The Open Veins of Latin America

Happy Birthday America… No, not you… just North America… not you either, just “America”… you know The United States.

It seems wholly appropriate to me on this day celebrating “American” independence to consider our continuing dependence on that other America, Latin America. From tin to bananas to copper to all of the precious metals that make up the gadgets of our technological society, Latin America has supplied the barons of industry since conquistadors first discovered the largest vein of silver deposits in the altiplano of what is now Bolivia. I read Eduardo Galeano’s epic history of exploitation of Latin America by Western powers this year, as I continue to try and wrap my mind around my new home, Bolivia, and the greater Latin America that it is a part of. One of the last sentences of the book sums up the long history that Galeano details in depth.

We are not experiencing the primitive infancy of capitalism, but its vicious senility. Underdevelopment isn’t a stage of development, but its consequence.

We like to think that the United States perfected the ideals of capitalism and democracy and that our job is to help the rest of the world catch up. What we fail to account for is the fact that the rest of the world, Latin America in particular, has been an essential part of the “American” experiment from the beginning. Galeano shows how the exploitation of natural resources in Latin America provided the wealth that made the industrial revolution possible.

We would like to think that something called “American ingenuity”, or even Enlightenment principles, made the success of the United States and other western countries possible. The harsh reality is that it has always come at the expense and exploitation of other people and their natural resources, whether Native or Latin Americans. Lest we think that this is merely some dark corner of American history, we should track down the ingredients or components of any number of products that we consume. It is highly likely that a good portion of the minerals used to create our technology came from Latin America. If you eat bananas in North America, then you should think about sending a personal letter of thanks (and perhaps also apology) sometime to one of the former “banana republics” that continue to be dominated by that industry.

So, enjoy your fireworks today, but don’t ask where they were made. If you do, you might realize that the independence we declared from the British on this day 235 years ago has always been in the shadow of our dependence on the rest of the Americas.

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