Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Open Veins

I am getting a crash course in Latin American and Guatemalan history while I am here. One of our initial readings is “Open Veins of Latin America” by Eduardo Galeano, a classic written in the early seventies. It is at times both lyrical and scathing.

It reminded me a little of one of my favorite books, “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond, which provided a framework to think about huge historical forces beyond the control of individuals, and basically changed how I thought about history. “Open Veins” is doing this for me in terms of how to think about Latin America.

If the theme of “Guns, Germs and Steel” is that environment is destiny (the physical location and resources available to a society largely determine how successful it will be in competition with other societies), then Open Veins’ theme is that having resources that others want invites violence and oppression from more technologically advanced societies. Both books must over generalize to tackle such broad topics, but it is their very expansiveness that makes them valuable as frameworks.

Galeano is nothing if not quotable. He says that Latin Americans suffer from the “curse of their own wealth” and that “our richness has always generated our poverty for nourishing the prosperity of others”. Latin America “continues to exist at the service of other’s needs, as a source and reserve of oil and iron, of copper and meat, of fruit and coffee, the raw materials and food destined for rich countries which profit more from consuming them than Latin America does from producing them.”

What is he talking about? Latin America teems with natural resources, so it is wealthy in terms of raw materials. But he goes through case after case, starting with the initial conquistadors through the modern era where outside countries have conquered and enslaved them so that the flow of cheap raw materials can continue unabated to enrich the occupiers. It started with gold, then silver, then continued with copper, nitrate, tin, sugar, coffee etc. For example, modern day coffee farmers make a pittance on the coffee they grow, which is usually not on land that they can ever own. Most of the profits go to middlemen, often large multinational corporations, who often own the land as well. And, depressingly, this is progress compared to the atrocities that happened during colonization.

Another theme of the book is that there are always people will to betray their community to enrich themselves. Conquerors need merely find those people, pay them off to be their strongmen, and they will be happy to live in mini-splendor amongst poverty and suffering, even though the lion’s share of the profit goes elsewhere.

Galeano lays out a convincing case, but it is a depressing one. Having access to raw resources can either enrich or enslave those who live near them, depending on whether they can protect themselves from inevitable invasion. Latin America over the centuries has been plundered because it did not have enough power to defend itself, and has remained beholden to Western powers.

This is yet another example of imbalance in power leading to great suffering and injustice. Those with power can’t seem to stop themselves from taking advantage of those without power, and the only way to reduce or eliminate this condition is to work towards balancing power.

One small way to help will make my wife happy. She is religious about buying fair trade coffee, and fair trade goods in general are something that helps. They come from farmers who manage to get small plots of land to farm on, and the profits primarily go to the farmers themselves. Same goes for fair trade crafts at places like 10,000 villages.

Another surprising fact is that immigrants sending money home to their families is the number two factor in Guatemala’s GNP (or GDP or money from exports or something like that). I had no idea how important immigrants in the US are to the lives of people here. So, supporting sane immigration policy is also a good place to start.

Unfortunately, these small, painless steps don’t completely make up for 500 years and counting of oppression. In fact, they are pretty pathetic in the grand scheme of things. But, they are at least headed in the right direction.


Anonymous said...

It makes sense that fair trade would be effective at reversing at least a little bit of the 500+ years of oppression you're talking about -- since much of it stems from exploitation of Guatemala's natural resources. Companies that sell consumer goods like coffee and sugar are more likely to be responsive to consumer demands that farmers be paid fairly for the commodities they produce. (By the way, do you know if Starbucks ever lived up to its pledge to pay more to the farmers it gets its coffee from?) But it's a harder sell for companies that exploit cheap labor for goods and/or raw materials that are further removed from consumers (like metals and minerals). Plus, consumers are not always the greatest at getting behind good movements (witness the limited success of the anti-sweatshop movement).

Anyway -- I'm glad to hear that the trip is having an impact on you (and the sort of impact you'd like it to have). Keep the observations coming!


Brownie said...

"Galeano lays out a convincing case, but it is a depressing one..."

Truth is a cold, hard thing that can crush and freeze our hearts if we allow it to. In my own experiences, I have come to the conclusion that Jesus was right when he said the poor would always be with us. I'm not excusing the exploiters, I'm just trying to point out that having an overriding emotional reaction to the state of the world (the strong do what they wish, the weak have to deal with it) is not productive. Especially if it causes us to lose hope. I don't think this is true in your case, but I know and have known others who feel "depressed" by the state of the world.

This often leads to anger, violence, rebellion, murder, xenophobia, genocide, war, etc., for it takes two to tango. I'm not blaming the weak for their plight, but I think this is a good example of what Jesus tried to teach us: render onto Ceasar that which is Ceasar's, turn the other cheek, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.

As Christians, I believe we should not forget these tenents, nor should we forget that vengeance belongs to God.


Dan S said...

Hi Ramhist! Yea, fair trade is great. I visited a place today that makes things for Ten Thousand Villages, and it really does have a direct impact in their community. I'll post something later about it. Also, someone here mentioned that Starbucks was considering having fair trade coffee available, but I don't know what the status is. I don't drink coffee, so it isn't in my face (or stomach) that often. Fair Trade Chocolate would be my way to contribute :)

It is interesting being here Brownie, because I'm realizing there isn't much I can personally do to change things. It would be nice if there were more effective ways to help than simply shopping carefully, since fighting injustice with more consumerism seems dysfunctional. But it does make me want to work on justice issues locally, where I could possibly have an effect.

Also, you touch on something I want to mention in another post: Jesus was NOT about simply accepting one's fate and giving into the powers. His challenging the religious powers of his day was a supremely political act, one for which he paid with his bodily life. And, he refused to use violence when the time came to defend himself. One would think these facts would weigh more heavily on Christians either don't care about injustice (because it is part of this life) or want to change the social order for the better, but think violence is an acceptable way to do it. But we can argue about that later :)

Brownie said...

"Jesus was NOT about simply accepting one's fate and giving into the powers"

I agree with this statement. In that he wished us to do all that we could for good. But I do think there is a balance in all things. For all that folks do good, there will be folks who do bad. Hence, the poor will always be with us. This is not a consignment made in despair, but a cold hard fact.