The Open Veins of Latin America, Part One

The forced exportation of gold, silver, sugar, coffee, and rubber

     In 2009 at the Summit of the Americas, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez gave a copy of Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America to U.S. President Barack Obama, saying to the new American president that the book tells the Latin American story.  Obama looked at the book for a second and placed it on a table, thus casting aside the opportunity to have a brief discussion about the book with Chávez.  In his pre-election autobiography, The Audacity of Hope, Obama’s chapter on his boyhood years in Indonesia demonstrates that he has the capacity to understand, at least when aided by personal experiences, that U.S. policies promote the underdevelopment of Third World nations; but the book also demonstrates Obama’s capacity to compartmentalize the Third World, and to focus his thought on issues central to U.S. public discourse.  The subsequent policies of the Obama administration indicate that Obama either did not read Galeano; or placed it in a compartment of his mind, inaccessible when dealing with issues related to the promotion and defense of U.S. power in the world.

      Hugo Chávez was the leader of the Bolivarian Revolution that transformed the politics of Latin America from 1994 to 2016, and continues to be the only viable option for the region; a revolution that seeks the genuine independence of the nations of the region from the United States and other imperialist nations of the North.  Chávez’s book gift to Obama symbolized the hope of the peoples of Latin America at that time, the hope that the powerful northern nation’s first black president would redirect U.S. foreign policy toward cooperation with Latin America and the Third World.  It was an optimism that did not appreciate the constellation of forces that had brought Obama to the presidency.  Chávez probably knew better, but he was never one to be disdainful toward the hopes of the people.  Many in Latin America have long said that imperialism will always be imperialism, until power is taken from the imperialists and placed in the hands of the delegates of the people.

      The Open Veins of Latin America was originally published in Mexico in 1971 as Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina.    The book is organized not by geography or time, but by natural resource.   It describes how the natural resources of the region have made others rich, and their extraction has made impoverished the regions where they were found.  Since the arrival of the European conquistadores, Latin America has been bleeding with open veins.  Neither the emergence of independent nations nor the replacement of Europeans by Americans could stop the flow of blood.

     Galeano begins: “Latin America is the region of open veins.  Everything, from the discovery until our time, has always been transmuted into European—or later North American—capital, which thus has accumulated and is accumulating in distant centers of power.  Everything: the land, its fruits and its depths rich in minerals, the people and their capacity to work and to consume, the natural resources, and the human resources.  The mode of production and the class structure of each place have been successively determined from outside by their incorporation into the universal machine of capitalism.  To each has been assigned a function, always in benefit of the development of the foreign metropolis of the moment.” 

     For Galeano, it was a question of the relation between the development of some nations and the underdevelopment of others: “For those who conceive of history as a competition, the backwardness and misery of Latin American are no other thing than the result of its failure.  We lost; others won.  But the winners won thanks to us who lost: the history of the underdevelopment of Latin America integrates . . . the history of the development of world capitalism….  Our wealth always has generated our poverty in order to nourish the prosperity of others.”

     The exploitation of the natural resources of Latin America during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was principally an exploitation of gold and silver, which was found in great quantities in the Mexican plateau and in high plateaus of the Andes, and in lesser quantities in the riverbeds of the Caribbean.  The Spanish conquest of the Aztec and Inca empires and the Caribbean peoples established access to the minerals. 

     The gold and silver made possible the economic development of Europe.  “The metals robbed from the new colonial dominions stimulated European economic development, and it even can be said that they made it possible.” But the gold and silver stimulated the development of Northwestern Europe, not the development of Spain, because the Spanish purchased manufactured goods from Northwestern Europe.  As Galeano expresses it, “The Spanish had the cow, but it was others who drank the milk.” “Neither Spain nor Portugal received the benefits of the sweeping advance of capitalist mercantilism, although their colonies were those that, in substantial measure, supplied the gold and silver that fueled this expansion.” (See “The Spanish and Portuguese conquest of the Americas, 16th century: The origins of the modernization of Northwestern Europe,” May 25, 2021).

