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.”

Latin America: Wall Street’s Worse Nightmare

Eyes Wide Open: A Journey Through Today’s South America

Pascal Dupont (2009)

Spanish with English subtitles

Film Review

Eyes Wide Open was intended as a sequel to the late (deceased April 13, 2015) Eduardo Galeano’s 1973 book Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. It was Galeano’s book that former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez presented to newly elected president Barack Obama in 2009. According to Galeano, the entire history of Latin American is based on the stripping of the continent’s resources by Europe and the US. It started with gold and silver, followed by tin, copper, rubber, sugar, salt peter, cocoa, coffee, guano and bananas. This grotesque asset stripping was accomplished mainly through the brutal suppression and exploitation of its (majority) indigenous population.

Eyes Wide Open mainly concerns Latin America’s rejection of US neoliberalism and neo-colonialism, with the recent election of “leftist” leaders in eight countries (Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay). The filmmakers visit four of them (Brazil, Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador), to ascertain whether their new presidents have kept their promise to bring about true economic democracy. Interviews with grassroots leaders are interspersed with with a variety of media footage and commentary by Galeano.

The documentary also discusses the Bolivarian Alliance of the America’s the eight countries formed and its defeat, in 2005, of the Free Trade of the Americas treaty George W Bush tried to foist on them.

Lula Sells Out to Cargill

The filmmakers are highly critical of former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula) for reneging on his promise to redistribute elite land holdings to landless peasants. Instead he sold out to the giant agrobusiness Cargill, authorizing generous government subsidies to help them establish vast GMO soy plantations in Brazil’s Amazon basin.

Evo Nationalizes Bolivia’s Oil and Gas Industry

Bolivia’s first indigenous president Evo Morales, who came to power in 2006 as a direct result of Bolivia’s water wars,* has a far better track record. The documentary details his decision to nationalize Bolivia’s oil and gas industry and use the income to fund government pensions for the elderly, free education and safer working conditions for Bolivian tin miners. Evo also re-nationalized the tin mines, which had been privatized, and rehired all the miners who had been laid off.

Multinational oil companies (mainly Exxon, Shell and Total) owned 60% of Bolivia’s fossil fuel industry, and the US ambassador (ie CIA) colluded with the Bolivian opposition to block Evo’s land reforms in the rich eastern provinces. In 2008, provincial police gunned down a peaceful peasant protest demanding the land they had been promised. Evo responded by expelling the US ambassador.

Bureaucracy and Corruption in Venezuela

The segment on Venezuela begins with the massive popular protest that defeated the attempted US coup against Chavez in 2002. It also includes a lengthy segment on Chavez’s housing reforms, profiling one of the female housing activists he put in charge of overseeing the replacement of a barrio full of tin shacks with a modern apartment complex.

Venezuela’s land reform efforts weren’t nearly as successful as Bolivia’s, which filmmakers blame on bureaucracy and corruption within the Chavez government.

Constituent Assembly Writes New Constitution in Ecuador

Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa is presented in a much more favorable light. Eyes Wide Open focuses mainly on his decision to call a constituent assembly to write a new constitution. The latter would recognize, for the first time, the multiracial, multiethnic and multicultural basis of Ecuadorean society. This new constitution would also be the first in the world to recognize the rights of nature.

*Bolivia’s water wars were a series of protests that took place in Cochabamba, Bolivia in 1999-2000, over the privatization (resulting in massive price hikes) of the city’s municipal water supply. In 2003-2005, similar protests broke out over the privatization of Bolivia’s natural gas supply. The protests eventually led President Sánchez de Lozada to step down and flee to Miami.