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Open Veins of Latin America: A Re-appraisal 50 Years On

Fifty years ago, the Uruguayan journalist and author Eduardo Galeano published his classic study of the European – and later United States’ (US) - colonisation and rapacious plunder of Latin America titled Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent (1997).   In her Foreword to Open Veins, the novelist Isabelle Allende said that Galeano ‘denounced exploitation with uncompromising ferocity’ and following the book’s publication, it was banned by military governments in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay.   Galeano was imprisoned by the military regime in Uruguay and forced into exile for eleven years but remained active as a journalist and articulate voice of the Left.  

Open Veins has always retained its reputation for meticulous research and a luminous writing style which Allende suggests is ‘poetic in its description of solidarity and human capacity for survival’.   Galeano gives an unsparing account of the five hundred years of ‘pillage’ that followed Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas in 1492 which included indentured slavery, extractivism, colonialism and indigenous genocide.  In the second half of the 20th century, United States’ (US) expansionism led to economic re-colonisation through debt, neoliberalism, rigged trade rules, corporate impunity and tied aid.  This blog reflects on Galeano’s text as it reaches its fiftieth anniversary and considers what it tells us about the importance of history to the contemporary discourse on development.

How Latin America developed Europe

‘Poverty is not written in the stars’, writes Galeano, ‘underdevelopment is not one of God’s mysterious designs’.  It is instead the product of imperial design and Galeano reveals in the first part of Open Veins the full horror of what followed when ‘Renaissance Europeans ventured across the ocean and buried their teeth in the throats of Indian civilizations’ under the cloak of propagating Christianity.  Entire indigenous populations were exterminated through indentured slavery in gold and silver mines or from their lack of resistance to the bacteria and viruses carried by their conquerors.  Some died by their own hand in anticipation of the fate that awaited them; in Haiti, ‘many natives… killed their children and committed mass suicide’.  From 1545 to 1558, Spanish mineral exports from the Americas came chiefly from the silver mines in Potosi (Bolivia) which ‘not only stimulated Europe’s economic development; one may say that they made it possible’.  The Spanish aristocracy frittered away much of this wealth on creating new titles, extravagance and needless wars to the point that the Hapsburg regime fell into bankruptcy by 1700.

The Latin American satellites that had the strongest links to the core European powers in the period of imperialism are today the poorest. That part of Bolivia that was once Potosi suffered poverty and de-population followed the stripping of silver from the seams of the mines; where it once had a population larger than Argentina it is now ‘six times smaller’.  ‘The Indians of the Americas totalled no less than 70 million when the foreign conquerors appeared on the horizon; a century and a half later they had been reduced to 3.5 million’.  Eight million Indians died in the mines of Potosi, including women and children, many from toxic gases and freezing temperatures.  Forced labour also tore indigenous people from sustainable and collective agricultural production that was abandoned.  There was indigenous resistance where it could be mounted, most notably by the Incan monarch, Tupac Amaru in Cuzco (now Peru), who abolished slavery and taxes until his capture and death. 

During their colonisation of Brazil, the Portuguese transported an estimated ten million slaves from Africa as forced labourers in sugar, tobacco and wood plantations, and gold mines.  By ploughing much of their mineral riches into buying English manufactured goods, the Portuguese destroyed their own nascent manufacturing sector and that of their colonies.  As Galeano suggests: ‘the English had conquered Portugal without the trouble of a conquest’.

Monoculture

The soil of Latin America proved as lucrative as the mine seams with sugar becoming a dominant agricultural product after it was planted in several Caribbean islands and north-east Brazil, cultivated by ‘legions of slaves’ from Africa.  The demand for cash crops from Europe such as sugar, cotton, rubber, cocoa, tobacco and fruit resulted in monoculture, the cultivation of a single crop as the main driver of an entire economy.  The relentless cultivation of the soil for cash crops created hunger for those who lived from the land and, when the soil was spent, sugar cultivation shifted elsewhere.  When the conditions for growing sugar in the formerly buoyant north-eastern Brazil began to deteriorate, it slumped into poverty and became the ‘most underdeveloped area in the Western hemisphere’.  For countries, like Cuba, that remained dependent on sugar-based monoculture, a legacy of colonialism was their precarious economic alignment with world market prices that fluctuated with supply and demand.  Galeano cites Cuban revolutionary José Martí: ‘a people that entrusts its subsistence to one product commits suicide’.  For former colonies, diversifying their economic base in a weakened post-colonial state of dependency and monoculture would be a tremendous challenge, particularly when many Latin American states fell under a regime of debt and neoliberalism in the second half of the 20th century.   

US colonialism

The second part of Open Veins is dominated by the narrative of a European retreat from Latin America and the advancement of US commercial interests described by Galeano as the ‘contemporary structure of plunder’.  Chilean copper, Bolivian tin, Brazilian iron ore and Venezuelan oil were among the resources extracted from the continent by the US, often secured through military, political and economic interference to enable Washington to dictate the terms of trade.  US support for the military dictatorship in Brazil in 1964, for example, ensured that disputed iron ore rights fell into the hands of a Cleveland based mining company.  

Abetting the process of foreign control of key Latin American industrial sectors was the International Monetary Fund which began extolling the virtues of what Klein described as the ‘shock economics’ of neoliberalism: currency devaluations, removal of price controls, wage freezes, state withdrawal from economic decision-making, and tariff reductions on imports.  Indeed, the laboratory of neoliberalism was Pinochet’s Chile under the tutelage of neoliberal guru Milton Friedman to disastrous effect.  In a post-script to Open Veins, comprising part three of the book, written seven years after its publication, Galeano could reflect upon the 1973 coup in Chile, the rolling out of neoliberal ‘reforms’ and the debt crisis that was enveloping the continent.   He concluded that:

“Under-development in Latin America is a consequence of development elsewhere, that we Latin Americans are poor because the ground we tread is rich, and that places privileged by nature have been cursed by history”.

Legacy

When Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez decided to present the newly elected US president Obama with a history of Latin America at a summit of the Americas in Trinidad in 2009, he chose Open Veins of Latin America.   This cemented Galeano’s text as the pre-eminent account of the continent’s colonial history but also emphasised the importance of framing development interventions within the context of historical relations between the global North and South.  The book is a reminder that we can’t fully understand the development or underdevelopment of any country or continent without the framing of the social and economic processes that shaped and defined their history.  Open Veins retains its power as a compelling narrative of historical injustice because the legacy of colonialism informs contemporary discourse on Latin America which ‘remains a key site of hegemonic struggle between neoliberalism and contesting development models’.  Latin America is, therefore, an important ‘development belweather’ which deserves close monitoring and discussion by everyone involved in framing international policy interventions.  Open Veins is an essential starting point to that discourse.

Stephen McCloskey is Director of the Centre for Global Education and Editor of Policy and Practice: A Development Education Review.