The Open Veins of Latin America

For those who see history as a 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 had said, is an integral part 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. In the colonial and neocolonial alchemy, gold changes into scrap metal and food into poison. p. 2

The strength of the imperialist system as a whole rests on the necessary inequality of its parts... (3)

The human murder by poverty in Latin America is secret; every year, without making a sound, three Hirsohima bombs explode over communities that have become accustomed to suffering with clenched teeth. This systematic violence is not apparent but is real and constantly increasing: its holocausts are not made known in the sensational press but in Food and Agricultural Organization statistics. (5)

In a sense the right wing is correct in identifying itself with tranquility and order; it is an order of daily humiliation for the majority, but an order nonetheless; it is a tranquility in which injustice continues to be unjust and hunger to be hungry. If the future turns out to be a Pandora's box, the conservative has reason to shout, "I have been betrayed." And the ideologists of impotence, the slaves who look at themselves with the master's eyes, are not slow to join in the outcry. The bronze eagle of the Maine, thrown down on the day the Cuban Revolution triumphed, now lies abandoned, its wings broken, in a doorway in the old town in Havana. 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. (7–8)

Exiled in their own land, condemned to an eternal exodus, Latin America's native peoples were pushed into the poorest areas—arid mountains, the middle of deserts—as the dominant civilization extended its frontiers. The Indians have suffered, and continue to suffer, the curse of their own wealth; that is the drama of all Latin America. (47)

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. (61)

Sugar has destroyed the Northeast. The humid coastal fringe, well watered by rains, had a soil of great fertility, rich in humus and mineral salts and covered by forests from Bahia to Ceará. This region of tropical forests was turned into a region of savannas. Naturally fitted to produce food, it became a place of hunger. Where everything had bloomed exuberantly, the destructive and all-dominating latifundio left sterile rock, washed-out soil, eroded lands. At first there had been orange and mango plantations, but these were left to their fate, or reduced to small orchards surrounding the sugarmill-owner's house, reserved exclusively for the family of the white planter. Fire was used to clear land for canefields, devastating the fauna along with the flora: deer, wild boar, tapir, rabbit, pacas, and armadillo disappeared. All was sacrificed on the altar of sugarcane monoculture. (62)

The food of the minority is the hunger of the majority. (64)

The essential cause of scarcity [in Cuba] is the new abundance of consumers: the country now belongs to everyone, consumption is by all, not just a few. Thus it is scarcity of an opposite kind to that in other Latin American countries. The Revolution is indeed living through the hard times of transition and sacrifice. The Cubans themselves have learned that socialism is built with clenched teeth and that revolution is no evening stroll. But after all, if the future came on a platter, it would not be of this world.

The Revolution is forced to sleep with its eyes open, and in economic terms this also costs dearly. Constantly harassed by invation and sabotage, it does not fall because—strange dictatorship!—it is defended by a people in arms. (77)

The sugar of tropical Latin America gave powerful impetus to the accumulation of capital for English, French, Dutch, and U.S. industrial development, while at the same time mutilating the economy of Northeast Brazil and the Caribbean islands and consummating the historic ruin of Africa. (78)

According to Sergio Bagú, the most potent force for the accumulation of mercantile capital was slavery in the Americas; and this capital in turn became "the foundation stone on which the giant industrial capital of modern times was built." The New World revival of Greco-Roman slavery had miraculous qualities: it multiplied the ships, factories, railroads, and banks of countries that were not originally involved in Africa or—with the exception of the United States—in the fate of the slaves crossing the Atlantic. From the dawn of the sixteenth to the dusk of the nineteenth centuries, many millions of Africans—no one knows how many—crossed the ocean; what is known is that they greatly exceeded the number of white emigrants from Europe, although many fewer survived. From the Potomac to the Río de la Plata, slaves built the houses of their masters, felled the forests, cut and milled the sugarcane, planted the cotton, cultivated the cacao, harvested the coffee and tobacco, and were entombed in the mines. How many Hiroshimas did these successive exterminations add up to? (79–80)

