During the recent Summit of the Americas, in Trinidad, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela gave President Obama a copy of Open Veins in Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, by Eduardo Galeano. Few in the American press corps or in the White House staff would have understood the importance of this book. Originally published in 1971 in Spanish and in 1973 in English, the book has been reprinted many times and remains standard reading for any educated Latin American, and for most English-speaking students of that region.
Eduardo Galeano is an Uruguayan writer who has published several other books and continues to write essays for many Latin American publications, as well as for such English-language magazines as The New Internationalist. Open Veins depicts the history of Latin America since the conquest that began with Columbus’ “discovery” of the New World. Its theme is set in its first sentence: “The division of labor among nations is that some specialize in winning and others in losing.”
Of course, this is a recasting of the familiar “law” of competitive advantage in classical economics, that different countries will all gain by specializing in what they can most efficiently produce. Reflecting the analysis of dependency theorists who were at the peak of their influence when the book was published, Galeano undertakes to show that the world has been systematically structured against Latin America since the Conquest, making the region dependent on decisions made in the great metropolitan centers of Madrid, London, and New York.
Writing vividly about the successive stages of Latin America’s subjection, Galeano exposes the lust for gold and silver of the early conquistadores, the incredible contrasts of slave-based plantation agriculture in Brazil and the Caribbean, and the importance of Latin American oil and minerals to the US economy in the twentieth century. He analyzes the contradictory attempts of nineteenth century Latin America to follow the footsteps of the British and the North Americans toward economic development, and explores “The Contemporary Structure of Plunder,” the twentieth century dominance of the United States.
What is especially notable about this book is not its theory, but the elegant and accessible writing that is characteristic of all of Galeano’s works. He chooses to write this way to reach a maximum audience:
I know I can be accused of sacrilege in writing about political economy in the style of a novel about love or pirates. But I confess I get a pain from reading valuable works by certain sociologists, political experts, economists, and historians who write in code….I suspect that boredom can thus often serve to sanctify the established order, confirming that knowledge is a privilege of the elite.
Something similar occurs, one might add, with a certain militant literature aimed at a public of the converted. For all its revolutionary rhetoric, a language that mechanically repeats the same clichés, adjectives, and declamatory formulas for the same ears seems conformist to me. It could be that this parochial literature is as remote from revolution as pornography is remote from eroticism (288).
President Obama could not have a better introduction to the mind of Latin America than this elegant classic.