The Veins Run North: Galeano Revisited

The lion on the cover of Open Veins, taken from a carving
of the Knat, the Lion and the Spiderweb from Aesop's Fables.
All the great lion could do was scratch himself while trying to
get the knat. But that knat got caught in a spiderweb!
Shared by douglas reeser on August 19, 2012
I first read Eduardo Galeano's "the Open Veins of Latin America" during the summer of 2011. After reading, I shared one aspect of my reaction here on Recycled Minds (which you can read here). I touched briefly on the issue of mineral extraction and how little has changed since Galeano first published the book in 1971. I finished the short piece with: "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." Such remains true, and what follows is not a complete update, but a poignant reflection on why Galeano's writing remains so relevant to us today, and it may be especially interesting for our readers in the US. We would like to thank George Dardess, the author of this update, for freely sharing his work.

An Ironic Updating of Eduardo Galeano's "The Open Veins of Latin America" 
by George Dardess

Uruguyan writer Eduardo Galeano's 1971 classic, The Open Veins of Latin America reentered the spotlight a couple of years ago when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gave a copy to the then newly elected Barak Obama. Whether Obama read the book isn't known, but he should have, and so should we all. Or if we've read it before, we should read it again.

We should do so because the book presents a comprehensive analysis of Latin America's economic exploitation and ruin by colonial invaders from Columbus's landing in 1492 through the 1960's. We need to remind ourselves of that analysis, because the invasion continues, though perhaps eased by the US's military diversion into Muslim lands. The mechanism of the invasion is the same as before: the forcible suppression of Latin America's economic and social development for the purpose of extracting the last drop of its natural and human resources. The blood thus extracted nourishes the invading country, whether the country be (in historical order) Spain, Portugal, Holland, Britain, or the US. Hence the "open veins" of the title.

But there is another reason for rereading The Open Veins. In the years since its first publication, the mechanism of invasion Galeano describes has widened its reach. It now drains dry or threatens to drain dry not only Latin America, but the whole world as well. Not even Latin America's blood, copious as it is, has been able to satisfy the imperialist appetite. That appetite now requires the entire developing world for its nourishment.

And not just the developing world. The mechanism of imperialist invasion once saw stronger nations sucking dry weaker ones. In the last few decades, however, the invasion is being conducted, not so much by nations, as by the neo-liberal economic system itself as managed by the great banks for the great global corporations.

The result points to the first great irony of updating Galeano's book: which is that the developed countries themselves are becoming fair game for the imperialist appetite. For where is the blood richer than in those countries where the blood of others has already been transferred or transfused?

Case in point: The US itself. The irony is most obvious when one compares what Galeano said about the US in 1971 with what we see now. In 1971, the US seemed to Galeano in some ways to present a model example of equitable land settlement, in comparison with Latin America's latifundia system. In Latin America, he explains, the opening of new lands always involved denying ownership to those who actually worked those lands. Ownership went instead to those who could pay for it: private owners, backed by foreign investors. Laborers became tenants at best, indentured servants or slaves at worst, on huge landholdings called latifundias.

By contrast:
"North American legislation of the same period set forth the opposite objective, in order to promote the internal colonization of the US. The pioneers' wagon wheels creaked as they crossed the plains, extending the frontier, at the cost of slaughtering the indigenous inhabitants, towards the West's virgin territories... The Homestead Act assured every family a 65 hectare lot, and every owner promised to cultivate his property for a period of no fewer than five years. Public ownership mushroomed with astounding rapidity. The population increased and propagated over the map like an enormous oil stain. Accessible land, fertile and almost free for the asking, drew European peasants like an irresistible magnet... While the country grew in surface and in population, sources of farm labor also grew, and at the same time an internal market was generated with great acquisitive power wielded by the enormous mass of rural property owners, a power sufficient to sustain the imperious demands of industrial development." (p. 171 of Spanish edition, G.D.'s translation)

Galeano tries to avoid overdoing the comparison by mentioning the US's slaughter of its own indigenous people in order to clear the path for western expansion. As a conscientious historian, he knows that exploitation and murder have not been visited upon Latin America alone. But Galeano does neglect to mention the theft of the prairie states' free landholdings by the big banks during the 1930's, as described in John Steinbeck's still very timely novel, The Grapes of Wrath. During that period, the exploitation of people and resources very much resembled the depredations Galeano analyzes throughout Latin America's history.

But the full irony of the US's preying upon its own people's blood has been revealed only recently, thanks to the Occupy movement. It is no longer certain Midwestern farmers, impoverished by drought, who have been forced to open their veins for the enrichment of bankers and corporations. Today it is the US's middle class itself which is being forced to make an endless donation. Whatever else one can say about the mechanism of this invasion, it is not inherently racist. Blood of any color will attract it, so long as the blood is rich in the essential nutrients of labor, of natural resources,- and, uniquely from the American middle class, of wages, of savings, and of social benefits like Social Security and Medicare.

Yet this is perhaps not the greatest irony, nor even the best reason for rereading The Open Veins. Both the greatest irony and best incentive flow from the fact that The Open Veins is beautifully written. Galeano turns a subject which in lesser hands would have become a dry or perhaps haranguing recitation of endlessly grim detail into an absorbing glimpse into the mystery of hope.

Even the most devastating scenes of human misery and cruelty - the plight of the silver miners at Potosí, for example - are described with a grace of language and feeling for detail which suggest that justice and beauty, though everywhere trampled upon, are nevertheless undying. The esthetic and moral power of the book cannot be separated.

That is because historical memory, powerfully evoked through Galeano's artistry, reawakens the conscience. So while The Open Vein's content may on the one hand seem dated or at least incomplete, its message of hope grows on the other hand more challenging and necessary given the increasing scale of neo-liberalism's devastation.

That is why we can say that the conclusion to Galeano's 1978 postscript to The Open Veins applies more urgently today, perhaps, than to conditions in 1978 or 1971 or at any previous time:

"The oppressive economic system finds its paradigm in the changeless society of an anthill. That is why this paradigm clashes with human history, however much that history changes. And because in human history every act of destruction finds its answer, sooner or later, in an act of creation." (p. 363)

Footnote: The April 17, 2009, opening session of the 5th Summit of the Americas held in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gave a copy of Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America to U.S. President Barack Obama, who was making his first diplomatic visit to the region.[6] This made the English language edition of the book go to #2 position and the Spanish version to #11 on the bestseller list.

The author actively works for a just immigration policy. He co-authored "Reclaiming Beauty for the Good of the World. Muslim and Christian Creativity as Moral Power," and "In the Spirit of St Francis and the Sultan: Muslims and Catholics Working Together for the Common Good."
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