the people to the bone for a pittance, brutally repressing them when they complain. Always, the exploiters overseas grow ever richer and cement their competitive advantage over Latin America. Always, the native elites of Latin America come up with half-hearted (and soon reversed) reforms at best, and at more frequent worst, gladly accept the roles of brutal lieutenants to foreign capital, to fund their lifestyles and keep society as it is. Nothing will change as long as they are in charge.

Relatively little of this was new to me (more would have been had I bought the book that day in Harlem and read it soon after); as a student of the history of American foreign interventions, I had learned much of it along the way. But it was well presented, combining history, stories from Galeano’s travels across Latin America, literary references, etc. The prose partakes some of the vaguely mystical Latin American literary trends of the day, evoking the outsized happenings, lavish booms and bottomless terrors, and endless cyclical repetitions that characterized the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other writers of the “Boom” in Latin American letters then going on. Galeano later indicated some regrets about the prose style he used, but I think it worked fine. The penultimate part of the book, describing how Latin America fit into the political economy of the time, is somewhat more technical and necessarily dated, but still interesting.

Galeano received the honor of having his books banned in the military dictatorships of the Cono Sur, including his native Uruguay. The right never forgave him for making his points about Latin America clearly, poetically, and to a mass audience. Pundits grumbled when Obama accepted a copy of “Open Veins” from Hugo Chavez at a conference in 2010, and no less a literary light than (ex-leftist) Mario Vargas Llosa contributed to a volume which called “Open Veins” “the Bible of idiots.” But really, how much has changed since Galeano’s day? Most of the Latin American countries are now at least notional democracies. Drugs have joined the more traditional cash crops as drivers of the patterns he relates. The “pink tide” promised much, delivered some, and has not broken the class structure Galeano saw at the center of the whole thing. The work remains undone. As that bookseller in Harlem made clear, the book still has relevance- he could’ve tried to upsell me on some other volume, after all. ****’

Review- Galeano, “Open Veins of Latin America”

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