Last Friday The New York Times published an article claiming that Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano now “disavows” his seminal work, Las venas abiertas de América Latina (Open Veins of Latin America). The book, originally published in 1971, “argued that the riches that first attracted European colonizers, like gold and sugar, gave rise to a system of exploitation that led inexorably to ‘the contemporary structure of plunder’ that he held responsible for Latin America’s chronic poverty and underdevelopment.” For generations of Latin American leftists and students of Latin America Las venas abiertas has been “the canonical anti-colonialist, anti-capitalist and anti-American text.” It has been widely used in university classes, “has been translated into more than a dozen languages and has sold more than a million copies,” according to the Times. And now, its author—one of the most important living writers and thinkers on the Latin American left—has supposedly changed his mind.
But has he?
A close reading of the Times article leaves doubts, and questions.
According to the Times, Galeano, speaking in April 2014 at a book fair in Brazil to commemorate the book’s 43rd anniversary, admitted “he was not qualified to tackle the subject and that it was badly written.” Then the article quotes Galeano directly: “ ‘Open Veins’ tried to be a book of political economy, but I didn’t yet have the necessary training or preparation,” he said in Brazil, and added, “I wouldn’t be capable of reading this book again; I’d keel over. For me, this prose of the traditional left is extremely leaden, and my physique can’t tolerate it.” He is later quoted as having said, “Reality has changed a lot, and I have changed a lot … Reality is much more complex precisely because the human condition is diverse. Some political sectors close to me thought such diversity was a heresy. Even today, there are some survivors of this type who think that all diversity is a threat. Fortunately, it is not.”
Am I missing something here? Where does Galeano “disavow” and “renounce” Las venas abiertas? Where is the evidence that he has “change[d] his mind”?
There are three main points I take away from the statements he made in Brazil (which, it should be acknowledged, are incomplete and only based on what the Times reported):
(1) he feels he was unqualified to write the book at the time he did;
(2) he thinks it was poorly written, as is much of what is written by “the traditional left”;
(3) he believes reality has changed over time and is more complex [than his book makes it out to be?]
Rather than disavowing the book entirely, it would seem Galeano offered a critique of it and its young author, with the benefit of hindsight and forty-plus years of experience, both lived and learned.
How many of us today would be horrified to look back on something we wrote in college, the first year of graduate school, or as a young person? How many would disagree that much of what has been written by “the traditional left” is dry, dense, and inaccessible? And who would disagree with the oh-so-controversial statement that reality has changed over time and is complex?
This isn’t meant to be a defense or an apologia for Las venas abiertas, but rather a challenge to the Times’s non-story story.
Nowhere do I see Galeano disavowing or renouncing Las venas abiertas’s argument or content. Instead, I see him refining it—admitting what many readers, including those on the left, would agree to be the book’s shortcoming, and a common problem in trying to develop any grand theory or universal model: its simplistic formulation of exploitation and underdevelopment in Latin America and the failure to acknowledge the more nuanced history and complex reality.
But Las venas abiertas is one of those rare books that penetrates popular culture and generates both popular and academic debate over the course of many decades. Sometimes such a work serves as the building blocks for entire fields of study. (The cliché “The book that launched a thousand dissertations” comes to mind.) Despite their flaws, these foundational texts need to be written first, so that scholars, authors, and thinkers can engage with them, critique them, and, perhaps, surpass them. As my friend, the historian Romeo Guzmán, pointed out, instead of asking whether Galeano was “right” or “wrong,” we should consider what he “provide[s] for the larger narrative of US-Latin American relations and economic development.”
The fact that more than forty-years after its publication Galeano alluded to Las venas abiertas’s limitations, whether based on content, style, or in the framing, is admirable and potentially productive for the Latin American left. It is certainly different than disavowing and renouncing the book.
That doesn’t make for a good headline though, so the Times decided to make much ado about nothing instead.
Adam Goodman is a graduate student in the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania. He lives in Mexico City and can be found on Twitter at @adamsigoodman.