The Influence of Eduardo Galeano’s “The Open Veins” On Me

Yesterday I just learned of the passing of Eduardo Galeano (1940-2015) in Uruguay. I have been deeply influenced by Galeano’s work “The Open Veins of Latin America” translated from Spanish by Cedric Belfrage. I consider the book a chilling alarm of modern technology’s ironic inability to end human suffering. I first read it about five years ago and I consider it a Latin American version of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth which was published about ten years prior. The book consists of three main parts: one, mankind’s poverty as a consequence of the wealth of the land; two, development is a voyage with more shipwrecks than navigators; and three, seven years after. I liked most what he wrote in Seven Years After especially in talking about how the best press he got from the book was “from the military dictatorships that praised the book by banning it” (265). I think his role as a writer in attempting to end human suffering by exposing the brutality of military dictatorships is unprecedented, remarkable, and a very important example for me to follow. I’d like to talk about key points in each of the three main parts that struck me. In his first section he writes that “the ultimate goal of the Latin American colonial economy from its inception” was to function “at the service of capitalism developing elsewhere.” The dominant classes he said “prevented the development of an internal consumer market” (30). He traces the colonial history of Latin America beginning with Columbus, and quotes Bartolomeo de las Casas: “He once remarked that the Indians preferred to go to hell to avoid meeting Christians”(42). Galeano here challenges the understanding that those who do bad on Earth will end up in hell. This is a broad reference to the indigenous fighter against the Spanish, In his Caribbean History text, Tony Martin quotes Hatuey saying “I’d rather go to hell than go to any place Christians are.” Hatuey challenges the concept of hell as an undesirable place and the notion that the Spanish colonizers were in any way humane or good Christians according to Europe’s own terms. Galeano traces the role that Spanish imperialism played in building English industrial capitalism: “Brazilian gold was channeled to London by licit as well as illicit methods…without this tremendous accumulation of gold reserves, Britain would not have been able, later on, to confront Napoleon” (56). He traces the key role that Latin America played in English being an imperial power. This included the creation of a sugar monoculture today whose detrimental effects can still be felt today. However Galeano is clear on the key role that the monoculture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had in amassing British capital: “Caribbean sugar plantations, condemned as they were to cane monoculture, were not the dynamic center of development for the “thirteen colonies solely because of the impetus the slave trade gave to naval industry and to the New England distilleries; they also provided a large market for the export of foodstuffs, timber, and sugarmill implements, lending economic viability to the farm and budding factory economy of the North Atlantic” (82). I don’t know another writer who can sum up the instrumental role of the Caribbean in U.S. history in this succinct way that Galeano does. In Spanish. Also in this main part he describes Cuban ingenuity in rejecting the monoculture imposed on it by Spain and the United States and discusses the important gains since its revolution: “Cuba was crippled by its dependent status, and walking on its own feet has not been easy. Half of its children did not go to school in 1958…Cuba now has the lowest percentage of illiterates and the highest percentage attending primary and secondary school in Latin America. Medea Benjamin today asked a very important question regarding the U.S. decision to remove Cuba from a list the State Department created called “State Sponsors of Terrorism.” She asked if by removing Cuba from that list if the State Department was really accepting Cuba as a sovereign nation or if they are trying to undermine and overthrow the revolution by different means. The need to defend the socialist character of Cuban revolution is clear to Galeano when he writes in a way that personifies it: “the Revolution is forced to sleep with its eyes open, and in economic terms this also costs dearly. Constantly harassed by invasion and sabotage [which Benjamin described] it does not fall because—strange dictatorship!—it is defended by people in arms” (77). And although I support the Cuban government defending itself, I also witnessed first hand the machismo and the policed culture of Black men on Havana streets that this defensive posture creates. And it concerns me. But before I critique the Cuban government for its machismo and policed culture, I have to critique FIRST the machismo and policed culture created and enforced by the ruling class, most of which Galeano names in his book, later in his first part when he describes the monoculture of Brazilian coffee: “In July 1968 Brazilian coffee cost 30 percent less in the United States than in January 1964 but U.S. consumers did not pay less: they paid 13 percent more. Thus in the 1964-1968 period middlemen kept the 13 percent as well as the 30 percent feathering their nests twice over. Who are the middlemen? Six U.S. concerns control more than a third of the coffee that leaves Brazil, and another six control more than a third of what enters the United States: these firms dominate the business at both ends” (100). Galeano’s discussion of middlemen here reminds me of the spending waste associated with private property and capitalist ownership, and why Obama’s Affordable Care Act needed a government run public option to avoid the fraud and the abuse by these middlemen that are represented by the private insurance companies. In terms of the banana industry, Galeano describes how U.S. businesses dominate the economies of Central America to maximize their profit: “the United Fruit Company swallowed up its competitors in the production and sale of bananas and became Central America’s top latifundista [landowner] while its affiliates corner rail and sea