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Plundering Latin America Yesterday and Today

In his classic Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, originally published in Spanish in 1971, Eduardo Galeano begins with an image of “those remote times when Renaissance Europeans ventured across the ocean and buried their teeth in the throat of the Indian civilizations.” Some fifty pages into his story, though, the United States makes its momentous appearance as a kind of intern to the head pillager of Latin America in the 19th century, England. The English in taking control of Chile’s economy, among their other manifold imperialist initiatives in the region, are given credit by Galeano for a “masterpiece of looting.” The Americans, however, learn quickly and soon surpass their teachers in the art of managing profitably the resources, territories, and markets of poor people. By the time we reach chapter 5 in Galeano’s book, “The Contemporary Structure of Plunder,” the U.S.-dominated International Monetary Fund is in full economic control of Latin America through the wonder-working efficacy of “the drug of loans and investments.” With such modern and up-to-date methods is the financial dominion of Wall Street implemented and upheld. As Galeano puts it in his magnificently vivid way, “Numerous daggers glint beneath the cloak of aid to poor countries.” The Greeks of today should have studied the history of Latin America. Then they would have known the price to be paid to international bankers bearing gifts of free money.

During a President’s Lecture Series seminar at the University of Montana on 12 October 2015, Greg Grandin was asked about the reliability and standing of The Open Veins of Latin America. He answered, “I love the book.” Galeano’s overall interpretation of Latin American history had held up extremely well, Grandin later said. Toward the end of his life, Galeano had made some concessions about the methodological shortcomings of the book. According to Grandin, though, far too much had been claimed by assorted conservatives for Galeano’s self-criticisms as his hoisting of the white flag. The essential accuracy of his thesis about the pillaging of Latin America could not be denied. The passionate validation of Galeano that we heard in the seminar comes from a prolific author of prize-winning books on Latin American history and U.S. foreign policy. Grandin recently published Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman, which would be the subject of a town-gown lecture that he gave later in the day. The following critique, with commentary of my own, concerns the seminar that he gave.

Grandin’s seminar, “U.S.-Latin American Relations in Historical Perspective: How Latin American Opposition to U.S. Expansion Helped Shape the Global Order,” began with a magisterial overview of 19th- and 20th-century history in the Western Hemisphere. It was an intellectually stimulating but morally depressing analysis. His starting point was the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846-1848, a defining episode in the American response to any foreigners perceived to be obstructing the country’s manifest destiny. This war might best be understood as a variation for the foreign market of American lebensraum policies long known at first hand to the country’s indigenous population. Stealing one-third of Mexico’s land permanently damaged the image of the United States in Latin America. As the historian Lord Bryce observed later in the century, “The Spanish American’s regard for the United States and his confidence in its purposes has never recovered from the blow given by the Mexican War of 1846 and the annexation of California.”

Even earlier, the imposition of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, a generally accepted policy in the United States, produced an entirely different reaction in other parts of the world, particularly in Latin America, where it was seen by many as a display of insolence and conceit on our part. Under the guise of protecting Latin America from further imperialist encroachments by European powers, Washington proclaimed this region to be an American sphere of influence. Over time, the Monroe Doctrine came to be interpreted by the Americans as a title of ownership over Latin America.

When the Spanish-American War erupted in 1898, Washington professed to be acting solely for the benefit of the oppressed Cuban people, to be bringing them the blessings of freedom and democracy. Latin American expert and Yale University professor Hiram Bingham reported from Argentina, however, that people down there “indulged in the most severe and caustic criticism of our motives.” They derisively dismissed America’s justification for the war as an amalgam of hypocrisy and self-deception in which no fully adult person with any knowledge of the world or human nature could believe. In the most contemptuous terms, the people of Argentina had ridiculed all of the American declarations about freedom for the Cubans as nothing but a pretext, in the American manner, for conquest. In short, real estate and profit explained as nothing else could the American interest in Cuba and in Latin America generally.

Grandin proceeded with his survey of U.S.-Latin American relations essentially in the spirit of Bingham, who anticipated in some amazingly consonant ways the argument of Galeano. The U.S. foreign policy record south of its border included setting aside the independence and sovereignty of Colombia in furtherance of the Panama Canal project, taking over effective control of Santo Domingo’s economy, landing the Marines repeatedly in Central America to keep order there—indeed, interfering in the internal affairs of any Latin American nation where we saw fit to do so. The basic idea behind these actions was to make Latin America an investment field for Wall Street. The well-being of the people in those countries did not figure prominently in the calculations of the investors.

A sinister turn in U.S.-Latin American relations occurred in 1954 with the CIA coup in Guatemala, a country about which Grandin had done vital research for his book, The Blood of Guatemala: A History of Race and Nation (2000). In the seminar, Grandin called this event the CIA’s “inaugural coup.” The CIA’s “Operation Ajax” had been unleashed the previous year against the people of Iran, but in tandem with British intelligence. In Guatemala, the CIA made its solo debut in the subverting of other peoples’ democracies. There followed a campaign throughout Latin America of political repression and state terror supported by the United States and epitomized by “Operation Condor” in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Brazil. The revelations of Mark Danner in The Massacre at El Mozote about state terrorism in El Salvador and the complicity in it of the United States through its School of the Americas training program fit the same pattern of illegal Washington policies in Latin America, as did the Reagan administration’s Iran-Contra scandal.

The rise of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and other Latin American new left leaders took place against a historical backdrop of imperialist exploitation originating in the Spanish conquest and continuing with the more urbane methods of economic imperialism American-style. Galeano synthesizes the complex but unchanging main plot of the tragic story: “…a legion of pirates, merchants, bankers, Marines, technocrats, Green Berets, ambassadors, and captains of industry have, in a long black page of history, taken over the life and destiny of most of the peoples of the South….” Galeano has a formidable intellectual heir in Grandin, who is carrying forward the critical tradition in his analysis of U.S.-Latin American relations.

Nevertheless, Grandin concluded the seminar on a note of optimism. It pleased him to tell us that Latin American leaders had shown commendable signs of independence by resisting the attempt of Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Bush to subordinate their countries to the security needs of the United States after 9/11. No evidence has turned up to implicate any Latin American country in the ghoulish rendition and black site policies of the United States in its war on terror. After generations of subservience to the United States, Latin America is giving a demonstration to American vassal-countries in other parts of the world how to stand up for themselves.

Richard Drake
17 October 2015

Published inNotebook

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