the observer Sat 20 June 2009
When President Obama met Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez at the Summit of the Americas in April this year, he came away with a copy of Eduardo Galeano's best-known work. First published in 1971, and considered so incendiary it was banned by the military governments of Chile, Argentina and Galeano's native Uruguay, Open Veins ... remains pertinent nearly 40 years on.
Detailing "five centuries of the pillage of a continent", this economic history of post-Columbus Latin America tells how its inhabitants have in turn been the victims of genocide, exploitative trade deals and, more recently, a string of murderous US-backed dictators. A continent blessed with bountiful natural resources has been systematically stripped of its gold, silver, tin, copper, oil, nitrates, manganese and rubber, while its people remain among the poorest on earth, with high levels of infant mortality, illiteracy and child prostitution.
Although the colonial crimes of the US and Spain are not glossed over, these countries are far from the only culprits. Galeano shows how Portuguese naivety made Britain the biggest beneficiary of the 18th-century Brazilian gold rush. Indeed, he makes the argument that it was this Brazilian gold, part of a triangular trade between Europe, Africa and South America underpinned by slavery, that was the catalyst for the industrial revolution, allowing Britain to become the pre-eminent global power.
Impassioned and lucid, Galeano is a knowledgeable guide through a shameful history of foreign exploitation. The story he tells goes a long way to explaining the "pink tide" of the last decade. If he needs a primer on his southern neighbours, Obama could do worse than studying Chávez's present.