     Gold also was discovered by the Portuguese in its colony of Brazil, and they developed gold mines first in Minas Gerais and later and more extensively in Ouro Preto.  During the course of the eighteenth century, Galeano notes, the Portuguese colony exported more gold than the Spanish colonies had exported during the previous two centuries.  This was accomplished through imposition of a harsh system of slavery on indigenous and imported African populations.  As had occurred with the Spanish, this process promoted the development of British manufacturing rather than that of Portugal, as the gold was used by the Portuguese to purchase manufactured goods from the English, and in addition, the colony of Brazil was opened to British manufacturing.

     Sugar was developed as an important raw material for export during the period of the origin, development, and consolidation of the world-economy (1492-1815).  Galeano writes that “The search for gold and silver was, without doubt, the central motor of the conquest.  But on his second voyage, Christopher Columbus brought the first roots of sugar cane from the Canary Islands, and he planted them in lands that today are located in the Dominican Republic.  . . .  In a little less than three centuries after the discovery of America, there was for European commerce no agricultural product more important than the sugar cultivated in these lands.”

     The Portuguese colony of Brazil was the first to develop sugar production on a large scale, developing it on the coastal northeastern region of the colony.  By the middle of the seventeenth century, Brazil was the principal producer of sugar in the world, and it was the largest market for African slaves.  The financing of sugar production in Brazil was undertaken by Dutch capital, and Dutch companies owned the sugar mills and managed the importation of African slaves. 

      In the Caribbean islands, the production of sugar became so extensive that they came to be known as the “Sugar Islands.” Galeano writes that Barbados was the first Caribbean island to establish sugar plantations on a large scale, and the Dutch were the first to develop them on the small British colony.  The sugar plantations on the island displaced the production of a variety of agricultural and animal products by small-scale producers; and it devastated the dense forests and exhausted the soil.  Sugar production also was developed on the Caribbean islands of the Leeward Islands, Trinidad-Tobago, Guadalupe, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Santo Domingo, Cuba, and Jamaica as well as Guyana on the South American coast.

     By the second half of the eighteenth century, one of the leading producers of sugar was the French colony of Haiti, where in 1791, a slave revolution erupted.  Galeano writes that the insurrectionist slaves pushed the French army to the sea and burned the sugar plantations, leaving sugar production paralyzed.  The newly independent nation, under the leadership of insurrectionist General Toussaint-Louverture, immediately suffered a blockade imposed by an international coalition of global powers, facilitating the end of the revolutionary process launched by the slaves, although the nation remained formally independent.  (The Haitian Revolution was the first anti-colonial revolution, and Toussaint was the first case of a revolutionary leader with exceptional capacities.  I will be writing about the Haitian Revolution, drawing upon the classic work by C.L.R. James, and also about the phenomenon of exceptional leaders in Third World revolutions, in future commentaries.)

     The destruction of sugar production in Haiti led to the rapid expansion of sugar production in Cuba, which became the world´s leading sugar producer.  Galeano notes that the expansion of sugar production in Cuba led to an expansion in the importation of slaves and the displacement of other land use patterns, including production by small farmers of tobacco and vegetable products.  The extensive sugar plantations reduced the forests and the fertility of the soil.  (I will be writing in future commentaries about Cuba and the importance of the Cuban Revolution as an anti-colonial and anti-imperialist Third World revolution).

      Sugar production promoted development of the nations of the core, where it was marketed and consumed, and underdevelopment for Brazil and the Caribbean, where it was cultivated.  Galeano writes: “Sugar not only produced dwarfs.  It also produced giants, or at least, it contributed intensely to the development of giants.  The sugar of the Latin American tropics gave great impulse to the accumulation of capital for the industrial development of England, France, Holland, and also the United States, at the same time that it mutilated the economies of northeastern Brazil and the Caribbean islands and sealed the ruin of the history of Africa.”  Galeano quotes Augusto Cochin: “The history of a grain of sugar is above all a lesson in political economy, politics, and morality.”

