People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 20 

May 24, 2009


The Book That Was Gifted To Obama

R Arun Kumar


AMERICA is no longer 'just the United States'. It is Cuba, it is Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, El Salvador and much more. No longer can rulers of the empire cross them over on a map and order their destruction. The empire is not only rebuked but experiments in building an alternative world are on. It is this that had turned the world's attention on Latin America (not just its wealth), watching its every step, listening its words, reading its books and discussing its ideas.


If Chavez shows a book in the UN and asks the audience to read it, the book shoots to the top of the best selling list. If he gifts another to the president of the US, the feat is repeated. Why? The world is parched for an alternative. It is trying to understand the ruin of its resources, environment and culture carried on by that monster 'capital'  dripping blood from its every pore. It is trying to wriggle out of its iron grasp. It desperately wants change. Eduardo Galeano's, 'Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent' is one such book that tries to provide an answer to this quest. And it is this book that Chavez had gifted to Obama during the summit of Organisation of the Americas held this April in Trinidad and Tobago.


This book, banned by the military dictatorships of Argentina, Uruguay and Chile thirty four years ago, is presented to the president of the very same country which had created those dictatorships. Gifting this book, Chavez had subtly pointed to the newly elected president of US, who had promised 'change', the real change that people are yearning for. It was reported that Obama, author of two best selling books, is also an avid reader and is interested in works that 'address complex problems without any easy solutions'. This book thus should suit his reading tastes.


Eduardo Galeano's book discusses complex problems of the entire continent raking up facts after facts to show the five hundred years of plunder. It is a passionate book written as a 'search for keys in the past history' to explain the present to the people and help them change the existing inequities. It is an expose of the colonial loot, plunder and rape of Latin America written in a simple narrative style for the easy comprehension of the common people. Galeano puts his journalistic and story telling talents to good use and succeeds in keeping the reader away from boredom. 'Boredom' he says, 'often serves to sanctify the established order, confirming that knowledge is a privilege of the elite'.





Latin America has changed since the book was written. Since these thirty odd years, many changes that were inconceivable at that time took place. Many governments are standing up to the hegemony of the United States and are rejecting the neoliberal prescriptions of imperialism. There were days when they felt that it was their tragedy to be so 'far from god and so near to the United States', but not now anymore.


Cuba, is a glaring example. At the time the book was written, Cuba had slowly started its  walk in the path of socialist construction. Today it stands tall, withstanding fifty years of consistent pressure from the US, its overt and covert attacks, terrorist plots, the most inhuman and unjust economic blockade and above all the collapse of the Soviet bloc. More than that, it is not alone as the very summit in which Chavez had presented the book had shown. Many countries - not bothered about what the US might say or do - are claiming that they are friends of Cuba. In a role reversal, it is the US that is alone, something that would have been written off as a wild dream thirty years back. As a Brazilian diplomat has commented, “In the past, the door for talks with the United States on any issue had to remain open. We had no choice. Now we can close it if we want”. The role played by books like the Open Veins cannot be underestimated in this remarkable transformation.


Along with the socio-political transformation achieved during this period, remarkable economic progress too was made. It is true that most of the Latin American countries are still major exporters of raw materials and are dependent on the import of industrial goods. Imperialism, in its scheme of 'division of labour', Galeano points out, had assigned Latin America this role of supplying raw materials to its industries and importing finished products from them.


“Gold was the magic word which drove the Spaniards across the Atlantic Ocean to America; gold was the first thing the white man enquired about the moment he set foot on a newly discovered shore” wrote Engels. Galeano lucidly traces this lust for the natural wealth of Latin America - gold, silver, iron, tin, copper, zinc, oil - and how it had fed the industrial revolution. “The treasures captured outside Europe by undisguised looting, enslavement and murder, floated back to the mother country and were there turned into capital” wrote Marx. Galeano shows how true this is from the examples of Aztec, Mexican plateau, Andean plateau and Amazon basin. The history of loot of Latin America under colonialism is no different from that of our own country. One conspicuous difference in Latin America is the usage of slaves brought from Africa to extract these treasures and service the empire. These tales of exploitation of 'human capital' retold by Galeano should in fact remind Obama of his Kenyan discoveries, mentioned in his 'Dreams From My Father'.





As there existed similarities in the history of loot between our country and Latin America, there did also exist similarities in the history of rebellions. Many of the native Indians in that continent rebelled against the conquerors just as in our country. From the description of Galeano, we can trace the similarities - in their bravery - facing guns and canons with their traditional weapons, instilling confidence in the warriors through their rituals and invocation of gods. This spirit of militant defiance to the colonial powers runs through various generations of the Latin Americans starting from the Aztec warriors to the present day Zapatistas.


