The desire for precious metals, the medium of payment in commercial dealings, also sparked the crossing of the sinister seas. All of Europe needed silver; the seams in Bohemia, Saxony, and the Tyrol were almost exhausted.
For Spain it was an era of reconquest: 1492 was not only the year of the discovery of America, the new world born of that error which had such momentous consequences, but also of the recovery of Granada. Early that year Ferdinand of Aragón and Isabella of Castile, whose marriage had linked their dominions, stormed the last Arab redoubt on Spanish soil. It had taken nearly eight centuries to win back what was lost in seven years, and the war of reconquest had drained the royal treasury. But this was a holy war, a Christian war against Islam; and it was no accident that, in that same year of 1492, 150,000 Jews were expelled
Papal bulls had apostolically granted Africa to the Portuguese Crown, and the lands “unknown like those already discovered by your envoys and those to be discovered in the future” to the Crown of Castile. America had been given to Queen Isabella.
In 1513 the South Pacific glittered before the eyes of Vasco Núñez de Balboa. In the fall of 1522 the eighteen survivors of Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition returned to Spain: they had for the first time united both oceans and confirmed that the world was round by circling it. Three years earlier Hernán Cortés’s ten ships had sailed from Cuba toward Mexico, and in 1523 Pedro de Alvarado launched the conquest of Central America. Francisco Pizarro, an illiterate pig-breeder, triumphantly entered Cuzco in 1533 and seized the heart of the Inca empire. In 1540 Pedro de Valdivia crossed the Atacama desert and founded Santiago de Chile. The conquistadors penetrated the Chaco and laid bare the New World from Peru to the mouth of the mightiest river on our planet.
There was something of everything among the natives of Latin America: astronomers and cannibals, engineers and Stone Age savages. But none of the native cultures knew iron or the plow, or glass, or gunpowder, or used the wheel except on their votive carts. The civilization from across the ocean that descended upon these lands was undergoing the creative explosion of the Renaissance: Latin America seemed like another invention to be incorporated, along with gunpowder, printing, paper, and the compass, in the bubbling birth of the Modern Age. The unequal development of the two worlds explains the relative ease with which native civilizations succumbed. Cortés landed at Veracruz with no more than 100 sailors and 508 soldiers; he had 16 horses, 32 crossbows, 10 bronze cannon, and a few harquebuses, muskets, and pistols. Pizarro entered Cajamarca with 180 soldiers and 37 horses. That was enough. Yet the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, was then five times larger than Madrid and had double the population of Seville, Spain’s largest city, and in Peru Pizarro met an army of 100,000 Indians.
These remarkable coincidences have given rise to the hypothesis that the gods of the native religions were really Europeans who reached our shores long before Columbus.7
Horses, like camels, had once been indigenous to Latin America but had become extinct. In Europe, where they were introduced by Arab horsemen, they had proved to be of enormous military and economic value. When they reappeared in Latin America during the conquest, they lent magic powers to the invaders in the natives’ astonished eyes.
Bacteria and viruses were the most effective allies. The Europeans brought with them, like biblical plagues, smallpox and tetanus, various lung, intestinal, and venereal diseases, trachoma, typhus, leprosy, yellow fever, and teeth-rotting caries.
Before Pizarro strangled and decapitated Atahualpa, he got from him a ransom of “gold and silver weighing more than 20,000 marks in fine silver and 1,326,000 escudos in the finest gold.” Then Pizarro advanced on Cuzco. His soldiers thought they were entering the city of the Caesars, so dazzling was the capital of the empire, but they proceeded without delay to sack the Temple of the Sun. “Struggling and fighting among each other, each trying to get his hands on the lion’s share, the soldiers in their coats of mail trampled on jewels and images and pounded the gold utensils with hammers to reduce them to a more portable size. … They tossed all the temple’s gold into a melting pot to turn it into bars: the laminae that covered the walls, the marvelous representations of trees, birds, and other objects in the garden.”
In Potosí, silver built temples and palaces, monasteries and gambling dens; it prompted tragedies and fiestas, led to the spilling of blood and wine, fired avarice, and unleashed extravagance and adventure. The sword and the cross marched together in the conquest and plunder of Latin America, and captains and ascetics, knights and evangelists, soldiers and monks came together in Potosí to help themselves to its silver.
This jugular vein of the viceroyalty, America’s fountain of silver, had 120,000 inhabitants by the census of 1573. Only twenty-eight years had passed since the city sprouted out of the Andean wilderness and already, as if by magic, it had the same population as London and more than Seville, Madrid, Rome, or Paris. A new census in 1650 gave Potosí a population of 160,000. It was one of the world’s biggest and richest cities, ten times bigger than Boston—at a time when New York had not even begun to call itself by that name.
The gold and silver that the Incas took from the mines of Colque Porco and Andacaba did not leave the kingdom: they were not used commercially but for the adoration of the gods.
Hard as life was at its base, at an altitude of nearly 14,000 feet the place was flooded with treasure hunters who took the bitter cold as if it were a tax on living there. Suddenly a rich and disorderly society burst forth beside the silver, and Potosí became “the nerve center of the kingdom,” in the words of Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza. By the beginning of the seventeenth century it had thirty-six magnificently decorated churches, thirty-six gambling houses, and fourteen dance academies.
Between 1545 and 1558 the prolific silver mines of Potosí, in what is now Bolivia, and of Zacatecas and Guanajuato in Mexico, were discovered, and the mercury amalgam process, which made possible the exploitation of the lowest-grade silver, began to be used. The “silver rush” quickly eclipsed gold mining. In the mid-seventeenth century silver constituted more than 99 percent of mineral exports from Spanish America. Latin America was a huge mine, with Potosí as its chief center.
The Crown was mortgaged. It owed nearly all of the silver shipments, before they arrived, to German, Genoese, Flemish, and Spanish bankers. The same fate befell most of the duty collected in Spain itself: in 1543, 65 percent of all the royal revenues went to paying annuities on debts. Only in a minimal way did Latin American silver enter the Spanish economy; although formally registered in Seville, it ended in the hands of the Fuggers, the powerful bankers who had advanced to the Pope the funds needed to finish St. Peter’s, and of other big moneylenders of the period, such as the Welsers, the Shetzes, and the Grimaldis. The silver also went to paying for the export of non-Spanish merchandise to the New World.
The rich empire had a poor metropolis, although the illusion of prosperity blew increasingly large bubbles into the air. The Crown kept opening up new war fronts, while on Spanish soil the aristocracy devoted itself to extravagance, and priests and warriors, nobles and beggars, multiplied as dizzily as living costs and interest rates. Industry died with the birth of great sterile latifundia, and Spain’s sick economy could not stand up to the impact of the rising demand for food and merchandise that was the inevitable result of colonial expansion. The big rise in public expenditures and the choking pressure of the overseas possessions’ consumer needs accelerated trade deficits and set off galloping inflation. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, French minister of marine under Louis XIV, wrote, “The more business a state does with the Spaniards, the more silver it has.” There was a sharp European struggle for the Spanish trade, which brought with it the market and the silver of Latin America. A late-seventeenth-century French document tells us that Spain controlled only 5 percent of the trade with “its” overseas colonial possessions, despite the juridical mirage of its monopoly: almost a third of the total was in Dutch and Flemish hands, a quarter belonged to the French, the Genoese controlled over one-fifth, the English one-tenth, and the Germans somewhat less. Latin America was a European business.
Charles V, heir to the Holy Roman emperors by purchased election, man of jutting chin and idiot gaze, spent only sixteen of his reign’s forty years in Spain. Having occupied the throne without knowing a word of Spanish, he governed with a retinue of rapacious Flemings whom he authorized to take out of Spain muletrain-loads of gold and jewels, and whom he showered with bishoprics…
The Hapsburg dynasty did not collapse with his death; Spain had to suffer them for nearly two centuries. The great leader of the Counter-Reformation was his son, Philip II. From his huge palace-monastery, Escorial, on the slopes of the Sierra de Guadarrama, Philip spread the grim operations of the Inquisition across the world and launched his armies against the centers of heresy. Calvinism had taken hold in Holland, England, and France, and the Turks embodied the peril of a return to the faith of Allah. Spreading the true faith was a costly business: the few gold and silver objects, marvels of Latin…
Defense of the Catholic faith turned out to be a mask for the struggle against history. The expulsion of the Jews in the time of Ferdinand and Isabella had deprived Spain of many able artisans and of indispensable capital. The expulsion of the Arabs in 1609 is considered less important, although no fewer than 275,000 Moors were put over the border, disastrously effecting the economy of Valencia and ruining the fertile Aragonese lands south of the Ebro. Previously, Philip II had thrown out thousands of Flemish artisans guilty or suspected of Protestantism. England welcomed them and they made a solid contribution to that country’s manufactures.
The economic surplus went into unproductive channels: the old wealthy class, the señores of gallows and knife, the owners of land and titles of nobility, built palaces and accumulated jewels; the new rich, speculators and merchants, bought land and titles.
Everything went to rack and ruin. Of 16,000 looms in Seville on Charles Vs death in 1558, only 400 remained when Philip II died forty years later. The 7 million sheep in Andalusian flocks were reduced to 2 million. In Don Quixote de la Mancha—which was banned for a long time in Latin America—Cervantes drew a portrait of the society of his time. A mid-sixteenth-century decree stopped the importation of foreign books and barred students from taking courses outside Spain; the Salamanca student body was reduced by half in a few decades; there were 9,000 convents and the clergy multiplied almost as fast as the cloak-and-sword nobility; 160,000 foreigners monopolized foreign trade; and the squanderings of the aristocracy condemned Spain to economic impotence. Around 1630, 150-odd dukes, marquises, counts, and viscounts garnered 5 million ducats in annual rents, adding ever more frills to their fancy titles. The Duke of Medinaceli had 700 servants and the Duke of Osuna, to score off the Tsar of Russia, dressed his 300 in leather cloaks.
