The Presidents of Venezuela and the United States have “informally” crossed paths twice at this weekends’ Summit of the Americas. Hugo Chavez and Barack Obama first exchanged words yesterday, and then, today, Chavez gave Obama a book as a gift.
The book he gave him is Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, by legendary Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano. (Here’s a recent article on Galeano where he discusses some of his ideas on Latin America and his new book, Espejos.) The text is a familiar one to students of Latin American history, serving as it does as something of an introduction to European and U.S. imperialism in the hemisphere.
That’s right; Chavez just suggested Obama “go to school” on the imperial history of his nation.
I suspect the big O already knows a bit about that past (and, regrettably, present), but I still hope he takes the time to read Galeano. It’s one of those life changing books, challenging as it does many of the fundamental assumptions of U.S. involvement in the hemisphere.
But Chavez didn’t stop there. In comments he delivered on Saturday, Chavez said the U.S. “must breakaway from the concept of viewing us as its backyard.” (See the full story here.) The notion of “proximity” has always been a prcursor to U.S. empire, as argued (with copious amounts of proof) by scholars like Lars Schoultz and Louis Pérez Jr. When he said that, Chavez wasn’t speaking to Latin America, the only part of the hemisphere that seems to be reporting on his remarks. He was intentionally trying to “teach” the U.S. about the problems of its own “savior” tendencies.
Chavez is a well-read man, familiar with much of the recent work in Latin American history produced by English-language writers. Some years ago, he made a public appearance holding Empire’s Workshop, by historian Greg Grandin (a stellar book, btw). Our president has the chance to show Latin Americans he is more than a machine spouting off the rhetoric of neoliberalism, like our previous 43 guys in office. A good start might be by showing them he understands what it is they know and why they know it.
But, then again, it’s politics.