Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Open Veins, Open Minds? (Or not...)

It's jarring that the book, Open Veins of Latin America, which I read for a class twenty-something years ago, is suddenly a subject of public discussion as a result of one politician handing a copy to another.

front cover of the book The Open Veins of Latin AmericaIt's even more amazing, and disturbing, that so many people formed instant opinions on a book they've never read--unless an unheard-of number of Americans have taken up speed reading!

Granted, as Eduardo Galeano is known more for his poetry, Open Veins is written in a dramatic fashion, concentrating on how exploitation of the natural resources of various Latin American countries, first by Spain, then by the United States, has contributed to the region's great poverty.

As such, the book is, of course, a fascinating yet necessarily incomplete account of the economic and political factors that account for the political and economic pitfalls of many Latin American nations. Perhaps his most interesting observation, from what I can remember, is that a nation having enormous natural resources does not automatically make it wealthy, but often the opposite, because of exploitation of them. The example that comes to mind is of the wealth extracted from the silver mines of Potosi.

One could argue, rightfully, that such exploitation is not, and has never been, limited to Latin America, and that such geo-political exploitation even occurs within countries. (Witness the current controversy regarding coal extraction via mountaintop removal, in Appalachia.)

Also left unmentioned (after all, Galeano is not an economist) are other factors which accounted for the wealth of Spain, Britain, and the United States, in addition to the gross exploitation. Completely forgotten by Galeano is the relatively quick economic downfall of Portugal and Spain relative to other European nations; this omission is particularly odd, as Portugal was the first to cash in on the bonanza brought by the trans-Atlantic slave trade, with Spain jumping in soon after. Why did Portugal fall so far behind Spain so quickly, both in its degree of entanglement in the nefarious ventures of the slave trade and colonialism? England was a latecomer to this party, but quickly surpassed both nations, and indeed all of Europe, in its ability to cash in on the trade in human bodies. (But then, England showed a great nimbleness in trade of all kinds.) What accounted for the wealth of Holland, another nation with a great facility for commerce, during the same general period as Britain? (Especially since the Dutch didn't dive into the slave trade with the same gusto as the British, yet became wealthy nonetheless.)

Etc., etc. Whatever the flaws of Open Veins, and the probably dubious motives of Chavez in publicizing the book, it is an important work, both for Galeano's writing and as an example of a strain of thought common among some in Latin America regarding the causes of its ills.

I do wonder, however, if the real reason for the book's sudden popularity among Americans is that it hits a psychic nerve, from the perception that the (economic) veins of ordinary Americans are being drained by the practices of the corporate elite.

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