Publisher: Monthly Review Press
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Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent is Eduardo Galeano’s first and best known work. It is easily one of the most powerful books ever written. A more detailed and thorough account of Latin American history, a history of exploitation, violence and poverty, would be hard to find. Galeano has managed quite a feat in compressing five centuries of history without losing any of its force. Even though it was written forty years ago the book continues to be relevant today.
Open Veins is an analysis of the historical events that have taken place in the continent of Latin America since the time settlers from European nations first arrived. Galeano recounts an endless succession of exploitative practices that the settlers launched upon the native people and their land. Yet the book is not only based on sentimentalism. It is a collection of facts and incidents, narrated in a tone underlined with sadness and anger. It is not merely an account of society and culture, the author undertakes a detailed analysis of the economics and politics of different Latin American countries. Rather than dealing with his exhaustive topic in a chronological manner, Galeano speaks of a land that was stripped one after another of each of its precious resources. Starting from valuable metals gold, silver, copper to organic produce like cacao, rubber and cotton to even bird feces, for being a rich source of nitrates. It might be comic to imagine a land being robbed of bird refuse, but it also underlines the extent to which the robbery occurred, everything that could be used for anything was taken away. The culprits were not just the European colonial powers. Even though Iberian colonial domination of Latin America ebbed away by the end of the nineteenth century, the mantle was immediately picked up by Britain and was ably followed by the US. A large part of the book deals with the guile and violence adopted by various missives of the North American country whose only purpose was to leech away every valuable resource whether by diplomatic maneuvers or forced coercion. The heights to which the manipulations of capitalist ventures based in the US reached are baffling but Galeano ensures that he backs his claims with enough fact so as it leave the reader in doubt of their veracity.
The scope of Open Veins is vast, almost endless, and Galeano’s commitment to laying down facts is immense in that this is an immensely well-researched book. Despite this, Galeano’s style of writing, still to be concretised further in his works that followed, shines through. The book is liberally showered with the witticisms and aphorisms that we have now come to associate with him. It is shot through with images, evoked in a line or two, that convey the history of a traumatized people.
Once again, the translation by Cedric Belfrage deserves plaudits. Usually it would be difficult to judge a work in translation without having read the original but the depth and volume that the English translation conveys would not have been possible without a keen translator. Also, worth mentioning is Isabel Allende’s Foreword to the novel. It is inspired as well as inspiring. It conveys the great significance this book has for Latin American people, otherwise so divided over national boundaries, they stand united in their acclaim of and gratitude towards this book.
It is fashionable to brush aside any political and economic claims made by a writer who has never made any bones about his left leanings. So much so that despite the immediacy of the issues he might be dealing with, everything gets marginalized and the discussion is overtaken by the author’s political affiliation. This is where this book is different, because its argument is so compelling, well-framed and supplied with detailed footnotes and citations, even as the narrative is fueled by rich imagery and lyricism.
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