The rich countries that preach free trade apply stern protectionist policies against the poor countries: they turn everything they touch—including the underdeveloped countries' own production—into gold for themselves and rubbish for others. (101)

Violence soon erupted again. For all the panegyrics, coffee had no magic with which to end Colombia's long history of revolt and bloody repression. This time—for ten years, from 1948 to 1957—small and large plantations, desert and farmland, valley and forest and Andean plateau were engulfed in peasant war; it put whole communities to flight; generated revolutionary guerrillas and criminal bands, and turned the country into a cemetery; it is estimated to have left a toll of 180,000 dead. The bloodbath coincided with a period of economic euphoria for the ruling class. But is the prosperity of a class really identifiable with the well-being of a country? (102–103)

The violence did not stop after that: it has been a way of life in Guatemala ever since the period of humiliation and fury began in 1954. Corpses—although not quite so many—continue to turn up in rivers and on roadsides, their featureless faces too disfigured by torture to be identified. The slaughter that is greater more hidden—the daily genocide of poverty—also continues. (115)

"If the free-traders cannot understand how one nation can grow rich at the expense of another, we need not wonder, since these same gentlemen also refuse to understand how within one country one class can enrich itself at the expense of another."—Karl Marx, On the question of free trade

The "opprobrious tyrant" Solano López was a heroic embodiment of the national will to survive; at his side the Paraguayan people, who had known no war for half a century, immolated themselves. Men and women, young and old, fought like lions. Wounded prisoners tore off their bandages so that they would not be forced to figut against their brothers. In 1879, López, at the head of an army of ghosts, old folk, and children who had put on false beads to make an impression from a distance, headed into the forest. The invading troops set upon the debris of Asuncióon with knives between their teeth. When bullets and spears finally finished off the Paraguayan president in the thickets of Cerro Corá, he managed to say: "I die with my country!"—and it was true. Paraguay died with him. López had previously ordered the shooting of his brother and a bishop who accompanied him on this caravan of death. The invaders came to redeem the Paraguayan people, and exterminated them. When the war began, Paraguay had almost a large a population as Argentina. Only 250,000, less than one-sixth, survived in 1870. It was the triumph of civilization. (192–193)

There is no change in the system of intercommunicating arteries through which capital and merchandise circulate between poor countries and rich countries. Latin America continues exporting its unemployment and poverty; the raw materials that the world market needs and whose sale the regional economy depends. Unequal exchange functions as before: hunger wages in Latin America help finance high salaries in the United States and Europe. (207)

In all Latin America, the system produces much less than the necessary monetary demand, and inflation results from this structural impotence. Yet the IMF, instead of attacking the causes of the production apparatus's insufficient supply, launches its cavalry against the consequences, crushing even further the feeble consumer power of the internal market: in these lands of hungry multitudes, the IMF lays the blame for inflation at the door of excessive demand. Its stabilization and development formulas have not only failed to stabilize or develop; they have tightened the external stranglehold on these countries, deepened the poverty of the dispossessed masses—bringing social tensions to the boiling point—and hastened economic and financial denationalization in the name of the sacred principles of free trade, free competition, and freedom of movement for capital. (221)

As the Bank explains it, most of the laons are for building roads and other communications links, and for developing sources of electrical energy, an essential condition for the growth of private enterprise. In effect, these infrastructure projects facilitate the movement of raw materials to ports and world markets and the progress of already denationalized industry in the poor countries. (234)

But the most startling contradiction between theory and reality in the world market emerged in the open "soluble coffee war" in 1967. It then became clear that only the rich countries have the right to exploit for their own benefit the "natural comparative advantages" which theoretically determine the international division of labor. (240)

But the "Argentine," "Brazilian," and "Mexican" factories—to mention only the most important—also occupy an economic space that has nothing to do with their geographical location. Along with many other threads, they make up an international web of corporations whose head offices transfer profits from one country to another, invoicing sales above or below the real prices according to the direction in which they want the profits to flow. The mainsprings of external trade thus remain in the hands of U.S. or European concerns, which orient the countries' trade policies according to the criteria of governments and directorates outside Latin America. (242)

