Read an Excerpt from Andy Robinson’s Gold, Oil, and Avocados

By Spenser Stevens | September 23 2021 | HistoryGeneral

The 21st century began optimistically in Latin America. Left-leaning leaders armed with programs to reduce poverty and reclaim national wealth were seeing results—but as the aughts gave way to the teens, they began to fall like dominos. Where did the dreams of this “pink tide” go? Look no further than the original culprits of Latin American disenfranchisement: resource-rich land and unscrupulous extraction.

Recounting the story commodity by commodity, Andy Robinson reveals what oxen have to do with the rise of Jair Bolsonaro, how quinoa explains the mob that descended on Evo Morales, and why oil is the culprit behind the protracted coup in Venezuela. In addition to the usual suspects like gold and bananas which underscored the original plunder of the Americas, Robinson also shows how a new generation of valuable resources—like coltan for smartphones, lithium for electric cars, and niobium for SpaceX rockets—have become important players in the fate of Latin America. And as the energy transition sets mineral prices soaring, Latin America remains at the mercy of the rollercoaster of commodity prices.

In Gold, Oil, and Avocados, Robinson takes readers from the salt plains of Chile to the depths of the Amazonian jungle to stitch together the story of Latin America’s last decade, showing how the imperial plunder of the past carries on today under a new name.

How would Eduardo Galeano write his classic Open Veins of Latin America today? It seemed the right question to ask during a visit to the boomtown of Itaituba on the banks of the Tapajos River in the Brazilian Amazon. The Workers’ Party was still in power and I had traveled from Rio de Janeiro to assess whether the controversial Growth Acceleration Program championed by President Dilma Rousseff would prove compatible with the survival of the planetary lung and, more immediately, of the thirteen thousand citizens of the Munduruku indigenous community who lived along the banks of the Tapajos. Under the scheme, the Munduruku’s millenary lands would be flooded by the gigantic hydroelectric project of São Luiz do Tapajos, planned to generate electricity for the new Amazonian metropolises as well as the megamines and soybean plants.

After a thirteen-hour passage upriver aboard a Fitzcarraldian ferry boat from Santarém, the jungle capital, itself a seven-hour flight from Rio, the last thing I expected to encounter were five Jet Skis equipped with 2,600cc engines. But there they were, zigzagging before a wake of white foam. After millennia of silence, broken only by the shrieks, howls, and buzzing of the deep jungle, perhaps Itaituba felt the need for deafening noise and breakneck speed. “Jet Skis are all the rage here. You will see fifteen or twenty a weekend; mine reaches one hundred and five miles per hour,” said Bruno, eighteen years old, as he coupled his Yamaha to a 4×4. While we spoke, a riverboat plying the Tapajos from Santarém two hundred miles downstream docked and unloaded five “quad”-motor tractors, ideal for racing along the newly opened jungle trails.

Bruno explained he had bought his Jet Ski for twenty thousand reais (more than $7,000) with his wages as a construction worker paving the Trans-Amazonian Highway that would bring forth a new phase of uncontrolled deforestation. But there were other ways to make a quick buck in Itaituba.  Teeming with banks and gold merchants—and a population that was growing explosively—the frontier city was the center of all extractive activities in the western Amazon state of Pará (most of them illegal) from panning for precious metals and stones to clearing the rain forest for timber. Not to mention the soybeans loaded at the terminal built by the multinational agribusiness corporation Bunge. Another boost to the economy was expected with the construction of the megadam thirty miles upstream in Munduruku territory and the new waterways for the transport of soy, minerals, and timber.

“Has Itaituba changed much in recent years?” I asked Bruno, the son of impoverished migrants from the outskirts of Brasília who had chanced the move to the Amazon thirty years earlier in search of wealth or at least two plates of beans and yuca a day. He looked to one side and pointed to seven black vultures—urubú in Portuguese—perched on a pile of garbage, wings spread like funeral curtains: “You think there are a lot of urubus over there, right? Well, in the old days there were many more.”

The scene in Itaituba seemed to illustrate the contradictions of the Latin American left’s economic development project. Taking power at the beginning of the new century, the so-called pink-tide progressive governments rightly perceived a crucial need to accelerate growth in order to eliminate poverty and extreme inequality, burdens that the region had shouldered from the first era of mass enslavement, in the gold and silver mines in the sixteenth century, and the second, that arrived in chains from Africa to toil in the plantations of the first commodity crops—sugar, bananas, coffee—for the new global market. Brazil’s former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or, as he is affectionately known, Lula, was justifiably proud of lifting forty-two million previously excluded Brazilians into what he called the new middle class.

