Reflections: “Open Veins of Latin America”


December 1, 2016

Seven years ago this month, I finished reading Open Veins of Latin America:  Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, by Eduardo Galeano.  This superb 1971 work of investigative journalism is the book that then Venezualan leader Hugo Chavez gave President Barack Obama.

I’ve been keeping journals in one form or another throughout my life.  I chose this seven-year interval to show how events do grow on themselves, and issues never die.  They merely change form.

Now we have the death last week of Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, who was simpatico with Chavez.  We have the recent ousting of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff by a political coup, which was vehemently protested by the popular electorate.  Social upheaval around the world reflects the troubles in Latin America, yet the strategies used by the power brokers remain the same.

Open Veins reveals how the game has been played and how it continues to be played.  What follows is only a partial set of notes from my reading, but it summarizes the book’s overall message.


            The early part of the book, Open Veins of Latin America, depicts how Spanish conquistadors raped South America of gold and silver in the 1600s.  They enslaved the Incas and other natives to do their dirty work.  Priests soon followed and continued the tyranny, shaming the locals for being un-Christian and forcing them to work in the mines as penance..

The middle pages of Open Veins depict the violence and social repression brought by the foreign money exporters  They used and use local governments to protect heir “investments.”  The same story occurs over and over, under different cloaks, whether cacao, coffee, rubber, cotton, or bananas.

The oligarchies control the land, with the help of government.  Government gets its cut in the form of taxes and job security.  Peasants are paid in subsistence wages if they are lucky.  Monoculture of produce for export displaces food production for locals, and malnutrition is common.

The book shows how prices are manipulated on Wall St., how US surpluses dumped in other countries are “foreign aid” drops prices for local economies, and the peasants are the first to suffer.

I thought about how this book shows the same methods the robber barons used in the book by that name.  Confessions of an Economic Hit Man also comes to mind.  I thought the advantages of TV and the worldwide communication network is exposing the barbarian plunderers like never before.  No wonder the world hates the US, but we learned our methods from the British, who are no more civilized than they were when they were Angles and Saxons.

Their arrogance and ours knows no bounds, apparently, because they and we continue to get away with it. It also provides more evidence for my hypothesis that government and property rights are the problem.  Land can’t be owned, not really, but property rights and government are two sides of the same coin.

Reading Open Veins tells me others are aware of the tactics used by the exploiters and have been writing about them a long time.  Open Veins was first published in 1971, 36 years ago, as many investigative books were.  The clamp down on journalists since then has been subtle, a mere matter of monopolizing news sources and publishers the way United Fruit monopolized the Latin American banana market.

The governments change, but the methods are the same around the world.  Those who claim the land have all the rights, as long as others believe in property rights.

I believe the land claims its people.  I feel claimed by this property and am unconcerned about how I will hold on to it.  It will hold on to me, I figure, because it knows a valuable human sacrifice when it supports one.

In Open Veins, as everywhere, the oppressors succeed by dividing and conquering, by pitting people against each other, controlling food and water sources.

Why, you might wonder.

It is the folly of the testosterone poisoned, I claim.  They think oppression increases profits.  They aren’t free market capitalists, who know oppression is bad for business.  You want to keep your work force strong, healthy and happy, because they will work harder for you out of gratitude.

When you’re an absentee landlord, as so many of the latifundio owners are, it’s easy to pretend ignorance of the injustice perpetrated in your name.  But how much can they enjoy all that ill-gotten wealth, knowing they did nothing to earn it and most live in fear of those they exploit?

In the US, people are TV-educated, at least, and able to get different versions of the exploitation game.  US residents know they are being exploited, but they aren’t sure who’s pulling the strings.

You are, Joe and Josie Taxpayer, as long as you put up with it.

Open Veins  tells other stories of governments colluding with investors, primarily British bankers in the 1850s, to rape and pillage their countries’ natural resources, including their people, all for exports.

Because no one values the contribution of human capital, not even those like Eduardo Galeano, the author, books like Open Veins miss the point.  It correctly implicates foreign investors, governments, and bankers, as well as the established oligarchies in the various Latin American countries, but it blames the dictators rather than the social conventions that allow dictators to grow and flourish.

Open Veins alludes to the guano on the coast of Peru, left by centuries of seagulls and pelicans, discovered and plundered in a few short years to replenish nutrient-starved wheat fields in Europe.  The Peruvians destroyed the gull and pelican habitats by overtaking, effectively killing the goose that laid their golden eggs.  Meanwhile, the technique for fixing atmospheric nitrogen was developed, and the guano industry died overnight.

Galeano provides example after example of corruption, revolution, unstable governments all at the mercy of British and American governments and corporations.  Over the centuries the plundered resources have changed, but the methods remain the same.  Gold and later other minerals.  Tin, copper, iron, silver.

I’ve read about the oil in Venezuela and the oil cartel controlled by Rockefeller interests.

No wonder Chavez wanted Obama to read it, and no wonder Obama won’t do it.  But how many other people will?

Americans provide the markets for these treasures, but Americans are insulated from the real costs through price fixing, labor exploitation, and tax advantages.  Gas costs more in some of the producing areas than in the US.  The developed countries, like Britain and the US, control the refineries and the mills, usually locating them at home, where labor is paid multiple what the disenfranchised Latin American labor gets.

America and the world have been suckered into overusing oil to support the oil cartel, and they continue to waste it in the name of quick profits and unacknowledged long term costs.  Galeano notes that oil supplies the war machines, a fact I haven’t seen substantiated anywhere else.

Americans don’t want to see their part in all this.  If they do, they compensate by giving money to charities or support social programs on pseudo-philanthropic entities like the Ronald McDonald’s houses at hospitals.

Open Veins, like The Robber Barons, astounds me with its details, its voluminous research, its insight into the methods used through Latin American history to degrade and oppress people.  While the Spanish and the Catholic Church initiated the devastation, the British institutionalized it, especially when industrialization began.  The industrial centers became black holes for raw materials, including human capital to produce it, but the raw goods never garnered the prices of the finished products, and the Brits conveniently dominated the finished product industry.

The Brits bought and sold Latin American governments, used them to fight each other—such as the Triple Alliance against Paraguay and its leader/dictator, Francisco Solano Lopez, who was dangerously independent, building Paraguay’s internal economy with foreign debt.  The British bankers—Bank of London, Barings, and Rothschild—couldn’t stand it.  They financed Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay to wage war against Paraguay, effectively broke up Paraguay, and bloodied everyone involved, as well as indebting them and ravaging the country, then collected in London from all sides.

I’m amazed at the wealth of detailed information in Open Veins.  It substantiates everything in Confessions of an Economic Hit Man about how the US government and corporations work in foreign countries, all with banker help, of course.  In Open Veins, the International Monetary fund and governments of Latin American countries collude to export money out of the countries under the guise of helping them.  Galeano pegs Wall Street as the center of the vortex, as I have 40 years later.

            Open Veins was powerful.  Galeano ends by saying that more revolution is coming, but he does this without conviction.  He sees the foreign investors and banks as having won the economic wars.  The masses, he believes, are too beaten down to fight back.

Debt is the trap for these countries, as everywhere.  I believe these countries should not feel obligated to honor debt assumed by dictators who were subsequently deposed.  That’s why they were deposed. Governments are not like buildings, tangible assets that can be repossessed.  No.  Governments are paper shells, here today and gone tomorrow, leaving their works like corpses behind.

Governments are primarily economic entities, and this is where Galeano stumbles.  Politically, he needs to blame the corporations, knowing full well the enemy lies within, because the corps couldn’t do their damage if Latin American governments didn’t provide the keys, the prisons, and the armed guards to keep the masses under control.  In 1978 he wrote that his book was banned in several countries.  If he had questioned the validity of the debt assumed by these dictators, and the US/corporate players, he would not have lived to write the 1978 revision.

Of course, as usual, I am the only person on the planet who understands that the debt is illusory.  It is all uncollectible.  It is government who has enslaved the populace, here as well as elsewhere, and the populace will remain slaves as long as they believe they need masters.

Galeano doesn’t question the value of the technology and machinery these countries are acquiring at such great cost.  He has been seduced, like others, into believing this junk represents progress.  He sees this struggle between rich and poor—especially foreign rich—when I see more and more the imbalance between rural and urban.




14 thoughts on “Reflections: “Open Veins of Latin America”

  1. feistyfroggy

    Interestingly I’ve recently been reading things about how/why US suprluses are dumped as “foreign aid” with all that means to the economics of various countries.


    This book is no longer really actual, because now the Chinese are taking over the recent role of the U.S.A. as global acting and controlling government, especially in Africa this the most obvious, And even Donald Trump will not be able to stop this. So on the basar of Tunis you will find not anymore locally manufactured handicrafts from Tunisia, all is now Made in China. The Chinese are also buying marine ports everywhere in the world in order to control international logistics, are on shopping tour in Germany to buy the most inventive enterprises whenever possible and at much other places in the world. I wonder how they finance all this, most probably by making debts … always the same old economic game.

    1. katharineotto Post author

      I contend the strategy is the same, whether the US, Britain or China. China has merely learned from the West how to play the West’s game. The Chinese dupe local governments into assuming enormous debt in the name of the populace. In exchange they get exclusive contracts on things like infrastructure construction. “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man” explains how the US does it. Third world leaders buy into it because they get so many perks, as long as the foreign government backs the regime.

  3. Bindu Krishnan

    Katharine, am going to get this book. Your statement about “issues never die. They merely change form” resonates. Infact the colonial powers have done a lot of damage across the world and try to assuage themselves by saying they helped the colonies to “progress”. India paid a heavy price for being the crown jewel in the British empire… they broke our pride and belief in ourselves as a civilisation and left behind a poor country. India has been a rich society and doesn’t know how to be poor. So we behave badly – corruption, filth on the streets and a scarcity mindset that is so terrible.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts about this book. I am planning to write about Fidel Castro and how we in India saw him :).

    1. katharineotto Post author

      Bindu, thank you. Americans have been so brainwashed that international perspectives are most welcome. I’m glad you appreciate how the “empires” have crushed the people everywhere they have reached. Certainly a few have adapted and adopted foreign values, but those values come at a huge and questionable cost.

      1. Doug's BoomerRants

        Perhaps it is simply the economic variant of “Either lead, follow, or get out of the way.” Like the passage of time, human progress is relentless, and not all progress is good for all humans.

  4. katharineotto Post author

    The “lead, follow, or get out of the way” notion presumes human beings are on a march. I see human growth as more like a plant, from the inside out. The attitude that individuals can’t make a difference stops many people from taking a personal stand in matters of right and wrong. If nothing else, Trump’s win shows individuals can make a difference. In cases of injustice, you usually have the institutions pitted against individuals. The institutions win by convincing the individuals that other individuals are the enemy.

    I’ve been struck lately with how mean-spirited Americans are toward each other, and the profiteers are reaping the spoils. Why, in a country with so much, are we so unhappy? Certainly if we turned out attention to appreciating what we have, we would feel more compassion toward others.

    1. Doug's BoomerRants

      I am taken by what you said.. “Why, in a country with so much, are we so unhappy?” A good reflection to make.
      Maybe this idea that individuals CAN make a difference is not a collective thing but an individual thing. The whole concept of our democracy and subsequently our Constitution is to promote a level of individualism.. freedom to choose. In that respect the individual can make a difference to the level each of us wish to do so. For example, those folks in rural areas where there was previously some great local manufacturing facility (which, btw, re-located there to avoid the higher living expense of the urban areas) which has now left the country… maybe I am being overly simplistic here, but maybe it’s time to find another job.. and move if you have to? Yeah.. ok.. they voted collectively for Trump because no one has been listening to them. But individually why would you stay in an area that is economically depressed like that? That’s a personal choice… not a collective one.

      1. katharineotto Post author

        You raise a lot of points, but the one most pertinent, to me, is the idea of moving. Mass migrations have occurred over and over throughout history, to find water, food, land, or to escape persecution. It’s happening now with the Syrians.

        To suggest residents of factory-abandoned areas move somewhere else presumes factories are necessary to support local populations. Finding different work, as you say, is a better option and renders people less dependent on large business to survive. I don’t have answers for other people. I do suspect Americans need to get priorities straight and think more in terms of “meaningful work” rather than just jobs. I don’t expect Trump to bring much industry back home, and I’m not sure I want him to. Industry–especially capacious industry focused on exports–is filthy and ultimately debilitating for local communities. That’s why they create such a void when they leave.

        What the media dubs Trump’s “isolationism” is to me an attempt to focus on building from within instead of shipping goods, money, resources, and American culture to the rest of the world. The import-export industries are way overgrown. We are exporting money as well as natural resources (like oil), and jobs, depleting ourselves in the process. Think pipelines. What long-term benefits do the pipelines confer on local economies?

      2. Doug's BoomerRants

        I think it’s already been openly discussed that globalization does indeed work for the majority of nations prepared to embrace it. I should qualify that by submitting that there are many different globalization levels.. economic, of course, is the big one and topic of the current public discourse thanks to Trump. But there is also cultural, social, yada yada. Personally I think the introduction of globalization should have a balance, especially economically. It has indeed led to our current growth as a country but it’s been at the expense of traditional manufacturing jobs and heavy industry. Hence all the bitching from the rust belt states with “We want life the way it used to be… a union life.” Yeah.. ok… and it would be nice to still drive a car you can repair in your back yard and not have to take it to the local computer repair shop just to know why it’s not working, too, but it ain’t gonna happen. If those jobs are brought back to the States the companies will adapt using technology instead of traditional manpower anyway. Admittedly, the country has done a poor job trying to assimilate displaced workers into new industries but I have to think most don’t want to go back to any sort of school to learn a new occupation. Don’t even get me started on unions.

        Regarding pipelines… the entire bugaboo about pipelines is nothing but the fear that one will spring a leak and immediately contaminate the entire country. Given the number of gallons shipped by sea and land, and existing pipelines, there’s not been that many accidents. There are ways to assure minimal damage and detect leaks quickly. Companies surely don’t want to just sit and let their profits soak into some aquifer. But, accidents can happen (and just a personal sidebar… we already have a lot of pipelines in this country (crude and natural gas) and we are totally vulnerable to terrorist attack anywhere along the gazillion of miles of pipe… but no one ever talks of that).
        As far as long term effects to local economies… depends over what land the pipes go.

  5. navasolanature

    Sounds a fascinating book and I’ve recently being reading one on the history of Portugal and its influence on the world through its early navigators and the beginning of world trade and trade wars.

    1. katharineotto Post author

      Interesting. Adam Smith’s classic “Wealth of Nations” refers to Portugal’s sudden wealth from the gold mines in South America. Portugal, as a sea-faring country, was a big player in the 1700s, when the import-export frenzy mushroomed.


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