Economic Imagery: Open Veins of Latin America
By Ibsen Martinez
Conventional wisdom suggests that he is someone who writes about public-interest matters—economic policy not the least—and manages to garner attention from either the governing elites or the business community or both.
There are not many “public intellectuals” in Latin America who can exert any discernible influence in their countries’ economic decision-makers. Op-ed columnists and TV commentators, of course, tend to think otherwise.
Nevertheless, in at least one case, a very distinguished economic scholar was elected presidente: Brazillian professor Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Rio de Janeiro, 1931), whose work used to be abundantly quoted by left-leaning fellow savants throughout Latin America during the 1970s—and well into the 1980s—as those of an authority in a theory termed “of neocolonial dependence”. He was elected president in 1994, then reelected in 1998. He left office in 2002.
Becoming the president of one’s own country can be a sobering experience, even for the most uncompromisingly radical professor doktor. Your two selves are lonely at the top, but which one will seek re-election? There is a handful of things about Latin American economics that Mr. Cardoso, in his own admission, does not hold to be true any more. I find this quite telling about Mr. Cardoso’s intellectual integrity. This article, however, will rather delve into the work of another kind of Latin American intellectual.
I have always been intrigued by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano and the strong following he enjoys among my fellow Latin Americans. To be sure, he’s been the laughingstock of economic historians for decades. Still, only he can take pride in having a readership that counts up to hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans from all tracks of life who take Mr. Galeano’s dictums as nothing but the truth.
Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, by Eduardo Galeano, is available at Amazon.com.
A self-taught journalist, Mr. Galeano (Montevideo, 1940) first went into a newsroom, hired as a cartoonist, when he was only 14. In time he became director of several important Uruguayan and Argentinian weeklies. He developed an interest in Latin American economic history during the late Sixties and ended up writing a book that has been on and off the region’s best seller lists for more than thirty years. Thousands of pirated copies attest to the importance of Las venas abiertas de América Latina (1970) (Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1973) in the shaping of what I can only describe as the Latin American collective “economic imagery”.
Many stories have been circulated for years, all of them attesting to a certain magic that allegedly surrounds this book. There is, for example, the story of a Colombian Social Sciences student who, while reading a fragment of Mr. Galeano’s work to her boyfriend as they rode in a public bus, suddenly became so enraptured by Open Veins that she couldn’t help standing up and reading out loud for all the passengers to listen. Thus, so the story goes, during an interminable traffic jam in Bogotá, a public transport bus became willy-nilly the conference room of an enthralled audience of Colombian down-and-outs.
Another story, set in Santiago de Chile during the days that followed the military coup that overthrew President Salvador Allende, in 1973, tells of a woman who diapered his baby together with a copy of Open Veins and then ran for it, holding the bundle in her arms, in a last-minute escape from a police raid.
According to this unsettling urban legend, the copy of Open Veins worked time and again as an invisibility charm that kept the woman and her baby from detention. Now, what kind of economic history book is this?
The international division of labor consists in this: some countries specialize in winning and some others in losing.
Such are the opening lines of Open Veins. It goes on:
Our part of the world, the one we currently call Latin America, was precocious. So the minute Renaissance Europeans threw themselves across the seas to snap at our continent’s throat we all began specializing in losing.
Only three more paragraphs into the book you can read,
…the more freedom you award to business, the more jailhouses you will be forced to build for those who suffer business in their flesh.[…] This is Latin America: the open veins region.[…] Our defeat is always implied in someone else’s victory; our [natural resources] richness only nurtures our poverty in order to feed someone else’s wealth: that of the empires and their native managers. Thanks to colonial and neo-colonial alchemies, here gold turns into junk and food becomes poison.
In an afterword to his book, written in 1977, Mr. Galeano asserts that he only set to write a “manual for spreading public knowledge”, not a scholarly full-fledged source book. He also warns in his introduction that
…this book is a history of pillage, hence it focuses on current mechanisms of plundering. That’s why Spanish conquistadores and their caravels are shown side-by-side with modern day technocrats boarding their airliners, Hernán Cortés sides with the U.S. Marine Corps, 16th century Spanish Crown corregidores (magistrates) are measured against today’s IMF’s mission officials and the slave-trade earnings are compared with General Motors balance-sheets.
Mr. Galeano’s guileful writing may result in fascinating reading to the candid layman, but history cannot be enslaved by our partisan opinions on current world affairs nor are historians expected to moralize on their subject every other paragraph. What’s amazing about Open Veins is that it has been used as an economic history textbook by many college faculties all over the continent for years now and has became a regular journalist’s worktool.
I think that self-victimizing debases the very theory of neocolonial dependence that Open Veins purports to sustain. But this does not suffice to explain why Mr. Galeano’s extreme oversimplifications on our failed societies are shared by so many otherwise knowledgeable Latin American intellectuals.
Tony Judt’s article, “Goodbye to All That?”, is available online through The New York Review of Books.
The answer, I guess, might be in a sharp remark recently made by Mr. Tony Judt, as he probes into the lingering appeal of Marxism despite the collapse of the Soviet civilization:
…the attractions of one or another version of Marxims to intellectuals and radical politicians in Latin America, for example, or in the Middle East, never really faded; as a plausible account of local experience, Marxism in such places retains much of its appeal, just as it does to contemporary anti-globalizers everywhere. The latter see in the tensions and shortcomings of today’s international capitalist economy precisely the same injustices and opportunities that led observers of the first economic “globalization” of the 1890s to apply Marx’s critique of capitalism to new theories of “imperialism.”1
“There is no other solution for Latin America than violence”, writes Mr. Galeano, misquoting Brazilian historian Josué de Castro. After reading this it becomes very difficult not to concur with Mr. Judt’s prediction that “since no one else seem to have anything very convincing to offer by way of a strategy for rectifying the inequities of modern capitalism, the field is once again left to those with the tidiest story to tell and the angriest prescription to offer.”
Tidy, angry Open Veins of Latin America provides the perfect example.
For more articles by Ibsen Martinez, see the Archive.