Latin America’s Open Veins: From Brutal Colonialism to Exploitative Neoliberalism

A 1595 image by Theodor de Bry depicts Spanish soldiers slaughtering and capturing indigenous people in the Americas. (Image: Everett Historical / Shutterstock)A 1595 image by Theodor de Bry depicts Spanish soldiers slaughtering and capturing indigenous people in the Americas. (Image: Everett Historical /

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!

The following brief excerpt on colonial neoliberalism is from Galeano’s afterword, written in 1978, seven years after the original Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent was published.

In this world of ours, a world of powerful centers and subjugated outposts, there is no wealth that must not be held in some suspicion.

In the years since the first edition of Open Veins, history has not ceased to be a cruel mistress to us.

The system has multiplied hunger and fear; wealth has become more and more concentrated, poverty more and more widespread. That is recognized by the documents of specialized international organizations, in whose aseptic vocabulary our oppressed territories are “countries in process of development” and the pitiless impoverishment of the working class is “regressive income distribution.”

The international Moloch-machine has kept on grinding: countries at the service of commodities, people at the service of things.

With the passage of time methods of exporting crises are perfected. Monopoly capital reaches its highest peak of concentration, and international domination of markets, credits, and investments makes possible the systematic and growing transfer of contradictions: the outposts pay the price for the prosperity of the centers.

(Image: Monthly Review Press)(Image: Monthly Review Press)The international market remains one of the master keys to this operation. There the multinational corporations impose their dictator ship – multinational (as Paul Sweezy explains) because they operate in many countries, yet highly and assuredly national in ownership and control. The global organization of inequality is not affected by the fact that (for example) Brazil now exports Volkswagens to other South American countries and to the distant markets of Africa and the Middle East. In the last analysis it is the German Volkswagen concern that has considered it more convenient to export cars to certain markets from its Brazilian affiliate: the low production costs and cheap labor are Brazilian, the high profits are German.

Nor is the straitjacket magically broken when some raw material manages to escape from the curse of low prices. This has been the case with petroleum since 1973. Isn’t petroleum an international business? Standard Oil of New Jersey (now known as Exxon), Royal Dutch/Shell, Gulf. Are they Arabian or Latin American enterprises? Who takes home the lion’s share? The hubbub raised against oil-producing countries has in fact been most revealing. They dared defend their prices and immediately became the scapegoats for inflation and unemployment in Europe and the United States. Did the most developed countries ever consult with anyone before raising the price of any of their products? For twenty years the price of oil sagged and sagged. Its paltry market quotation represented a giant subsidy for the world’s great industrial centers whose products at the same time got dearer and dearer. Relative to the ceaseless price rises of U.S. and European products, the new price of oil has no more than brought it back to its 1952 levels. Crude oil merely recovered in 1973 the purchasing power it had two decades earlier.

Among the important events of these seven years was the nationalization of oil in Venezuela. It didn’t break Venezuela’s dependency with respect to refining and marketing, but it opened a new space of autonomy. From soon after its birth the state concern Petróleos de Venezuela took first place among Latin America’s 500 biggest enterprises. It began seeking markets apart from the traditional ones and rapidly found fifty new customers.

But as always when the state takes over a country’s principal wealth, it is appropriate to ask who runs the state. Nationalization of basic resources doesn’t in itself imply redistribution of income for the majority’s benefit, nor does it necessarily endanger the power and privileges of the dominant minority. In Venezuela the economy of waste and extravagance continues intact. The neon-lit center is as resplendent as ever with the squandermania of a multimillionaire class.

* * *

Citibank doesn’t appear as a candidate on any list, in the few Latin American countries that still have elections; and none of the generals who run the dictatorships is named International Monetary Fund. But whose is the hand that executes, whose the mind that gives the orders? He who lends, commands. In order to pay, more must be exported; and more must be exported in order to finance imports and to confront the hemorrhage of profits and “royalties” that the foreign concerns drain into their central coffers.

The increase of exports, whose purchasing power shrinks, implies hunger wages. Massive poverty, the key to success for an economy skewed to the outside, prevents such growth of the internal consumer market as is necessary for smooth economic development. Our countries are becoming echoes and losing their own voice. They depend on others, they exist to the extent that they respond to others’ needs. And in turn the remodeling of the economy as a function of external demand brings us back to the original hangman’s rope: it opens the doors for pillage by foreign monopolies and forces us to seek new and larger loans from the international bankers. The vicious circle is perfect: foreign debt and foreign investment oblige us to multiply exports that they themselves devour. The task can’t be accomplished with gentlemanly matters. To fulfill their function as hostages of foreign prosperity, Latin American workers must be held prisoner, either inside or outside the bars of the jails.

Savage exploitation of labor is not incompatible with intensive technology. It never was, in our countries: consider the legions of Bolivian workers who left their lungs in the Oruro mines in the time of Simón Patiño in a system of wage-slavery, yet with very modern machinery. The “tin baron” knew how to combine the highest levels of technology in his day with the lowest levels of wages.

Furthermore in our day, importation of the most advanced economies’ technology coincides with expropriation of locally capitalized industries by the all-powerful multinationals.

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