The capital that stayed in Latin America, after the lion’s share went into the primitive accumulation process of European capitalism, did not generate a process similar to that which took place in Europe, where the foundations of industrial development were laid. It was diverted instead into the construction of great palaces and showy churches, into the purchase of jewels and luxurious clothing and furniture, into the maintenance of flocks of servants, and into the extravagance of fiestas.
In its mid-seventeenth-century days of glory the city attracted many painters and artisans, Spanish and Indian, European and Creole masters and Indian image-carvers who left their mark on Latin American colonial art. Melchor Pérez de Holguín, Latin America’s El Greco, left an enormous religious work which betrays both its creator’s talent and the pagan breath of these lands: his splendid Virgin, arms open, gives one breast to the infant Jesus and the other to Saint Joseph; she is hauntingly memorable. Goldsmiths, silversmiths, and engravers, cabinetmakers and masters of repoussé, craftsmen in metals, fine woods, plaster, and noble ivory adorned Potosí’s many churches and monasteries with works of the imaginative colonial school, altars sparkling with silver filigree, and priceless pulpits and reredoses.
Capital, far from accumulating, was squandered. There was a saying: “Father a merchant, son a gentleman, grandson a beggar.” In a plea to the government in 1843 Mexican politician Lucas Alamán gave a somber warning and insisted on the need to defend national industry by banning or imposing heavy duties on foreign imports. “We must proceed to develop industry as the only source of general prosperity,” he wrote. “The riches of Zacatecas would bring no benefits to Puebla but for the former’s consumption of the latter’s manufactures, and if these decline again, as has happened before, that presently flourishing area will be ruined and the riches of the mines will not be able to save it from poverty.” The prophesy proved true. In our time Zacatecas and Guanajuato are not even the most important cities in their own regions. Both languish amid the skeletons of the camps of the mining boom.
to the plight of the Indians of the exterminated Latin American civilizations was added the ghastly fate of the blacks seized from African villages to toil in Brazil and the Antilles.
The colonial Latin American economy enjoyed the most highly concentrated labor force known until that time, making possible the greatest concentration of wealth ever enjoyed by any civilization in world history.
The price of the tide of avarice, terror, and ferocity bearing down on these regions was Indian genocide: the best recent investigations credit pre-Columbian Mexico with a population between 30 and 37.5 million, and the Andean region is estimated to have possessed a similar number; Central America had between 10 and 13 million. The Indians of the Americas totaled no less than 70 million when the foreign conquerors appeared on the horizon; a century and a half later they had been reduced to 3.5 million. In 1685 only 4,000 Indian families remained of the more than 2 million that had once lived between Lima and Paita, according to the Marquis of Barinas. Archbishop Liñán y Cisneros denied that the Indians had been annihilated: “The truth is that they are hiding out,” he said, “to avoid paying tribute, abusing the liberty which they enjoy and which they never had under the Incas.”26
The Spaniards scoured the countryside for hundreds of miles for labor. Many died on the way, before reaching Potosí, but it was the terrible work conditions in the mine that killed the most people. Soon after the mine began operating, in 1550, the Dominican monk Domingo de Santo Tomás told the Council of the Indies that Potosí was a “mouth of hell” which swallowed Indians by the thousands every year, and that rapacious mine owners treated them “like stray animals.” Later Fray Rodrigo de Loaysa said: “These poor Indians are like sardines in the sea. Just as other fish pursue the sardines to seize and devour them,
Ideological justifications were never in short supply. The bleeding of the New World became an act of charity, an argument for the faith. With the guilt, a whole system of rationalizations for guilty consciences was devised. The Indians were used as beasts of burden because they could carry a greater weight than the delicate llama, and this proved that they were in fact beasts of burden. The viceroy of Mexico felt that there was no better remedy for their “natural wickedness” than work in the mines. Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, a renowned Spanish theologian, argued that they deserved the treatment they got because their sins and idolatries were an offense to God. The Count de Buffon, a French naturalist, noted that Indians were cold and weak creatures in whom “no activity of the soul” could be observed. The Abbé De Paw invented a Latin America where degenerate Indians lived side by side with dogs that couldn’t bark, cows that couldn’t be eaten, and impotent camels. Voltaire’s Latin America was inhabited by Indians who were lazy and stupid, pigs with navels on their backs, and bald and cowardly lions. Bacon, De Maistre, Montesquieu, Hume, and Bodin declined to recognize the “degraded men” of the New World as fellow humans.
When Bartolomé de las Casas upset the Spanish Court with his heated denunciations of the conquistadors’ cruelty in 1557, a member of the Royal Council replied that Indians were too low in the human scale to be capable of receiving the faith. Las Casas dedicated his zealous life to defending the Indians against the excesses of the mine owners and encomenderos. He once remarked that the Indians preferred to go to hell to avoid meeting Christians.
Indians were assigned or given in encomienda to conquistadors and colonizers so that they could teach them the gospel. But since the Indians owed personal services and economic tribute to the encomenderos, there was little time for setting them on the Christian path to salvation.
Indians were divided up along with lands given as royal grants, or were obtained by direct plunder: in reward for his services, Cortés received 23,000 vassals. After 1536 Indians were given in encomienda along with their descendants for the span of two lifetimes, those of the encomendero and of his immediate heir; after 1629 this was extended to three lifetimes and, after 1704, to four.
The Indians were taken to the mines, were forced to submit to the service of the encomenderos, and were made to surrender for nothing the lands which they had to leave or neglect. On the Pacific coast the Spaniards destroyed or let die out the enormous plantations of corn, yucca, kidney and white beans, peanuts, and sweet potato; the desert quickly devoured great tracts of land which the Inca irrigation network had made abundant. Four and a half centuries after the Conquest only rocks and briars remain where roads had once united an empire. Although the Incas’ great public works were for the most part destroyed by time or the usurper’s hand, one may still see across the Andean cordillera traces of the endless terraces which permitted, and still permit, cultivation of the mountainsides.
In that empire which did not know the wheel, the horse, or iron, the terraces and aqueducts were made possible by prodigious organization and technical perfection achieved through wise distribution of labor, as well as by the religious force that ruled man’s relation with the soil—which was sacred and thus always alive.
As Darcy Ribeiro puts it, the Indians were the fuel of the colonial productive system. “It is almost certain,” writes Sergio Bagú, “that hundreds of Indian sculptors, architects, engineers, and astronomers were sent into the mines along with the mass of slaves for the killing task of getting out the ore. The technical ability of these people was of no interest to the colonial economy.
In 1781 Tupac Amaru laid siege to Cuzco. This mestizo chief, a direct descendant of the Inca emperors, headed the broadest of messianic revolutionary movements. The rebellion broke out in Tinta province, which had been almost depopulated by enforced service in the Cerro Rico mines. Mounted on his white horse, Tupac Amaru entered the plaza of Tungasuca and announced to the sound of drums and pututus that he had condemned the royal Corregidor Antonio Juan de Arriaga to the gallows and put an end to the Potosí mita. A few days later Tupac issued a decree liberating the slaves. He abolished all taxes and forced labor in all forms. The Indians rallied by the thousands to the forces of the “father of all the poor and all the wretched and helpless.”
Tupac was tortured, along with his wife, his children, and his chief aides, in Cuzco’s Plaza del Wacaypata. His tongue was cut out; his arms and legs were tied to four horses with the intention of quartering him, but his body would not break; he was finally beheaded at the foot of the gallows. His head was sent to Tinta, one arm to Tungasuca and the other to Carabaya, one leg to Santa Rosa and the other to Livitaca. The torso was burned and the ashes thrown in the Río Watanay. It was proposed that all his descendants be obliterated up to the fourth generation.
Tupac’s resounding, never forgotten words: “Campesino! Your poverty shall no longer feed the master!”
Tourists love to photograph altiplano natives in their native costumes, unaware that these were imposed by Charles III
The dresses that the Spaniards made Indian females wear were copied from the regional costumes of Estremaduran, Andalusian, and Basque peasant women, and the center-part hair style was imposed by Viceroy Toledo.
The more a product is desired by the world market, the greater the misery it brings to the Latin American peoples whose sacrifice creates it. The area least affected by this iron law has been Río de la Plata, feeding the international market with its hides, meat, and wool; yet even it
has been unable to break out of the cage of underdevelopment.
Because they discovered precious metals first, the Spaniards only began raising sugar in their colonies—initially in Santo Domingo, then in Veracruz, Peru, and Cuba—as a secondary activity. Brazil, on the other hand, became the world’s largest sugar producer
The Portuguese Crown granted lands in usufruct to Brazil’s first big landlords. The feats of conquest proceeded in tandem with the organization of production. Twelve “captains” received by written grant the whole of the vast unexplored territory, to be exploited in the king’s service. However, the business was mostly financed by Dutch capital and thus became more Flemish than Portuguese.
Dutch entrepreneurs not only participated in establishing sugar estates and importing slaves; they also picked up the crude sugar in Lisbon, refined it, sold it in Europe, and pocketed a third of its value in profits. In 1630 the Dutch West India Company invaded and conquered the northeast coast of Brazil and took over direct control of sugar production.
When the Dutch were finally thrown out of the Brazilian Northeast in 1654, they had already laid the foundations for intense and ruinous competition by Barbados. They had taken slaves and cane-roots there, had set up sugar estates, and had provided all the implements. Brazilian exports plummeted to half of what they had been, and sugar prices were halved by the end of the seventeenth century. Meanwhile, Barbados’s black population increased tenfold in a few decades. The Antilles were nearer to the European market, and Barbados developed superior techniques and offered virgin land—while Brazilian soil was wearing out. The
At first there had been orange and mango plantations, but these were left to their fate, or reduced to small orchards surrounding the sugarmill-owner’s house, reserved exclusively for the family of the white planter. Fire was used to clear land for canefields, devastating the fauna along with the flora: deer, wild boar, tapir, rabbit, pacas, and armadillo disappeared. All was sacrificed on the altar of sugarcane monoculture.
The Brazilian Northeast is today the most underdeveloped area in the Western hemisphere.† As a result of sugar monoculture it is a concentration camp for 30 million people—on the same soil that produced the most lucrative business of the colonial agricultural economy in Latin America.