Achieving and maintaining the support of Latin American workers like Bruno required constant improvements in the population’s material well-being, and the fastest way to achieve this without triggering an external debt crisis was through exports of raw materials—minerals, monoculture cash crops like soy, and meat—and the foreign exchange that these would generate. In a time of diminishing resources and the rise of China as a superpower, raw materials were valued as never before and the temptation to rev up the extraction machine was difficult to resist. A race for ever-more-scarce resources in a quasi–cold war between China and the United States made the model even more seductive.

But how could the strategy prosper without committing the same atrocities as in the classic epochs of the plunder of Latin America, captured so vividly in Galeano’s great book? Environmental destruction and accelerating deforestation in the Amazon, after all, was not only hastening planetary climate change and bringing catastrophic droughts to the Andes and Central America. It had also raised the risk of killer pandemics as the slaughterhouses and feeding lots of the new Latin American meatpacking industry became the biggest in the world and the pathogens of wildest nature were released into the slums of jungle metropolises. Burgeoning Amazon towns like Itaituba, with poor sanitation and chaotic urbanization, had already become breeding grounds for Zika, the mosquito-borne virus that threatened to spread throughout Brazil, terrifying athletes due to perform at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Then there were the political problems generated by the model. If Bruno was typical of this new “aspirational” middle class (with aspirations to consume more, perhaps even more Jet Skis . . .), how could it uphold the principles of equality and environmental protection that progressive governments from Brazil to Ecuador had championed? The problem would soon be confirmed by the defeat of the Workers’ Party in Brazil and its replacement by a ruthless, extreme right-wing government under Jair Bolsonaro that was closely allied to mining and agribusiness. The new middle class had destroyed its creator, a fate shared a year later by Evo Morales in Bolivia, though Morales’s Movement Toward Socialism, staged an impressive comeback. As the rivalry for access to natural resources between China and the United States intensified, Latin American progressive governments also became vulnerable to Washington-led regime-change policies, threatening a return to the years when Galeano wrote his masterpiece and most of the continent was governed by brutal pro-US military regimes.

In this book, a collection of chronicles based on a range of raw materials extracted in Latin America, from soy to niobium, beef to gold, and oil to avocado, I try to reflect on this dilemma as well as analyze the dramatic events—coups d’état soft or hard in Honduras, Bolivia, and Brazil; extraordinary popular uprisings in Santiago de Chile, Quito, and Bogotá; and the likelihood of more social unrest after the devastation caused by COVID-19—that have shaken the region in recent years. Some of Galeano’s destinations are revisited: icons of colonial plunder and pillage such as Potosí, Minas Gerais, and Zacatecas, where I have tried to update his bold thesis, based on the dependency theories of Immanuel Wallerstein, Celso Furtado, and Andre Gunder Frank, that in “a world of powerful centers and subjugated outposts,” “we Latin Americans are poor because the ground we tread is rich.”

Open Veins of Latin America, written when Galeano was only twenty-eight years old, was the bible of a generation of the left that came to power in Latin America at the beginning of the new century, from Lula to Evo Morales, Rafael Correa to Hugo Chávez. (Chávez even gave a copy of the book to a skeptical Barack Obama.) But of the two main messages in Galeano’s argument—the need to break the ties of dependence with the ex-colonial powers and their multinational corporations while steering the economy away from dependency on the export of raw materials—only the first has been heeded.

The dependence on the export of commodities remained in many countries and when, inevitably, the supercycle of high international prices of minerals, oil, and basic foodstuffs ended in a second wave of the great financial crisis, the failure would prove costly for a leftist project that appeared to have found the magic formula to redistribute income and, at the same time, stay in government. The pink tide receded and the left fell from power in Ecuador, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and, briefly, in Bolivia, while, in Venezuela, a catastrophic socioeconomic crisis weakened Chavism to a point unimaginable ten years earlier and an unresolved problem of dependence on oil exports heightened Venezuela’s vulnerability to US-sponsored coups. Reassessed, the spectacular social conquests of the left’s decade in power seemed chimeras, the unsustainable windfall of a bubble in the commodities market.

