Last updated on December 31, 2019
Latin America is home to some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. The Iguazu Falls, Andes Mountains and Patagonia attract millions of visitors annually. The beauty of these and other sites across Latin America stand in stark contrast to the poverty that can be found outside of major cities and sometimes within. In between major railway stations and ports exist slums that remind us of the severely uneven distribution of wealth throughout the continent. Speaking from personal experience, most Americans would be shocked at living conditions that still exist in Latin America to this day. But why does a continent with a history that goes back several hundred years and is home to beautiful people, beautiful languages, great foods and beautiful scenes of nature, continue to suffer from poverty, corruption and exploitation.
The key to understanding the current state of these and other Latin American affairs, is to revisit its history. Eduardo Galeano (1940-2015) has done just that in this eye-opening and best-selling study of Latin American history that was first published in 1971. The edition that is the subject of this review was re-published in 1997, and contains a foreword by Isabel Allende, a cousin of the late Chilean President Salvador Allende (1908-1973). On September 11, 1973, Allende died on a self-inflicted gunshot wound as opposition forces engaged in a CIA-backed overthrow of the government. Isabel currently lives in California and is a naturalized United States Citizen.
Galeano starts by revisiting how Latin America came into existence from a continent of indigenous people to one in which Spanish is the dominant language. The arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean marked a distinctive change in the course of world history and although he never set foot in North America, Columbus is still considered by many to be the person that discovered what is today the United States. In recent years however, the holiday of Columbus Day has been replaced by Indigenous People’s Day or in others not acknowledged. In Central and South America, the arrival of the Spanish explorers would have a profound impact and set the stage for plunder, murder and exploitation that engulfed the continent. Next to Columbus are the stories of Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1475-1519) and Pedro de Valdivia (1497-1553), explorers who would spend their last days in South America. And as Galeano re-tells their stories, the reader might want to make notes of names, dates and places as the story comes together like a puzzle.
While the tragedy of exploitation and violence played out, not all voices were content with Spanish domination and the extermination of South America’s inhabitants. Tupac Amaru (1545-1572) and Simón Bolívar (1783-1830) also appear in the book and it would be safe to say that an author would find it impossible to discuss Latin American history without recounting their extraordinary and short lives. However their efforts proved to be ineffective against the rush of colonization that dominated the southern hemisphere. And it is at this point in the book that Galeano turns up the heat as we learn how natural resources became a gold mine and and the populations of the Carribean, Central American and South American nearly disappeared as a result of warfare, famine and disease. World superpowers sank their teeth into the Latin American cash machine and have never let go.
The grip of foreign control has proven to have disastrous effects on politics, producing revolutions and widespread practice of the coup d’état. Leaders who leaned left and sought to reclaim industries exploited by foreign corporations were quickly dealt with through American foreign policy. Those who did play the game were rewarded and tolerated through the Good Neighbor Policy and other shady practices. The climate of distrust and violent overthrow of the government has never left Latin America. The current events in Nicaragua, Venezuela and Argentina are prime examples of the volatile political climate that continues to exist. And all the while, foreign corporations continue to reap enormous profits as they move around offices and politicians like pieces on a chess board.
Galeano provides a staggering amount of information in the book which is sure to shock the reader. But this book is key to understanding why Latin America has developed so many third-world countries. It would be easy to blame those countries for their own failures. But what we know is that after a colonizer has left the colonized, it is immensely difficult for those nations to find a permanent path of success. This was beautifully explained by Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) in his classic The Wretched of the Earth. The future is bleak for many Latin American nations as inflation rises and the IMF becomes more reluctant to give out loans. Poverty continues to increase giving rise to protests, crime and strikes. What we see today is a manifestation of what Galeano calls “five hundred years of the pillage of a continent”.
If you have never traveled through Latin America, I implore you to do so at least once. I firmly believe that there are many great things that are unfamiliar to those who live in the northern hemisphere. I have had the privilege of visiting Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Chile is next on the list. Through my travels, I have met many people who have become a permanent part of my life and I am eternally grateful for having met them. Galeano died on April 13, 2015 after a battle with lung cancer but he left behind important works and this masterpiece which has been translated into more than twelve languages. This book has proven to be the companion guide every person needs in order to understand many of things that will be seen in Latin America, including the current presence of open veins.