The crisis in Haiti produced the sugar boom in Cuba, which quickly became the world’s top producer.
Eleven months sufficed for the British occupiers to introduce as many slaves as would otherwise have entered in fifteen years, and from that time on the Cuban economy was shaped by the foreign need for sugar: slaves produced it for the world market and its bounteous surplus value was enjoyed by the local oligarchy and by imperialist interests.
The Río de la Plata meatpacking plants were already in operation. Argentina and Uruguay (then without separate existence and not so named) had adapted their economies to the massive export of dried and salted meat, hides, fats, and tallows. Brazil and Cuba, the nineteenth century’s two great slave centers, were fine markets for dried meat, a very cheap food easily transported and warehoused since it did not go bad in the tropical heat. Cuba was the first market for Uruguayan meat—then shipped in thin, dry slices—at the end of the eighteenth century. Cubans still call dried meat “Montevideo,” but Uruguay stopped selling it to Cuba in 1985 when they joined the OAS anti-Cuban bloc, thus idiotically losing their last market for the product.6
In the same years it was destroying its own timberlands, Cuba became the chief purchaser of U.S. timber. The extensive plunder-culture of sugarcane meant not only the death of the forest but also, in the long run, the death of the island’s fabulous fertility.† With forests surrendered to the flames, erosion soon did its work on the defenseless soil and thousands of streams dried up.
The city of Trinidad is today a resplendent corpse. It collapsed, never to rise again, with the collapse of sugar prices in 1857.*
in December of that year the price fell to $.04 and a crisis of hurricane force descended in 1921: many sugarmills went bankrupt—to be bought up by U.S. interests—as did all the Cuban and Spanish banks, including the Banco Nacional itself. Only the branches of U.S. banks survived. The 1921 disaster had been brought on by the fall in sugar prices on the U.S. market, and from the United States came a prompt credit of $50 million. On the heels of the credit came General Enoch Crowder who, under the pretext of controlling the use of the funds, became Cuba’s de facto governor. Thanks to his good offices the Machado dictatorship came to power in 1924, but the Great Depression of the 1930s lay ahead for this bloody regime, with Cuba paralyzed by a general strike. The U.S. crisis of 1929 could not but have a fierce impact on so dependent and vulnerable an economy as Cuba’s: the price of sugar sank well below $.01 by 1932, and in three years the value of exports fell by 75 percent.
When Batista fell in 1959, Cuba was selling almost all its sugar to the United States. As Martí said and Che Guevara quoted at the OAS Punta del Este conference in 1961, “The nation that buys commands, the nation that sells serves; it is necessary to balance trade in order to ensure freedom; the country that wants to die sells only to one country, and the country that wants to survive sells to more than one.”
Puerto Rico, another sugar factory, remained a prisoner. From the U.S. standpoint, Puerto Ricans are not good enough to live in a country of their own but are good enough to die in Vietnam for a country which is not theirs. In proportion to population, the “Free Associated State” of Puerto Rico has more soldiers fighting in Southeast Asia than the rest of the United States.
Thirteen U.S. sugar producers owned more than 47 percent of the total area planted to cane and garnered some $ 180 million from each harvest. The subsoil wealth—nickel, iron, copper, manganese, chrome, tungsten—formed part of the United States’ strategic reserves and were exploited in accordance with the varying priorities of U.S. defense and industry.
The brigade that landed at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961 was not only made up of former Batista soldiers and policemen, but also of the previous owners of more than 370,000 hectares of land, nearly 10,000 buildings, seventy factories, ten sugarmills, three banks, five mines, and twelve cabarets. Guatemalan dictator Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes provided training camps for the expedition in return, as he later admitted, for U.S. promises of cash (which was never paid) and an increase in the Guatemalan sugar quota in the U.S. market.
In 1965 another sugar country, the Dominican Republic, was invaded, this time—according to their commander, General Bruce Palmer—by 40,000 U.S. Marines ready “to stay indefinitely in this country in view of the reigning confusion.”
After the invasion, President Lyndon Johnson’s special envoy to the Dominican Republic was Ellsworth Bunker, the chairman of the National Sugar Refining Company. National Sugar’s interests in this small country were safeguarded under Bunker’s attentive eye: the occupation troops withdrew, leaving in power, after very democratic elections, Joaquín Balaguer, Trujillo’s right arm throughout his brutal dictatorship. The Dominicans had fought in the streets and on rooftops, with sticks, machetes, and guns, against the foreign forces’ tanks, bazookas, and helicopters for the return to power of constitutionally elected President Juan Bosch, who had been overthrown by a military coup.
But sugar did not only produce dwarfs. It also produced giants, or at least contributed generously to their growth. The sugar of tropical Latin America gave powerful impetus to the accumulation of capital for English, French, Dutch, and U.S. industrial development, while at the same time mutilating the economy of Northeast Brazil and the Caribbean islands and consummating the historic ruin of Africa. The fulcrum of the triangular trade—manufactures, slaves, sugar—between Europe, Africa, and America was the traffic in slaves for sugar plantations. As Auguste Cochin wrote: “The story of a grain of sugar is a whole lesson in political economy, in politics, and also in morality.”
The English were the champions in buying and selling human flesh until it ceased to be convenient for them. The Dutch, however, had longer experience in the business—Charles V had given them a monopoly in shipping slaves to the Americas before England obtained the right to introduce slaves into the colonies. As for France, the “Sun King” Louis XIV shared with the king of Spain half the profits of the Guinea Company, formed in 1701 to facilitate the slave trade to the Americas;
According to Sergio Bagú, the most potent force for the accumulation of mercantile capital was slavery in the Americas; and this capital in turn became “the foundation stone on which the giant industrial capital of modern times was built.”
From the dawn of the sixteenth to the dusk of the nineteenth centuries, many millions of Africans—no one knows how many— crossed the ocean; what is known is that they greatly exceeded the number of white emigrants from Europe, although many fewer survived.
From the Potomac to the Río de la Plata, slaves built the houses of their masters, felled the forests, cut and milled the sugarcane, planted the cotton, cultivated the cacao, harvested the coffee and tobacco, and were entombed in the mines.
Slowly but surely England broke Holland’s slave-trade hegemony. The South Sea Company was the chief beneficiary of the asiento, the royal monopoly on the slave trade which Spain had conceded to England, and leading figures in British politics and finance were connected with the company.
Traffic in slaves raised the shipping center of Bristol to the rank of Britain’s second city and made Liverpool the world’s greatest port.
The ships sailed back to Liverpool carrying various tropical products: in the early eighteenth century three-quarters of the cotton used by the British textile industry came from the Antilles, although Georgia and Louisiana later became its chief sources; by mid-century there were 120 sugar refineries in Britain.
Slave-trade profits financed the building of Britain’s Great Western railway and of industries such as the Welsh slate factories.
Capital accumulated in the triangular trade made possible the invention of the steam engine: James Watt was subsidized by businessmen who had made their fortunes in that trade.14
British industry needed international markets with more purchasing power, which led it to preach the gospel of wages. But the introduction of wages in Britain’s Caribbean colonies gave renewed advantage to Brazilian sugar, with its comparatively lower costs from using slave labor.* The British fleet now attacked the slavers, but the traffic to supply Cuba and Brazil continued growing. Before a British ship could reach a pirate ship, the slaves were thrown into the sea; all that remained on board were the smell and the laughing captain on deck. Repression of the traffic raised prices and further pyramided profits. By the middle of the century slavers were selling vigorous slaves, whom they had got for an old rifle, for more than $600 a head in Cuba.
* The first law expressly banning slavery in Brazil was not Brazilian. It was—and not by accident—English. The British parliament voted it on August 8, 1845.
In New England the slave trade gave birth to a large part of the capital that produced the U.S. industrial revolution. In the middle of the eighteenth century Northern slave ships carried barrels of rum to Africa from Boston, Newport, and Providence; they exchanged the rum for slaves, sold the slaves in the Caribbean, and from there brought molasses to Massachusetts, where it was distilled and converted into rum, completing the cycle. The best Antillean rum, “West Indian Rum,” was not even made in the Antilles. With capital obtained from this trade in slaves, the Brown brothers of Providence installed the foundry that provided George Washington with guns for the American Revolution.
The whole process was a pumping of blood from one set of veins to another: the development of the development of some, the underdevelopment of others.
Four years later the first slave rising in the Americas broke out: the slaves of Diego Columbus, son of the discoverer, started the revolt and ended on gallows lining the sugarmill lanes.
A couple of centuries after the Diego Columbus uprising, at the other end of the island, runaway slaves fled to the Haitian mountains and there reconstructed African life, growing their food, worshiping their gods, practicing their ancient customs. For the people of Haiti the rainbow still symbolizes the road back to Guinea—in a ship with a white sail. In Dutch Guiana (Surinam) communities of Djukas, descendants of slaves who fled into the forest, have survived for three centuries across the Courantyne River. In these villages “obeah shrines like those in Guinea can be seen, ceremonial dances are performed that could take place in Ghana, and the people talk with drums, which are made like Ashanti drums.”
But in Brazil a little before the Djuka exodus, fugitive slaves had organized the black kingdom of Palmares in the Northeast, and throughout the eighteenth century had successfully resisted dozens of military expeditions sent to suppress them, first by the Dutch and then by the Portuguese. Assaults by thousands of soldiers were fruitless against the guerrilla tactics which, until 1693, made the refuge invulnerable. The independent kingdom of Palmares—a call to rebellion, a banner of liberty—was organized as a state, similar to the many that existed in Africa in the seventeenth century.
When the sugar plantation was at its height of omnipotence, Palmares was the one corner of Brazil where agriculture was being diversified.
No slave rebellion in world history lasted as long as that in Palmares: Spartacus’s rebellion, which shook the most important slave system of ancient times, lasted eighteen months.16 For the final onslaught the Portuguese Crown mobilized the biggest army seen in Brazil until the colony became independent much later. No fewer than 10,000 people defended the last bastion of Palmares; the survivors were beheaded, thrown from precipices, or sold to merchants in Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires. Two
Not long afterward Captain Bartolomeu Bueno do Prado returned from the Rio das Mortes with trophies of victory over another slave rising. He brought 3,900 pairs of ears in his horses’ saddlebags.
priests, who received 5 percent of sugar production as a tithe, gave Christian absolution; the overseer administered punishment like Jesus Christ castigating sinners.