Ironically, Galeano contributed to the crisis of ideas on the left by renouncing his very own book in 2014 at the literary biennial in Brasília, calling it simplistic, the work of a young man with no grasp of economics, infected by the dogmatism of the old left. “I wouldn’t be capable of reading this book again; I’d keel over,” he joked, a year before his death. Galeano’s mea culpa gave way to a round of back-slapping by the usual suspects of the Latin American right. Álvaro Vargas Llosa, whose book Guide to the Perfect Latin American Idiot was a crude caricature of Open Veins, celebrated the intellectual defeat of the left. Michael Reid, the Americas editor for The Economist, declared the definitive retreat of the pink tide and dubbed Galeano’s book “the work of a propagandist, a potent mix of selective truths, exaggeration and falsehood, caricature and conspiracy theory,” a description better suited, in my view, to Reid’s magazine than to Galeano’s masterwork.

During my travels in Latin America as an itinerant reporter for the Barcelona-based newspaper La Vanguardia, I came to a different conclusion than Reid. The young Eduardo Galeano, far from exaggerating the destruction caused in Latin America by the forces of global capitalism allied with local elites, had underestimated the damage. Looting has occurred not only in the economic sphere of the extraction of raw materials but also in the extraction of the soul from peoples whose cultures—and that Quechua philosophy of sumak kawsay or “good living”—are being annihilated in a remorseless process of commodification. Maybe the latest open veins are more subtle, and certainly more environmental. The conversion of Peruvian ceviche into a symbol of international gastronomic status, cited by International Monetary Fund (IMF) managing director Christine Lagarde as an inspiration for their programs in Latin America, while an island of plastic floats in the Pacific. The new tourism of exotic experience embodied in the trains of the Andes—privatized by the Peruvian state and sold to Belmond, a subsidiary of the global luxury branding company LVMH—whose transparent carriages allow travelers to Machu Picchu to contemplate poverty from a safe distance on a parched altiplano now bereft of glaciers.

The difference now is that many governments of the left—without belittling the colossal social gains that they have achieved—have been complicit in the same material and spiritual pillage as those that preceded them. “What has been done here is bullshit, now we have soy, soy, and more soy,” remarked Edilberto Sena when we met in Santarém. The charmingly foul-mouthed Franciscan monk was one of the followers of liberation theology who helped found the Workers’ Party in Amazonia three decades before. It was not only a lament for the thousands of campesinos forced by the latest cash crop to move to the city but for the disappearance of a rich and complex culture based on the staggering biodiversity of the Amazon.

In a broad swathe of countries from Brazil to Ecuador, Venezuela to Chile, I witnessed fierce debates between those appalled by the pink-tide governments’ embrace of “neoextractivism” and those who dismissed the anti-extractivists as romantic dreamers, unaware of the urgent need to raise growth rates as a means to combat poverty and generate development.

“Oil and mining helped us avoid the Chinese path of inhuman wages and precarious labor conditions,” said Fausto Herrera, finance minister of Ecuador under Rafael Correa, whose frustrated attempt to leave millions of tons of oil in the Amazon subsoil was a model for the environmental movement . . . until Correa backtracked. Correa’s critics, led by Alberto Acosta, another former minister, opposed extractivism and defended new means to measure welfare inspired by sumak kawsay. The same splits occurred in Bolivia, where some members of the environmental movement went so far as to support the coup against Evo Morales because of his turn to mining and agribusiness. These chronicles support a position that will please no one: that common ground has to be found between the two schools of thought.

These are issues of universal concern, but things are more clearly focused in Latin America, a region in which “computers coexist with the most archaic forms of peasant culture and . . . with all modes of production in history,” to quote the US philosopher Fredric Jameson’s article on One Hundred Years of Solitude in the London Review of Books. The surviving remnants of these past worlds, their inhabitants still protected in mind and body from the forces that destroy the rest of us, turn the region into a key actor in the struggle to defend the planet. This lesson is being learned fast in Colombia, where ex-guerrilla Gustavo Petro’s innovative humanist project rejected all aggressive extractivisms and placed climate change at the heart of his bid for the presidency in the elections he came close to winning in 2018. The same ideas drove some of the mass mobilizations against the conservative government of Iván Duque that filled the streets of Bogotá, Medellín, and Barranquilla in the autumn of 2019, and the protests in Chile and Ecuador, where signs emerged of a new movement committed to a different way forward.

Gold, Oil and Avocados
A Recent History of Latin America in Sixteen Commodities
The past decade has seen major political upheaval in Latin America--from Brazil to Chile to Venezuela to Bolivia--but to understand what happened, ask first where your quinoa and lithium batteries came from...
$28.99 US
Aug 17, 2021
352 Pages
Melville House