The defeat of colonialism in Latin America and its independence did not bring rewards to all those who had fought for it. The ruling classes there - the landlords and bourgeoisie, as Galeano points out had compromised with imperialism. He states that their decision to eagerly open the doors for 'free trade' had led to the 'destruction of local manufacture'. The 'agrarian question' was not resolved and thus even to this day we find the system of latifundio continuing. This, again rings some similarities with the situation in our country.


Galeano also traces the subsequent changes that had taken place in the methods of exploitation. Controlling and sabotaging the price of raw materials is one such method which was affectively used to subjugate Latin America. The prices of sugar, coffee, cotton, cacao (used in chocolates), bananas, various other fruits and minerals were used to make or break regimes. The prices never benefited the common people. This method is not obsolete as imperialism is still using it. It is hoping that the drastic fall in the oil prices in these crisis times would lead to a collapse of the 'Bolivarian socialist model' in Venezuela. Chavez and Venezuela are confident that they can wade out of the present crisis without any major problems, irrespective of the price of oil.





Their confidence also emanates from their belief in the changes that they are ushering in the character of the State. In order to empower the poor and also simultaneously increase their purchasing power they had initiated land reforms. Agrarian reform, points out Galeano, 'was a demand from the beginning'.


Today in the eastern provinces of Bolivia, 100 families manage 25 million hectares of land while 5 million hectares is shared by 2 million poor peasants. In Venezuela, 5 per cent population owned around 80 per cent of the land in 2001, the year when land reforms were introduced. It is to eliminate such inequities that they have consciously included land reforms as one of the important points in the constitutions re-written immediately after securing power. The present day defiance of the oligarchy to the administration of Morales basically stems from this fact. Even in Venezuela, the struggle between Chavez and those opposed to land reforms is being waged everyday, both within his own party and against the land owning classes. Hundreds are losing their lives in this struggle even to this day.


Steps for nationalisation and the strengthening of key industries were initiated. Galeano indeed mentions some of the earlier efforts of nationalisation of key sectors like oil and efforts to strengthen local production. Imperialism as it is doing today, did not allow those earlier efforts to fructify and resorted to coups, regime changes and even assassinations-like that of Allende. Though Obama might have denied the role of US in the aborted bid to assassinate Morales, the threat is real because of all the precedents that Galeano points.


'If the economic hit men fail, the job falls to the military' states John Perkins. The history of Latin America is replete with many such anecdotes. The role of CIA, USAID and the military directly in 'regime change' is well documented. Galeano explains in detail how the US has used 'debt as an instrument of blackmail' through its cohorts - IMF and World Bank. He also shows how this was used to perennially tie these countries to serve US interests. Galeano correctly writes, for the US 'nation more than a hurdle to leap-for sovereignty can be inconvenient-or a succulent fruit to devour'. The rise of Left in the region has seriously crippled this influence of the US. This should not lead us to the conclusion that the US has completely given up its hope in the region, once famously regarded as its 'backyard'.


Within few years of the crisis in 1929, sixteen countries there had witnessed the collapse of governments and the emergence of dictatorships. This time around, Latin America is 'a better-built boat', as stated by Augusto de la Torre, chief economist of the World Bank for the region. 'Better built' because unlike earlier days where they were exclusively dependent on the US, they have now diverisified their trading options. China is emerging as a major trading partner of many countries in Latin America along with Russia. China has recently invested billions in Venezuela, Brazil, Cuba and Ecuador, and agreed to a $10bn currency swap arrangement with Argentina. Recently, China also overtook the US as the number one recipient of Brazilian exports. The developing South-South cooperation, involving South Africa and India and the regional coordination amongst themselves too is contributing to this newly found assertion. No wonder that while the FTAA (Free Trade Agreement of the Americas) has got only three countries in it (US, Canada and Mexico), ALBA (Latin American Bolivarian Alternative) has got many  and is growing in strength.


These developments vindicate the optimism expressed by Galeano in the conclusion, 'in the history of humankind every act of destruction meets its response, sooner or later, in an act of creation'. It is in this act of creation that most of the people of Latin America are today involved in. How stable this creation would be, how strong will it hold, depends on the involvement of people in the running of the state. It depends on how well people are mobilised in the missions, workers committees in the management of industries and in struggles - as Morales has done during his hunger strike. To quote from the book once again, 'if the future came on a platter, it would not be of this world'. It is this world that we have set ourselves to change. Yes we can.

Will Obama listen, as he had promised?