Español “We came to serve God and the King, and also to get rich.” So wrote Bernal Díaz, one of the conquistadors who brought down the Aztec Empire, beginning the Spanish domination of half a continent in earnest. The 300 years of colonization that followed were anything but holy, and the societies left behind were anything but rich.
As Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano details in Open Veins of Latin America, the wealth extracted from the new world was siphoned off to the old, only to be squandered. The Spanish impoverished Latin America and themselves, wiping out tens of millions through disease in the process.
This, Galeano argues in his 1971 work, made the region a backwater, eternally subservient to “mechanisms of plunder.” The British Empire, and then US economic “imperialists,” were only too happy to exploit it, toppling protectionist governments and imposing monoculture economies — sugar, rubber, oil, coffee — which led to disaster when prices inevitably slumped.
While self-sufficient North America grew, he writes, “developing internally within its expanding frontiers, the south developed outwardly and blew into fragments like a grenade.”
We’re Poor, It’s Their Fault
The book (subtitled Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent) became canonical for dependency theorists worldwide. They seized upon a work of “political economy in the style of a novel about love or pirates,” in Galeano’s own words, at a time when populist governments were on the retreat throughout the region, crushed by military coups.
It published millions in multiple languages, and Amazon sales spiked when late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez gave his US counterpart Barack Obama a copy at their first meeting in 2009. Cue disbelief when, a year ago, Galeano disavowed the work that took him 90 evenings to write.
“Open Veins tried to be a book of political economy, but I didn’t yet have the training,” he told a book fair in Brazil. “I wouldn’t be capable of reading this book again; I’d keel over,” he said, lamenting the “extremely leaden” prose of the “traditional left.”
Galeano’s 300-page polemic had already attracted free-market critics, among them Cuban exile and author Carlos Alberto Montaner, Peruvian writer Álvaro Vargas Llosa, and Colombian diplomat Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, who branded Open Veins “the idiot’s bible,” reducing its argument to a single phrase: “We’re poor, it’s their fault.”
The rapid development and modernization of Asian economies from the 1980s onwards similarly challenged the idea that underdevelopment couldn’t be overcome through free trade — although their controlled liberalization was markedly different to the all-or-nothing approach that Latin America deployed in the 20th century.
Yet Open Veins deserves revisiting by the historian and political economist alike. In the first place, because Galeano’s erratic narrative throws up fascinating, forgotten episodes in the history of the Americas.
Boom and Bust
Galeano’s broad historical vision is at its strongest when detailing the 17th-century heyday of the Bolivian mining town of Potosí, a key source of of the 16 million tons of silver Spain extracted between 1503 and 1660. Some 800 “professional gamblers” rubbed shoulders with “120 famous prostitutes” and a wealthy elite imported European luxuries, while Andean laborers and imported slaves died in their thousands in the mines.
Other passages include a defiant kingdom of African runaways in the Brazilian jungle that lasted throughout the 17th century, the struggle of Uruguayan gaucho rebel José Artigas against the Río de la Plata liberal elite, and South America’s bloody commodity wars, financed by foreign capital.
However, the sense of victimhood is overwhelming. The diverse peoples of pre-Columbian America are cast as powerless in their conquest and helpless in the face of colonization.
In reality, Cortez’s conquest of Mexico was only made possible with the collaboration of local allies, just as the Inca empire was weakened by civil war (Atahualpa, the last emperor, killed his brother to get the throne).
The era of colonization similarly involved processes of resistance, negotiation, and exchange, not simple plunder and extermination — though there was plenty of that, too.
This lack of agency is extended to the post-independence period. Galeano absolves governing elites from any blame for persisting underdevelopment, and give nations no responsibility for their economic policy. He meanwhile demonizes those foreign capitalists who brought investment and technology, however self-interested.
Changing the Record
The honeymoon period of blaming all of Latin America’s problems on its colonial past is coming to an end, if it wasn’t already dated at the publication of Open Veins. Yet anti-imperialist rhetoric seems to be at an all-time high.
Latin America’s historical grievances are easily manipulated by unscrupulous leaders.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro seeks to cover for the failures of Chavismo by conjuring up a US-backed coup, third-term Bolivian premier Evo Morales berates the “racism, discrimination, and individualism” brought over the seas 500 years ago, and Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner rails against the “vultures” of Wall Street.
This, perhaps, is the most important reason to engage with Galeano’s polemical work. It shows that grievances and anger are legitimate, historically grounded, and easily manipulated by unscrupulous leaders.
Societies across the Americas still rightly demand memory for long-gone tragedies, and justice for recent ones. But self-pity, or external patronizing, serves no one. For tools to change the future, we have to look elsewhere.