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5 Myths in Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America

By: Adrián Ravier - Apr 21, 2015, 11:51 am
Imagen de portada de una de las ediciones de "Las Venas Abiertas" de Eduardo Galeano (La Historia del Día)
The cover of one of countless editions of Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America. (La Historia del Día)

EspañolWith the death of Eduardo Galeano, we have lost one of the most remarkable Spanish-language writers. Some may remember him for his stories about soccer, but for many the first thing that comes to mind is his perspective on Latin-American history outlined in a short but famous book: Open Veins of Latin America.

In it, Galeano puts forward several myths that can be summed up — and addressed — in five major ideas:

1. The plundering of Latin America has been ongoing since the colonial era

Galeano draws a continuous line from the extraction of precious metals by the conquistadors of the 16th-18th centuries to the earnings made by multinational corporations like General Motors (GM) over the last couple of decades.

But there’s an important distinction that makes these cases completely different. While the colonial rulers resorted to force and violence to take our gold and silver, GM and other foreign firms that invest in Latin America engage in peaceful, voluntary interactions that enrich the regions where they decide to open shop, bringing capital, innovation, know-how, and jobs.

2. Pillage drove greater European relative growth in comparison with Latin America

This hypothesis falls apart if one looks today at how Spain and Portugal lag behind their European neighbors. Rather than propelling them to economic development, the incoming precious metals allowed them to expand their short-term consumption, at the expense of their industrial future.

Economic historians like Deirdre McCloskey show that the explanation for Europe’s economic success lies elsewhere, in the cultural acceptance and dignity awarded to merchants that made possible their entrepreneurial activities, while controls and regulations diminished.

3. Today’s economic order is not spontaneous, but imposed centrally from Washington, enforced through local state agencies and multinationals that steal wherever they set foot

We cannot be so naive to believe the United States and certain leading nations don’t meddle in the economic world order. They surely do, specially since Washington abandoned its non-interventionist foreign policy and became an active player in all military and political conflicts worldwide.

But it is a stretch to say that every multinational firm comes to the region to continue the pillage of past centuries. Aside from the political decisions coming from the northern hemisphere, other spontaneous factors do more to shape today’s economic system: institutions like language, law, commerce, money, and globalization.

4. Civilized countries are to blame for our ills (poverty, homelessness, persistent unemployment)

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of this proposition is believing that the causes of our grievances are beyond our reach. The United States and Europe do not hold the keys to our future, and we should acknowledge the errors we committed ourselves.

Voluntary exchanges are a positive sum game, where both parties win. If we trade with our neighbors, generating wealth, why do we think that a political border can change the result of the same commercial activity with countries up north?

Poverty here does not mean rich people pop up in developed countries. Rather, our economic backwardness stems from not being able to create a context favorable to investment and capital formation, as was done in Europe through the cultural change described by McCloskey.

5. The only way to interrupt this process and give Latin Americans hope is through violence, expropriating the means of production from those who have abused them

Readers may be surprised to learn that Galeano makes Josué de Castro’s words his own: “I, who received an international peace prize, think that unfortunately there is no other solution for Latin America than violence.”

His support of Cuba’s revolution brought legitimacy and justified countless breaches of human rights against Cubans, who still suffer today under a dictatorship and lack fundamental individual liberties.

Latin-American countries have two choices: either we join the rest of the world, or stay away from it. Experience shows that isolation doesn’t fare well as a strategy for a people.

We should take advantage of the international division of labor and globalization, enter markets, and reap the benefits that come from trade.

As the media report on Galeano’s death, we should remember him as a truly great Latin-American writer, but not for what he wrote as much as the superb way in which he wrote it.

In one of his last public public commentaries on Open Veins, Galeano said that he “wouldn’t be capable of reading this book again; I’d keel over. .. It was the attempt of an 18-year-old to write a book on political economy without duly knowing the subject.”

“I lacked the necessary development. I don’t regret having written it, but I’ve gone beyond that stage,” he continued. Maybe it’s time for Latin America to move beyond that stage as well.

Translated by Daniel Duarte. Edited by Laurie Blair.