Brazil abolished slavery in 1888, but it did not abolish the latifundio,
In 1938 the pilgrimage of a cowhand over the parched roads of the sertão inspired one of the best novels in Brazilian literature.
Packed into ships’ holds for the long journey, many anticipated their fate by dying en route. Others did not even reach the ships. In 1878, 120,000 of Ceará’s 800,000 population headed for the Amazon and less than half got there; the rest collapsed from hunger or disease on the sertão trails or in the suburbs of Fortaleza.
Guardias rurales posted along the riverbanks shot at fugitives. The pay was in kind—dried meat, manioc flour, lumps of unrefined sugar, aguardiente—until the rubber worker paid off his debts, a miracle that rarely occurred. Employers had an agreement among themselves not to give jobs to workers who were in debt to other employers. Debts piled on debts. To the cost of transport from the Northeast were added the debts for work tools, machetes, knives, and eating bowls; and since the worker consumed food—and above all liquor, never a scarce commodity in the rubber forests—
Most of the rubber production came from the Acre area, which Brazil had wrested from Bolivia after a lightning military campaign.* * Some 75,000 square miles were lopped off Bolivia. In 1902 it got a £2 million indemnity and a railway line giving it access to the Madeira and Amazon rivers. With Acre in its possession, Brazil had almost all of the world’s rubber reserves.
By 1919 Brazil, which had had a virtual monopoly, was supplying only one-eighth of world consumption. A half-century later Brazil is buying more than half its rubber from abroad.
As the plants were very delicate he had them in a hermetically sealed cabin at a special temperature: if it was opened the flowers would be ruined. Thus the seeds reached the Liverpool docks unscathed. Forty years later the British invaded the world market with Malayan rubber. The Asian plantations, skillfully developed from shoots grown at Kew Gardens, easily supplanted Brazilian production.
For Brazil had merely responded to the siren song of world demand for raw materials, without itself participating in the real business of rubber—finance, trade, industrialization, and distribution. The
One must conclude that the government’s real aims are quite different: to provide labor for the U.S. latifundistas who have bought or appropriated half the lands north of the Rio Negro, and also for U.S. Steel, which received Amazonia’s rich iron and manganese deposits from General Garrastazú Médici.
Then, in 1922, the country suddenly became a fountain of oil, and oil has reigned without interruption ever since. The black gold finally gushed forth, justifying, four centuries late, the fantasies of the Spanish conquistadors: searching in vain for the king who bathed in gold,
Like sugarcane, cacao means monoculture, the burning of forests, the dictatorship of international prices, and perpetual penury for the workers. The plantation owners, who live on the Rio de Janeiro beaches and are more businessmen than farmers, do not permit a single inch of land to be devoted to other crops.
The cotton euphoria brusquely awakened the port of São Luiz do Maranhão from a long tropical siesta previously interrupted only by the arrival of a couple of ships a year. Now black slaves streamed onto the north Brazilian plantations and some 200 ships a year, carrying a million pounds of raw cotton, sailed from São Luiz. The economic crisis in mining at the beginning of the nineteenth century gave cotton an abundance of slave labor; with the exhaustion of the gold and diamond supply in the south, Brazil seemed to revive in the north.
Large-scale cotton production on southern United States plantations, which had better soil and machines for cleaning and baling, lowered prices by two-thirds and Brazil dropped out of the race. Prosperity returned when the Civil War interrupted U.S. supplies, but did not last long.
The United States’ agricultural surpluses are, as we know, the result of fat subsidies to its producers; it spills the surpluses out across the world at dumping prices as part of its foreign aid program.
Today São Paulo is the most developed state in Brazil, containing the country’s industrial center, but its coffee plantations still teem with “vassal inhabitants” who pay rent for their land with their and their children’s toil.
Coffee is basic to the economy of El Salvador, a little country owned by a handful of oligarchical families: monoculture makes it necessary to import the beans—the people’s only source of protein—corn, vegetables, and other foods the country traditionally produced.
In Colombia, where suitable slopes abound, coffee is king. According to a Time magazine report in 1962, only 5 percent of the price yielded by coffee in its journey from tree to U.S. consumer goes into the wages of the workers who produce it.27
The price breakdown is as follows: 40 percent for middlemen, exporters, and importers; 10 percent for taxes imposed by both governments; 10 percent for transport; 5 percent for publicity by the Pan-American Coffee Bureau; 30 percent for plantation owners; and 5 percent for workers’ wages.
This time—for ten years, from 1948 to 1957—small and large plantations, desert and farmland, valley and forest and Andean plateau were engulfed in peasant war; it put whole communities to flight, generated revolutionary guerrillas and criminal bands, and turned the country into a cemetery: it is estimated to have left a toll of 180,000 dead.
For coffee did not bring happiness and harmony as Nieto Arteta had prophesied. It is true that coffee opened up railroads, highways, and the Rio Magdalena to navigation, and that thanks to coffee enough capital was accumulated to found some industries. But the ascendancy of coffee did not affect either the oligarchical social order or the dependence of the economy on foreign power centers; on the contrary, both became far more oppressive for Colombians. Toward the end of the violent decade, the United Nations published the results of a study of nutrition in Colombia (and there has been absolutely no improvement since then): 88 percent of Bogotá schoolchildren suffered from avitaminosis, 78 percent from riboflavinosis, and more than half were below normal weight; avitaminosis affected 71 percent of workers and 78 percent of Tensa Valley peasants.33 The study showed “a marked insufficiency of protective foods—milk and its derivatives, eggs, meat, fish, and some fruits and vegetables—which together provide protein, vitamins, and salt.”
The United Fruit Company swallowed up its competitors in the production and sale of bananas and became Central America’s top latifundista, while its affiliates cornered rail and sea transport. It took over the ports and set up its own customs and police. The dollar in effect became the national currency of Central America.
In the middle of the nineteenth century the filibusterer William Walker, operating on behalf of bankers Morgan and Garrison, invaded Central America at the head of a band of assassins. With the obliging support of the U.S. government, Walker robbed, killed, burned, and in successive expeditions proclaimed himself president of Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras. He restored slavery in the areas that suffered his devastating occupation, thus continuing his country’s philanthropic work in the states that had just been seized from Mexico. He was welcomed back to the United States as a national hero. From then on invasions, interventions, bombardments, forced loans, and gun-point treaties followed one after the other.
Theodore Roosevelt loudly recalled his successful amputation of land from Colombia: “I took the Canal Zone and let Congress debate,” said the proud Nobel Peace Prize winner as he related how he had invented Panama. Colombia soon afterward received $25 million in indemnity: it was the price of a country that was born so that the United States could have a route between two oceans.
spent thirty-three years and four months in active service as a member of our country’s most agile military force—the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from a second lieutenant to major-general. And during that period I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street, and for the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism.… Thus I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank to collect revenues in. … I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras “right” for American fruit companies in 1903.37
In The 42nd Parallel John Dos Passos traced the dazzling career of Keith and United Fruit: In Europe and the United States people had started to eat bananas, so they cut down the jungles through Central America to plant bananas, and built railroads to haul the bananas, and every year more steamboats of the Great White Fleet steamed north loaded with bananas, and that is the history of the American empire in the Caribbean, and the Panama canal and the future Nicaragua canal and the marines and the battleships and the bayonets.40
These shop-window bourgeois, moneylenders, and merchants who monopolized political power had no interest in developing local manufactures, which died in the egg when free trade opened the doors to the avalanche of British merchandise. Nor were their associates, the landlords, interested in resolving “the agrarian question,” except to the extent that they could feather their own nests. The latifundio was consolidated on a foundation of plunder.
Economic, social, national frustration: a series of betrayals followed independence, and Latin America, split apart by its new frontiers, was doomed as before to monoculture and dependence.
Down south it was José Artigas who personified the agrarian revolution. This man, the victim of impassioned vilification by official historians, led the masses during the heroic years from 1811 to 1820, in the area now occupied by Uruguay and the Argentine provinces of Santa Fe, Corrientes, Entre Ríos, Misiones, and Córdoba. He wanted to lay economic, social, and political foundations for a Great Fatherland within the frontiers of the old Rio de la Plata viceroyalty, and was the most important and clear-headed of the leaders who resisted the annihilating centralism of the port of Buenos Aires. He fought against Spanish and Portuguese, and his forces were finally crushed by a pincer movement from Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires—instruments of the British Empire—and by an oligarchy which, true to form, sold him out as soon as they saw the implications of his program of social demands.
In our day the Uruguayan countryside looks like a desert: 500 families monopolize half of all the land
The country makes its living from wool and meat, but its pastures contain fewer sheep and fewer cows than at the beginning of our century. The backwardness of production methods is reflected in the low yields from livestock—dependent for food on periodic rains and natural soil fertility—and from crop farming. Meat production per animal is not even half that of France or Germany, and the same applies to milk in comparison with New Zealand, Denmark, and Holland. Every sheep produces a kilogram less wool than in Australia. Per hectare wheat yields are three times lower than in France, corn seven times lower than in the United States. The big landowners send their profits abroad, spend their summers at Punta del Este, and do not reside at their latifundios even in winter, paying occasional visits in their own airplanes. When the Asociación Rural was founded a century ago, two-thirds of its members already made their homes in the capital. The extensive production, left to nature and hungry peons, causes them no headaches.
In 1845 the United States had annexed the Mexican territories of Texas and California, where it restored slavery in the name of civilization. Mexico also lost the present states of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah—more than half the country. The stolen territory was equal in size to present-day Argentina.
Hardly 5 percent of the total area is under cultivation: the lowest proportion—and consequently the greatest waste—on earth. Furthermore, yields from the small acreage that is cultivated are very low. In many areas there are more pointed-stick plows than tractors.
