A passionate history of the plunder of a continent

Reviewed by Chris Atkinson

Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent
By Eduardo Galleano
Scribe Publications (2009), 336 pp

Eduardo Galleano’s Open Veins of Latin America made headlines worldwide in April when Venezuela’s socialist President Hugo Chavez gave a copy of it to US President Barack Obama at the April Summit of the Americas in Trinidad. Now Melbourne-based Scribe Publications has reissued it with a new introduction by Isabel Allende, niece of murdered Chilean president Salvador Allende and herself a best-selling author. In a review of the 2007 edition of the book, she wrote: “The book flows with the grace of a tale; it is impossible to put down. His arguments, his rage, and his passion would be overwhelming if they were not expressed with such superb style, with such masterful timing and suspense.”

“But it was written 38 years ago”, you might say. That’s true. Yet in many ways Open Veins remains the definitive history of the US and Europe’s exploitation and pillage of Latin America. Addressing reporters at the April summit, Chavez explained why he chose Open Veins over any other book to give to Obama: “This book is a monument to our Latin American history. It allows us to learn history, and we have to build on this history.” The book’s historical scope is vast, spanning the last five centuries of conquest and plunder of an extremely diverse region. It also covers the tremendous environmental destruction wrought by wave after wave of invaders — from the Spanish Conquistadors through to the US and other imperialist companies that have destroyed vast tracts of the Amazon Rainforest.

Open Veins was banned in the 1970s by the military governments of Chile, Argentina and Galeano’s native Uruguay. Read any few pages and you’ll see why. The book is a passionate but objective account of colonial plunder and imperialist exploitation and a tribute to the resistance of generations of Latin Americans. This is one of the best introductions to Latin American history available. After reading it, I feel the same as Indian social-justice activist and novelist Arundhati Roy: “I cannot recommend this book highly enough... Eduardo Galeano ought to be a household name.”

Writer John Berger said of Galeano: “To publish Eduardo Galeano is to publish the enemy: the enemy of lies, indifference, above all of forgetfulness. Thanks to him, our crimes will be remembered. His tenderness is devastating, his truthfulness furious.” It’s this style — of “speaking truth to power” as some call it — that gives Open Veins its emotive power. It’s also what is not in the book that makes it compelling — it doesn’t need to editorialise without substantiation. Galleano describes his aim as an attempt to “tell more with less. This is a challenge. And so, each one of the stories I tell has been written and rewritten ten times, fifteen times, I don’t know how many times, ’til I get the words that really deserve to exist.” If only Galleano’s approach was more widely adopted in history books!

Open Veins is one the best examples of a history of forgotten people, “the nobodies” as Galleano calls them. So many Latin American history books are written as the history of “great men” rather than the ordinary people. Galeano however presents the history of Latin America as seen through the experiences of the unseen, unheard, and forgotten. So if you’re after a beautiful explanation of the history behind today’s developments in Latin America, Open Veins is a brilliant introduction.