:: Article

3:AM Brasil: Open Veins of Latin America

By Guy Burton.


Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, Serpent’s Tail, 2009

As a sign of the new change sweeping the region, during the recent Summit of the Americas meeting in April 2009 Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez was seen publicly shaking President Barack Obama’s hand while passing him a copy of Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America. The result was a boom in sales and its re-publication in the current version by Serpent’s Tail.

The symbolism of Open Veins is evident in the exchange between Chavez and Obama and the apparent passing of the old guard to the new. More specifically, it potentially heralds the end of a confrontational and difficult relationship that has existed between Latin America and the United States over the past century and the possibility of something new under Obama.

For the past decade Chavez has symbolised a thorn in the side of American foreign policy. Along with Fidel Castro’s Cuba, he seeks a leading role for the pursuit of a socialist development model in the region. That he should do so should seem somewhat anachronistic, especially in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Yet Chavez’s support comes from the same constituency that identifies with the themes within Open Veins; namely the angry and the dispossessed – those that have largely made up the Left. But events over the past few years also open up questions about the nature of that constituency and the future of the US-Latin American relationship and Chavez’s role as the leader of the Latin American Left.

Besides Chavez, the past decade has seen the rise of various other left and centre-left governments elected across the region that may vie for primacy. Following Chavez’s election in 1998, Ricardo Lagos followed in Chile in 2000, Luís Inacio ‘Lula’ da Silva in Brazil in 2002 and Nestor Kirchner in Argentina in 2003. Following the 2004 election victory of the Frente Amplio in Uruguay and the various leftist presidents either elected or re-elected in the 2005-06 commentators talked of a ‘rising pink tide’.

What these leaders shared in common was a commitment to greater state intervention in the market and social policy – some of the themes inherent in Galeano’s book. These leaders’ constituencies include those angry and dissatisfied at the various reforms for greater deregulation, use of the market and privatisation of inefficient and unproductive state firms enacted under the so-called Washington Consensus during the 1980s and 1990s – reforms that were implemented in response to the supposed failures of national, state-led development suggested in Open Veins.

Those industrial policies reflected not only the intellectual and historical critique evident in Galeano’s book, but the response of governments and their allies across the region. For Open Veins is the popular face of what has come to be known as ‘dependency theory’, the notion that the continent has served as a periphery to be exploited by the centre, which has included the former colonial powers in the past and more recently the American government and big business, along with their Latin American allies in the domestic elite.

Dependency theory emerged among Latin American intellectuals, including André Gunder Frank and (future Brazilian president) Fernando Henrique Cardoso in the 1950s and 1960s. Their contribution was to identify the reasons why the region had failed to fit the prevailing modernisation paradigm, whereby countries would ‘take off’ once they reached a certain level of development. As part of the process, the need for domestic capital accumulation and production was paramount. However, much of this work was academic; Galeano’s great achievement was to popularise it with Open Veins, writing it during the turbulent period at the end of the decade and start of the 1970s.

In contrast to the more academic prose presented by others, Open Veins combines a sweeping historical perspective of the exploitation experienced across and within the region with occasional contemporary reporting and observation. This includes the Spanish and Portuguese search for gold and silver and the development of the cotton and sugar plantations staffed by slave labour. Despite achieving independence at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Galeano argues that the region merely replaced one set of rapacious overlords for another: first the informal ties of imperial British demand and free trade and their own oligarchic class that was content to fritter away the wealth of the region on fripperies and fineries imported from Europe. Gradually external British influence was superseded by American, while the indigenous elite shifted from control of the land to industry, but always exploiting the poor and marginalised. Throughout, Galeano stresses the collusion of elites and the removal of social-minded reformers, including José Artigas in post-independent Uruguay and the CIA-inspired overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in Guatemala in 1954.

But the region’s Left faces a further challenge. Whereas the Washington Consensus offered the unwritten epilogue of endless exploitation for Galeano’s book, by the end of 2000s it was questionable whether the centre could be demonised any further. First, as noted above, those in power now speak for the poor and marginalised. Second, by the end of the 2000s both the World Bank and IMF appeared to sense the changing direction of the ‘pink’ model, prompting talk of a ‘post-Washington Consensus’ or ‘Washington Consensus 2.0’ in which they accepted the need for greater state intervention. Third, the relationship between Latin America and the US is in flux: while the past decade the Bush administration has provided a rallying point for the Left in the region; Obama is not only a far more ambiguous character but enjoys widespread public support across the region. Furthermore, in the aftermath of the Honduras coup in June 2009 Obama arguably outflanked Chavez, demanding the president’s reinstatement.

There is therefore a potential for change in Latin American relations, both domestic and external. The prospect of exploitation, in whichever form it takes, could be under threat. The opportunity for a more accommodating relationship – at least between the region’s leaders and the White House – seems more accessible now than at any point over the past decade. Yet Open Veins remains a relevant book, offering a popular perspective of the world view that has prevailed till now from south of the Rio Grande and providing a popular account of Latin America’s intellectual contribution of dependency theory to development studies.

Born in Brazil, Guy Burton now lives in London, where he recently completed a PhD at the London School of Economics on the centre-left in Latin America.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, August 12th, 2009.