U.S. legislation in the same period had the opposite aim: it was to promote the internal colonization of the country. Covered wagons rolled westward into virgin lands with pioneers who extended the frontier at the cost of slaughtered Indians. The Homestead Act of 1862 assured every family of ownership of a quarter section, a lot one-half mile square; each beneficiary committed himself to farm his parcel for a minimum of five years. The public domain was colonized with startling speed and the population grew and spread like a great oil smear. The fertile land that was to be had almost gratis drew European peasants like a magnet: they crossed the ocean and then the Appalachians onto the wide-open prairies. Thus it was free farmers who occupied the new central and western territories.
In contrast, the rural workers who have pushed Brazil’s frontier inland for more than a century have not been—and are not—free peasant families seeking a piece of land of their own, but (as Ribeiro notes) braceros contracted to serve latifundistas who have already taken possession of the great open spaces. The interior deserts have never been accessible, except in this way, to the rural population. Workers have hacked their way through the jungle with machetes to open up the country for the benefit of others. Between 1950 and 1960, sixty-five Brazilian latifundios absorbed a quarter of the new land brought under cultivation. These two opposite systems of internal colonization reveal one of the most important differences between U.S. and Latin American development models.
The Mayflower pilgrims did not cross the sea to obtain legendary treasures; they came mainly to establish themselves with their families and to reproduce in the New World the system of life and work they had practiced in Europe. They were not soldiers of fortune but pioneers; they came not to conquer but to colonize, and their colonies were settlements. It is true that a slave-plantation economy like Latin America’s developed later south of the Delaware, but there was a difference: the center of gravity in the…
colonists, the original nucleus of U.S. civilization, never acted as colonial agents for European capitalist accumulation; their own development, and the development of their new land, were always their motivation. The thirteen colonies served as an outlet for the army of European peasants and artisans who were being thrown off the labor market by…
Spain and Portugal, on the other hand, had an abundance of subjugated labor in Latin America. Enslavement of the Indians was followed by the wholesale transplantation of Africans. Through the centuries, a legion of…
But also in contrast to the Northern Puritans, internal economic development was never the goal of the ruling classes of Latin American colonial society. Their profits came from outside; they were tied…
Landlords, miners, and merchants had been born to fulfill the mission of supplying Europe with gold, silver, and food. Goods moved along the roads in only one direction: to the port and overseas markets. This also provides the key to the United States’ expansion as a national unit and to the fragmentation of Latin America. Our production centers are not interconnected but take the form of a…
Furthermore, the northern colonies, from Maryland to New England to Nova Scotia, had a climate and soil similar to British agriculture and produced exactly the same things. That is, as Sergio Bagú notes, they did not offer products complementary to the metropolis. The situation in the Antilles and the mainland Spanish-Portuguese colonies was quite different. Tropical lands produced sugar, tobacco, cotton, indigo,…
These circumstances explain the rise and consolidation of the United States as an economically autonomous system, one which did not drain abroad the wealth it produced. The ties between colony and metropolis were slender. In Barbados and Jamaica, on the other hand,…
The truth is that the economic insignificance of the thirteen colonies permitted the early diversification of their exports and set off the early and rapid development of manufacturing. Even before independence, North American industrialization had official encouragement and protection. And England took a tolerant…
This growing dependence on foreign supplies produces the growing identification of the interests of U.S. capitalists operating in Latin America with U.S. national security.
The internal stability of the world’s greatest power is closely linked with its investments south of the Río Grande. About half of those investments are in the extraction of petroleum and minerals, indispensable for the U.S. economy in peace and war.
An earlier friend of the U.S. ambassador, President Eurico Dutra (1946-1951), had handed Bethlehem Steel the 40 million tons of manganese in the state of Amapá—one of the world’s biggest deposits—for 4 percent of the income from exporting it.
thanks to the generosity of the Brazilian government, $88 of each $100 Bethlehem invests in mineral extraction are tax exempt, in the name of “regional development.” As we can see, the experience of the lost gold of Minas Gerais—“white gold, black gold, rotten gold,” as the poet Manuel Bandeira wrote—has gone for nothing: Brazil continues the gratuitous self-plunder of its own natural sources of development.
In Venezuela, the largest U.S. military mission in Latin America sits on Standard and Gulf’s great petroleum lake. Argentina’s frequent coups d’état erupt before or after each offer of oil concessions. Copper was a far from minor factor in the Pentagon’s disproportionate military aid to Chile before the electoral victory of Salvador Allende’s left coalition; U.S. copper reserves had fallen by more than 60 percent between 1965 and 1969. In 1964, Che Guevara showed me, in his office in Havana, that Batista’s Cuba was not merely sugar: the Imperium’s blind fury against the revolution was better explained, he thought, by Cuba’s big deposits of nickel and manganese.
Jagan’s socialist government, which at the end of 1964 had again won a majority of votes in what was then British Guiana. The country now called Guyana is the world’s fourth producer of bauxite and Latin America’s third producer of manganese. The CIA played a decisive role in Jagan’s defeat. Arnold Zander, leader of the strike that served as a provocation and pretext to deny electoral victory to Jagan, afterward admitted publicly that his union had dollars rained upon it from one of the CIA foundations. The new regime—very Western and very Christian—guaranteed the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) against any danger to its interests in Guyana:
Arthur Davis, long-time chairman of Alcoa, died in 1962 leaving $300 million to charitable foundations, with the express condition that the money not be spent outside the United States. Not even through this channel could Guyana recover at least some of its stolen wealth.
During the 1960s many U.S. firms, represented by professional adventurers and contrabandists, descended in a hectic “rush” upon these enormous forests, which under an agreement signed in 1964 had already been flown over and photographed by the U.S. air force. Scintillometers to detect deposits of radioactive minerals, electromagnetic devices for x-ray photography of subsoils rich in nonferrous minerals, and magnetometers to detect and measure the iron were all used. With the aid of a U.S. government geological survey, information and photos concerning the extension and depth of Amazonia’s hidden wealth were put in the hands of interested private concerns.
“A suspicious factor is that the areas occupied or being occupied by foreign elements are the same areas where sterilization campaigns for Brazilian women are carried on by foreigners.” In fact, according to the newspaper Correio da Manhã, “more than twenty foreign religious missions, mainly of the U.S. Protestant church, are occupying Amazonia, functioning in places that are richest in radioactive minerals, gold, and diamonds.… They make extensive use of sterilization, using the intrauterine device, and teach English to the catechized Indians. … Their areas are surrounded by armed elements and no one can enter them.”3 Note that Amazonia is the largest of all the habitable deserts on our planet. Birth control has been introduced into this great empty space to avoid demographic competition by the very few Brazilians who live and reproduce in remote corners of the immense forests and plains.
The value of guano as fertilizer was demonstrated in British laboratories, and after 1840 it began to be exported from Peru on a large scale.
Once it had been Potosí’s silver that nourished the great families of the capital city; now they lived from bird-droppings and the shiny white clots in the nitrate fields—more vulgar means to the same elegant ends. Peru thought it was independent, but Britain had taken Spain’s place.
The exploitation of saltpeter rapidly spread into Antofagasta, although the business was not Bolivian but Peruvian and, more than Peruvian, Chilean. When the Bolivian government proposed to tax those nitrate fields on its territory, the Chilean army invaded the province, never to leave. Until then the desert had served as a damper on latent conflicts between Chile, Peru, and Bolivia, but now nitrates brought them to the boil. The War of the Pacific broke out in 1879 and lasted till 1883. Chile’s armed forces, having occupied the Peruvian nitrate ports of Patillos, Iquique, Pisagua, and Junín in 1879, finally entered Lima as conquerors and the fortress of Callao surrendered the next day. The defeat brought mutilation and bloodletting to Peru. The national economy lost its two chief resources, productive forces were paralyzed, the currency collapsed, and foreign credit was cut off.*
As for Bolivia, it did not realize what the war had cost it: the most important copper mine today, Chuquicamata, lies in the province it lost to Chile. And the victors?
Chile functioned as an appendage of the British economy: the biggest supplier of fertilizer to the European market had no right to its own life. And then a German chemist, sitting in his laboratory, defeated the generals who had won the day on the battlefield. Perfection of the Haber process, which produces nitrates by fixing nitrogen from the air, decisively displaced Chilean nitrate and sent Chile’s economy into a tailspin.
Copper soon replaced nitrates as the pillar of Chile’s economy, while U.S. predominance took the place of British. On the eve of the 1929 crisis, U.S. investments in Chile exceeded $400 million, almost all made in the exploitation and transport of copper. Anaconda and Kennecott, two concerns with close links as parts of a single world consortium, remained masters of the best copper deposits up until the Unidad Popular victory of 1970.
The man became the king of tin, and when he died Fortune described him as one of the ten multi-est multimillionaires on earth. His name was Simón Ituri Patiño. For years he sat in Europe making and unmaking Bolivian presidents and ministers, planning the hunger of his workers, organizing massacres, ramifying and extending his personal fortune: Bolivia was a country that existed for him, that was at his service. Bolivia nationalized its tin after the heroic revolutionary days of 1952, but by then the super-rich mines had become poor. On the Juan del Valle mountain where Patiño found his dazzling vein, the degree of purity of the ore had fallen 120-fold. Of 156,000 tons of rock brought out every month, only 400 tons are now recovered.
But the tin can is not merely a “pop” symbol; it is also, if unwittingly, a symbol of silicosis in the Siglo XX and Huanuni mines: Bolivians die with rotted lungs so that the world may consume cheap tin.
In 1957 Hanna Mining paid $6 million for most of the shares of the British firm St. John Mining, which had been exploiting Minas Gerais gold since the empire’s early days. St. John operated in the Paraopeba valley, where the greatest iron reserves on earth, valued at $200 billion, are located. The British firm was not legally authorized to exploit this fabled wealth, and, under clear constitutional and legal clauses (which Duarte Pereira lists in his work on the subject), neither was Hanna. But as it was later realized, this was the business deal of the century.
On August 21, 1961, President Jânio Quadros signed a bill annulling the illegal rights extended to Hanna and restoring Minas Gerais iron to the national reserve. Four days later the armed forces made Quadros resign: “Terrible forces have risen against me,” said the text of his resignation.
