Few history books are as ambitious or have been as influential as Open Veins of Latin America by the late Uruguayan journalist, author and poet Eduardo Galeano. First published over four decades ago, this remarkable work traces five centuries of the exploitation of Latin America’s people and resources, from European settlement and colonial desecration to the United States’ efforts to achieve political dominance over the region. Add this book to your collection by making a donation to Truthout today!
One of the brilliant gifts of Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillaging of a Continent is that it stops historically in the 1970s, yet provides a knowledge base with which to understand the contemporary evolution of the relationship between colonialism, capitalism and racism.
Sara Bernard, a journalist for Grist, recently interviewed Melina Laboucan-Massimo, an activist member of the indigenous First Nations in Canada. Laboucan-Massimo spoke of the severe challenges facing First Nations because of the historical and current political forces that control them and their environment:
“The systems of patriarchy, capitalism, colonization, and imperialism are based on a system of power and dominance,” Laboucan-Massimo said, “When you have these types of systems governing the way a society lives, that’s how people are being treated on the ground.”
Although speaking of the Eurocentric domination of Canada’s indigenous population – and certainly applicable to the conquest and ongoing relationship with US indigenous peoples – her words also accurately describe the relation of European powers (and more recently the United States) to South and Central America.
Excluding the Vikings who briefly landed and explored parts of what is now eastern Canada around the 10th and 11th centuries, the plundering and massive murder of indigenous Americans began with Columbus’s initial voyage in 1492 when he first landed on a Caribbean island thought to be Grand Turk. After his third sighting of land on that voyage, he arrived on Hispaniola (now split between Haiti and the Dominican Republic).
Greeting Columbus and his crew on Hispaniola was an indigenous population of Taíno people. According to an article in Smithsonian Magazine, after a brief period of harmony, war, disease and enslavement reduced the Taíno population on Hispaniola to near extinction. Journalist Robert M. Poole of Smithsonian Magazine estimates that by 1530 the Taíno had virtually vanished as a result of the impact of colonialism. Columbus, who each year is celebrated as the discoverer of “America” in the United States, was actually the man who set in motion the deaths and decimation of many of the indigenous populations in the Americas – along with their languages, including (in the case of Hispaniola) Taíno.
In 1971, Eduardo Galeano – Uruguayan journalist, researcher, and man of letters – wrote the staggering and informative Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. Scrupulously documented, Galeano penned a tenaciously persuasive historical narrative that unmasked the falsely characterized “discovery” of the Americas (South America, Latin America and the Caribbean) – primarily by Spanish and Portuguese armed flotillas – as, in reality, the launching of a gruesome, avaricious siege of capitalist, racist colonialism.
For example, the Cerro Rico silver mine in Potosí, Bolivia – looted by European conquerors – is estimated to have resulted in the loss of such a large number of miner deaths over the centuries that the number can only be estimated, according to the Guardian:
Some historians estimate that up to 8 million men have died in the Cerro Rico since the 16th century, when indigenous and African slaves were forced by the Spanish to live in the tunnels they mined. Since then, the landmark, known as the “mountain that eats men”, has continued to live up to its fearsome reputation.
Racism was the premise on which indigenous people were disposable while resources – including gold, silver and copper – were extracted by forced or slave labor and sent to Europe. Galeano writes of Brazil as an example as late as the 20th century:
Not even Indians isolated in the depths of forests are safe in our day. At the beginning of this [the 20th] century 230 tribes survived in Brazil; since then 90 have disappeared, erased from the plane by firearms and microbes. Violence and disease, the advance guard of civilization: for the Indian, contact with the white man continues to be contact with death.
As another example, in the 1800s, the Charrúa tribe in Galeano’s native Uruguay was massacred and soldiers paid for each pair of indigenous testicles that they brought in to a bounty office. “Sub-human” life was indeed disposable in order to obtain riches to be used by white Europeans (and white settlers).
