Friday, July 17, 2009

Eduardo Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America, Part I

This post is dedicated to my dear friend Oli who has been suggesting I read this book for a while. I always follow your reading suggestions, my friend, and I'm never disappointed.

Galeano's book Open Veins of Latin America has been around for a while (it was first published in 1971) but it became even more famous after Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gave it to Barack Obama during the Summit of the Americas. I'm not a Latin Americanist, so I hope people will forgive me for not having read it before.
The book is beautifully written and its message is very strong: "Today, the world believes that America means the United States; as for us, we inhabit a sub-America, a second-class America of nebulous identification" (Here and everywhere else the translation is mine, so my apologies for the clumsiness of style that truly fails to do justice to Galeano's beautiful Spanish).
At the same time, as soon as I started reading it, I remembered why I had abandoned my plan of becoming a Latin Americanist many years ago and became instead a Peninsularist (a person who specializes in literature and culture of Spain). So many of great Latin American thinkers and writers are, in my opinion, sadly limited by two modes of thinking: Marxism and male chauvinism.
In the preface to the book, Galeano talks about birth control measures that developed capitalist countries supposedly implement in Latin America because "it's more hygienic and efficacious to kill guerilleros in the womb than in the fields or in the streets." Leave it to the true macho to see birth control as something negative. The idea of Latin Americans procreating and multiplying in order to be able to oppose Western capitalism in huge numbers is very pleasing to him. This is no surprise since he can never get pregnant or give birth. His life choices will never be limited by yearly pregnancies. His health will not be destroyed by clandestine abortions and endless childbearing. He wants a Latin America free and rich for men to enjoy and for women to fulfill their "natural" duties of producing more guerilleros.
Easily accessible birth control is the only thing that can give women a chance at a human existence worthy of the name. It's sad that in his preoccupation about the destiny of Latin Americans Galeano forgets female Latin Americans entirely. It's wrong to exploit people but since women aren't really human, who cares if they get exploited as human guerillero-producing factories?
(To be continued...)


Anonymous said...

I am so touched that you are reading one of my reading recommendations! Oftentimes we suggest books without expecting people to read them. I know that you always take my suggestions seriously. Thank you my friend! I am touched.

I understand your complaints about marxism and male chauvinism. Regarding marxism, at least Galeano is not doctrinaire. His prose and his analysis, as far as I remember, is not heavily packed with obscure terminology. Galeano goes to the grain. His book remains crucial after the complete disappearance of radical analysis in/about Latin America in the last 30 years.

Regarding chauvinism, well yes, it is a plague everywhere and especially in Latin America. The things I have listened from my male Latin American friends... Galeano may come from that culture, little doubt about it. The passage you are quoting, however, may not be a good example to illustrate male chauvinism. I have read the book as an undergraduate. I don't have the book at hand, though it created a huge impact on me. So is Galeano really speaking of accessible birth control or is he talking about something else? I suspect that when Galeano speaks of birth control measures he is referring to massive sterilization campaigns of the poor, especially the indigenous people and the working class (in Puerto Rico, for instance). This was a current practice that dictatorships and the US encouraged as a means to control the social groups where guerrilleros proliferate. It was, of course, a racist and classist hygienic and efficacious solution to potential upheavals. Sterilization campaings apparently went on until the 1990s under Fujimori in Peru. Nobody talks about that in history and literature courses, not to mention in cultural studies courses. It is incredible. These attacks against women's right to self-detemination are unnoticed. If Galeano refers to sterilization campaigns, hiw view is hardly chauvinistic. His interpretation may be however, but then his interpretation is not that marxist anymore (!). It is not dificult to elaborate a marxist analysis of the sterilization campaign.

There is a movie about massive sterilization in Bolivia, Jorge Sanjines's La sangre del condor (1969) if I remember well. It is, obviously, hard to find. The US public likes to consume violent stories about Latin America, but not of that kind.

I should read Galeano again to be a better interlocutor. I would also like to further that distinction between peninsular/latin-americanist. And what about that Isabel Allende's prologue!?!?


Clarissa said...

Well, your suggestions are always good and I know I can trust them. :-)

"If Galeano refers to sterilization campaigns, hiw view is hardly chauvinistic."

-He could have saved this whole line of reasoning by mentioning women once in the discourse. As much as he talks about giving birth, etc. there is no mention of women. He does use the word "uterus" several times, though. You can just imagine millions of uteri walking around producing guerilleros. Just one sentence about women would have changed my perspective on this whole line of reasoning.

His interpretation may be however, but then his interpretation is not that marxist anymore (!). It is not dificult to elaborate a marxist analysis of the sterilization campaign."

-Absolutely! In Marxist terms, The US should be happy to grow cheap mano de obra in Latin America that will work almost for free in US businesses and factories.

