Politics & Policy

The Idiots Lose Their Religion

Eduardo Galeano (Carlos Alvarez/Getty)
The author of an iconic leftist tome on Latin America now denounces the book’s “awful” leftist rhetoric.

Eduardo Galeano has been one of the darlings of the Left for more than four decades, ever since his hugely popular bestseller, The Open Veins of Latin America, was published in 1971. Now the 73-year-old Uruguayan writer has backed away from his landmark book, saying at a conference in Brazil that the leftist rhetoric of the book is “awful” and shows how little he knew at the time about economics and the way the world really works.

This was the book that President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela presented to President Barack Obama when the two met in Trinidad in 2009. At that time, Chávez declared that Galeano’s book had helped him understand Latin American reality. Now it appears that “reality” was a fiction, spawned by immaturity and ideology.

The title of Galeano’s book explains its central theory: The open veins of Latin America have been drained of life by exploitive imperial powers, most notably the United States, leaving the region poor and underdeveloped.

And how do the imperial overlords exploit Latin America? By purchasing its natural resources at low prices and using them to produce much-higher-priced manufactured goods whose profits go into the pockets of well-heeled U.S. companies and investors. Latin America, meanwhile, remains poor, as this endless cycle of exploitation repeats itself generation after generation.

As a political writer myself, I know it took real courage — even gallantry — for Galeano to publicly correct himself. It’s not easy to admit when you are wrong. And it is even more difficult when you are a hero to so many, as Galeano has been.

In 1996, I wrote a book with Peruvian author Álvaro Vargas Llosa, a senior fellow with the Independent Institute and the author of Liberty for Latin America, and Colombian journalist and diplomat Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza. Our book, Guide to the Perfect Latin American Idiot, explained why and how Galeano was wrong. It eventually sold half a million copies, not nearly as many as Galeano’s book has sold.

Galeano’s Open Veins was just one of the subjects of our book. But it was one of the most important, since his book — even now — continues to sell well and is used as a textbook in many universities in the United States, Latin America, and Europe, which might explain the poor understanding that prevails in the academic world about Latin America’s economic problems.

The third chapter of our guide was titled “The Idiot’s Bible” and was devoted to explaining what Galeano himself now confirms: that the author knew very little about economics, and what little he thought he knew was totally wrong.

For example, in his book Galeano promotes the “theory of dependence,” which is the idea that the rich and powerful nations and peoples of the world assign and enforce a second-class, subservient economic status to the nations and peoples of the developing world, what was then called the Third World. This theory is one of classic leftist victimhood, a conspiratorial vision of history in which America the strong rules over Latin America the weak.

Galeano had never stopped to think why other poor societies — such as South Korea, Taiwan, Estonia, Singapore, and Hong Kong — had emerged from misery without being stopped by anyone. We could make the same observation about the achievement of Israel and, in Latin America, Chile.

The truth is that economic progress and prosperity are elective. A society can choose to do things the right way or the wrong way, and these choices have consequences. Do them the right way and within a couple of generations the economy will take off; do the opposite and the economy will sink.

Oddly enough, Galeano’s mea culpa comes at a time when my co-authors and I are publishing a new installment in our series of idiots’ guides, following The Creators of Misery and The Return of the Idiot.

In reporting on Galeano’s change of heart, the New York Times noted that our 1996 volume had “dismissed Open Veins as ‘the idiot’s bible,’ and reduced its thesis to a single sentence: ‘We’re poor; it’s their fault.’”

The Times was right. And now, it appears, Galeano may be getting it right as well.

— Exiled Cuban journalist and author Carlos Alberto Montaner, an adviser to the Center on Global Prosperity at the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif., is president of Firmas Press in Miami.

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