The symbols of prosperity are symbols of dependence. Modern technology is received as railroads were received in the past century, at the service of foreign interests which model and remodel the colonial status of these countries. (245)

Some innocents still believe that all countries end at their frontiers. [...] They forget that a legion of pirates, merchants, bankers, Marines, technocrats, Green Berets, ambassadors, and captains of industry have, in a long black page of history, taken over the life and destiny of most of the peoples of the south, and that at this moment Latin America's industry lies at the bottom of the Imperium's digestive apparatus. (252)

For U.S. 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 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. (259)

It is a big load of rottenness that has to be sent to the bottom of the sea on the march to Latin America's reconstruction. The task lies in the hands of the dispossessed, the humiliated, the accursed. The Latin American cause is above all a social cause: the rebirth of Latin America must start with the overthrow of its masters, country by country. We are entering times of rebellion and change. There are those who believe that destiny rests on the knees of the gods; but the truth is that it confronts the conscience of man with a burning challenge. (261)

I wrote Open Veins to spread some ideas of other people, and some experiences of my own, which might dispel a little of the fog from questions always pursuing us: Is Latin America a region condemned to humiliation and poverty? Condemned by whom? Is God, is Nature, to blame? The oppressive climate, racial inferiority? Religion, customs? Or may not its plight be a product of history, made by human beings and so, unmakeable by human beings? (266)

Open Veins has its roots in reality but also in other books—better books than this one—which have helped us to recognize what we are so as to know what we can be, and see where we come from so as to reckon more clearly where we're going. That reality and those books show that underdevelopment in Latin America is a consequence of development elsewhere, that we Latin Americans are poor because the ground we tread is rich, and that places privileged by nature have been cursed by history. In this world of ours, a world of powerful centers and subjugated outposts, there is no wealth that must not be held in some suspicion. (267)

Business free as never before, people in jail as never before; in Latin America free enterprise is incompatible with civil liberties. (271)

"In democratic countries the violent character inherent in the economy doesn't show itself; in authoritarian countries the same holds true for the economic character of violence." —Bertholt Brecht

In difficult times democracy becomes a crime against national security—that is, against the security of internal privilege an dforeign investment. Our devices for mincing human flesh are part of an international machinery. The whole society is militarized, the state of exception is made permanent, and the repressive apparatus is endowed with hegemony by the turn of a screw in the centers of the imperial system. When crisis begins to throw its shadow, the pillage of poor countries must be intensified to guarantee full employment, public liberties, and high rates of development in the rich countries. The sinister dialectic of victim-hangman relations: a structure of successive humiliations that starts in international markets and financial centers and ends in every citizen's home. (274–275)

Whatever Latin America sells—raw materials or manufactures—its chief export product is really cheap labor.

Hasn't our experience throughout history been one of mutilation and disintegration disguised as development? (279)

Slave ships no longer ply the ocean. Today the slavers operate from the ministries of labor. African wages, European prices. What are the Latin American coups d'état but successive episodes in a war of pillage? The dictators hardly grasp their scepters before they invite foreign concerns to exploit the local, cheap, and abundant work force, the unlimited credit, the tax exemptions, and the natural resources that await them on a silver try. (279)

The statistics may wear a smile, but the people get taken. In systems organized upside down, when the economy grows, social injustice grows with it. (282)

The system would like to be confused with the country. The system is the country, says the official propaganda that bombards the citizenry day and night. The enemy of the system is a traitor to the fatherland. CCapacity for indignation against injustice and a desire for change are proofs of desertion. In many Latin American countries, citizens who aren't exiled beyond the frontiers live as exiles on their own soil.

In these lands we are not experiencing the primitive infancy of capitalism but its vicious senility. Underdevelopment isn't a state of development, but its consequence. Latin America's underdevelopment arises from external development, and continues to feed it. A system made impotent by function of its international servitude, and moribund since birth, has feet of clay. It pretends to be destiny and would like to be thought eternal. All memory is subversive, because it is different, and likewise any program for the future. The zombie is made to eat without salt: salt is dangerous, it could awaken him. The system has its paradigm in the immutable society of ants. For that reason 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. (285)