I'm reading a Kindle version and it doesn't have Isabel Allende's prologue. Which is a small blessing because (and I'm sure you'll disagree) for me she is the Sarah Palin of Lat. Am. literature.

In any case, I will be assigning excerpts from Galeano's book for my Hispanic Civ class. That will be fun.

Clarissa said...

As for the distinction between latinamericanists and peninsularists: of course, I didn't mean to suggest that there are more chauvinists among the first group than there is among the second. It's just that it was getting too painful to read one chauvinistic novel or essay after another after another after another.

Look at Gabo, for instance. He uses his amazing gift with language to produce the most chauvinistic garbage imaginable. It's impossible not to enjoy "El amor en los tiempos del colera" because it's SO well-written. And then you hate yourself for enjoying it because it's so chauvinistic. You can't always feel angry with the subject of your research. That's very counterproductive. So I switched to the peninsular field.

Anonymous said...

To have students read some of Galeano in a civilization course is an excellent idea.

I did not remembered how Galeano referred to women as wombs. He is unconsicously? speaking in biopolitical terms. How depressing. That being said, the title of the book is a biopolitical metaphor (the veins), maybe it is a rhetorical tool? Maybe the book is an allegory?!?!?! The literary nerd that I am should have a closer look at it.

About marxism, and as far as I know, it is true that Marx wrote that the accumulation of capital is the multiplication of proletariat, so in that sense the works of Marx can hardly explain the decision of killing the proletariat "in the womb". But marxism criticizes Marx's unidimensional view on the proletariat. David Harvey, for instance, believes that Marx fails to study the mechanisms of production and reproduction of the proletariat, which is exactly the problem we face with the working class in Puerto Rico or the indigenous population of the Andean region.

Another branch of marxist revisionism wants to put emphasis on the lives of the unemployed or the idle at the centre of social life, rather than the lives of the worker. The classic representations of the workers in Marx, the lumpenproletariat and the industrial army of reserve, now appear at a new light. What can we do with that surplus? How can we control it? The accumulation of proletariat is not only about the accumulation of capital. Hence the contemporary vocabulary about the poor: wasted lives, bare lives...

Another problem about Marx's terminology is that the colonial world (Spanish America, as is the case here) do not fit in the categories of the "industrial army" of the "lumpenproletariat," at least it does not fit like industrial Europe or North America. The "informal sector" or "informal economy" are more suited terms. How can we render a marxist study of the informal sector, outside the official web of capitalism, putting emphasis on its mechanism of production and reproduction?

Well, this is a rather long comment. My point was to make suggestions for a marxist analysis of the reproduction policies among the "guerrilleros," suggestions that Galeano could have used. For me, Galeano is an important thinker from the left rather that an important marxist.

There should be a book length study of chauvinism in Latin American literature, a kind of genealogy of chauvinism. You could write this book!


Clarissa said...

I'm planning to write more about Galeano's essay in general and the way I think Marxism influences his argument in particular.

Your idea about writing a genealogy of chauvinism in Hispanic literature is brilliant. I don't think one person can do it, though. Maybe it could be a collection of pieces by different people. That would be so great.

If you discover a male writer from Lat. America who is less chauvinistic, do tell me. I'd love to read somebody like that.

Anonymous said...

I have not read Galeano's book about the Open Veins of Latin America since Latin American Economic development class 3 semesters ago. But i wanted to rein in another prospective on the birth control argument.
Neoclassical economists have for a long time tried to rationalize the theory, among others, that Latin America is over populated, and cite the multiplying poor people as the reason for poverty. their rationale is to reduce the births per family whereby there will be more resources per person. It is very close to the Malthusian population problem, whereby Thomas Malthus theorized in the 1800s that since the food supply grew arithmetically, but population grew exponentially, people would be destine to poverty and malnutrition; eventually this would curve population growth - we of course know this theory to be defunct in hindsight, but classical economists still use a theory much the same, and suggest that population must be sterilized.

Galeano takes argument against this, citing lower population density of Latin America as evidence in opposition of this argument.

I sense that I am among some lovers of well versed, and well written thought. I know of a writer who changed much of western though from the 1930 and on, indeed his theories are what paved the road for interest in development in Latin America. He is an economist, philosopher, statesmen, artisan, and a member of the Bloomsbury group of artists in London. He wrote a book that most conservatives until the late 1980s cite as the most dangerous book written in the 19th century. The book is The General Theory by John Maynard Keynes. I recommend the introduction as well as chapters 1 - 2. it can be found online for free reading. I warn it is not for the weak in mind, but if you are a strong reader you will enjoy his well placed and elegant verse.

i recommend it becaue just as Galeano makes the defense that what ails Latin America are the imerialistic nations, this defense would never have been able to stand its ground if not for Keynes.