A popular rising in Pôrto Alegre, headed by Leonel Brizola, frustrated the military coup and put Quadros’s vice-president, João Goulart, in power.
But when a minister sought to implement the fatal decree against Hanna, U.S. Ambassador Lincoln Gordon wired Goulart, indignantly protesting the government’s threatened strike against the interests of a U.S. concern. The judiciary decreed Quadros’s bill valid, but Goulart vacillated.
Finally, on the last day of March 1964, the coup d’état exploded in Minas Gerais, where the disputed iron deposits happened to be located. “For Hanna,” commented Fortune, “the revolt that overthrew Goulart last spring arrived like a last-minute rescue by the 1st Cavalry.”
Hanna men moved in to occupy the vice-presidency and three ministries.
After it tired of throwing the books of Dostoevski, Tolstoy, Gorky, and other Russians into bonfires or into Guanabara Bay, and after it had sentenced countless Brazilians to exile, prison, or the grave, the Castelo Branco dictatorship got down to business: it gave away the iron and everything else. Hanna got its decree on December 24, 1964. This Christmas parcel contained not only total freedom to exploit the Paraopeba deposits in peace, but support for the firm’s plans to open a port of its own sixty miles from Rio and to build a railroad to transport the iron.
The ratio is ten to one: of the $11 that the derivatives of a barrel of petroleum sell for, countries exporting the world’s most important raw material get a sum total of $1 from taxes and extraction costs. Countries in the developed zone, where the oil companies have their head offices, get the other $10, the sum total of their own taxes—eight times larger than those of the producing countries—and the costs and profits of transport, refining, processing, and distribution, monopolized by the big corporations.14
For, as we have seen, the oil business in the capitalist world is in the hands of an all-powerful cartel. The cartel was born in 1928, in a castle wreathed in Scottish mists, when Standard Oil of New Jersey, Shell, and Anglo-Iranian (now known as British Petroleum) agreed to divide up the planet. Standard Oil of New York (now Mobil), Standard Oil of California, Gulf, and Texaco joined later. Founded by Rockefeller in 1870, Standard Oil had split in 1911 into thirty-five different firms under the requirements of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act;
Standard Oil of New Jersey, a typical multinational corporation, earns its biggest profits abroad, with Latin America bringing in more than the United States and Canada put together: south of the Río Grande its profit rate is four times higher.
In 1957, more than half of its global profits came from its Venezuelan affiliates; in the same year Shell’s Venezuelan affiliates accounted for half of Shell’s world profits.
Uruguay was the first Latin American country to install a state refinery. ANCAP was created in 1931, and the refining and sale of crude petroleum were to be among its chief functions. It was a national response to a long history of abuse by the international cartel on the Río de la Plata. At the same time, the state contracted to buy cheap petroleum from the USSR. The cartel immediately financed a campaign of calumny against the Uruguayan state concern and began threatening that no one would sell Uruguay machinery, it would find itself without any crude petroleum, the state was incompetent to run such a complicated business. The palace coup of March 1933 exuded the smell of oil; the Gabriel Terra dictatorship annulled ANCAP’s right to monopolize fuel imports, and in January 1938 it signed ominous “secret agreements”— still in effect—with the cartel,
Uruguay has to buy 40 percent of its crude petroleum from whomever Standard Oil, Shell, Atlantic, or Texaco might indicate, at prices fixed by the cartel;
Louisiana Senator Huey Long shook the United States on May 30, 1934, with a violent speech accusing Standard Oil of New Jersey of provoking the conflict and of financing the Bolivian army so that it would appropriate the Paraguayan Chaco on its behalf. It needed the Chaco—which was also thought to be rich in petroleum—for a pipeline from Bolivia to the river. “These criminals,” Long charged, “have gone down there and hired their assassins.”* At Shell’s urging, the Paraguayans marched to the slaughterhouse: advancing northward, the soldiers discovered Standard Oil’s perforations at the scene of the dispute. It was a quarrel between two corporations, enemies and at the same time partners within the cartel, but it was not they who shed their blood. In the end Paraguay won the war but not the peace. Spruille Braden, the notorious Standard Oil agent, chaired the negotiating commission which retained for Bolivia and for Rockefeller thousands of square miles claimed by the Paraguayans.
The euphoria began in the 1920s. Around 1917 oil co-existed in Venezuela with traditional latifundios, those enormous extensions of thinly populated or idle land where hacendados kept up production by whipping their peons or burying them alive up to the waist. At the end of 1922 the La Rosa well started gushing, 100,000 barrels a day, and the petroleum orgy was on. Lake Maracaibo sprouted rigs and derricks and was invaded by helmeted men; peasants swarmed in to build plank-and-oilcan huts on the bubbling ground
The petroleum law of 1922 was drafted by representatives of three U.S. firms. The oilfields were fenced in and had their own police. No one could enter without a company pass, and even the roads on which the oil was transported to the ports were barred to other traffic. When Gómez died in 1935, oil workers cut the barbed wire surrounding the camps and proclaimed a strike. The following years were dangerously explosive.
Canning did not err when he wrote in 1824: “The deed is done, the nail is driven, Spanish America is free; and if we do not mismanage our affairs sadly, she is English.”
The British economy paid with cotton textiles for the hides of Río de la Plata, the guano and nitrates of Peru, the copper of Chile, the sugar of Cuba, the coffee of Brazil. Throughout the nineteenth century industrial exports, freightage, insurance, interest on loans, and profits on investments fed British prosperity.
“The colony was already lost to the metropolis well before 1810, and the revolution was no more than political recognition of this state of affairs.”2
When the revolutionary junta was formed in Buenos Aires on May 25, 1810, British warships saluted it with a salvo of guns from the river. The captain of the Mutine made a glowing speech on His Majesty’s behalf, and the jubilation warmed British hearts. Buenos Aires waited barely three days to repeal certain bans on trade with foreigners; twelve days later it cut the taxes on external sales of hides and fats or tallow from 50 to 7.5 percent. Six weeks later, the ban on exporting gold and silver coins was removed, so that they could flow tranquilly to London.
Latin America’s big ports, through which the wealth of its soil and subsoil passed en route to distant centers of power, were being built up as instruments of the conquest and domination of the countries to which they belonged, and as conduits through which to drain the nations’ income. While ports and capitals strove to be like Paris or London, behind them stretched the desert.
Protectionism versus free trade, the country versus the port: this was the essence of the struggle in Argentina’s nineteenth-century civil wars. Buenos Aires, which in the seventeenth century was no more than a big village with 400 houses, took power over the whole nation after the May revolution and independence. It was the only port: all that entered or left the country was forced to pass through
The rise of the capitalist cattle ranch in the damp coastal pampa subjected the whole country to the exporting of hides and meat, and went hand in hand with the dictatorship of the free-trade port.
In the last twenty years, half a million Paraguayans have left their country once and for all. Poverty drives out the inhabitants of what was, until a century ago, South America’s most advanced country.
The woes of the Paraguayans stem from a war of extermination which was the most infamous chapter in South American history: the War of the Triple Alliance, they called it. Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay joined in committing genocide. They left no stone unturned, nor male inhabitants amid the ruins. Although Britain took no direct part in the ghastly deed, it was in the pockets of British merchants, bankers, and industrialists that the loot ended up. The invasion was financed from start to finish by the Bank of London, Baring Brothers, and the Rothschild bank, in loans at exorbitant interest rates which mortgaged the fate of the victorious countries.
Ninety-eight percent of Paraguayan territory was public property: the state granted holdings to peasants in return for permanently occupying and farming them, without the right to sell them. There were also sixty-four “estancias de la patria,” haciendas directly administered by the state. Irrigation works, dams and canals, and new bridges and roads substantially helped to raise agricultural production. The native tradition of two crops a year, abandoned by the conquistadors, was revived. The lively encouragement of Jesuit traditions undoubtedly contributed to this creative process.*
The Crown finally succumbed to the criollo encomenderos’ pressure and the Jesuits were expelled from Latin America. Landlords and slave traders went in pursuit of the Indians. Corpses hung from trees in the missions; whole communities were sold in Brazilian slave markets. Many Indians took to the forest again. The Jesuits’ libraries were used to fuel ovens or to make gunpowder cartridges.25
The invaders came to redeem the Paraguayan people, and exterminated them. When the war began, Paraguay had almost as large a population as Argentina. Only 250,000, less than one-sixth, survived in 1870.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, servicing of the foreign debt absorbed almost 40 percent of Brazil’s budget, and every country was caught in the same trap.
The tracks were laid not to connect internal areas one with another, but to connect production centers with ports. The design still resembles the fingers of an open hand: thus railroads, so often hailed as forerunners of progress, were an impediment to the formation and development of an internal market.
For example, freightage on articles processed in the Argentine interior was much higher than on unfinished goods. Railroad charges became a curse that made it impossible to manufacture cigarettes in tobacco-growing areas, to spin and weave in wool centers, or to finish wood in forest zones.
Latin America continues exporting its unemployment and poverty: the raw materials that the world market needs, and on whose sale the regional economy depends. Unequal exchange functions as before: hunger wages in Latin America help finance high salaries in the United States and Europe. Brazil, despite its industrialization, continues substantially dependent on coffee exports, Argentina on sales of meat; Mexico exports very few manufactures.
its own virtues we should take a look in our pockets. We find that the new model does not make its colonies more prosperous, although it enriches their poles of development; it does not ease social and regional tensions, but aggravates them; it spreads poverty even more widely and concentrates wealth even more narrowly; it pays wages twenty times lower than in Detroit and charges prices three times higher than in New York; it takes over the internal market and the mainsprings of the productive apparatus; it assumes proprietary rights to chart the course and fix the frontiers of progress; it controls national credit and orients external trade at its whim; it denationalizes not only industry but the profits earned by industry; it fosters the waste of resources by diverting a large part of the economic surplus abroad; it does not bring in capital for development but takes it out.
U.S. capital is more tightly concentrated in Latin America than in the United States itself; a handful of concerns control the overwhelming majority of investments.
