Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Beggars sitting on a gold bench?

Obama's new bedside book, Las Venas Abiertas de America Latina (1971), was a revealing gift last week from Hugo Chávez.

With its malign view of external investment in the region, Eduardo Galeano's book is a standard text for students of 'dependency theory', which views Latin American nations as essentially wealthy societies perennially dispoiled by serial muggers from outside.

The Uruguayan Marxist's exposition also epitomises what economists call the 'natural resource myth'. This determination to believe that the true potential for prosperity is somehow hidden in the ground beneath one's feet so afflicted the Spanish in their demented drive for native gold and other minerals that they completely failed to perceive that the real wealth generation emanating from their colonial escapades was taking place in Northern (and Protestant) Europe's financial centres.

For aside from blips like the one we are currently experiencing, it has generally been better to be in credit than in commodities, and Venezuela's black gold is surely just a modern substrate for the same old Latin American delusion. Resource wealth is so often a curse not a blessing. (Though Iceland is probably pleased to be able to fall back on fish right now...)

If you add to that a belief that trade is always a zero sum game and that all foreign involvement in local economies is exploitative, then you have a recipe for getting trapped within a dogmatic outlook which explains Latin American underdevelopment as purely and simply the cost of industrial progress in the rich world, and thus provides a reliable framework for further underachievement.

I'm not saying that this continent's commercial relationships with the outside world have never been exploitative, I just don't agree with the proposition that the majority of foreign investors here are imperialistic in intention and effect. It's frankly no more helpful than the statement that all the local cops are fascist pigs.

Even the most blatantly one-sided relationships in the post-colonial era (say the activities of the United Fruit Company) are not entirely black and white when observed in detail. This early multinational brought an albeit fleeting prosperity to particularly underdeveloped tracts of tropical lowland, whilst funding schools and hospitals along with philanthropic projects such as the excavation of Quiriguá in Guatemala.

Che Guevara originally came to this country to apply for a job in one of 'el pulpo's' hospitals. Gabriel García Márquez meanwhile grew up in Colombia surrounded by United Fruit plantations (Macondo is in fact named after one) and reports in his autobiography on the boom years, the period of struggle and repression, and then the enormous sense of loss when the people of his home town faced up to the fact that the company was gone and would never return.

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