Latin America is the region of open veins. Everything, from the discovery until our time, has always been transmuted into European—or later North American—capital, and as such has accumulated and is accumulating in distant centers of power. Everything: the land, its fruits and its depths rich in minerals, the people and their capacity to work and to consume, the natural resources, and the human resources. The mode of production and the class structure of each place have been successively determined from outside by their incorporation into the universal machine of capitalism. To each has been assigned a function, always in benefit of the development of the foreign metropolis of the moment (Galeano 1997:2; 2004:16).
For those who conceive of history as a competition, the backwardness and misery of Latin American are no other thing than the result of its failure. We lost; others won. But the winners won thanks to us who lost: the history of the underdevelopment of Latin America integrates . . . the history of the development of world capitalism…. Our wealth always has generated our poverty in order to nourish the prosperity of others (Galeano 1997:2; 2004:16).
The exploitation of the natural resources of Latin America during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was principally an exploitation of gold and silver, which was found in great quantities in the Mexican plateau and in high plateaus of the Andes, and in lesser quantities in the riverbeds of the Caribbean. The Spanish conquest of the Aztec and Inca empires and the Caribbean peoples established access to the minerals.
The gold and silver made possible the economic development of Europe. “The metals robbed from the new colonial dominions stimulated European economic development, and it even can be said that they made it possible” (Galeano 2004:40-41; 1997:23). But the gold and silver stimulated the development of northwestern Europe, not the development of Spain, because the Spanish purchased manufactured goods from northwestern Europe. As Galeano expresses it, “The Spanish had the cow, but it was others who drank the milk” (2004:41; 1997:23). “Neither Spain nor Portugal received the benefits of the sweeping advance of capitalist mercantilism, although their colonies were those that, in substantial measure, supplied the gold and silver that fueled this expansion” (Galeano 2004:47; 1997:29).
Gold also was discovered by the Portuguese in its colony of Brazil, and they developed gold mines first in Minas Gerais and later and more extensively in Ouro Preto. During the course of the eighteenth century, the Portuguese colony exported more gold than the Spanish colonies had exported during the previous two centuries. This was accomplished through imposition of a harsh system of slavery on indigenous and imported African populations. As had occurred with the Spanish, this process promoted the development of British manufacturing rather than that of Portugal, as the silver was used by the Portuguese to purchase manufactured goods from the English, and in addition, the colony of Brazil was opened to British manufacturing (Galeano 2004:73-81; 1997:51-58).
The Open Veins of Latin America is a classic work that formulates the role of conquest and colonialism in promoting the development of the West and the underdevelopment of the Third World, as understood from the Third World perspective. In 2008, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez gave a copy of the book to newly inaugurated US president Barack Obama. It was a significant gesture by Chávez, offered at a time in which some had hope that Obama would take US policy in a new direction. The gesture was an indication of the importance that Latin American revolutionary leaders give to intellectual work in general, and this book in particular, and it also symbolized the enduring hope in Latin America for a future time of cooperation between North and South.
Eduardo Galeano was a young man when he wrote The Open Veins of Latin America. His recent articles can be found at Cubadebate: http://www.cubadebate.cu/categoria/autores/eduardo-galeano/
Galeano, Eduardo. 1997. The Open Veins of Latin America: Five centuries of the pillage of a continent, 25th Anniversary Edition. Translated by Cedric Belfrage. Forward by Isabel Allende. New York: Monthly Review Press.
__________. 2004. Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina, tercera edición, revisada. México: Siglo XXI Editores.
Key words: Third World, revolution, colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, democracy, national liberation, sovereignty, self-determination, socialism, Marxism, Leninism, Cuba, Latin America, world-system, world-economy, development, underdevelopment, state, gold, silver, Galeano