The Open Veins of Latin America
Monthly Review, April 1997, by Isabel Allende
COPYRIGHT 1997 Monthly Review Foundation, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning
In the early seventies Chile was a small island in the tempestuous sea in which history had plunged Latin America, the continent that appears on the map in the form of an ailing heart. We were in the midst of the Socialist government of Salvador Allende, the first Marxist ever to become president in a democratic election, a man who had a dream of equality and liberty, and the passion to make that dream come true. That book with the yellow covers, however, proved that there were no safe islands in our region, we all shared five hundred years of exploitation and colonization, we were all linked by a common fate, we all belonged to the same race of the oppressed. If I had been able to read between the lines, I could have concluded that Salvador Allende's government was doomed from the beginning. It was the time of the Cold war, and the United States would not allow a leftist experiment to succeed in what Henry Kissinger called "its backyard." The Cuban revolution was enough; no other socialist project would be tolerated, even if it was the result of a democratic election. On September 11, 1973, a Military Coup ended a century of democratic tradition in Chile and started the long reign of General Augusto Pinochet. Similar coups followed in other countries, and soon half the continent's population was living in terror. This was a strategy designed in Washington and imposed upon the Latin American people by the economic and political forces of the right. In every instance the military acted as mercenaries to the privileged groups in power. Repression was organized on a large scale; torture, concentration camps, censorship, imprisonment without trial, and summary executions became common practices. Thousands of people "disappeared," masses of exiles and refugees left their countries running for their lives. New wounds were added to the old and recent scars that the continent had endured. In this political context The Open Veins of Latin America was published. This book made Eduardo Galeano famous overnight, although he was already a well known political journalist in Uruguay. Like all his countrymen, Eduardo wanted to be a soccer player. He also wanted to be a saint, but as it turned out, he ended up committing most of the deadly sins, as he once confessed. "I have never killed anybody, it is true, but it is because I lacked the courage or the time, not because I lacked the desire." He worked for a weekly political magazine Marcha, and at twenty-eight he became the director of the important newspaper Epoca, in Uruguay. He wrote The Open Veins of Latin America in three months, in the last ninety nights of 1970, while he worked during the day in the University, editing books, magazines, and newsletters.
Those were bad times in Uruguay. Planes and ships left filled with young people who were escaping from poverty and mediocrity in a country that forced them to be old at twenty, and that produced more violence than meat or wool. After an eclipse that had lasted a century, the military invaded the scene with the excuse of fighting the Tupamara guerrilla. They sacrificed the spaces of liberty and devoured the civil power, which was less and less civil.
By the middle of 1973 there was a military coup, he was imprisoned, and shortly afterward he went into exile in Argentina, where he created the magazine Crisis. But by 1976 there was a military coup also in Argentina, and the "dirty war" against intellectuals, leftists, journalists, and artists began. Galeano initiated another exile, this time in Spain, with Helena Villagra, his wife. In Spain he wrote Days and Nights of Love and War, a beautiful book about memory, and soon after he began a sort of conversation with the soul of America: Memories of Fire, a massive fresco of Latin American history since the pre-Colombian era to modern times. "I imagined that America was a woman and she was telling in my ear her secrets, the acts of love and violations that had created her." He worked on these three volumes for eight years, writing by hand. "I am not particularly interested in saving time: I prefer to enjoy it." Finally, in 1985, after a plebiscite defeated the military dictatorship in Uruguay, Galeano was able to return to his country. His exile had lasted eleven years, but he had not learned to be invisible or silent; as soon as he set foot in Montevideo he was again working to fortify the fragile democracy that replaced the military junta, and he continued to defy the authorities and risk his life to denounce the crimes of the dictatorship.
Eduardo Galeano has also published several works of fiction and poetry; he is the author of innumerable articles, interviews, and lectures; he has obtained many awards, honorary degrees, and recognition for his literary talent and his political activism. He is one of the most interesting authors ever to come out of Latin America, a region known for its great literary names. His work is a mixture of meticulous detail, political conviction, poetic flair, and good storytelling. He has walked up and down Latin America listening to the voices of the poor and the oppressed, as well as those of the leaders and the intellectuals. He has lived with Indians, peasants, guerrillas, soldiers, artists, and outlaws; he has talked to presidents, tyrants, martyrs, priests, heroes, bandits, desperate mothers, and patient prostitutes. He has been bitten by snakes, suffered tropical fevers, walked in the jungle, and survived a massive heart attack; he has been persecuted by repressive regimes as well as by fanatical terrorists. He has opposed military dictatorships and all forms of brutality and exploitation, taking unthinkable risks in defense of human rights. He has more first-hand knowledge of Latin America than anybody else I can think of, and uses it to tell the world of the dreams and disillusions, the hopes and the failures of its people. He is an adventurer with a talent for writing, a compassionate heart, and a soft sense of humor. "We live in a world that treats the dead better than the living. We, the living, are askers of questions and givers of answers, and we have other grave defects unpardonable by a system that believes death, like, money, improves people."
