The radical Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez presented Barack Obama with the book Open Veins of Latin America, one of the continent’s most important political works, during the Summit of the Americas in April.
The book shot up the bestseller list after the event.
Throughout the summit, Obama referred to the need to put the past behind. But Chavez’s gift is an anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist account of Latin American history, which argues precisely why we should not do this.
The Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano wrote the book in 1970. It was banned in the author’s own country as well as Chile and Argentina, leading Galeano to regard it as a success.
It charts the period from the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors at the end of the 15th century through the rebellions that won independence to the subsequent imperialist domination of Latin America.
Galeano argues that the development of capitalism, through colonialism and imperialism, has led to greater inequality and misery in Latin America.
There could not be a more apt time for such a “nice gesture” from Chavez, as Obama put it.
I first read Open Veins when I was travelling around Latin America and
the continuing relevance of the book struck me.
The violence of capitalism is so obvious in the continent, and Galeano captures the contradictions with passion: “In the colonial and neo-colonial alchemy gold changes into scrap metal and food into poison.”
The imperialist machine continues to exploit the natural resources and cheap labour of Latin America. It also continues to suppress the indigenous population, as occurred in Peru recently, and back coups, as it did against Chavez in 2002.
In March 2008 the Argentinian government attempted to increase taxes on the export of soy. Farmers resisted this, holding the longest lasting road blockade in the country’s history.
This led to empty supermarket shelves and severe food shortages for working class people. Argentina is the biggest exporter of soy and soy production, which is controlled by multinationals, is the most profitable form of farming.
Yet poverty has increased in Argentina over the last few decades and 25 children die every day from poverty. Time and again I was told, “I am Argentinian yet poor,” or “I am Bolivian yet poor”.
While Obama talks of putting the past behind us, he upholds the imperial system, which has led to this state of affairs.
Galeano’s view is problematic in some respects. His analysis of the gains of Western workers versus the increased impoverishment of their Third World counterparts ignores the significant restructuring that Western capitalism underwent after the Second World War.
Huge arms expenditure restored profitability to post-war capitalism allowing for significant concessions to the Western working class.
Elsewhere Galeano has written, “When it is truly alive, memory doesn’t contemplate history, it invites us to make it.” This desire for emancipation can be seen across Latin America.
The words “justice”, “freedom” and “revolution” scribbled across the walls in Buenos Aires, La Paz and Rio de Janeiro are symptomatic of the desire for change.
The story of Latin America, as told in Open Veins, is not one that can be easily relegated to the bookshelves. It continues into today and it reveals that it is only with an eye on the past that we will be able to change the future.