Reading the Past to Challenge the Present

Kavita Krishnan

Since that day in Cuba, other countries have set off on different roads on the experiment of change: perpetuation of the existing order of things is perpetuation of the crime. Recovery of the resources that have always been usurped is recovery of our destiny.
The ghosts of all the revolutions that have been strangled or betrayed through Latin America’s tortured history emerge in the new experiments, as if the present had been foreseen and begotten by the contradictions of the past. History is a prophet who looks back: because of what was, and against what was, it announces what will be.”   - Open Veins of Latin America, p 8.  Eduardo_Galeano_by_Robert_Yabeck_8_04
Eduardo Galeano wrote the above passage in 1971, in the Spanish original of Open Veins of Latin America; the “new experiments” he wrote of at that time, for instance Salvador Allende’s government in Chile, were “strangled and betrayed” brutally not long after those words were written. When, 38 years later, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez chose to gift a copy of this book to US President Barack Obama at last month’s OAS Summit (see Liberation May 2009), he was no doubt acutely aware of the ironies and significances involved. Venezuela, along with Bolivia, are two Latin American countries that have not only recently set off on the road of change, but have also taken along many other sister countries in the region on at least a part of that journey to recover their collective destiny. And at the OAS, Obama was faced with a situation where every single Latin American country demanded an end to the policy of trying to strangle the Cuban Revolution through the cruel blockade imposed on it by the USA.
 Galeano’s poetic account of the political economy of plunder and primitive accumulation in Latin America is masterly and moving. Beginning with Columbus and ending with an epilogue written “seven years after” the book was first published, this book, in Galeano’s own words, writes “about political economy in the style of a novel about love or pirates.”
The book has appeared for the first time in an Indian edition, published by the Three Essays Collective in October 2008. It is remarkable that a book written nearly four decades ago in Latin America should be so rich in resonances for readers in India. The book tells the stories of sugar, cacao, cotton, coffee, fruit, and minerals – “each product has come to embody the fate of countries, regions, and peoples…The more a product is desired by the world market, the greater the misery it brings to the Latin American peoples whose sacrifice creates it.” Each of these stories ought to be an object lesson for India: resonating not only in the stories of indigo (and opium, as narrated by the Sea of Poppies) of British colonialism, but even today, in the stories of foreign multinationals dictating to Indian farmers what crops – Bt cotton and brinjal, vanilla, pepper, bio-fuel, particular varieties of potato suitable for chips, etc – they should grow instead of food, and what fertilizers they must buy. When Galeano writes of Latin America’s elites who stash millions in Swiss banks while peasants live on a pittance, squander on ostentation what could be invested in job-generating means of production, and “harnessed as they have always been to the constellation of imperialist power,…have no interest whatsoever in determining whether patriotism might not prove more profitable than treason” and who let “sovereignty (be) mortgaged because ‘there’s no other way’,” he could be talking of India’s ruling class. Of course, capitalist development in India is not as parasitic as it has been in Latin America, but the Indian ruling class, like its Latin American counterpart, made its peace feudalism and imperialism. Galeano’s comment on agrarian reform: “politicians have learned that the best way not it have it is to keep invoking it” is certainly equally true of the last 62 years of Indian democracy. And the sight of leaders of various Indian parties competing to fawn before US envoys, and CIA and FBI openly taking charge of investigations of terror attacks on Indian soil, the signing of the Nuke Deal that ties India to a promise of keeping its foreign policy ‘congruent’ with that of the US –all these are ominous warning. Even as large parts of Latin America are taking the uphill but exhilarating road away from the past of being shackled to imperialism, India’s ruling class is ironically turning away from every semblance of independence and taking the very road that led Latin America down to disaster. Latin America is climbing out of the pit – and India is careening towards the pit! For the people of India, reading Open Veins now could be a timely warning of the consequences.
At the OAS Summit, Obama spoke of the continued US concern for ‘liberty’ for Cuba. Galeano painstakingly lays out the facts about Cuba before the Revolution – a country where the US ambassador was, in the words of one such ambassador “sometimes even more important than the Cuban president,” a country which was a producer of raw materials for the US, completely dependent on the US for everything – food, clothing, machinery, even maintenance of the simplest of equipment in its factories. And then he describes that remarkable adventure of a crippled country learning to walk on its own feet – challenging the “structure of impotence” with “its strength, its gaiety, and its audacity.” The Cuban revolt was a true “audacity of hope”, President Obama. Galeano then tells of popular protest against the military dictatorship in another “sugar country” – the Dominican Republic – in 1965. 40,000 US Marines invaded it, and crushed the revolt: killing 4000 patriotic fighters who fought with sticks, machetes and guns against tanks, bazookas and helicopters, and establishing the CEO of a US sugar corporation as the US President’s special envoy. “The Organization of American States – which has the memory of a donkey, never forgetting where it eats – blessed the invasion and supplied it with new forces. The germ of another Cuba had to be exterminated.” Whether Obama, the “reader,” will read those pages of his gift, is not known: but certainly, the thousands inspired by Chavez’ gift to read this book will open their eyes wide when a US President dares to preach ‘liberty’ to Cuba, that nation that snatched liberty – and defended it – from the jaws of a mighty US imperialism!      
  Open Veins connects the dots between an amazing range of phenomena – between slavery, James Watt’s steam engine, and George Washington’s cannon; wealth and poverty; the “subsoil” and coup d’etats. The picture that emerges, full of detail, colour and exactitude, not at all a caricature, is that of the character of capital. Marx said capitalism comes into the world “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt;” Galeano tells us how much blood, what kind of dirt. And yet, as Chilean novelist Isabel Allende remarks in her foreword, Galeano is an optimist, and Open Veins, amazingly, is suffused with “the breath of hope.”
The book tells of many of Latin America’s heroic revolutionaries and aborted revolutions – reading it, one can better understand how Chavez and Morales have tapped into a deeply buried but rich lode of nationalism in the region: in Bolivia’s case, especially, it is a nationalism of the Indians – a people doubly oppressed – by colonialism and imperialism as well as by the dominant races and classes within their own nations. Galeano gives us the saga of the peasant movement led by Emiliano Zapata, and tells of how this defeated movement nevertheless later led to some measure of agrarian reform in Mexico. But, he points out, “Mexican nationalism did not lead to socialism and consequently, like other countries that failed to take the decisive step, Mexico did not achieve its goals of economic independence and social justice.” Aware of this history, Chavez and Morales, leading experiments that are at this stage radical by virtue of being truly nationalist and anti-imperialist, today align with Cuba and speak of taking the experiments forward towards socialism.
Open Veins, towards the end, observes that “For US imperialism to be able to ‘integrate and rule’ Latin America today, it was necessary for the British Empire to help divide and rule us yesterday.” Latin America had common bonds of tradition, language, history – but “lacked one essential condition to form one great nation – economic community.” Open Veins is, like Che’s Motorcycle Diaries, a plea for Latin American unity as envisaged by Bolívar the Liberator and other nationalists: “Latin America was born as a single territory in the imaginations and hopes of Simón Bolívar, José Artigas, and José de San Martín, but was broken in advance by the basic deformations of the colonial system,” and Bolívar died defeated with the cry, “We shall never be happy, never.” In 1971, Open Veins saw how “any of the multinational corporations operates with more coherence and sense of unit than the congeries of islands that is Latin America…Each country suffers from deep fissures in its own body”, and observed the “sub-imperialist role” of countries like Brazil. We cannot but be struck with the similarities with South Asia, with India in the infamous ‘sub-imperialist’ role. Having read this account of a continent sundered for colonial and imperialist greed, the efforts of the Bolivarian revolution led by Chavez to forge an “economic community,” and, along with Cuba, challenge the legacy of centuries of divide and rule, become all the more inspiring.
Galeano ends the original 1971 book with Bolívar’s prophecy that the United States seemed fated to “plague America with woes in the name of liberty” (we may add, not just America but West Asia and perhaps soon South Asia too). Galeano then ends with a challenge: “…heroes betrayed yesterday cannot be redeemed by traitors of today…The task lies in the hands of the dispossessed, the humiliated, the accursed…the rebirth of Latin America must start with the overthrow of its masters, country by country. We are entering times of rebellion and change.” The ‘rebellion and change’ of 1971 was crushed brutally within less than a decade. One can only hope that the fresh wave of rebellion and change ushered in by Chavez, Morales and others can prove more enduring.  
In the last part of the book, Galeano revisits Open Veins seven years after it was first published. He recounts the moving episodes in which the book irrepressibly refused to stay silent and keep within its covers: a girl reading Open Veins to her companion in a bus in Bogotá, finally stands up and reads it aloud to the passengers; at least two women (one of them Isabel Allende as recounted in the foreword), seem to have chosen to carry a precious copy of Open Veins with them when forced to flee Chile after Allende’s fall; a student, unable to afford to buy the book, goes from bookstore to bookstore reading bits of it.  Galeano cherishes the “praise” bestowed in the shape of bans on the book by the military dictatorships of Uruguay, Chile, and Argentina, quoting Spanish poet Blas de Otero – “They don’t let people see what I write because I write what I see.”
Galeano describes his book as “a talk with people,” expressing irritation with the expert sociologists, economists and historians who “write in code.” Books that bore, he says, “serve to sanctify the established order, confirming that knowledge is a privilege of the elite.” Nor does he spare the clichéd “revolutionary rhetoric” aimed at the converted, saying, “a language that repeats the same cliches, adjectives, and declamatory formulas for the same ears seems conformist to me,” and suggesting that perhaps such literature “is as remote from revolution as pornography is remote from eroticism.”
Like most of Galeano’s work, this book is committed to uncovering the relationships between development and underdevelopment, wealth and poverty:   
“For those who see history as competition, Latin America’s backwardness and poverty are merely the result of its failure. We lost; others won. But the winners happen to have won thanks to our losing: the history of Latin America’s underdevelopment is, as someone has said, an integral part of the history of world capitalism’s development. Our defeat was always implicit in the victory of others; our wealth has always generated our poverty by nourishing the prosperity of others – the empires and their native overseers.”  
And, again like most of Galeano’s work, it is a book committed to asserting the subversive power of memory against amnesia: “All memory is subversive, because it is different…The zombie is made to eat without salt: salt is dangerous, it could awaken him.” Open Veins ends with the words: “The system has its paradigm in the immutable society of ants. For that reason it accords ill with the history of humankind, because that is always changing. And because in the history of humankind every act of destruction meets its response, sooner or later, in an act of creation.” Born in a part of the world and a juncture in history battered by ruthless forces determined to destroy, Open Veins is an affirmation of the act of creation, of stubborn humanity.