All these talents were already obvious in his first book, The Open Veins of Latin America, as was his genius for story-telling. I know Eduardo Galeano personally: he can produce an endless stream of stories with no apparent effort for an undetermined period of time. Once we were both stranded in a beach hotel in Cuba with no transportation and no air-conditioning. For several days he entertained me with his amazing stories over pina coladas. This almost superhuman talent for storytelling is what makes The Open Veins of Latin America so easy to read - like a pirate's novel, as he once described it - even for those who are not particularly knowledgeable about political or economic matters. The book flows with the grace of a tale; it is impossible to put it down. His arguments, his rage, and his passion would be overwhelming if they were not expressed with such superb style, with such masterful timing and suspense. Galeano denounces exploitation with uncompromising ferocity, yet this book is almost poetic in its description of solidarity and human capacity for survival in the midst of the worst kind of despoliation. There is a mysterious power in Galeano's story-telling. He uses his craft to invade the privacy of the reader's mind, to persuade him or her to read and to continue reading to the very end, to surrender to the charm of his writing and the power of his idealism.
In his Book of Embraces, Eduardo has a story that I love. To me it is a splendid metaphor of writing in general and his writing in particular.
There was an old and solitary man who spent most of his time in bed. There were rumors that he had a treasure hidden in his house. One day some thieves broke in, they searched everywhere and found a chest in the cellar. They went off with it and when they opened it they found that it was filled with letters. They were the love letters the old man had received all over the course of his long life. The thieves were going to burn the letters, but they talked it over and finally decided to return them. One by one. One a week. Since then, every Monday at noon, the old man would be waiting for the postman to appear. As soon as he saw him, the old man would start running and the postman, who knew all about it, held the letter in his hand. And even St. Peter could hear the beating of that heart, crazed with joy at receiving a message from a woman.
Isn't this the playful substance of literature? An event transformed by poetic truth. Writers are like those thieves, they take something that is real, like the letters, and by a trick of magic they transform it into something totally fresh. In Galeano's tale the letters existed and they belonged to the old man in the first place, but they were kept unread in a dark cellar, they were dead. By the simple trick of mailing them back one by one, those good thieves gave new life to the letters and new illusions to the old man. To me this is admirable in Galeano's work: finding the hidden treasures, giving sparkle to worn out events, and invigorating the fired soul with his ferocious passion.
The Open Veins of Latin America is an invitation to explore beyond the appearance of things. Great literary works like this one wake up consciousness, bring people together, interpret, explain, denounce, keep record, and provoke changes. There is one other aspect of Eduardo Galeano that fascinates me. This man who has so much knowledge and who has - by studying the clues and the signs - developed a sense of foretelling, is an optimist. At the end of Century of the Wind, the third volume of Memory of Fire, after 600 pages proving the genocide, the cruelty, the abuse, and exploitation exerted upon the people of Latin America, after a patient recount of everything that has been stolen and continues to be stolen from the continent, he writes:The tree of life knows that, whatever happens, the warm music spinning around it will never stop. However much death may come, however much blood may flow, the music will dance men and women as long as the air breaths them and the land plows and loves them.
This breath of hope is what moves me the most in Galeano's work. Like thousands of refugees all over the continent, I also had to leave my country after the military coup of 1973. I could not take much with me: some clothes, family pictures, a small bag with dirt from my garden, and two books: an old edition of the Odes by Pablo Neruda, and the book with the yellow cover, Las Venas Abiertas de America Latina. More than twenty years later I still have that same book with me. That is why I could not miss the opportunity to write this introduction and thank Eduardo Galeano publicly for his stupendous love for freedom, and for his contribution to my awareness as a writer and as a citizen of Latin America. As he said once: "it's worthwhile to die for things without which it's not worthwhile to live."
Isabel Allende is the author of several bestselling novels including In the House of the Spirits, The Infinite Plan, and Paula. Eduardo Galeano's classic Open Veins of Latin America, much honored since its publication 25 years ago, is further honored by Isabel Allende's new preface, printed here with the author's permission.
