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Gold, Oil, and Avocados: A Recent History of Latin America in Sixteen Commodities

Andy Robinson prefers to bang out the old hits rather than deeply explore the region’s rich complexities

Avocado plantation in Latin America. ‘For all its wide travel, Gold, Oil and Avocados, with its relentless anti-capitalism and anti-Americanism is far too uninterested in the multiple other forces at work in shaping contemporary Latin America.’ Photograph: Jose Castanares/AFP via Getty Images

When, later in life, Eduardo Galeano turned his back on his 1971 classic Open Veins of Latin America, it caused consternation among its admirers.

The Uruguayan writer’s blistering denunciation of his region’s exploitation by foreigners had long been a touchstone text among leftists and anti-imperialists around the world. Hugo Chávez presented Barack Obama with a copy at their first meeting in 2009, instantly propelling the book back up bestseller lists.

To partisans, the book’s dodgy history and bad economics – replete with errors, gross exaggerations and conspiracy theories – do not matter. Because it distils the passionate anger many feel at the Global North’s pillage of the resources of the South, it seems possessed of a higher truth.

Galeano, however, with admirable intellectual honesty, later admitted he had lacked the necessary training for such an ambitious work of political economy and eventually came to dismiss his most influential book as unreadable. Yet half a century on, Latin America still suffers from underdevelopment and an excessive reliance on the crude exploitation of its natural resources for supply to more developed regions further north.


Open Veins might have failed in its effort to explain why but the question remains fiercely debated, and Galeano’s insight that this underdevelopment is somehow linked to its perverse relationship with commodities from iron ore to soya beans remains valid. Only sub-Saharan Africa is more dependent on the volatile commodity cycle for economic growth, and the emergence since the millennium of voracious demand from China has only intensified this dynamic despite all attempts at diversification.

Turbulent history

So Andy Robinson is on to something in seeking to reboot Galeano in Gold, Oil, and Avocados, in which he sets out to recount the recent turbulent history of Latin America through 16 of its commodities, from bananas to niobium. A roving reporter for Barcelona’s La Vanguardia newspaper, he opens with a question: “How would Eduardo Galeano write his classic Open Veins of Latin America today?” The answer, almost certainly, is not with the text Robinson has delivered.

The impressive amount of legwork he has put in tramping all across the region is undermined by excessive fealty to the thesis put forward in Open Veins – which has been cruelly caricatured as, “We’re poor, it’s their fault.” Robinson acknowledges Galeano’s later renunciation. But rather than explore why or take it as a warning of the pitfalls that await him he simply doubles down, rehashing its overly simplistic anti-capitalism and anti – these days US – imperialism rather than seeking to better contextualise it.

The problem here is not ideological. Critiques of imperialism and capitalism have provided great insight into Latin America’s troubled past, while the history of US involvement in the region’s affairs is on balance lamentable. And the book contains valuable reporting from some of the frontlines of the global economy. But the focus is too narrow, replicating the problem Galeano eventually came to see with his classic of having reduced history to just one dimension.

For all its wide travel, Gold, Oil, and Avocados, with its relentless anti-capitalism and anti-Americanism, is far too uninterested in the multiple other forces at work in shaping contemporary Latin America. The entry of China into a region from which the US is increasingly disengaged is chronically underexplored, as is the toxic relationship between commodities and the illusions of wealth they generate among Latin populists of all ideological stripes.

Worse, for a book that claims an anti-imperialist lineage, it denies agency to Latin American citizens themselves. Its cumulative effect is to caricaturise a vast and complex region as just one big Honduras, a banana republic where the campesinos are oppressed by a small elite who do the bidding of an all-powerful Washington, which still snuffs out any resistance through coups, hard or soft, in order to keep its domestic consumers satisfied.

Not only is this a misrepresentation, it is in its way as US-centric a vision of the region that the most solipsistic yanqui could hold.

The ideological straitjacket also provokes an unresolved inconsistency, reflecting a divide in the Latin American Left between environmentalists and developmentalists. In chapters set in market-friendly economies, dirty extractive industries are environmental disasters; those in self-styled leftist states can be defended as necessary for reducing poverty, though the hard data to support such a differentiation is absent.

Selective misrepresentations

As in Open Veins, there are also too many errors and selective misrepresentations, some almost as if in tribute. The older book has eight million indigenous miners dying while extracting silver for the Spanish at the notorious Cerro Rico mine in Potosí. Gold, Oil, and Avocados lowers the total to seven million. No serious demographer would accept either figure, which are more emotional responses to the horrors of the Conquista than grounded in hard data.

Such cavalier handling of facts allied to its weak exposition of regional politics and economics end up draining the book of authority. By the chapter on oil, a riot of misinformation, the author admits an acceptance of conspiracy theories as a useful key to understanding Latin America. It is in its own way an admission of the book’s struggle to prove its thesis.

And so a valuable, and still all too rare, opportunity to explore more deeply the rich complexities of Latin America is passed up in favour of banging out the old hits. This might fire up some of the comrades, but half a century on from Open Veins it will leave more demanding readers no closer to understanding what ails a region the author clearly loves.

Commodities do not have to be a curse: just ask Canada and Australia. The violent origins of Latin American societies help us understand why they so often have been. But the failed efforts to escape this destiny do much to explain why they still are, and in this history outsiders play a secondary role to Latin Americans themselves.

Portraying them as victims in their own story is doing no one any favours, least of all reality.

Tom Hennigan is The Irish Times’s South America correspondent

Tom Hennigan

Tom Hennigan

Tom Hennigan is a contributor to The Irish Times based in South America