“In contrast with the industrialization of already developed countries,” a government document said, “Brazil’s industrialization was not a slow process, a part of a general process of economic transformation. It was rather a rapid and intense phenomenon, superimposed on the previously existing socioeconomic structure without entirely modifying it, giving rise to the profound sectoral and regional differences which characterize Brazilian society.”
Uruguay put the eight-hour day into law before the United States. Batlle’s welfare-state experiment was not limited to implementation of the most advanced social laws of the time; it also gave a strong impetus to cultural development and mass education, and nationalized public services and various economically important productive activities. But it neither touched the power of the landlords, nor nationalized banking or foreign trade. Today Uruguay suffers the consequences of the prophet’s perhaps inevitable omissions and of his successors’ betrayals.
Under the Perón regime, the Argentine state achieved a monopoly of grain exports but did not touch the land-ownership system; nor did it nationalize the big U.S. and British meatpacking plants or the wool exporters. Thus
On the other hand, those with closest foreign connections, representing dynamic industry, simply want strengthened bonds between the dependent countries’ islands of development and the world economic system, and they subordinate internal transformations to this priority.
The situation is similar in all the other countries: a few hundred families own the factories and lands, the large businesses and banks.9 Mexico is no exception: the national bourgeoisie, subordinated to big U.S. concerns, is much more afraid of mass pressure than of imperialist oppression, in whose bosom it is developing without independence—and without the creative imagination attributed to it—and has efficiently multiplied its interests.* In Argentina, the founder of the Jockey Club, center of latifundista social prestige, was also the leading industrialist, and thus an immortal tradition was born at the end of the past century.† Manufacturers with fattened bank accounts marry landlords’ daughters to gain entry to the oligarchy’s most exclusive salons, or buy land for the same purpose; and not a few cattle ranchers have—at least in boom periods—invested capital surpluses accumulated in their hands in industry.
As in Brazil, Argentina puts no limitations on the entrance of foreign capital, its movement within the national economy, the export of profits, or the repatriation of capital; payments for patents, royalties, and technical assistance are made freely. The government exempts the concerns from taxes and extends to them special exchange rates, in addition to many other stimuli and exemptions. Between 1963 and 1968, fifty important Argentine enterprises— twenty-nine of which passed into U.S. hands—were denationalized in such varied sectors as steel, autos and auto parts, petrochemicals, chemicals, the electrical industry, paper, and cigarettes. In 1962 two private-capital Argentine concerns, Siam Di Tella and Industrias Kaiser Argentinas, were among the five biggest industrial enterprises in Latin America; in 1967 both had been generously surrendered to imperialist capital. Of the country’s largest enterprises, those with sales exceeding 7 billion pesos a year, half the total value of the sales belongs to foreign firms, one-third to the state, and barely one-sixth to private companies with Argentine capital.18
They were referring to the famous Order 289 of early 1965, which allowed foreign concerns operating in Brazil to get loans from abroad at 7 or 8 percent interest, with a government-guaranteed exchange arrangement in case the cruzeiro was devalued. Brazilian concerns had to pay almost 50 percent interest on credits they obtained—with difficulty—at home. The inventor of the measure, Roberto Campos, offered this explanation: “Obviously the world is unequal. Some are born intelligent, some stupid. Some are born athletes, others crippled. The world is made up of small and large enterprises. Some die early, in the prime of life; others drag themselves criminally through a long useless existence. There is a basic fundamental inequality in human nature, in the condition of things. The mechanism of credit cannot escape this. To postulate that national enterprises must have the same access to foreign credit as foreign enterprises is simply to ignore the basic realities of economics.
rope. The author of this theory was the creator of International Monetary Fund policy in Brazil.
With the magical incantation of “monetary stabilization,” the IMF—which not disinterestedly confuses the fever with the disease, inflation with the crisis of existing structures—has imposed on Latin America a policy that accentuates imbalances instead of easing them. It liberalizes trade by banning direct exchanges and barter agreements; it forces the contraction of internal credits to the point of asphyxia, freezes wages, and discourages state activity. To this program it adds sharp monetary devaluations which are theoretically supposed to restore the currency to its real value and stimulate exports. In fact, the devaluations merely stimulate the internal concentration of capital in the ruling classes’ pockets and facilitate absorption of national enterprises by foreigners who turn up with a fistful of dollars.
Its stabilization and development formulas have not only failed to stabilize or develop; they have tightened the external stranglehold on these countries, deepened the poverty of the dispossessed masses—bringing social tensions to the boiling point—and hastened economic and financial denationalization in the name of the sacred principles of free trade, free competition, and freedom of movement for capital.
Born in the United States, headquartered in the United States, and at the service of the United States, the Fund effectively operates as an international inspector without whose approval U.S. banks will not loosen their pursestrings.
The IMF was created to institutionalize Wall Street’s financial dominion over the whole planet, when the dollar first achieved hegemony as international currency after World War II. It has never been untrue to its master.
An eloquent story with regard to price “dumping” is that of Union Carbide’s capture of the Brazilian tape factory, Adesite. Scotch Tape, part of the multitentacled Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing, began steadily lowering the price of its products in Brazil. Adesite’s sales kept going down. The banks cut off credit. Scotch Tape continued lowering its prices—by 30 percent, then by 40 percent. Then Union Carbide appeared on the scene and bought the desperate Brazilian concern for a song. Later Union Carbide and Scotch Tape got together to share the national market: they divided up Brazil, taking half each,
The Uruguayan parliament never knew that in March 1968 the government had agreed to limit rice exports in that year so that the country could receive flour, corn, and sorghum under the U.S. agricultural surplus law.
Many more examples of such holy alliances could be given. In Argentina, Latin American contributions to the resources of the IDB have served as very convenient loans benefiting such concerns as the Electric Bond and Share affiliate Petrosur (over $10 million for construction of a petrochemical complex), and The Budd Company (Philadelphia) affiliate Armetal (to finance an auto parts plant). AID credits made possible the expansion of Richfield’s chemical plant in Brazil, and Eximbank extended loans to ICOMI, a Bethlehem Steel affiliate in the same country. Also in Brazil, contributions from the Alliance for Progress and the World Bank enabled the Dutch Phillips Industries to install Latin America’s biggest complex of fertilizer factories in 1966. It all comes under the heading of “aid”—and all adds further to the weight of external debt on the countries so favored.
The region is experiencing the phenomenon that economists call the “debt explosion.” It is a strangulating vicious circle. Loans increase, investments follow investments, so that payments grow for amortization, interest, dividends, and other services. To pay off these debts, new injections of foreign capital are resorted to, generating bigger commitments, and so on and on.
The region has been condemned to sell primary products to keep foreign factories humming; and it happens that those products “are mostly exported by strong consortiums with international connections, which have the necessary world-market relations to place their products under the most convenient conditions”48—the most convenient for them, suiting the interests of the buyer countries: that is to say, at the lowest prices.
What Latin America sells gets constantly cheaper and—also in relative terms—what it buys gets constantly dearer.
Iron enters the U.S. market freely, but if it has been converted into ingots it pays $16 a ton, and the tariff rises in direct proportion to the stage of refinement. The same is true for copper and countless other products: let bananas be dried, tobacco cut, cacao sweetened, timber sawed, or dates stoned, and tariffs are implacably piled on them.
Brazil, the biggest coffee producer, does not have the right to compete by exporting its own soluble coffee, thereby taking advantage of its obviously lower costs and providing an outlet for the surpluses which it once destroyed and now stores in state warehouses. Brazil only has the right to supply the raw material to enrich foreign factories.
“The developed countries are willing to let us sell them jet planes and computers, but nothing that we have any likelihood of being able to produce.”
The region continues to die as it exchanges its primary products for the specialized products of metropolitan economies. The
Argentina, Mexico, and Brazil are very good customers for industrial machinery, electrical machinery, motors, equipment, and spare parts made in the United States.
The Latin American bourgeoisie, a bourgeoisie of merchants lacking any creative character, umbilically tied to the power of the land, prostrates itself before the goddess technology. If foreign shareholdings (however small) and technological dependence (rarely small) are evidence of denationalization, how many factories can really be considered national in Latin America? In Mexico, for example, foreign owners of the technology often demand shares in an enterprise, in addition to decisive technical and administrative controls, the sale of the product to specific foreign middlemen, and the importation of machinery and other goods from their head offices, in return for contracts to transmit patents or “know-how.”
Latin America does not apply the results of scientific research to its own advantage for the simple reason that it has none; consequently it is condemned to suffer the technology of the powerful, which attacks and removes natural raw materials, and is incapable of creating its own technology to sustain and defend its own development.
United Auto Workers leader wrote after touring the new General Motors in Toluca: “It was worse than archaic. Worse, because it was deliberately archaic, with the obsolescence carefully built in.… Mexico’s plants are deliberately equipped with low-production machinery.”70
Eighty percent of Brazilian industry is located in the southeastern triangle—São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Belo Horizonte—while the famished Northeast participates less and less in the national industrial product. Two-thirds of Argentine industry is in Buenos Aires and Rosario. Montevideo embraces three-quarters of Uruguayan industry, as do Santiago and Valparaíso in Chile. In Lima and its port is concentrated 60 percent of Peruvian industry.
Andre Gunder Frank observed that while Brazil is a U.S. satellite, the Northeast plays internally the role of satellite to the “internal metropolis” located in the southeast.
Latin America’s low wage scale is reflected in the low prices the region gets for its raw materials in the international market, to the benefit of consumers in the rich countries. In the internal markets, where denationalized industry sells manufactured goods, prices are kept high to maintain the inflated profits of the imperialist corporations.
The consumers to whom big auto and refrigerator plants direct their products are only 5 percent of the Latin American population. Hardly one in four Brazilians can really be considered a consumer. Forty-five million Brazilians have the same combined income as 900,000 privileged citizens at the other end of the social scale.
Throughout the past century the British, Spain’s and Portugal’s heirs since before independence, perfected this structure by means of diplomats’ white-gloved intrigues, bankers’ extortions, and the merchants’ capacity for seduction.
the canal with the rank of republic invented by Teddy Roosevelt, was added later.
