Latin America: Five Centuries of Pillage

open veins of latin america

Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent

Eduardo Galeano (translated by Cedric Belfrade)

Monthly Review Press (1973, 1999)

Download free PDF: Open Veins of Latin America

Open Veins of Latin America is about the brutal rape of Latin America and its people that commenced from the first point of contact with Columbus in 1453. The 1999 edition includes an addendum Galeano wrote in 1977. It discusses the rise of the pseudo-populist Peron in Argentina, the CIA coupe in Chile in 1973 and the barbarous Pinochet regime.

For me, the main benefit of reading this book was appreciating my overall ignorance of Latin American history. For example, I had no idea that Latin America was an economic colony of England even before they gained political independence from Spain. According to Galeano, this came about due to Spain’s failure to develop a manufacturing base. He blames this in part on the Hapsburgs’ (the Austrian Hapsburgs ruled Spain from 1516-1700) destruction of the Spanish economy by flooding it with cheap textiles, leathers and metal goods and in part on Spain’s misguided decision to expel all their Jews, Arabs and Flemish protestants. The latter would cause Spain to lose most of their artisans, capital and manufacturing entrepreneurs, many of whom ended up in England.

Mass Genocide in Latin America

I was already aware of the genocide the Spanish committed against indigenous Latin Americans, but I had no idea how massive it was. Most were killed through forced labor in the gold and silver mines (through starvation and mercury poisoning), though large numbers died from exposure to new European diseases. Many native women killed their children and committed suicide to keep them out of the mines.

When Columbus first landed at Hispaniola, there were an estimated 70 million indigenous people in Latin America. One-hundred-fifty years later, this number had dropped to 3.5 million. The slaughter continues to the present day (through severe malnutrition and associated medical conditions) at an annual rate comparable to three Hiroshimas. The main cause, according to Galeano, is foreign-controlled expropriation of agricultural land for mining and cash crop exports. In 1973 when this book was published, Latin America produced less food per capita than they did prior to World War II.

Brazil Relied on African Slaves

In Brazil, which was colonized by the Portuguese, gold wasn’t discovered until the 18th century – it wasn’t on display, as in the Aztec, Mayan and Incan civilizations Spain destroyed. Because there was no pre-existing civilization (ie ready source of slaves) in Brazil, the Portuguese had to buy black slaves from the English to exploit the gold mines.

The Switch to Minerals and Cash Crops

Country by country, Galeano traces how English, Spanish and Portuguese bankers and traders began by depleting all the gold and silver. They then subsidized local aristocracies to transfer their slave labor (and later starvation wage labor) to the production of sugar, rubber, cotton, coffee, cacao, steel, tin, sodium nitrate fertilizer, meat, fruit, iron, tin and copper for export.

Why Countries with the Richest Resources End Up the Poorest

The most interesting section of the book explores why European settlement led to a very different outcome in Latin America than in North America. In Galeano’s view, the reasons are threefold 1) Latin America started off with a much richer resource base (ie gold and silver) for Europe to exploit 2) unlike North America, Latin America provided a dense civilized population, ripe for exploitation as slaves and 3) except for cotton, North America produced no exotic products Europe couldn’t produce for themselves.

Galeano makes the case that economic “development” in Latin America was very similar to the southern US prior to the Civil War. He points out various ways in which the North essentially colonized the South, reinforcing the view Paul Craig Roberts expresses in a recent essay that the Civil War wasn’t about freeing slaves – but about “tariffs and northern economic imperialism.”