Saturday, April 18, 2009

Obama's Open Veins

"If the world is upside down the it is now,

wouldn't we have to turn it over to get it to stand up?"

-Eduardo Galeano

This week, the leaders of the Western Hemisphere (minus Cuba) met in the Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago for the Fifth Summit of the Americas. Buzz came from many quarters. From Latin American leaders, who were anxious to meet and greet with President Obama. And from the United States, who was anxious to see how Obama responded to our neighbors, although some commentators on the cable news (mostly right-wing hacks) still referred to it as our "backyard," or echoing Reagan "our doorstep."

These racist, ignorant assumptions have no place here. The community of ODU and Hampton Roads and beyond did not care about any of that. They are used to it, although they acknowledge the potential harm it can (and has) caused since the 1980s. They do not care about Obama and Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez sharing a friendly hand shake. They did not care about Nicaraguan president haranguing Obama on the history of US imperialism - although never a bad lesson for us. Most seemed to care about what Obama will do about immigration, foreign aid to democratic nations and favorable trade deals. "I know my parents would love to go back," said Fred Rodriquez, whose parents came from Colombia in the 1970s, and have since become citizens. "But it often proves hard to travel to certain parts of these countries, and with the economy how it is, most countries may not be too accommodating anymore for visitors like my parents."

US policy to Latin America must take on an air of equality and egalitarianism, many agreed. But Obama was presented with an odd opportunity to see how much of Latin America views us norteamericanos.

In a telling episode on Saturday, Hugo Chavez presented Obama with a book. (Obama quipped that he thought Chavez was giving him a copy of a book he had written, in which case, Obama was prepared to give him one of his). Now, Chavez is remembered for saying he could still smell the sulfur left by George W. Bush at a UN conference in 2005, alluding that he was the devil. He held Noam Chomsky's famous Hegemony or Survival and used it as an instrument to show the perils the US was setting itself up for with its continued policies.

his time, Chavez gave Obama a book by Eduardo Galeano - The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. As someone who has read this book (almost two years now), it is worth a closer look.

The book
does not, as Fox News claimed, just highlight US imperialism in South America. It is much deeper, richer than that. Galeano goes back to the Spanish conquests of what is now Latin America and how the power relations morphed over the years from Spanish, to Dutch, to French, to British and finally, to US power. It may be polemic, but it is informative. It charts, sometimes too thoroughly, the environmental plundering of Latin America by way of lopsided contracts, mines, fishing rights, deforestation, etc. The book is not to be ignored, at all. In fact, Obama would be remissed not to read it.

This is not Galeano's only book. Galeano, based out of Montevideo, Uruguay, is a critical thinkers an
d shaper of opinion through his journalism, history and love of soccer. He is the author of Upside Down World, where he posits gems of wisdom and subversion (my favorite being, to paraphrase: One man makes $100,000 , another makes $0. Their average income is $50,000. Goes to show that while "averages" are rising in Latin America, income inequality is higher than anywhere in the world) in between scathing images of war, destruction, and imperialism. The best resource on Latin America takes its name from Galeano's book.

He is also the author of the critically acclaimed and magnificient Memory of Fire - quite possibly the best work of history in any country. If not the best, the most inventive and painstaking. Like Open Veins, Galeano uses hundreds of sources to document stories from Pre-Columbian America - the world of the Aztecs, Incas, Mayans, etc. - and moves us into the late 1980s. The stories are true, and sources and cited. This is not a bland view of history from the ivory tower, but from the bosom of the beast - the bosom of the people.

In truth, Chavez would not do harm in giving Obama any of these books. But let's slow down any condemnation of this book. I promise you - no one that has a career outside Latin America and NO ONE on TV news has read or heard of this book. Let's hope Obama changes this - maybe picking up his entire catalog in English. That would be a change.

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