     With respect to the nineteenth century production of coffee in Central America, which resulted from economic policies adopted by Liberal governments, Galeano writes: “the cultivation of coffee discouraged, in its expansion without limit, the cultivation of food destined for local markets.  These countries as well were condemned to suffer a chronic scarcity of rice, beans, maize, wheat, and beef.  A miserable agriculture of subsistence scarcely survived, in high and broken lands where the plantations had corralled the indigenous population, having appropriated the lower lands of greater fertility.  In the mountains, cultivating in miniscule parcels the maize and beans necessary to survive, the indigenous people lived a part of the year providing labor, during the harvests, to the plantations.  They are the labor reserve of the world market.  The situation has not changed: the plantation and the small parcel of land constitute together the unity of a system that is based upon the ruthless exploitation of indigenous labor.”

     Coffee production also was developed in Brazil during the nineteenth century, utilizing both slave labor and European immigrant labor.  After the abolition of slavery in 1888, a system that combined feudal-like servitude with salaried work was developed and continued to exist in the twentieth century.  The land in the Brazilian river valley of Paraíba “was rapidly annihilated by this mortal plant that, cultivated in a destructive system, left in its wake devastated forests, exhausted natural reserves, and general decadence”

     When Charles Goodyear discovered in 1850 that combining sulfur with rubber enabled it to preserve its elasticity under conditions of changing temperature, the technical basis for the development of rubber tires was established.  At that time, the Brazilian Amazon was home to nearly all of the rubber trees of the world.  Galeano notes that by 1890, rubber became the second most important export from Brazil, second only to coffee, which also was at its height at that time.  The population of Manaus, the capital of the world rubber commerce, grew from 5000 inhabitants in 1849 to 70,000 by 1900.

     The labor for the product was provided by farmers who had emigrated from areas that had been struck by draught.  They traveled to the Amazon River, where they were stacked in the holds of ships for transport to their final destination.  Already weakened before they began the journey by low levels of nutrition and the spread of disease, many died en route.  In 1878, Galeano reports, 120,000 of the 800,000 inhabitants of Ceará left for the Amazon, but less than half were able to arrive.

     Galeano maintains that the forced labor for the export of rubber was a form a debt peonage similar to slavery.  In addition to the original debt for transport to the Amazon, other debts accumulated for work tools and food.  In general, the older the worker, the greater was the debt that had accumulated.  There was an agreement among the companies that no worker with pending debts with another company would be employed, and rural guards were placed along the rivers, firing shots at fugitives. 

     But by 1919, the Brazilian exportation of rubber had crashed.  Galeano reports that in 1873, an Englishman named Henry Wickham had clandestinely taken seeds of the Brazilian rubber trees, and this would eventually lead to the cultivation of rubber trees on plantations in Malaysia and Ceylon in a rational system of production, which did not have the extractive problems of the natural production in the Amazon.  There was, however, a brief revival of Brazilian rubber during the World War II with the Japanese occupation of Malaysia.

     Charles Goodyear was a U.S. inventor who died insolvent in 1860.  He experienced constant indebtedness, as others infringed on his patent for the vulcanization of rubber.  His biographical entries in encyclopedias make no mention of any participation on his part in the superexploitation of the people of the Amazon.  In addition, he had had nothing to do with the company that bears his name, which was founded in 1898 in Akron, Ohio by Frank A. Seiberling, and which today is one of the four largest tire manufacturers in the world.

      Gold, silver, sugar, coffee, and rubber illustrate the fundamental structures of the world system:  forced labor in the periphery; and the production in the periphery of raw materials for export to the core.  These structures promote underdevelopment and poverty in the periphery and the development of the core.

       In my next commentary, I will continue the story of the open veins of Latin America, drawing upon Galeano’s classic work.

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Preface - April 6, 2021


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