Though its own author has lamented it as one-dimensional, the book Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gave to President Obama at the recent Summit of the Americas is rite-of-passage reading for Latin American youths and a favorite of Marxist historians.
Eduardo Galeano, author of “Las venas abiertas de America Latina,” published in English as “Open Veins of Latin America,” takes swipes at imperialist European and American interference but doesn’t spare leftist leaders, arguing that they often fail just as badly as the right wing.
“Galeano is like the preacher who feels that it’s his responsibility to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. We may not like the prophet’s message, but if it’s true, we recognize that we need to hear it,” said William Hamilton, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who uses the book in his class “Voices From Latin America: Why Don’t They Like Us?”
Mr. Chavez seemed to have carefully choreographed his performance in giving the book to Mr. Obama. He waited until after the U.S. president had finished speaking to a multilateral meeting of South American leaders but before reporters had been ushered out of the room, giving him an audience.
The White House initially dismissed the gesture. A senior administration official told reporters it was a publicity stunt, another in a long line of efforts by Mr. Chavez to commandeer attention. Press secretary Robert Gibbs said he doubted Mr. Obama would be reading the book because the version Mr. Chavez presented was in Spanish.
However, the president himself was more gracious: “I think it was a nice gesture to give me a book — I’m a reader.”
Matthew Rothschild, editor and publisher of the Progressive, which runs a regular column by Mr. Galeano, said the book “was a very fitting gift” and that Mr. Chavez has played literary agent before, in his 2006 speech to the United Nations, when he called attention to leftist U.S. author Noam Chomsky’s “Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance.”
“This isn’t the first time Chavez has introduced the world to a leftist critique of U.S. foreign policy,” Mr. Rothschild said. “This is in keeping with Hugo Chavez’s syllabus for grown-ups.”
Mr. Hamilton said the gift to Mr. Obama was not a publicity stunt but more likely a genuine gesture.
“Chavez as well as people everywhere are impressed with Obama and surprised we elected him. And they’re giving us a chance to renew our deepest values and redeem our image as a nation,” he said.
Mr. Hamilton lived in Latin America with his wife and children for a decade and said they were given the book when they first got to Buenos Aires.
“Reading Galeano is a rite of passage for young people all over Latin American, year after year,” he said. “During the military dictatorships of the 1970s and early 1980s, Galeano’s books were banned in schools but still widely read. Friends told me that they buried their copies in their backyards so that their families wouldn’t get in trouble with the military. I’ve traveled widely in Latin America, and I have met few people who have not read Galeano’s ‘Venas abiertas de America Latina.’ Not only have they read it cover to cover, they are always willing to talk about it.”
After Mr. Chavez’s summit gesture, “Open Veins” skyrocketed in sales, jumping from No. 54,295 on the Amazon.com listing on the Saturday morning when Mr. Chavez handed it to Mr. Obama to No. 2 by Sunday.
The presidential bump was short-lived, however. By this past weekend, the book had dropped precipitously, falling to No. 22 by Sunday morning and to No. 42 by Monday morning — sandwiched between “The Instinct Diet: Use Your Five Food Instincts to Lose Weight and Keep It Off” and “Eat This, Not That! Thousands of Simple Food Swaps that Can Save You 10, 20, 30 Pounds — or More!”
Short on self-help advice, Mr. Galeano’s book — whose full title is “Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent” — is a deep history looking at U.S. and European powers’ machinations to get their hands on every resource from gold to sugar to oil.
It’s long on blame.
“The Congressional Record of the United States is replete with irrefutable evidence of interventions in Latin America. Guilt-ridden consciences purge themselves in the imperial confessionals,” Mr. Galeano writes.
Mr. Galeano didn’t respond to e-mails seeking comment, but in an article on the book, the New Yorker magazine said that in later years the author described his work as one-dimensional.
It’s not surprising the book, published in 1971 and updated seven years later, has been re-evaluated over the past week, with dozens of new reviews being added to online booksellers’ Web sites. Being seen in two presidents’ hands will do that.
After Mr. Obama’s election, Mr. Galeano wrote a column laying out what he hoped for from the incoming president. The unsurprising list ranged from halting construction of a fence on the Mexican border and joining the Kyoto agreement on greenhouse gases to closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and ending the embargo on Cuba.
However, Mr. Galeano closed with a personal challenge to the new president: “Will Obama, the first black president of the United States, realize the dream of Martin Luther King, or the nightmare of Condoleezza Rice? This White House, which is now his house, was built with the labor of black slaves. Let’s hope he never forgets that.”
In a recent interview, though, Mr. Galeano sounded nearly as disappointed in leaders such as Mr. Chavez. Without naming names, the writer harshly evaluated some of the leftist leaders who have emerged in the hemisphere.
“To give you a very current example, there are parties who come into the government promising a program of the left and wind up repeating what the right wing did,” he said in an interview with Jorge Majfud, translated and printed in Monthly Review. “History grows bored, and democracy is discredited, when we are invited to choose between one and the same.”