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Open veins, closed minds

Johanna Mendelson Forman Peter DeShazo
8 May 2009

Peter DeShazo is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)

It is rare that a book makes headlines at an intergovernmental meeting - far less that it is propelled to the top of the bestseller lists as a result. The fact that the highest-profile politicians in the Americas - the presidents of Venezuela and the United States respectively - were involved may have had something to do with it. In any event, Hugo Chávez's gift to Barack Obama of Eduardo Galeano's work Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad & Tobago on 17-19 April 2009 has done more than inject a dose of adrenaline into the Uruguayan author's classic anti-yanqui essay of 1971. It also raises the question of whether the book, and the intellectual outlook that it represents, offer a convincing or realistic guide to what Latin America needs and how its relationship with the United States should develop.

Johanna Mendelson Forman is senior associate with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Among her publications is Investing in a New Unilateralism: A Smart Power Approach to the United Nations(CSIS, January 2009)

Also by Johanna Mendelson Forman in openDemocracy:

"From the ashes: a multilateral mission?" (22 August 2003)

"The UN in 2003: a year of living dangerously" (18 December 2003) 

"The nation-building trap: Haiti after Aristide" (11 March 2004)

"A 21st century mission? The UN high-level panel report" (25 November 2004) - with D Austin Hare

"In Larger Freedom: Kofi Annan's challenge" (23 March 2005)

"President Bush discovers the world is flat" (19 September 2005)

Hugo Chávez is fond of the flamboyant and media-friendly gesture, but it may still puzzle new generations why he chose this book and not (say) a Venezuelan novel or a good biography of Simón Bolívar to give to his US counterpart. 

The answer lies in the way that the Venezuelan leader's own current political outlook here finds its symbol in a polemical variant of "dependency theory" - the enormously influential school of thought that explained Latin America's economic problems in terms of "uneven development" and (in its more radical versions) the systematic exploiting of the continent by capitalism and "imperialism". In the cold-war era, the political implication often drawn was the need for a communist revolution a la cubana across Latin America as a whole.

As graduate students back in the 1970s, we too were weaned on "dependency theory" and other such formulas for resolving "underdevelopment". In that context it was easier, say, to attribute economic collapse and hyper-inflation in Salvador Allende's Chile to gringo machinations than to disastrous policy-making by the Chilean government itself. It was simpler too (as well as more romantic) to call for more Ché Guevara-style leaders to topple the bourgeois order than to take on the tedious work of constructing better societies in the Americas through democratic change, sustained economic growth, institutional reform, improved education, and well-calibrated social spending. 

A generation's lesson

These three decades have taught many lessons. A rereading of Open Veins.... in light of the subsequent experience of Latin America suggests two in particular.

The first is the value of democracy, consolidated since the later 1980s in every country of the region save Cuba. Military dictatorships that dotted the landscape in the 1970s and 1980s are long gone, with meagre chance of return - in part because of vastly improved civil-military relations in the Americas. Alongside this development, the Marxist schemas that prescribed inevitable authoritarian control by the state and revolution as the only way ahead have been confounded. Instead, there has been great progress (in respect for human rights, for example) made by peaceful means and through the advance of civil society.

True, there are wide variations and continuing problems. The institutions of democracy are fragile in many countries of the region, with legislative and judicial branches in several cases powerless in the face of a dominant executive. But this is still a far cry from the dictatorships of the era when Eduardo Galeano's book was published, when military intervention was used to crush dissent and manage social and economic problems.

The second lesson is the power of good-quality macroeconomic policy in promoting development and reducing poverty. Chile, where the centre-left coalition that defeated Augusto Pinochet in the 1988 plebiscite has held power continuously since then, is the best example in the region. Many former supporters of Allende who were at the core of the coalition embraced market-friendly approaches whose effect has been to cut poverty by more than half and propel Chile closer to OECD status. The macroeconomic policies of the "Washington consensus" are now much maligned, but in many countries of the region (including the largest economies) they helped contribute to high-growth, low-debt and low-inflation outcomes that brought real benefits to the region's people.  

A closer look

The fact that Chávez and his friends in the Alternativa Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (Alba) take the Galeano formula seriously is a sad commentary on the backward thinking of leaders who seek enemies to cover up domestic failures of governance and accountability, at a time when serious economic and social policy-making is needed to overcome the region's glaring inequality. It would be better for these Latin American governments to look to east Asia, where major investments in education, technology, research and development and infrastructure have transformed societies in the region. 

Chavez's gift of Open Veins to Obama may have catapulted the book to bestseller status; but the act reveals a political mindset that in past years had begun to fade around the Americas. The instinct to blame the gringos for domestic shortcomings had largely evolved into a tool of last resort -  and not a very effective one. That Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua have taken it up again says more about their own closed minds than about the United States and its role in Latin America. In the end, "anti-imperialism" won't produce the natural gas that Bolivia needs for its development nor will a rerun of dependency theory bring clean elections and sustained economic growth to Nicaragua. 

Barack Obama should reciprocate the summit gift by providing copies of his own book, The Audacity of Hope, to Chávez and his Alba partners. The US president wrote there: "Let me suggest at least one area where we can act unilaterally to improve our standing in the world - by perfecting our own democracy and leading by example." If relations between the United States and Latin America are going to improve, the Alba leaders need to take a fresh look at the United States, its democracy and its society. 

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Among recent articles in openDemocracy on Latin American politics:

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