The Open Veins of Latin America: Disowned?

By Núria Vilanova

tintincai / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

tintincai / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Forty-three years after its publication, the emblematic and widely read Latin American anti-colonialist bestseller The Open Veins of Latin America has been disowned by its creator, 74-year-old Eduardo Galeano – but its literary message remains vital.  Interviewed last May about the book often called the “Bible of the Latin American Left,” Galeano said, “I don’t regret having written it, but it belongs to a time that to me has been overcome.”  His words left a sense of abandonment and deceit among many, who asked:  What had happened to the bleeding veins of Latin America drained by European and U.S. colonial powers?  Hadn’t the region been sacrificed since Columbus to profit diabolic foreign interests?  When Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez gave President Obama a copy of the book in 2009, was he clinging to an interpretation of Latin American history no longer embraced by the region’s leading thinkers?  Others asked, however well-deserved a denunciation of the exploitation and oppression laid out in the book was, were they to be blamed for all of the damage inflicted in the region?

Galeano’s interview signaled a refocussing of his analysis rather than wholesale rejection of it.  He said Open Veins was too boring and written in a tedious style and with the doctrinal tone of the traditional left.  He added that in those early days of his career he did not know enough politics and economics to write a book of such reach.  What Galeano has demonstrated by this unassuming recognition is that he has evolved through the years and, like many others, realizes that the dependentista paradigm, with its rejection of western capitalism, that fueled his book had important shortcomings, and overlooked other key problems.  He underestimated the impact of weak institutions – anticipated by Bolívar in the early 19th Century – and internal political and economic issues such as government corruption and the unwillingness of the ruling classes to contribute to the development of more democratic and egalitarian societies, as Marx himself would argue when writing about Southern countries.

The real – and not insignificant – value of Open Veins today lies in its literary character.  Its capacity to capture the spirit, the hope and the rage of those turbulent times in the region lives on.  Filled with metaphors and symbolism, it is an essay, whose literary dimension makes it current and ageless.  Stemming from a deep Latin American tradition, the book crosses the blurred borders between literature and history, sociology, politics and other disciplines alike.  Like José Martí, Ricardo Palma and Octavio Paz, Galeano attempted to transgress the boundaries between literature – subjectivity, imagination and hyperbole – and disciplines based on empiricism and factuality.  This practice can lead to challenges over facts, but the messages remain compelling.  Elizabeth Burgos’s testimonial account of Mayan activist Rigoberta Menchú in I Rigoberta Menchú (1984) was criticized for alleged inaccuracies, yet it is difficult for anyone to deny that the suffering of the Mayan Quiché community in the 70s and 80s was at least as cruel as Rigoberta depicted in the book.  Carlos Fuentes once said that reality will always overpower fiction, no matter how hard writers tried.  The intellectual evolution that Galeano has displayed is welcome, and it is also an inspiration to reread Open Veins and Latin America with much-needed fresh eyes.

December 2, 2014

Ben Kohl: The Loss of a Scholar-Activist who Taught About Bolivia

By Eric Hershberg

This AULA blog post does not follow our standard format, but it is one that I hope will motivate readers to seek out some singularly insightful analyses of contemporary Bolivia.

Los marchistas del TIPNIS llegan a La Paz (19/10/2011) Photo credit: Szymon Kochanski / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Los marchistas del TIPNIS llegan a La Paz (19/10/2011) Photo credit: Szymon Kochanski / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

I was terribly distressed to learn that Temple University Professor Ben Kohl, a noted expert on Bolivia, passed away suddenly in late July, at the age of 59. I had the privilege of meeting Ben briefly on two occasions, on both of which he struck me as charming and intellectually lively. But I already knew of Kohl through his writings, which had taught me, and many of my students, a great deal about how and why Bolivian politics and society have evolved in such remarkable ways in recent years.  Faculty, students and non-academic audiences in Washington and beyond would be well served by surveying his writings, in part because of how effectively they make sense of a country with which the U.S. government has often related unproductively.

Most of Kohl’s work was co-authored with his journalist wife, Linda Farthing (he also collaborated with my CLALS colleague Rob Albro on a fine collection of articles on Bolivia that was published by Latin American Perspectives). Among their prolific writings on Bolivia, two books stand out as especially significant. Impasse in Bolivia and From the Mines to the Streets: an Activist’s Life in Bolivia established Kohl and Farthing as pivotal voices in shaping understanding of that Andean country’s politics and society.  Their work is unusual in the effectiveness with which it speaks simultaneously to advanced scholarly readers and to students and people in advocacy and policy circles who are engaged sympathetically with that country’s remarkable social movements and transformations.

What stands out for me about Impasse, aside from its deep and nuanced understanding of the fault lines dividing Bolivian society, is that it successfully blends attention to social dynamics and political mobilization at the micro-level with an appreciation for how those phenomena interact and reflect larger scale, deeply embedded social structures.  Written on the eve of Evo Morales’ rise to the Presidency, in the wake of several years of social and political “impasse,” the study combines ethnographic insight with sophisticated interpretation of macro-level historical and sociological processes.  Impasse in particular highlights how and why Bolivia took a decisively “indigenous turn” in its national politics beginning around 2000, and ably portrays the resistance that this elicited from long dominant elites. The book was an especially novel and eloquent contribution to the literature on Bolivia at a crucial juncture in the country’s history, a juncture that ushered in fundamental changes in the political system.

Mines, like Impasse, was written for more than a strictly scholarly audience, but it is a very different sort of monograph.  The autobiographical story told to Kohl and Farthing by labor activist Félix Muruchi Poma, and very intelligently framed for a foreign audience, brings to life aspects of contemporary Bolivia (and other parts of Latin America) that are rarely presented in such a compelling and readable form.  As noted in the brief bibliographic note at the conclusion of the book, several previous books provide historical accounts of issues and events covered in Muruchi’s story, but none of the English language literature does so in this “testimonial” genre.  That genre is difficult to pull off well, as Kohl acknowledged in an insightful article for the Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology, but this work is up to the task, and points to the activist side of Kohl and Farthing’s scholarship.  One is reminded, inevitably, of the classic I, Rigoberta Menchu, which focused on the life and politicization of an indigenous Guatemalan woman during a period that overlaps in part with that covered by Muruchi’s chronicle.  The many university faculty who assign the Menchu book for introductory Latin American Studies courses would do well to consider assigning this one alongside of it.

A number of Kohl’s recent articles and book chapters were aimed more strictly at scholarly audiences than were either Impasse or Mines. A 2012 essay published in Political Geography is the most insightful analysis I have encountered of the contradictions between what Kohl and Farthing label “resource nationalist imaginaries,” articulated in practice by strong social movements in Bolivia and more disparate actors in neighboring countries, and the circumstances of economies that remain as dependent as ever on revenues derived from natural resources. The study’s use of the theoretical concepts of “imaginaries” and “framing” strikes me as an especially valuable lens through which to understand the roots of social movement resistance to an economic model that has persisted despite the rise to power of Bolivia’s first indigenous President. Re-reading that piece as I was drafting this blog post, I am reminded of how Kohl’s passing is a great loss to those of us for whom innovative scholarship motivated by concerns about fairness and justice in Latin America is to be treasured, not unlike tin or gas or water for many Bolivians, as a precious commodity.