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Hugo Chavez's gift to Obama is a Latin leftist's bible

'Open Veins of Latin America' by Eduardo Galeano traces the continent's problems to Western imperialism and exploitation of its resources. The Marxist-inspired author is vilified by conservatives.

April 21, 2009|Tracy Wilkinson

MEXICO CITY — The book that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gave his U.S. counterpart, Barack Obama, has long been regarded as a bible for the Latin American left, found on the bookshelves and university reading lists of a generation of students in the region.

"Open Veins of Latin America" recounts, as its subtitle says, "Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent" -- the harvesting of the region's cotton, rubber, coffee, fruit and other resources by U.S. and European powers. It argues, from a Marxist viewpoint, that such exploitation is the root cause of Latin American poverty.

When the book was published in 1971, Publishers Weekly called its author, Eduardo Galeano, "both impassioned and a hard-nosed scholar." Galeano was a hero to the left, and was ridiculed by the right and for years persecuted by military dictatorships.

Galeano fled his native Uruguay after a military coup in 1973 and ended up in Argentina. A few years later, he fled military rule there. "Open Veins" and other works were banned in many parts of South America, until the continent began to return to civilian elected governments in the 1980s.

A decade ago, "Open Veins" was attacked by a conservative literary movement and featured in an irreverent publication, "Manual of the Perfect Latin American Idiot." Most of Galeano's work was translated into English by a British-born Socialist, Cedric Belfrage, who was deported in the 1950s, during the McCarthy era.

Galeano, who is a journalist, historian and essayist, has said his work cannot be pigeon-holed in a single category because of his mix of poetic imagery with hard political treatise.

A classic in Latin America, the book had become somewhat obscure in the mainstream U.S. until Chavez's gift-giving. A paperback version of "Open Veins" jumped from position 54,295 on the online retailer Amazon.com to the No. 2 slot, practically overnight, news agencies said.

Galeano, 68, remained pointed in his criticisms during a book tour in Mexico City this month.

"The contemporary world is not democratic, but profoundly fascist, chauvinistic, militaristic," he was quoted telling an audience of several thousand university students who waited in line for hours to see him.

He went on to say, however, that he was pleased to see that an "almost black" candidate, referring to Obama, had been elected president of the United States and hoped that that might help end racism.

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wilkinson@latimes.com

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Reading list

According to reports of the Chavez-Obama exchange, the book offered by the Venezuelan leader was in Spanish, a language the U.S. president does not read. Why Chavez didn't give him an English version is anyone's guess.

In case Obama is interested in some English-language books to help understand Latin America, or at least Mexico, The Times' Mexico City Bureau offers the following recommendations to start:

"Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans" by Alan Riding

"Opening Mexico: The Making of a Democracy" by Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon

"La Capital: The Biography of Mexico City" by Jonathan Kandell

"The Labyrinth of Solitude" by Octavio Paz

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