Today the world sees the result: any of the multinational corporations operates with more coherence and sense of unity than the congeries of islands that is Latin America, broken up by so many frontiers and such a lack of communication. What integration can be achieved among themselves by countries that have not even been able to integrate internally? Each country suffers from deep fissures in its own body, bitter social divisions and unresolved tensions between its great marginal deserts and its urban oases.
The railroads and highways, created to transport foreign products by the shortest routes, still bear irrefutable witness to Latin America’s impotence or incapacity to make the national dream of its heroes come true. Brazil has no permanent land connections with three of its neighbors, Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela; Atlantic seaboard cities have no direct cable communications with Pacific cities, so that telegrams between Buenos Aires and Lima, or Rio de Janeiro and Bogotá, have to go through New York; the same with telephone communications between the Caribbean and the south. Each Latin American country still identifies itself with its own port—a negation of its roots and real identity—to such an extent that almost all intraregional trade goes by sea: inland transport is virtually nonexistent. Furthermore, the global freight cartel fixes rates and itineraries to suit itself, and Latin America merely endures the exorbitant charges and ridiculous routes.
I finished writing Open Veins in the last days of 1970.
In August of 1976 Orlando Letelier published an article describing the terror of the Pinochet dictatorship and the “economic liberty” of small privileged groups as two sides of the same coin.2 Letelier, who had been a minister in Salvador Allende’s government, was exiled in the United States. There he was blown to pieces shortly afterwards.3 He submitted in his article that it was absurd to talk of free competition in an economy such as Chile’s, subjected to the monopolies which play with prices at their whim, and laughable to mention workers’ rights in a country where genuine unions are outside the law and the military junta fixes wages by decree. Letelier described the massive destruction of gains made by the Chilean people during the Popular Unity government.
The dictatorship had returned to their former owners half of the industrial monopolies and oligopolies which Allende nationalized, and put the other half up for sale. Firestone had bought the national tire factory, Parsons and Whittemore, a big paper plant. The Chilean economy, wrote Letelier, is more concentrated and monopolized now than on the eve of the Allende government.4 Business free as never before, people in jail as never before; in Latin America free enterprise is incompatible with civil liberties. Free market? The price of milk has not been controlled in Chile since early in 1975. The result is as expected. Two firms dominate the market. The price of milk for consumers went up immediately by 40 percent, while for the producers it went down by 22 percent.
Undoubtedly among Latin America’s most important and tragic events of these years of the seventies was the military insurrection that overthrew Salvador Allende’s democratic government on September 11, 1973, and submerged Chile in a bath of blood. A little earlier, in June, a coup d’état in Uruguay had dissolved the parliament, put unions outside the law, and banned all political activity.5 In March of 1976 the Argentine generals returned to power: the government of Juan Domingo Perón’s widow had become a stench and it fell, unregretted and unsung. The three southern countries are today a festering sore upon the globe, cronic bad news. Torture, kidnapping, murder, and exile have become the daily round. These dictatorships are tumors
Recently official admissions of U.S. responsibility for various disasters have multiplied. Full public confessions have proved among other things that the U.S. government directly participated in Chilean politics by bribery, espionage, and blackmail. The strategy for the crime was planned in Washington. Kissinger and the intelligence services were carefully preparing the fall of Allende ever since 1970. Millions of dollars were distributed among enemies of the legal Popular Unity government. That, for example, was how the truck owners in 1973 could keep going their long strike which paralyzed much of the country’s economy. The assurance of impunity loosens tongues. When the coup took place against Goulart, the United States had in Brazil its largest embassy anywhere on earth. Lincoln Gordon, the ambassador, admitted to a journalist thirteen years later that his government had long been financing the forces opposing the reforms. “What the hell,” said Gordon, “that was more or less a habit in those days.… The CIA used to dole out political funds.”
The U.S. Congress resolved in 1976 and 1977 to suspend economic and military aid to various countries. But most U.S. external aid doesn’t go through the congressional filter. So despite pronouncements, resolutions, and protests General Pinochet’s regime got $290 million of direct U.S. aid in 1976 without congressional authorization. When General Videla’s dictatorship in Argentina was a year old it had received $500 million from private U.S. banks and $415 million from two institutions (World Bank and Bank for International Development) in which the United States has decisive influence. Argentina’s special rights for International Monetary Fund loans, $64 million in 1975, had risen to $700 million two years later. President Carter’s concern about the butchery in some Latin American countries seems healthy, but the present dictators are not self-taught: they have learned the techniques of repression and the arts of government at academies run by the Pentagon in the United States and the Panama Canal Zone.
In Latin America’s southern lands the centurions have taken over power as a function of the needs of the system: the terrorism of the state is put into action when the dominant classes can pursue their business by no other means. Torture wouldn’t exist in our countries if it weren’t effective; formal democracy would continue if it could be guaranteed not to get out of the hands that hold power. In difficult times democracy becomes a crime against national security—that is, against the security of internal privilege and foreign investment. Our devices for mincing human flesh are part of an international machinery. The whole society is militarized, the state of exception is made permanent, and the repressive apparatus is endowed with hegemony by the turn of a screw in the centers of the imperial system. When crisis begins to throw its shadow, the pillage of poor
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. It has more foot-washers than shoeshiners: little boys who, for a penny, will wash the feet of customers lacking shoes to shine. Haitians, on the average, live a bit more than thirty years. Nine out of every ten can’t read or write. For internal consumption the barren mountain sides are cultivated. For export, the fertile valleys: the best lands are given to coffee, sugar, cacao, and other products needed by the U.S. market. No one plays baseball in Haiti, but Haiti is the world’s chief producer of baseballs. There is no shortage of workshops where children assemble cassettes and electronic parts for a dollar a day. These are naturally for export; and naturally the profits are also exported, after the administrators of the terror have duly got theirs. The slightest breath of protest in Haiti means prison or death.
I recall an editorial in a Buenos Aires daily a couple of years ago. An old conservative newspaper was bellowing with fury because some international document depicted Argentina as an underdeveloped country. How could a cultured, European, prosperous, white society be measured by the same yardstick as a poor black country such as Haiti?
Of course the differences are enormous, although they have little to do with the analytical categories of Buenos Aires’s arrogant oligarchy. But with all the diversities and contradictions one could mention, Argentina isn’t outside the vicious circle that strangles the Latin American economy as a whole. No intellectual exorcism can remove it from the reality that, to a greater or smaller extent, the other countries of the region share with it.
General Videla’s massacres are, after all, no more civilized than those of “Papa Doc” Duvalier or his successor to the throne, although in Argentina the technological level of the repression is higher. Essentially both dictatorships act at the service of the same objective: to supply cheap labor to an international market that demands cheap products.
Technology, the decisive key to power, is monopolized in the capitalist world by the metropolitan centers. It comes to us second-hand but those centers charge for the copies as if they were the originals. In 1970 Mexico paid twice as much as in 1968 for importation of foreign technology. Between 1965 and 1969 Brazil doubled its payments, and so did Argentina over the same period.
Hasn’t our experience throughout history been one of mutilation and disintegration disguised as development? Centuries ago the conquest cleared our lands to plant crops for export and annihilated the indigenous populations in the mines to satisfy the demand abroad for silver and gold. The diet of the pre-Columbian population that could survive the exterminations deteriorated as the foreigners progressed. In our day the people of Peru produce fishmeal very rich in protein, for the cattle of the United States and Europe, but proteins are conspicuously absent from the diet of most Peruvians. The Volkswagen affiliate in Switzerland plants a tree for every car it sells—gracious ecological gesture—while the Volkswagen affiliate in Brazil uproots thousands of acres of forest to dedicate them to intensive production of meat for export. The Brazilian people, who very rarely eat meat, sell more and more meat abroad. Recently Darcy Ribeiro remarked to me that there isn’t much difference between a “Volkswagen republic” and a “banana republic.” For every dollar produced from exporting bananas, just eleven cents remain in the producing country,16 and of those eleven cents only a meager part goes to the plantation workers. Do the proportions change when a Latin American country exports automobiles? Slave ships no longer ply the ocean. Today the slavers operate from the ministries of labor. African wages, European prices. What are the Latin American coups d’état but successive episodes in a war of pillage? The dictators hardly grasp their scepters before they invite foreign concerns to exploit the local, cheap, and abundant work force, the unlimited credit, the tax exemptions, and the natural resources that await them on a silver tray.
In Guatemala rice, corn, and beans for internal consumption are left to the will of God, but coffee, cotton, and other export products absorb 87 percent of the credit. Of every ten Guatemalan families who work at raising and harvesting coffee, the country’s chief source of foreign exchange, hardly one gets a minimally adequate diet.18 In Brazil only 5 percent of agricultural credit goes for rice, beans, and manioc, which constitute the basic diet of Brazilians; the rest goes for export products.
The prices of most of the products Latin America sells decline implacably in relation to the prices of what it buys from countries that monopolize technology, trade, investment, and credit. To make up the difference and meet the obligations to foreign capital, Latin America must cover in quantity what it loses in price. In this framework the southern dictatorships have cut workers’ wages in half and turned every production center into a forced labor camp. The workers also have to compensate for the fall in value of their labor power, which is the product they sell in the market. They must make up in quantity—quantity of hours— what they lose in purchasing power of their wages. The laws of the international market are thus reproduced in the microworld of every Latin American worker’s life. For workers who have “the luck” to count on a regular job, the eight-hour day exists only in the dead letter of the laws. They often work ten, twelve, even fourteen hours; and not a few have lost their Sundays.
30,000 dead, but in Argentina they don’t shoot: they kidnap. The victims “disappear.” The invisible armies of the night carry out the task. There are no corpses and no one is responsible. In this way the bloodbath has the more impunity for not being “official,” and thus collective anxiety is more potently spread around. No one renders accounts, no one offers explanations.
In the January 1978 referendum, one voted “Yes” for the Pinochet dictatorship by marking a cross beneath the Chilean flag. To vote “No,” one put the cross beneath a black rectangle.