Disclaimer: This is a re-adaptation and translation of a book review I wrote for one of my graduate seminars back in 2015. My assignment was originally written in Spanish. This article’s purpose is to provide a review of a relevant work in the history and politics of Latin America for those who want to learn about the region. Its purpose is also to draw from the experience in Latin America to create a better understanding of affairs in other postcolonial regions.
The Open Veins of Latin America, published in 1970, is a book written by the late Uruguayan-born author Eduardo Galeano. The main argument and overarching theme of this book is that, from colonial times, Latin America (and by extension, the Caribbean) exists and has only existed for the purpose of serving others. Galeano argues that industrial capitalism would not have been possible without the exploitation of resources and people in the Americas, and many of the things that he says are still relevant more than 40 years later.
Galeano builds his narration from the arrival of Columbus to the mid-twentieth century by providing examples and stories of how foreigners (including people, states, and private corporations) have left places in Latin America both sterile and poor. Some of these examples include the Potosi mine in Bolivia and the United Fruit Company in Central and South America. The Potosi mine in Bolivia was exploited to the point that it essentially ran out of resources, and the European masters who controlled this mine almost decimated the entire indigenous population that unwillingly worked for them. The United Fruit Company, a private corporation from the United States, was involved in the 1928 massacre of workers who were portrayed as “communist” and as threats to the interests of the company in Colombia. Galeano reaches the same conclusion with all of the cases he presents in his narrative: that Latin America was born and has grown in order to provide others, and that it continues to live by being part of the cycle of industrial capitalism.
There were instances in which the people have rebelled against the masters, but the masters have enough power to oppress any opposition through violence and through manipulation from foreign powers. This is how that foreign powers have secured their ongoing benefits from extracting resources and displacing local populations. Galeano’s book also serves to explain the origins of globalization: how the trade of cheap resources comes back to the same region as expensive products that local populations cannot afford.
40 years have passed since this book was published. During these 40 years, Latin America has been a victim to countless military dictatorships backed up by the US, the ongoing extraction of natural resources for first-world consumption, and the growth of relations with other international powers. Although the region has been a victim, there are several instances in which conscious individuals and groups organize themselves to oppose dominant groups with successful outcomes. As a result, the continuation to The Open Veins of Latin America, which portrays the region as a victim of foreign powers, should be seen as a story of resilience and survival, of trying to get out of a cycle of depending in capitalism and outside influence, of attempts to abolish the racial and class differences among its people.
Latin America is only one of several post-colonial regions in the world. Its history and trauma connect to ones that happened in other places, such as Southeast Asia, where the exploitation of resources, people, and the influence of outside forces have shaped many of the current problems found in the region. As a result, it is necessary to understand that the collective memory of one place can help us analyze how the same things happen in different areas and what factors influence these things.