Galeano monograph Open Veins in Latin America explores the history of colonial conquest. Exploitation of Latin America’s natural resources and people helped to foster the industrial capitalist development in Europe or in the United States in the following ways. The first way is how European explorers exploited the silver deposits of Potosi (which is in current day Bolivia). Gold and silver were undoubtedly “main motivating forces” in what Galeano calls the “Conquest” (59). When Christopher Columbus sailed to the New World “he had accepted the challenge of legend” (11). The motivation to be carried off by legend was a strong force of fantasy for the European explorers. But there was also a concrete need. Europe need natural resources. The great city of Potosi was a marvel to behold and at the time of its height was larger than New York, which was not even known by that name at the time (21).
European explorers were often motivated by myth and legend to fund their expeditions. When “Sir Walter Raleigh sailed up the Orinoco” and discovered the city of Potosi in 1545, he was able to begin the process of exploitation of a thriving Latin American metropolis. European explorers were driven by the search for gold, pearls and silver. Potosi proved to be a boon for the pope in Rome who was able to use silver payments to finish St. Peter’s and the money also “went to paying for the export of non-Spanish merchandise to the New World.” In other words, resources were stolen from a great civilization to foster and nurture the civilization in Europe (without repayment on the loan).
Potosi’s silver, according to Galeano is an example of a lust for a resource that completely leveled a city. As Galeano writes, :The sword and the cross marched together in the conquest and plunder of Latin America, and captains and ascetics, knights and evangelists, soldiers and monks came together in Potosi to help themselves to its silver.” It seems that the Europeans were able to mine not only the best ingots to craft the best pieces of silver for the privileged classes, but over time, the appropriation of silver, through a process called “the mercury amalgam process” made the extraction of even low-grade silver possible. By the middle part of the seventeenth century, silver was a major industrial boon for Europe, and after ripping the silver from Potosi, in Bolivia, the mining of this resource extended to Zacatecas and Guanajuato in Mexico (22).
While silver, gold, sugar, et cetera, were the main spoils of European conquest of Latin America’s resources, the other side of the story is the way in which Europeans, both military, church, and entrepreneurs, used slaves to do their bidding. The use of human capital fostered and nourished the European industrial expansion. But they were able to do this based on a lie that Galeano mentions throughout the first part of his book. The first lie is that Europeans, and even today, in the United States, thought that Latin America had too many people, and this was seen as a threat. But for example, many of Latin America’s countries have vast amounts of land that are not populated. The underlying truth is that the dominating power wanted to use the least amount of people to take advantage of the most amount of land resources.
Europeans sought to use human beings as labor while also exterminating the population. At the beginning of the twentieth century 230 tribes were in Brazil. Today in Brazil ninety of those 230 have disappeared. Exploitation also came in different forms and often in mixed exploitation of African slaves who were sent to Latin America to toil and suffer (38). In a strange hypocrisy, the Church had declared that “Indians had souls” but “the plight of the Indians of the exterminated Latin American civilizations was added the ghastly fate of the blacks seized from African villages to toil in Brazil and the Antilles” (38). During the height of the colonial period, the Latin American economy “enjoyed the most highly concentrated labor force” known to man at that time, making it possible to completely whittle the number of “Indians of the Americas” from 70 million when the foreign conquerors appeared to about 3.5 million at the middle of the seventeenth century.
Galeano explains how the United States developed differently from the rest of Latin America. One reason is dependency. Another reason is that the historical conditions of “two Americas” has created an inevitable war between the two (132). The history of colonial power in Latin America has always been about expropriating legion of unemployed peoples of the region coupled with transplantation of millions of people from the continent of Africa (132). The United States emerged as a continuation of this colonial project that began in violent force five hundred years ago.
For example, look at how the control of sugar production was about profits for the outside while keeping control on the “foreign market” as its own. The United States actively kept sugar producing island dependent. For example, when Haiti revolted, the United States, under pressure from France, banned traded with Haiti (66). Or take for example, Cuba, who “When Batista fell in 1959,” was selling almost all of its sugar to the United States (70). Cuba was selling almost all its sugar to the United States. Also, the United States sought to keep the Dominican Republic dependent, when in 1965, the US military invaded with 40,000 troops ready to "to stay indefinitely in this country in view of the reigning confusion” (77). As Che Guevara once intoned, the one who sells is dependent on the one who buys. As sugar is inextricably connected to the economies of Dominican Republic and Cuba, so to in countries like El Salvador and Guatemala, the selling and exporting of coffee keeps these countries.
The United States “land-grabbed” areas that had been zones of free labor, and monopolized rails and canal-access to countries in Latin America. As Galeano trenchantly reports, the American consumer capacity for bananas, coffee and sugar kept dozens of Latin Americans in its thrall. In a chilling statement Galeano clinches his thesis by stating that the goal of the colonial power was never for “internal economic development” but rather it was for maintaining a destructive form of dependency that keeps a country like the United States in power. United States ability to stay on top is at the expense of many other countries, including Bolivia, Colombia, and Mexico in an arrested states of dependency. Colombia, for example, has more homicides than the United States and more unemployment, because following Galeano’s argument, this is a necessary condition for the improvement of the United States’ economic mission.
Skin colors still carries social significance in the following three ways.
The first way that skin color carries social significance is in the example of how Dominicans and Haitians have shared the same island of Hispaniola for five centuries. The two nations share the same island, but they are split by powerful social divides that runs along racial lines. It has to do with social categories that define “black” and “brown,” “Latino” and “African” and so on and so forth. Since the ancestors of the Haitians hail from Africa, and the ancestors from Dominican Republic are descended from Spanish conquerors. But the division is more divisive than just one line of ancestry that separates the two countries.
Language is also a dividing factor, for the Creole, the language of Haiti, which derives from French, is in stark contrast from the Spanish of the Dominican Republic. Even the time difference is acute. Once market day opens, Haitians cross the river into Dominican Republic to sell their wares, but when it is 7 o’clock in Haiti it is 8 o’clock in the Dominican Republic. But “color of skin plays an important part of this discussion and it is an explanation of the many conflicts that have arisen between the two countries. First, Dominicans are proud to be mixed race, while Haitians are proud to be “black.” Language, color of skin, traces of history, and identity come together to form different expressions of what it means to be a person of color.
Another significance color of skin is how ironically “skin color” has nothing to do, fundamentally, with how race is shaped. For example, if a child is born in Brazil (whose parents share the ancestry of Black slaves sent to Brazil), but he is adopted by an Asian family who lives in Tokyo, what race will that child grow up with as an adult? Let us say the Internet does not exist, and the child never watches television and let us say that he never told about his Brazilian roots? What does it mean to be black, in this case? The Brazilian child will identify as Japanese and as Asian. This is why color of skin is often more about how culture is transmitted than it is about a story on human biology.
Galeano, Eduardo. Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent.
New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973. Print.