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The Independent Institute
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The Idiot’s Bible


WASHINGTON—Hugo Chavez’s gift to President Obama at the recent Summit of the Americas—a copy of Eduardo Galeano’s “Open Veins of Latin America”—has many people wondering what the fuss is about.

A decade ago, I and the other two co-authors of the “Guide to the Perfect Latin American Idiot” devoted a chapter to refuting the historical and ideological fallacies contained in Galeano’s tract, which we called the “idiot’s bible.” Everything that has happened in the Western Hemisphere since the book appeared in 1971 has belied Galeano’s arguments and predictions. But I guess Chavez has given it the kiss of life and, since people are asking, here I go again.

The author claims that relations between Latin America and rich countries have been so pernicious that “everything . . . has always been transmuted into European—and later United States—capital.” Actually, for years that relationship has transmuted into the exact opposite: Latin American capital. In the last seven years alone, Latin America has benefited from $300 billion in net capital flows. In other words, a lot more capital came in than went out.

The book rails against the international division of labor, in which “some countries specialize in winning and others in losing.” That division of labor in the Western Hemisphere has not changed—Latin American countries still export commodities—and yet in the last six years, poverty in the region has been reduced to about one-third of the population, from just under half. This means that 40 million were lifted out of that hideous condition. Not to mention the 400 million pulled out of poverty in other “losing” nations worldwide in the last couple of decades.

The author pontificates that “raw materials and food are destined for rich countries that benefit more from consuming them more than Latin America does from producing them.” Sorry, amigo, but the story of this decade is that Latin America has made a killing sending exports abroad—the region has had a current account surplus for many years. Rich countries are so annoyed with all the things poor countries are exporting to them that they are asking their governments to “protect” them in the name of fair trade. The “buy American” clause in the fiscal stimulus package approved by Congress a few weeks ago is a case in point. The U.S. had a trade deficit of more than $800 billion last year. The poor, if I may echo Galeano’s hemophilic language, are sucking the veins of the rich.

The book claims that for years “the endless chain of dependency has been endlessly extended.” The story now is that the rich depend on the poor. That is why the Chinese have $1 trillion in U.S. Treasury bonds! The book’s jeremiad goes on to say that “the well-being of our dominant classes . . . is the curse of our multitudes condemned to exist as beasts of burden.” One of the few countries that exemplifies that curse is the author’s beloved Cuba, where a worker cannot be paid directly by a foreign company employing him or her; the money goes to the government, which in turn pays the worker one-tenth of the salary—in nonconvertible local currency.

Galeano’s mathematics are hugely entertaining. He states that the average income of U.S. citizens is “seven times that of a Latin American and grows 10 times faster.” The gap has actually shrank, dear comrade. Many “poor” countries in modern times have seen their income gap with the Unites States narrow dramatically. Thailand and Indonesia have seen theirs cut almost by half in three decades.

The book’s Malthusian predictions invite no less compassion than its economic forecasts. Overpopulation, Galeano maintains, will mean that “in the year 2000 there will be 650 million Latin Americans,” the implication being that the region will starve. In 2000, the region’s population was 30 percent smaller than the author predicted.

To top it all, Chavez’s literary muse states that “the more freedom is extended to business, the more prisons have to be built for those who suffer from business.” Actually, the greater (though still insufficient) freedom given to business in the era of globalization has resulted in increasing prosperity in developing nations. This decade, the pace of economic growth per person has been four times higher in developing nations than in rich nations.

I would pay anything to be a fly on the wall when President Obama opens the first page of the idiot’s bible.


Alvaro Vargas Llosa is Senior Fellow of The Center on Global Prosperity at The Independent Institute. He is a native of Peru and received his B.S.C. in international history from the London School of Economics. His Independent Institute books include Global Crossings: Immigration, Civilization, and America, Lessons From the Poor: Triumph of the Entrepreneurial Spirit, The Che Guevara Myth and the Future of Liberty, and Liberty for Latin America.

(c) 2009, The Washington Post Writers Group

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