In his book “Open Veins of Latin America” Eduardo Galeano provides a dramatic picture of Latin America’s exploitation by the advanced European nations. One of the most vivid examples of such exploitation was the extraction and exporting of precious metals from the continent. For three centuries, gold and silver have been shipped to Spain and Portugal in enormous amounts.
The story of silver mines at Cerro Rico and the rise and fall of the city of Potosi (modern Bolivia) is given by Galeano as an example of how Europe financed its industrial development with the mineral resources from Latin America. Originally discovered in 1545 by an Indian in pursuit of a domestic animal, silver deposits near Potosi quickly became a major item of export to Spain. “Molded into cones and ingots, the viscera of the Cerro Rico— the rich hill— substantially fed the development of Europe,” says the author (Galeano 21). Potosi quickly became of the largest and richest city of its time. At the peak of its glory, church altars and even street bars were made of silver. However, the newly discovered wealth did little good for the development of Latin America. Silver was shipped to Spain, but it did little good for the development of this country either. Ruled by Charles V, Spain was deeply in debt. Silver loads arriving to Cadiz were further shipped to German, Genoese, Flemish and Spanish bankers. Galeano claims that over 16 000 tons of silver were exported from Latin America in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This huge wealth helped European nations to accumulate enough capital to move from feudalism to industrial society. It is ironic, though, that because of the total mismanagement, Spain never took any advantage of the riches of its Latin American colonies. Spanish upper class used its wealth to buy land and titles, not to develop industrial activities. The same can be said about the wealthy colonists in Potosi. They were not interested in developing the region. Barbaric exploitation of the local population in silver mines was used to buy titles and imported goods that promoted trade and helped other nations to develop their economies. According to Galeano: “The metals taken from the new colonial dominions not only stimulated Europe’s economic development; one may say that they made it possible” (Galeano 23). Modern Potosi is a ruin, a ghost-city. All the capital generated by silver mining left the region. Nothing was spent on diversification of the local production; no investments in new industries were made. The Cerro Rico mountain was simply stripped from its riches and left to die.
The story of Brazilian gold extraction in the Minas Gerais region is another example Galeano provides to prove his claim that Latin America funded European capitalism development. Discovered in eighteenth century Minas Gerais quickly became the “Potosi of gold”, as the writer puts it. As with Potosi, the area quickly expanded and became rich. And following the Spanish colony, the Minas Gerais inhabitants waisted their sudden wealth on anything but the development of the region. The money was spent on estates, rich churches decoration and lavish festivals. “No result of the dynamic stimulus of gold remained on Brazilian soil except churches and works of art,” says the author (Galeano 56). Because of the gold deposits and subsequent gold rush, even the capital of Brazil has moved to Rio de Janeiro from the sugar-producing northern region of the country.
Gold was shipped to Portugal in huge quantities, but again, as with silver and Spain, it did little good for the country. Shortly before the gold rush in Brazil, Portugal has signed a treaty that opened its overseas markets to England seeking advantages for its wines in British markets. Instead, Portugal found itself paying gold from its Latin American colony for British merchandize. Sudden riches of the Minas Gerais has increased the demand that could not be met by the weak Portuguese manufactures. British industrial might has squandered any competition from Portugal and Minas Gerais’ gold helped to complete this process. According to Galeano: “Thanks to this historical graciousness on the part of the Portuguese, Britain could apply rapid and efficient technical innovations” (Galeano 56). Portuguese gold has found its way to Britain in both legal and illegal ways and helped in capital accumulation and development of English industrial society. The same process contributed to Portuguese backwardness.
There was, however, a difference between Minas Gerais and Potosi exploitation. Silver mines of Cerra Rico exploited the labor of local Indian population. In Brazil slaves were the working force. Portugal exported slaves from its African colonies in large numbers. The working conditions in Minas Gerais were extremely harsh. Black slaves were prone to various diseases. According to Galeano, very few slaves lasted more than seven years of hard labor. The demand for slaves was so high, that slaves were moved from sugar and tobacco plantations, creating a shortage. This situation also favored Britain and Holland, two countries that led the slave trade in the world at that time.
Today, even though the gold fever has long gone, the Minas Gerais region continues to be exploited for the benefit of a foreign country. The region is rich in iron and its deposits were “surrendered in a sinister deal in 1964”, as Galeano describes it and yet again bring profit and progress to a foreign country and nothing for the development of the local area.
