'Open Veins' and enduring ills in Latin America

The reading list for my college core course at UC Santa Cruz in the early 1970s included a book by a young Uruguayan author, Eduardo Galeano, called "Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent." The book, which excoriated Europe and the United States for their exploitation of the region, was pretty standard fare at a school where Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse was a visiting professor and Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton was a fellow student.

I hadn't thought of the text for years. Then, at the Summit of the Americas last weekend, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gave a copy to President Obama, and I dug out my musty edition to consider how much has changed since then -- and how much has not.

The book was written during tumultuous times in Latin America. In 1973, the year my English-language paperback was printed, Chile's socialist President Salvador Allende was ousted in a military coup and committed suicide in the presidential palace. A coup in Uruguay sent the leftist Galeano fleeing to Argentina, where he stayed until a coup forced him to leave there too. Poverty fueled the politics of outrage across the continent, the romanticism of Fidel Castro's Cuba and a backlash of bloody repression. This produced the radical poetry of Pablo Neruda, the music of Victor Jara and a host of nonfiction books like Galeano's.

"Open Veins" posits that the economic and political domination of Latin America -- first by Europeans and, much later, by the U.S. -- created a region that "continues to exist at the service of others' needs." The extraction of gold, silver, oil and iron, and the cultivation of sugar, bananas, coffee and rubber served developed countries that "profit more from consuming them than Latin America does from producing them."

Galeano wrote in the angry vocabulary of the day, describing capitalist "oppressor countries" and the rich "pimps of misery." He spoke of soil "ravaged" by the likes of the United Fruit Co., of a "Hiroshima" of poverty that appears as a "Holocaust" of statistics. At the time, he wrote in the introduction, Latin America had 280 million citizens, half of them living in slums and more than a third of whom were illiterate. A child died of hunger and disease every minute.

I was moved by books like "Open Veins." Although I did not heed the revolutionary call to arms of the day, I did take off for Latin America after graduation to study Spanish and see firsthand the effects of under-development. In Oaxaca, Mexico, I observed gradations of poverty that had been an academic abstraction to me before: how people living in cinder-block houses with concrete floors were better off than those living in houses with dirt floors and without windows; how people who ate beans, rice and tortillas three times a day were healthier than those who ate just once or twice a day, or who sometimes ate only salt and tortillas.

Politics looked different from Mexico too. A Mexican newspaper article on right-wing death squads operating under Guatemala's military regime suggested they were an outgrowth of the CIA-backed coup in 1954 -- a coup Galeano had written about in "Open Veins." History was very much present, as it still is in Latin America.

Today, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic failure of Cuba, "Open Veins" seems dated. The military governments of South and Central America have been replaced by independent, democratically elected leaders who do not take their cues from United Fruit or the United States.

In general, Latin Americans are healthier and better educated than they were when Galeano wrote "Open Veins." Infant mortality has declined dramatically; illiteracy was down to 9.5% of the population in 2005 and is projected to be 8.3% by next year, according to the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean's statistical yearbook. The middle class in Brazil outnumbers the poor.

Yet almost 40 years after Galeano wrote "Open Veins," Latin America is still beleaguered by a poverty and inequality born of the colonialism he described. A smaller percentage of the population is poor, but because of population growth there are many more people living in poverty. The average income of Latin Americans is higher in real terms than it was decades ago, but the average income of North Americans has grown even more, creating a wider gap. And the income disparity within Latin America has also grown, with more wealth concentrated in fewer hands.

The persistence of these economic and social challenges might explain why a populist like Chavez would give a reformer like Obama a copy of this book on the roots of Latin American poverty. Galeano's rhetoric may be passe, but the history is not.

Marjorie Miller is an editorial writer at The Times. marjorie.miller@latimes.com

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad