Saturday, April 07, 2007

Blood of a Continent

After all this time and four visits to the relevant part of the world, I finally got around to reading Eduardo Galeano's The Open Veins of Latin America. I remember on my very first day in South America, an intense young Spanish political science student explaining to me on a hot hostel terrace in Santiago that I sould read this book if I wanted to understand the continent's tortured history, society and politics.

He was right. I regret to say that in the intervening time, I lazily inherited a view of the book as an "it's all the gringos' fault" polemic that oversimplified the issues facing the different countries. I came to associate it with some of the tub thumping nationalist politics I encountered in Peru and Bolivia, and the view that wealth is something static that you find or steal, rather than create.

There's certainly enough in Open Veins' outrage-flecked prose style to give succour to those who would blame it all on the foreigners. Yet it's also consistent with the view of some local writers that Latin societies are hobbled by self-inflicted woes, including fatalism, lack of a work ethic, unhealthy hero worship, corrupt politicans, weak institutions, and systematic bureaucractic obstacles to entrepreneurs.

You don't by any means have to share all of Galeano's politics to appreicate Open Veins as a compelling story of how Latin America came to be the way it is.

Galeano's thesis is simple. Systematic exploitation and underdevelopment wasn't something that contingently happened to Latin America - it was the continent's colonial raison d'etre. He documents how it became a "source and reserve of...raw materials and food for the rich countries".

These raw materials were initially gold, silver, and copper; later coffee, bananas, sugar, cotton, rubber, nickel, tin, and oil. Their extraction was on the backs of the enforced labour of native populations, replaced or supplemented by the slave traffic from Africa as the former were exhausted.

Colonisation, in the sense of the gradual establishment and building of a new society, was never the point. Rather, the aim was plunder, and to funnel the raw materials out through "veins" that led to the ports or capital cities. Ticket-clipping local elites got rich enough, at the expense of their hinterlands, to be able to buy back some of the finished goods from Europe and later the USA.

While it was the Spanish and Portuguese crowns that undertook the original conquests, by the 17th century they were weak, overstretched and indebted. It was British and Dutch capital that financed the Latin American imperiums, and it was British, Dutch, French, and later American interests that determined the course of the continent's (under) development.

So far, so Marxist, you might say. But once we get past the undeniable horror of the conquests, the encomiendas, and the slave trade, Galeano's historical diagnosis is relatively uncontroversial. The ongoing failure of Latin America is its inability to develop a strong, indigenous capitalism that adds value to raw materials and spreads wealth through the wider society by broadening and deepening the economy.

Galeano explains the systematic protectionism of the northern European countries and the United States as they built their industrial economies, and documents how attempts to follow a similar process in Latin America have been kneecapped politically, often from the outside. The sine qua nons of development - improvements in agricultural productivity, land reform, and strengthened internal markets - have rarely got past first base.

It's a moot point how much this is due to external manipulation, and at what point local weakness and incompetence shares the blame. For Galeano, the underlying causes are the same.

In any case, Galeano has enough evidence that the odds have been sufficiently stacked against Latin American producers as to make modern cries for "free trade" seem hypocritical. In just one example he cites from the 60s, Brazil agreed to tax its own exports of soluble coffee, so as not to undercut US producers (given their handicaps, is it surprising that the wannabe entrepreneurs of Latin America have conspired to develop the one industry where they do have full control of resource extraction, processing, distribution and marketing: cocaine).

In order to appreciate the problem description, you don't have to agree with the solution. Galeano's unabashed cheerleading for Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution slightly embarasses even this pinko leftist. In our world of post-Friedman orthodoxy,his favourable view of the big-government adventures of various nationalist caudillos - including Peron in Argentina - seems almost as radical. But if you factor in the diagnosis, even avowed economic liberals might concede some of his rationale. So weak were local capitalists, argues Galeano, so passively complacent the thin upper-middle classes, that if anyone was going to deepen and diversify the local economy, it had to be the state.

Part II of Open Veins deals with the post-industrial age, where Galeano accounts for the partial development of parts of Latin America. His concept of "poles of development" refers to how the subjugation of Latin America by the West is mirrored locally: through Brazil and Argentina's dominance of their smaller neighbours, and, within countries, the "exploitation by the big cities and ports of their internal sources of food and labour".

He argues that much "foreign investment" actually results in a net outflow for Latin countries. Auto assembly, for example, involves local subsidiaries of large Western companies paying arbitrary prices for parts from their head office, and then remitting most of the profits back to their home country.

There's a lot that could be critiqued by political and economic historians, and indeed I would be interested to see his empirical evidence subjected to scrutiny (rather than simply sweeping it under the carpet and calling him a Marxist).

But part of what is so compelling about the narrative of Open Veins is that it ties together much of what one experiences when getting to know Latin America.

The poor internal transport links and communications between countries and regions; the land sitting idle (parts of Peru had a more comprehensive network of roads and more agricultural land in production during the Incan empire than they do now); the upper class people more likely to have visited Miami than Cuzco. The arbitrariness of wealth, where some people work frantically hard, and other people have money, but there's no discernible connection between the two. The local and central government more likely to hinder citizens' attempts to get ahead than to help them. The prearranged deals which make it easier for politicans and bureaucrats to be corrupt than honest.

In many ways, it's remarkable that this was published in 1973. So much of what we associate with Latin America's contemporary history has happened since. Pinochet's coup in Chile; the Argentinian military dictatorship; financial crises; revolution and war in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala; Peru's Shining Path insurgency; IMF neoliberal makeovers leading up to the "Bolivian gas wars" and Argentina's 2003 financial collapse.

Reading Open Veins makes me eager to hunt down Galeano's more contemporary writings to see what he makes of all these events. In particular, I'd like to know whether he thinks the current state of affairs is an improvement on the dark days of his 1977 epilogue.

Because, perhaps with unreasonable optimism, I believe a corner may finally have been turned in Latin America's long struggle for maturity. Whether you approve more of Evo Morales' nationalisation process, or Chile's incremental social democractic reforms (and reasonable people might concede that both approaches are appropriate for the respective countries in their different situations), it seems that a majority of countries are now electing governments better equipped and prepared to tackle their underlying problems. More are insisting on the right to tackle their own unique challenges in their own way.

There are also signs that the countries of Latin America are, in an intermittent and still bitchy way, putting aside their artificially sustained national rivalries and working towards greater integration and a greater say in world affairs.

Of course, setbacks and failures are still ahead. The greatest challenge will be to empower and unleash the creativity of the masses of people who have long been nothing more than a source of cheap labour. Who knows how long it will take to shake off Latin America's historical legacy and ensure that blood flows heathily through and around its body, nourishing all its members?

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Biby Cletus said...

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Warm Regards

Biby Cletus - Blog

Tony R said...

I also enjored reading your summary view of "Open Veins" and it's views on the history of Latin America. I am always amazed when you look more closely at even strongly felt perceptions you usually find "the perception is sort of correct . . . but the truth is more complicated than that".

Part of the frustration with Latin America is not that, like Africa, it has been exploited for so long (even though it has been), but, unlike Africa, it keeps providing good indications of progress only to have the substantial improvement prove a mirage. It is like the people there only "sort of get" what is needed to build a first world civilisation.

For me, your summary of their attitude to each other at both an individual and political level has meant they remain "a house divided upon itself" and so vulnerable to outside exploitation.

Thanks for your insights.

Simon Bidwell said...

Cheers, Tony.

Yes, your comment about "a house divided upon itself" describes it quite well. In many Latin American countries, the social divisons are deep and complex, and this is part of what holds them back. But, given their history, both colonial and post-colonial, these problems are hardly surprising.

The tricky challenge is to greatly improve the social and economic participation of the masses of excluded people, while maintaining some kind of stability.

Each country needs to work out its own way to do this, by trial and error if necessary. Given that this process is probably already harder for Latin American nations than many others, I think the Cold War was a major impediment to progress. Being used as a playground for competing ideologies for 40 years was hardly conducive to countries finding their own best way to manage their affairs.

Even today, it's extraordinary that the US media covers Latin America almost entirely in terms of "do they like Bush or Chavez?", when the majority of people in the region are completely unimpressed by either.

But I still think it's hopeful; a number of countries are now knuckling down to address their issues, and one thing that has improved across the board is democratic participation at a politcal level.

When the Latin American nations eventually make it as stable, prosperous, and more egalitarian societies, I think they will have done it in different ways, and won't necessarily conform to our assumptions of what we think a 'first-world civilsation' looks like - in fact, we may eventually find that us Westerners have something to learn from them.