Bibliography for: "The Open Veins of Latin America"
Isabel Allende " The Open Veins of Latin America ". Monthly Review. FindArticles.com. 19 Apr, 2009. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1132/is_n11_v48/ai_19693240/
Eduardo Galeano - The Open Veins of Latin America
Galeano begins his story with the pillage that began almost as soon as Christopher Columbus trod on the soil of the West Indies. The glitter of gold on the necklaces of the natives, triggered a gold lust that led to a tsunami of exploration and colonisation. With this, as Christopher Mann's recent book 1493 has demonstrated, came the diseases that destroyed millions of indigenous peoples. Columbus brought, on his second voyage, some of the plants that would further shape the destiny of the continent. Food for the slaves of future plantations, cash crops and fuel for export industries. While Galeano's book is a story of people, it is rooted very much in the exploitation of Latin America's natural resources, wood, silver, gold, oil and so on.
Early European capitalism drew strength and wealth for its nascent factories and machinery from the exploitation of Latin America. The blood and sweat of millions of slaves extracted yet further wealth from the continent, concentrating it in England, Spain and elsewhere. Before African slaves arrived in South America, Galeano points out that tens of thousands of indigenous people had been forced to work the silver mines of Potosi in Bolivia. Helping to enrich the kings and queens of Europe, and their merchants. The poverty, brutality and racism that helped fuel this slavery was to be repeated on a larger scale very soon.
The Latin American colonies never had a chance. Galeano demonstrates how, from their earliest days, they were places to enrich colonial capitals. The arrival of capitalism in its modern form, simply deepened and extended the project. In simple terms he points out, that while Brazil might export Volkswagen's to Africa, America and the rest of Latin America, the profits went to German capitalism. What Brazil represented to VW Was low wages and unorganised workers. Galeano doesn't make the mistake of arguing that the populations of the wider world benefited from this unequal relationship. He understands that the wealth of Latin America was used to enrich a tiny minority, a system and a few large companies. If anything, the under-development of Latin America meant the further shackling of workers in Europe and America to the capitalist system.
The book celebrates the resistance as well. Latin America has always been characterised by people refusing to accept their lot. From slave revolts to land occupations, revolutions and the mass strikes of modern times, Galeano documents the men and women who've fought back. Though he also points out how they were frequently victims of Colonial power. By the time of writing, Galeano was having to point out the way that America, which had eclipsed Spanish and British influence in the region, was using its Marines to protect its interests. Within a few years of this book being first published, Pinochet was, with the assistance of the CIA able to ensure that any attempts to democratise and change the economy in the interest of ordinary Latin Americans would not succeed.
The vast resources of Latin America continue to be of interest to the more powerful economies. As indicated earlier, one of these is the huge populations. At the time of US independence, Brazil had the same population as the whole of America. Yet it was locked into an unequal relationship with its British governors who ensured the surplus value from that population ended up in London banks. Like an unscrupulous loan-shark, European powers and North American banks loaned money to Latin America. Much of it never reached the countries it was intended for, nor built the factories and infrastructure it was supposed to. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Galeano points out, 40% of Brazil's foreign budget was swallowed by foreign debt.
"Railroads formed another decisive part of the cage of dependency: when monopoly capitalism was in flower, imperialist influence extended into the colonial economies' remote backyards. Most of the loans were for financing railroads to bring minerals and foodstuffs to export terminals. The tracks were laid not to connect internal areas one with another but to connect production centres with ports."
The infrastructure of Latin America was thus built in the image, and the interests of foreign capital. When the minerals ran out, so did the investors. Galeano's central theme then, is the way that capitalism under-developed Latin America. The consequences remain today:
"Latin America was born as a single territory in the imaginations and hopes of Simon Bolivar, Jose Artigas and Jose de San Martin, but was broken in advance by the basic deformations of the colonial system."
By the 1970s, Galeano points out, it was cheaper and faster for Brazil to ship goods to Mexico via American or European ports. Telegrams sent between Buenos Aires and Lima had to travel via New York. Latin America was stunted by its own history.
Since it was written, much has occurred in Latin America, little of it has changed this basic analysis. Mass movements and revolution have threatened the domination of the United States. This took place in Chile and Nicaragua in the 1970s and 1980s. More recently it continues with the election of radical and leftist governments in the 1990s and 2000s. Some of those governments have failed the hopes of the mass movements that pushed them into parliament. Others continue to be a thorn in the side of Imperialism. What happens next, will as Galeano wrote in the end of the first edition of this book very much depend on "the hands of the dispossessed, the humiliated, the accursed."
He continues that: