Friday, December 04, 2009

Booknote: Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina

I was a young and pretty bright eyed freshman in college when I first read Eduardo Galeano's Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina, known in English as The Open Veins of Latin America. I remember it made quite an impression on me. It is a strong book about the history of a pillaged continent. It is also a must-read if you wish to truly understand the history of Latin America. I decided to reread it this year after Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez gave a copy of it to U.S. President Barack Obama. The book once again became a bestseller after that event. Some people starting making jokes about the Chávez Book Club. It is known that many in the United States dislike Chávez, but I will argue that reading Galeano's book will go a long way in explaining why men like Chávez rise to power in Latin America and why they tend to be so popular. I will warn my American (namely U.S.) readers that the U.S. does not fare well in this book. If you are just looking for yet another U.S. history that glorifies the nation and glosses over the many pillages and imperialistic raids the U.S. has done over the centuries in Latin America, then this is not the book for you. If you wish to read the true history, written from the point of view of those who have been oppressed, and if you wish to truly understand the history of Latin America, what has happened, and what has led us to this point in time, then you have to read this book.

The strength of Galeano's book is in the narrative. When most people think of history, they think of the usual dry facts, dates, and places. You will get a lot of facts, dates, and places in this book. Galeano does provide a lot of footnotes to document things. But he writes the history as a narrative. This book can be read almost like a novel, except for the fact that what it tells is not fiction. Galeano has the skill to bring the big picture along with the stories of small places and persons. From Mexico to Minas Gerais to the Caribbean, Galeano takes his readers on a 500 year historical tour of the continent. We read about peasants and aristocrats, about laborers and kings, indians and criollos, landlords and multinationals and dictators and U.S. officials all coming together in the story. The narrative is broken down into episodes, so you can read the book a bit at a time. The narrative can be very moving at times, and at times, if you have any sense of humanity, you will experience some outrage. And if you were not informed, you will come out with a pretty good understanding of why Latin America is the way it is. From why do we have so many immigrants from there coming to the U.S. (no, not all are Mexican, by the way)? What's the deal with those civil wars in places like Guatemala? You will learn about all the resources that come out of Latin America to keep consumers in places like the U.S. happy and satiated, and the price of that happiness and satiation. But this is not just a narrative. Galeano does a very good analysis of that history as well.

The book was written in 1971. The edition I have on my shelf was finished in 1977 or so. In fact, it has an update labeled "7 years later" at the end which updates it at the time. The book itself has been updated since. For instance, there is a 1997 edition with a foreword by Isabel Allende. In that foreword, Allende, who had to flee from the 1973 military coup in Chile that put Pinochet in power, says that among the few possessions she was able to take were two books. One was a copy of Pablo Neruda's Odes. The other book was Galeano's book. If I had to do the old exercise of what books I would want in a deserted island, Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina would be one of those books. The book is available in translation in English (and in other languages), so Obama has no excuse not to read it (even if he may not be able to read the edition in Spanish he got from Chavez), and Obama probably should be reading it if he wants to have a better understanding of his neighbors to the south.

And as an added bonus, if you need a book reading idea for Banned Books Week, this book was actually banned by four Latin American countries when it came out: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay. These countries were under right-wing dictatorships at the time, and to put it simply, they did not appreciate Galeano pointing out their faults and exploitation, often done in association with the U.S., in explicit detail. As a friend of mine pointed out, any book that was banned in various Latin American countries (i.e. in its own backyard, so to speak), deserves to be read. And for me that also makes a very good reason to read it and recommend it to others. So go get yourself a copy and do some reading.

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