The division of labor among nations is that some specialize in winning and others in losing. Our part of the world, known today as Latin America, was precocious: it has specialized in losing ever since those remote times when Renaissance Europeans ventured across the ocean and buried their teeth in the throats of the Indian civilizations. Centuries passed, and Latin America perfected its role. We are no longer in the era of marvels when face surpassed fable and imagination was shamed by the trophies of conquest— the lodes of gold, the mountains of silver. But our region still works as a menial. It continues to exist at the service of others’ needs, as a source and reserve of oil and iron, of copper and meat, of fruit and coffee, the raw materials and foods destined for rich countries which profit more from consuming them than Latin America does from producing them”.

Eduardo Galeano, The Open Veins of Latin America. 1971. Opening statement

Citizens of Cienfuegos, Cuba. Photography by Guille Álvarez

The European and North American fascination for Latin America resides in thoughts of adventure, rowdy individuals and vast lands. A place where, inexplicable in contemporary terms, the richness of the landscape contrasts with the poorness of its people.

Many wonder, when they fly in –and specially out– of Central and South America, including the Caribbean, why these countries live a couple of generations of progress away. If they don’t find an answer it’s because they haven’t looked at their bellies. If Latin America offers this fascinating contrast it’s because both Europeans first and North Americans afterwards played cards with uneven hands with the region since Columbus set foot in it.

An uncensored genocide

The first invaders, lead by the old Spanish Kingdom, eyed the new territories with watered mouths and reflections of gold, silver and other precious metals and materials in sight. The indigenous they saw as slaves for the future exploitation of the colonies. Not even human beings, just working hands that had little value and then none, when they irremediably died for whatever reason: sickness, extenuation, war, homicide or, after considering the whole picture, an uncensored version of what we call genocide nowadays.

El cerro de Potosí is an example of what the beautiful landscape partially hides. Its decrepit towns gives a hint today, but the looks of them are not enough to account for the numbers. More than eight million indigenous perished working in the mines of this mountain, people forced to move from the flat to the mounts by the Empire as a human token for Europe’s prosperity and development. “From 10 man that went to the mountain, 7 never ever returned”, the historians accounted.

Seniors chatting in Cienfuegos, Cuba. Photography by Guille Álvarez

This is how the trotskyist economist Ernest Mandel defined the situation: “The formidable international concentration of capital in benefit of Europe obstructed the accumulation of capital in the pillaged regions”. Eduardo Galeano, a Uruguayan journalist and thinker, just needs the first chapter of his book The Open Veins of Latin America to summarise more than four centuries of sacking and humiliation: “The poverty of man as a result of the richness of the land”.

As a tourist, contemplating the sights of Machu Picchu, the desert of Atacama or the Salar de Uyuni is an easy distraction to what lies in plain sight. As Galeano puts it, “not even the 5% of the whole surface of the continent is used for agriculture, the lowest proportion on earth and, thus, its biggest waste”.

What this lands and their people have lived for centuries, including today, are the consequences of an economic system designed to favour a few while using or rejecting the rest. In the lands we now happily contemplate and admire, indigenous were sold included in the bought plots. From 1536 on, and for quite a while, they were sold not only for one life but two: the father’s and… his sons.

A man in Trinidad, Cuba. Photography by Guille Álvarez

A second class America

Galeano recalls the words of Lyndon Johnson regarding the manoeuvrings of United States in Latin America: “Five dollars invested against population growth are better than a hundred invested in economic growth”. Galeano, always sharp and ironic, translates the meaning of the old President into a better definition of Western politics in Latin America: “The Empire proposes to solve the problems of Latin America by previously erasing the Latin Americans”.

In the Western elites narrative, the one we’re taught in our schools, America has become a synonym for the northern part of it. It’s the best way to conclude how the West has treated this region, a view that can be confirmed by landing in any big city of Latin America. I’ve seen this in three capital examples: Bogotá, Colombia, South America; La Habana, Cuba, Caribbean; San José, Costa Rica, Central America.

“For the world today, America is just the United States; the region we inhabit is a sub-America, a sort of second-class America of nebulous identity”. These words of Galeano, written in 1971, are perfectly translatable to the world we live in today. The times in this side of the world haven’t turned that much. Latin America is still living with its open veins.

A street in San José, Costa Rica. Photography by Guille Álvarez

This article was written before the author landed in Bogota, Colombia, the first time he’s on South American soil. The images that illustrate this text were taken this year in Colombia, Cuba and Costa Rica, part of the same abused and pillaged region we know as Latin America.