Galeano, who offers incontestable evidence of his history of colonialism based on atrocities – treating people with violence and death and coveted resources with avarice – remained convinced that colonialism would not be eliminated in Latin and Central America in the near future (at the time of the writing of the book). Instead, genocide and slave labor was transformed into poverty and desolation; resource extraction still remained deadly and life-threatening for laborers paid paltry wages, but the emerging exploitation evolved into financially indebting nation states via US and European predatory neoliberal policies. In addition, US and European companies have come to dominate many national markets in Latin and Central America, returning profits primarily back to developed nations, not to local national economies. Of this dynamic, Galeano writes: “The international Moloch-machine has kept on grinding.”
Columbus never set foot on what is now the United States (or North America for that matter), but the modern neoliberal legacy of colonialism can be seen in the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico today. Given that Puerto Rico was “won” in a late-stage war between two colonial powers – Spain and the US in 1898 – Puerto Rico represents the modern financial colonialism of the US and Europe. What had been the bloody subjugation of indigenous populations in order to take claim of and extract raw materials for Europe for centuries was transformed into economic shackling. Galeano thoroughly describes the history that set the stage for such a recent development (beyond the timeline of the book). One just needs to adapt his insights and apply them to contemporary developments.
According to a Council on Hemispheric Affairs article published by Truthout on August 30, Emma Scully writes of Wall Street profiteering efforts to take advantage of Puerto Rico’s ongoing severe financial crisis, exceeding $70 billion in currently unpayable debt:
However, these neoliberal prescriptions are far from offering a viable solution to Puerto Rico’s current troubles, which actually grow out of more complex, long-term causes, especially the island’s lack of autonomy in constructing its own economic policies. Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States continues to be one of colonial-style dependency, serving to assure the overwhelming influence of powerful U.S. economic interests. The twentieth-century colonial policies, which allowed corporations to extract wealth from the island through foreign ownership of land and other productive property, have helped pave the way for a new chapter in the history of colonialism, characterized by exploitative debt obligations which largely benefit Wall Street.
This is characteristic of the adaptation of the European colonialism model – that ravaged Latin and Central America for natural resources at the expense of indigenous lives – into a US colonization through debt. This results in global corporate profiteering at the expense of creating local economic infrastructures. Puerto Rico may be a commonwealth of the United States, but it is actually an economic colony as are – in essence – most Latin and Central American nations (the latter of both the US and contemporary Europe). Galeano is indispensable in providing an analysis of the past that allows us to be illuminated about this present reality.
The historical analysis contained in Open Veins of Latin America is voluminous, eye-opening and deftly interconnected by Galeano. The validity of his theory is never overwhelmed by his unrelenting proof.
Galeano, however, was not without faith in a human capacity to resist racism, colonialism and the ceaseless massacres of conquest. As novelist Isabel Allende writes in her foreword to the 25th anniversary edition of Open Veins of Latin America:
The book flows with the grace of a tale: it is impossible to put down. His arguments, his rage, and his passion would be overwhelming if they were not expressed with such superb style…. Galeano denounces exploitation with uncompromising ferocity, yet this book is almost poetic in its description of solidarity and human capacity for survival amidst the worse despoliation.
It is not a leap at all to propose reading Open Veins of Latin America to better understand how colonialism and capitalism led to the condoning of slavery in the original US Constitution – and its role as the cruel and inhumane economic engine of the breakaway nation from England. Slavery was deeply entrenched in the colonization process in Latin America, South America and the Caribbean. The United States accepted what was already a financially lucrative trafficking in human lives and transformed it into – most dreadfully – the production of cotton that was then shipped to New England for processing into goods.
Yes, slaves were used agriculturally by Spain, Portugal and Britain (in the Caribbean) for the harvesting of sugar cane, cacao and coffee, but the US perfected the capitalist model of depending on slave labor to fuel an industrial revolution.
It would be an understatement to call Galeano’s stitching together of the South American colonial “project” in Open Veins of Latin America masterful. It is a visionary book that connects the dots between racism, pillaging, capitalism and white Eurocentric patriarchal dominance of peoples and nations. The indigenous populations and people of color have been treated as so much tinder for the fire that heats the homes and replaceable labor that fattens the pocket books of the conquerors.
In Open Veins of Latin America, Galeano left us a prescient legacy, one that sets the historical context for understanding the present dominance of US and European economic and social exploitation in the Americas.