“This brilliant text has set a new standard for historical scholarship of Latin America,” reads the Amazon description of Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America, the book Venezuelan leftist Hugo Chavez presented to U.S. President Barack Obama in 2009. “It is also an outstanding political economy, a social and cultural narrative of the highest quality, and perhaps the finest description of primitive capital accumulation since Marx.”
Published in 1971, The Open Veins of Latin America was a bestseller and has become a keystone of the left-wing canon on American college campuses. Trouble is, the book’s 73-year-old Uruguayan author now considers the book’s rhetoric “extremely leaden” and concedes that back in the day he didn’t know much about economics or the way the world works.
“I know it took real courage — even gallantry — for Galeano to publicly correct himself,” wrote exiled Cuban journalist Carlos Alberto Montaner in National Review. “It’s not easy to admit when you are wrong. And it is even more difficult when you are a hero to so many, as Galeano has been.”
In 1996 Montaner teamed with Peruvian author Alvaro Vargas Llosa and Colombian journalist Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza on Guide to the Perfect Latin American Idiot. One chapter, “The Idiot’s Bible,” Montaner says,
“was devoted to explaining what Galeano himself now confirms: that the author knew very little about economics, and what little he thought he knew was totally wrong.”
The authors’ summary of Galeano’s book, “We’re poor; it’s their fault” even showed up in a New York Times piece by Larry Rohter headlined “Author Changes His Mind on ’70s Manifesto: Eduardo Galeano Disavows His Book ‘The Open Veins.’” The article noted that The Caviar Left author Rodrigo Constantino had blamed Galeano’s analysis for many of Latin America’s ills and said the Uruguayan “should feel really guilty for the damage he caused.”
But the caviar left thought otherwise.
Chilean novelist Isabel Allende, who authored a foreword for Open Veins, told Rohter that Galeano “may have changed, and I didn’t notice it, but I don’t think so.” Michael Yates, of the leftist Monthly Review Press, told the Times that “the book is an entity independent of the writer and anything he might think now.” So in the style of Hillary Clinton, “what difference does it make” if the author changed his mind about his central thesis? Several professors told the Times that they would take account of Galeano’s views but others discount his change of mind.
“Rather than disavowing the book entirely,” University of Pennsylvania graduate student Adam Goodman wrote, “it would seem Galeano offered a critique of it and its young author, with the benefit of hindsight and forty-plus years of experience, both lived and learned.” However, discussion of the book’s limitations, “whether based on content, style, or in the framing, is admirable and potentially productive for the Latin American left.”
Andy Baker, political scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of The Market and the Masses in Latin America, weighed in with a Washington Post blog. Baker noted that “Latin America is the region that spawned dependency theory, which was the neo-Marxist body of scholarly thought that informed Galeano’s critique of international trade.” But despite Galeano, data shows that many Latin Americans are favorable toward international trade, multinational corporations, and the United States. “The most pro-American countries,” says Baker, “are those most victimized by U.S. military forays,” the Dominican Republic and El Salvador, for example.
When it comes to their economic ills, Baker explains, Latin Americans do not blame Spain, the IMF, Warren Buffett “or even the U.S. military, as Galeano did in his previous life.” Instead “voters in Latin America exact retribution against governments that oversee sluggish economies, and the ham-fisted attempts by Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, to continue blaming Venezuela’s downward spiral on the United States are increasingly falling on deaf ears.” So for the University of Colorado political scientist, “Galeano’s decision to recant his old work in the face of a new reality and new evidence on globalization was intellectually brave and admirable. As it turns out, Latin American citizens were way ahead of him.”
So were authors such as Carlos Alberto Montaner and Alvaro Vargas Llosa, author of Liberty for Latin America: How to Undo Five Hundred Years of State Oppression. So was Hernando De Soto, author of The Other Path: The Economic Answer to Terrorism. American professors willing to reconsider Galeano’s Open Veins should open their courses to works like this.
President Obama has not responded to Eduardo Galeano’s critique of the book Hugo Chavez gave him in 2009. Like Galeano, Obama shows little knowledge of economic classics such as F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. Obama already believed that the United States was essentially a colonial looter but unlike Galeano the president shows the inability to change his mind based on facts and history.
To publicly correct oneself, as Carlos Alberto Montaner noted, takes “real courage – even gallantry.” The President of the United States just doesn’t have it.
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