Book Review of Open Veins of Latin America

stack of books

There are some books that you read and some books that read you.

The latter kind come with demands. They say “listen listen…sit down, shut up, and pay attention”. After you check your punch to make sure it wasn’t spiked, you interrogate the book —“why are you talking to me?!” — and then, inevitably, end up sitting down, shutting up, and paying attention.

Eduardo Galeano wrote Open Veins of Latin America in just 3 months at the end of 1970. Impeccably researched and told with a poetic force rare for history books, the central thread that holds together the 500 year tale of false promises and devastation is summed up toward the end.

“underdevelopment in Latin America is the consequence of development elsewhere…places privileged by nature have been cursed by history.”


sugar cane

Sugarcane was brought from the Canary Islands to the Dominican Republic during the 2nd voyage of Christopher Columbus. Once planted it grew fast; incredibly fast. This humble start eventually grew into a multi-century business that converted the fertile lands of Latin America and the Caribbean into sites for the extraction of raw materials. Whether it was gold in Brazil, sugar in Cuba, silver in Bolivia, coffee in Guatemala, or hennequin in Mexico, the raw materials were extracted with slave or slave-like labor and then refined and sold elsewhere with the profits rarely, if ever, trickling down to the miners or trappers or farmers themselves.

Since each of these materials is finite, the region follows an inevitable period of rapid growth — the boom — and then due to global prices or lack of material, the area eventually comes into a period of rapid decline — the bust. Those who owned the mines or plantations and sold the commodities on the world market were rich enough to be able to leave, but the workers themselves weren’t that lucky. So now in an ecologically destroyed area — mining and mono-culture farming are very intense and devastating processes — the people were forced to eek out a living.

Naturally this leads to anger and revolutions. Some important ones he covers include Tupac Amaru’s 1781 takeover of Cusco, Fidel Castro’s 1959 takeover of Cuba, and the Palmeras colony that existed in Brazilian rainforest during the 1600s. Many were squelched and, historically, any attempts at nationalization or anything resembling the move toward controlling the refining and selling of a commodity taken from the lands within the boundaries of a specific nation are viewed with hostility by owners and generally lead to coups, assassinations, and smear campaigns. This happened to Salvador Allende in Chile during the 1970s, Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala during the 1950s being just two examples.

It’s a troubling story and history has a way of being stubborn, but it makes up part of the Necessary Horror that any well-informed traveler exploring this region should be aware of.