Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, by Eduardo Galeano

Galeano was a journalist and a citizen of Uruguay when he published this history of the exploitation of Latin America. Almost immediately after publication there was a coup in his country and the book was banned, as it was in several other Latin American nations. That in itself reflects what Galeano was trying to communicate in what has come to be regarded as one of the most influential books on history and politics in the last century.

The author, later in life, distanced himself a bit from the book. By a bit I infer that he looked at the book and simply felt that it could have been better. His exact statement was: “I wouldn’t be capable of reading this book again; I’d keel over. For me, this prose of the traditional left is extremely leaden, and my physique can’t tolerate it.” To me, these are the words of an artist who has grown past the work he created. I’ve always felt that any artist who can look back at a creation after a decade without cringing a little has stopped growing. Rather than a rejection of the contents of the book Galeano seemed to regret having tied himself to the language of the left. This may be more evident in Spanish editions, as this English edition bears only minor signs of “leftist dialectic” that makes many books on radical politics nearly unreadable.

As a work of history this is a very readable book, taking Latin America from the first landing of Columbus through the assassination of Salvador Allende in Chile. In between are a hundred horror stories of exploitation, slavery, internal failures, and foreign meddling enough to make one’s skin crawl in shame and sympathy.

This is not to say that life was a natural idyl in the south anymore than it was in the north. Charles C. Mann brings a lot of evidence of this forward in his excellent 1491. The Incas and Mayans were themselves colonizers and exploiters of the tribes around them. Life was excellent for the elite and miserable for all others. But it was their misery. The wave of invasions from the Iberian Peninsula weakened native culture completely and set a pattern for economic rulership that exists today in many Latin American nations and percolates under the surface in the rest.

The culpability lies with the entire European west with some left over for Muslim slavers who were working their own exploitation game in Africa, captives that Europeans would ship to Hispaniola, Cuba, and other location because Africans could survive the hellish conditions of sugar agriculture. Agriculture under a latifundia system expanded. Native Americans were enslaved for the operations while European stock thrived and prospered.

There’s room for what would be an interesting alternate history: What would have happened if Columbus had given in to the near mutiny and turned back before reaching the new world? Kim Stanley Robinson touches on this a bit in Years of Rice and Salt, but in his book the exploitations come from the east, with a China still determined to expand and explore. Europe certainly would have looked different, but one wonders how Latin America might have looked with the Latin lopped off of it.

That aside, what the Europeans left are a handful of small nations perfectly capable of destroying the lives of their own populations with and without the assistance of foreign powers, manifest destiny, and corrupt churches. This book details how that came about and spares nothing for the post-colonial monsters operating after Bolivar. It’s a must read for any political or historical home library, and could easily sit next to Narconomics for a sequel.