Eduardo Galeano provides a convincing, logical system of arguments as to why North America and South America developed so differently.
Land owing legislation difference. In the north, the legislation from the very beginning of the state provided free settlers with a piece of land of their own. This law encouraged people to move westward and settle. In Latin America, the legislation was always tailored to the needs of rich landowners. Few rich latifundios accumulated the ownership for much of the land and they were not interested in its immediate development.
Settlers vs colonists. The first settlers in the North America were not colonists. Their aim was to reproduce the way of life they already practiced in Europe, not to colonize and get rich. New North Americans were not agents of any European country. They came to find a new place to live, while Spanish and Portuguese colonists were hungry for gold and did not care about the land preservation and development.
Society of free workers. As already mentioned in the land legislation argument, United States from the first days of the country development encouraged free labor on the land, owned by the same people who worked it. The slaves and plantation system that was established in the southern states was not the core of the US economy. Their defeat in the civil is not a coincidence. Latin America’s labor was always built on slavery and near-slavery. Local labor was cheap and forced by the fear of unemployment. Latin American laborers were never the owners of the business that employed them.
Elite never had development as their goal. Latin American elite were either directly related to the colonial powers that sent them or, at a later stage, oriented towards the foreign markets. Development of the new countries was never in their interest. They were either aimed at stripping the new land off of its natural resources, like it happened with silver, gold or sugar cane, or at supplying foreign markets with goods that were produced in Latin America without any regard towards the needs of the local market. In contrast to this approach, North American elite had the development of their own economy as a priority.
Economic importance. Ironically, the unimportance of the North America to the colonial powers of Europe played a significant role in its current dominance. The continent was not rich in any of the commodities that were important to Spain, Portugal or England. Thus, the Europeans easily accepted their defeat and independence of the new state. Latin America natural resources and favorable climate made it too important and valuable for the colonial powers, and made them use much more force in keeping control of the new territories.
African slave legacy is still very much visible in the modern Latin America. Each country has its own peculiar way of incorporating the descendants of the black slaves into their societies, but one thing is common – the division between races, the inequality still exists.
Probably the most vivid example of the racial division can be found on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. An island is a home to two countries that are not simply divided by the border. In the Dominican Republic people, despite their skin color, call themselves Spanish; and regard their neighbors from Haiti as “black”. The division came from the times when African slaves were brought to the island to work on sugar plantations. When the island was divided, and the Dominican side changed its prevailing agricultural trade to cattle breeding, the number of slaves decreased dramatically, while in Haiti sugar plantations the black slaves still constituted the majority. The uprising of slaves and the creation of the slave country in Haiti only increased the division. In the modern times, both countries were ruled by brutal dictators that supported the policy of racism, especially in the Dominican Republic, where Rafael Trujillo ordered the slaughter of thousands of Haitians. The racial division in the Hispaniola is a reality and no efforts are made to stop it.
Brazilian society has moved a long way in terms of racial inequality, compared to the Hispaniola Island. For a long time, Brazil has been advertised as a country free of racism. Formally, that is true, however, in reality the division based on the skin color is there. Going back to eighteenth century, the relations between different races was common in Brazil. The famous town of Ouro Preto, that prospered during the golden fever, was notorious for its freedom from racial segregation. Black slaves became free men with fortunes made over a short period of time. White men openly lived with black partners. The story of Francisca da Silva, a mulato, who got her freedom by living with a rich white man, is just one example. This tradition of open inter-racial relations was carried to the modern time.
Unfortunately, black Brazilians have the lower standard of living, have a much smaller chance of getting a good education, and only a small percentage of them make it to the top of the Brazilian society.
The same can be said about the situation in Peru. Black slaves were brought to the country by Spanish colonists to work on sugar plantations and silver mines. Since that time, the racial division exists in this country. Just recently the efforts were made to incorporate black Peruvians into the community and raise their standard of living to match that of the other compatriots with a lighter skin.
Slavery and slaves import from Africa has been a major factor in the composition of Latin American societies. Even though the different countries have made varying degree of progress in fighting racism, the traces of it are visible in every part of the Latin world.
Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America, translated by Cedric Belfrage (Monthly Review Press, New York, 1997)