transport” (107). I last remember seeing a reference to United Fruit in the work of Assata Shakur. This reminded me of how Assata Shakur described the Judge presided over the unfair trial that falsely accused her of shooting a New Jersey state trooper. He was “the kind they could send to wipe out the “natives” in Africa, make Central America safe for United Fruit Company, or run a sterilization center in Puerto Rico.” Both Galeano and Shakur write about the ways that United Fruit company essentially took over and colonized, as a U.S. private entity, the economies of Central America. They exert control by installing leaders that serve their interests. Like the Freedom newspaper that brought the case of Paul Robeson to worldwide attention, Galeano acknowledged the socialist character of the Guyanese government led by Cheddi Jagan in the 1960s and how as he writes “the CIA played a decisive role in Jagan’s defeat.” Galeano made an important connection between multinational corporations funding military dictatorships: “in Venezuela, the largest U.S. military mission in Latin America sits on Standard and Gulf’s great petroleum lake. Argentina’s frequent coups d’etat erupt before or after each offer of oil concession.” Hugo Chavez came from the Venezuelan military that protected the interests of Standard Oil. So despite his deep popularity, it was difficult for Chavez to refine or develop the socialist character of his nation, where the private sector to this day, still has more money than the public sector because of the oil resource and the machinery infrastructure needed to refine it. In his third section, “Seven Years After,” Galeano writes in 1978 that “in Venezuela the economy of waste and extravagance continues intact. The neon-lit center is as resplendent as ever with the squandermania of a multimillionaire class” (268). I vehemently reject Obama’s March 7th declaration that Venezuela is a national security threat and I stand with the Venezuelan people in rejecting that idea. I am glad to see that the State Department has backtracked and no longer deemed this a threat. And I also raise the warnings that Galeano raises about using natural resources to meet the increasing needs of the people around it. The popular quote of Galeano’s read by Juan Gonzalez on Democracy Now speak to the ways that any natural resource needs to be used to alleviate poverty instead of making the rich richer: “The lake is a forest of towers. Within these iron structures the endlessly bobbing pumps have for half a century pumped up all the opulence and all the poverty of Venezuela. Alongside, flames lick skyward, burning the natural gas in a carefree gift to the atmosphere. There are pumps even in houses and on street corners of towns that spouted up, like the oil, along the lakeside-towns where clothing, food, and walls are stained black with oil, and where even whores are known by oil nicknames, such as ‘The Pipeline,’ ‘The Four Valves,’ ‘The Derrick,’ ‘The Hoist.’ Here clothing and food cost more than in Caracas. These modern villages, of cheerless birth but quickened by the euphoria of easy money, have discovered that they have no future. When the wells die, survival becomes something of a miracle: skeletons of houses remain, oily waters lick abandoned shores and poison the fish. Mass firings and growing mechanization bring misfortune, too, to cities that live from exploiting still-active wells. (158-159) Galeano shows how, like gold, the discovery of the natural resource of oil causes more poverty than the alleviation of poverty. He wrote that “petroleum has not only sparked coups d’etat in Latin America: it set off a war—the Chaco War of 1932-1935—between South America’s two poorest people… It was a quarrel between two [U.S.] corporations, enemies and at the same time partners within the cartel, but it was not they who shed their blood. In the end Paraguay won the war but not the peace” (163). In this section of the book he is very optimistic about the kind of society Chile will become in 1971 when this book is first published: “nationalization will put an end to a state of affairs that had become intolerable for Chile, and prevent repetition in copper of the plunder and descent into the abyss of the nitrate cycle.” Unfortunately, for the same reason that petroleum set off the war between the poorest, the copper plunder ends with U.S. corporations working to topple the Marxist Chilean leader Salvador Allende, as Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick write about in their history: “prodded by Chase Manhattan Bank’s David Rockefeller and former CIA director and ITT board member John McCone, Kissinger instructed U.S. Ambassador Edward Korry and CIA station chief Henry Hecksher to stop Allende [who]…said ‘We are potentially rich countries, yet we live in poverty.’ Allende took his own life with a rifle…Pinochet seized power…Kissinger saw to it that the United States quickly recognized and provided aid to the murderous regime”(S&K, p.372). Unfortunately nationalization did not put an end to the state of affairs that had become intolerable for Chile. It invited the U.S. to topple it. In his third section, Galeano writes that “infant mortality, substantially reduced during the Popular Unity regime, rose dramatically with Pinochet” (271). However what inspires me is that Galeano writes with the hope that nationalization can in fact do that. It reminded me of what I read in Julio Garcia Luis’s edited collection published by Ocean Press called Cuban Revolution Reader: A Documentary History and how the revolution nationalized the U.S. companies that had, before the revolution, pocketed the profits of companies. Galeano’s writing underscores the importance of this revolution. In Galeano’s second section called “development is a voyage with more shipwrecks than navigators,” talks about Paraguay in the nineteenth century and how it was ruined by imperialism: “the woes of the Paraguyans stem from a war of extermination which was the most infamous chapter in South American history: the War of the Triple Alliance, they called it. Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay joined in committing genocide. They left no stone unturned, nor male inhabitants amid the ruins. Although Britain took no direct part in the ghastly deed, it was in the pockets of British merchants, bankers, and industrialists that the loot ended up. The invasion was financed from start to finish by the Bank of London, Baring Brothers, and the Rothschild Bank, in loans at exorbitant interest rate which mortgaged the fate of victorious countries…our bourgeois of today are agents and functionaries of prepotent foreign corporations. Truth compels us to admit that they never did anything to deserve a better fate” (188, 208). Richard Philcox’s English translation of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth which was published about a decade earlier says that the “vocation” of the national bourgeoisie is to “serve as a conveyor belt for capitalism, forced to camouflage itself behind the mask of neocolonialism…the national bourgeoisie sells itself increasingly openly to the major foreign companies.” (100,117) Galeano later writes that “foreign oligopolies, with their ultramodern techonology steadily and not very secretly took over the national industry of all Latin American countries, including Mexico, by the sale of manufacturing techniques, patents, and new equipment” (212). He writes that the creator of the IMF has essentially created a Capitalist Manifesto that says that poor countries are poor because they are meant to be poor (220). This I think is one of the strongest points in his book and it really bothers me. It essentially says that God has ordained the English ruling class to rule the world forever, and I just don’t agree with that. Especially as a child of Jamaican immigrants that the IMF is so harshly destroying with its policies of austerity. I guess that cabal thinks that austerity just might prevent another influential thinker like Marcus Garvey who inspired the parents of Malcolm X. I don’t think austerity would stop the influence of another thinker like Marcus Garvey from emerging in the world. When Davie Ann Tucker asked President Obama about the whether the IMF could write off Jamaica’s debt on April 9th this year, Obama said basically that the IMF shouldn’t write off the debt and that the IMF policy should happen. Galeano’s writing has essentially taught me that Obama agrees with the IMF’s Capitalist Manifesto that countries that are poor deserve to stay poor and countries that are rich deserve to stay rich. Classic Darwinism. That depends on systemic imperialism, sexism, racism, and capitalism. Galeano talks also about the assumptions of the USAID program and how they ban trade “with Cuba and North Vietnam and make the administrative tutelage of AID technicians obligatory.” This “tutelage” involved forcing governments to pass laws that made foreign companies exploitation of their land and resources easier. In Toni Cade Bambara’s “Vietnam Notebooks,” she writes about what North Vietnam’s socialist government achieved: “through the efforts to emancipate the woman, progressive legislation that benefited everybody immediately occurred such as social security and free medical care” (Savoring the Salt, 106). By this logic according to Galeano, USAID would tutor countries how to repress women and deny medical care and social security to all its citizens. Galeano’s point on page 235 about the World Bank, that it “channeled its loans toward birth-control promotion, education plans, agro-business, and tourism,” reminded me of how the Rockefeller Foundation document “predicting” Ebola virus outbreak in 2014 still is proof of how birth control promotion continues. Galeano writes that Latin America “is condemned to suffer the technology of the powerful, which attacks and removes natural raw materials, and is incapable of creating its own technology to sustain and defend its own development,” I think that this is too fatalistic, and I reminded of what I think is the BEST review of this book by Ernesto Verdeja for the Critical Sociology journal. Verdeja wrote that Latin America, in Galeano’s book “is portrayed as having no agency or capacity to resist foreign economic penetration. It is docile, pale body abused by a succession of foreign adventurers. The reality, however is much more complex…This functionalism fails to engage the legacy of leaders such as Zapata, Maximo Gomez, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and Tupac Amaru, or social movements within civil society and revolutionary struggles outside it” (177). I agree wholeheartedly with Verdeja’s point here and point to Costa Rica as an example of a nation that is not following the U.S. or Venezuela’s lead in its economic self determination. I do think it is more complex than Galeano’s narrative. I do agree with his last point however in his second section where he says that “for U.S. imperialism to be able to ‘integrate and rule’ Latin America today, it was necessary for the British Empire to help divide and rule us yesterday” (259). Any economic exploitation by the British empire is in part the fault of individuals unable to work together to prevent this “divide and rule” strategy that still is used among so many oppressed groups today, like the Somalis and the Kenyans in the tragic bombing of the university students for their religious beliefs, as Margaret Kimberley writes about most recently. I think it is the duty of anti-imperialists across the world, including the Black abolitionists like John Brown Russwurm who edited Freedom’s Journal to avoid the tricks that imperialists use to divide and conquer. The most important question he asks in the entire book is in the last section and gets to the heart of Angela Davis’s point that a capitalist democracy is an oxymoron. It is impossible for this country to proclaim democracy and be the world’s leading seller and exporter of guns. Galeano asks: “Do we perhaps understand that the militarization of poor countries’ regimes is one of the consequences of economic and cultural domination by the industrialized countries, where life is ruled by the lust for profits and the power of money?” The message to me behind this question is to not let the lust of profits and the power of money ruin our individual and collective selves. The King James Bible said that the love of money is the root of all evil. Galeano helps us see evil in U.S. imperialism. We are the better for his writings. –RF.