Minerals, Oil and the (Still) Open Veins of Latin America

Drawing from the cover of "Open Veins of
Latin America" by Eduardo Galeano.
Image courtesy of henryjacksonsociety.org
by douglas reeser on September 28, 2011
Written in 1971 (the English version came out in 1973), Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America offered a glaring critique of the relationships between Latin American countries and the world powers of Europe and the United States. It remains a moving account of the historical roots of the relative underdevelopment and poverty that persists throughout the region. While much of the book is thought provoking, I thought I would share a short excerpt that describes oil and mineral extraction. Galeano opens the third chapter with this discussion (and keep in mind that this was written 40 years ago!):
“Petroleum continues to be our world’s chief fuel, and the United States imports one-seventh of the petroleum it consumes. Bullets are needed to kill Vietnamese, and bullets need copper: the United States buys abroad one-fifth of the copper it uses. Shortages of zinc cause increasing anxiety: over half comes from abroad. Planes cannot be built without aluminum, and aluminum cannot be produced without bauxite: the United States has almost no bauxite. Its great steel centers – Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Detroit – do not get enough iron from the Minnesota deposits, which are on the way to exhaustion, and there is no manganese within the United States: one-third of its iron and all of its manganese are imported. Nor has it any nickel or chrome of its own to produce jet engines. Tungsten is needed to make special steels and one-fourth of that is imported.”
“This growing dependence on foreign supplies produces the growing identification of the interests of U.S. capitalists operating in Latin America with U.S. national security. The internal stability of the world’s greatest power is closely linked with its investments south of the Rio Grande. About half of those investments are in the extraction of petroleum and minerals, indispensable for the U.S. economy in peace and war.”
Today, the "great steel centers" are largely inactive, military expenditures will exceed $700 billion in 2011 (according to this Time article) and the reliance on resources from outside of the U.S. is as great as ever. I did a little digging, and found a document from the Mineral Information Institute that cites a 2011 report from the U.S. Geological Survey showing U.S mineral imports in 2010. Imports of most of the minerals mentioned above have gone up since the time of Galeano's writing (by percentage consumed): copper from 20% to 30%; zinc from 50+% to 77%; and 100% of bauxite and manganese. We also know that today the U.S. is going to extreme lengths to secure access to oil outside of its borders. In other words, not much has changed in 40 years, and it may be argued that the issues that Galeano raised in 1971 have continued and even worsened over time.

With the constant barrage of news and information, I think people tend to view many of the problems we face in the world as new and unique to our time in history. In fact, the sheer amount of new information serves to obscure history. Revisiting our history reveals that we have known about and discussed the issues that continue to plague us today. Galeano’s work is an interesting and engaging piece of scholarship that begs for an updated edition. If you are interested in an understanding of Latin American history and international relations, this is a must read. 
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