Is Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez becoming the next Oprah, at least when it comes to selling books? The tome that he presented as a gift to President Obama at a summit of Latin American countries this weekend, The Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano, has shot from being ranked somewhere around 15,000 on Amazon.com's list of top sellers all the way up to No. 2 currently. First published in 1973 by Uruguayan journalist Galeano and subtitled "Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent," the book is a classic that is revered throughout Latin America.
And, as the title indicates, it does not mince words. Galeano writes that at its height, the Aztec capital was five times larger than Madrid and had double the population of Seville, then Spain's largest city. What's more, he adds, the Indians of the Americas totaled some 70 million when the foreign explorers landed on the South American shores. A century and a half later, they had been reduced to 3.5 million. The book also spells out the low opinion that Europeans almost universally held for the natives they encountered. The philosopher Hegel, says Galeano, spoke of Latin America's physical and spiritual impotence, "and said the Indians died when Europe merely breathed on them." In the 17th century, a Spanish priest, Father Gregorio Garcia, compared Indians to Jews, saying that "they are lazy, do not believe in the miracles of Jesus Christ, and they are ungrateful to the Spaniards for all the good they have done them." Indians in turn used to joke that they preferred to go to hell to avoid meeting Christians.
Subsequent chapters of the book, with titles like "Development Is a Voyage With More Shipwrecks Than Navigators," detail how foreign companies and powers reaped huge profits that most natives of the continent never saw as rich resources were extracted and sent straight to Europe. Galeano argues that Britain could never have taken on Napoleon without Brazilian gold.
Now, in the wake of Chávez's gift, more Americans, including perhaps Obama as well, could soon be reading these tales.