excerpts from the book
a primer for the looking glass
by Eduardo Galeano
Picador USA / Henry Holt, 2000,
Al Capone, speaking to Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr - interview published
in Liberty magazine October 17, 1931, a few days before Capone
went to jail.
"People respect nothing nowadays.
Once we put virtue, honor, truth, and the law on a pedestal....
Graft is a byword in American life today. It is law where no other
law is obeyed. It is undermining the country. Virtue, honor, truth
and the law have all vanished from our life."
The world economy is the most efficient expression of organized
crime. The international bodies that control currency, trade,
and credit practice international terrorism against poor countries,
and against the poor of all countries, with a cold-blooded professionalism
that would make the best of the bomb throwers blush.
The worst violators of nature and human rights never go to jail.
They hold the keys. In the world as it is, the looking-glass world,
the countries that guard the peace also make and sell the most
weapons. The most prestigious banks launder the most drug money
and harbor the most stolen cash. The most successful industries
are the most poisonous for the planet.
In Latin America children and adolescents make up nearly half
the population. Half of that half lives in misery. Survivors:
in Latin 5 America a hundred children die of hunger or curable
disease every hour, but that doesn't stem their numbers in the
streets and fields of a region that manufactures poor people and
outlaws poverty. The poor are mostly children and children are
mostly poor. Among the system's hostages, they have it the worst.
Society squeezes them dry, watches them constantly, punishes them,
sometimes kills them; almost never are they listened to, never
are they understood.
Everywhere on earth, these kids, the children
of people who work hard or who have neither work nor home, must
from an early age spend their waking hours at whatever breadwinning
activity they can find, breaking their backs in return for food
and little else. Once they can walk, they learn the rewards of
behaving themselves-boys and girls who are free labor in workshops,
stores, and makeshift bars or cheap labor in export industries,
stitching sports clothes for multinational corporations. They
are manual labor on farms and in cities or domestic labor at home,
serving whoever gives the orders. They are little slaves in the
family economy or in the informal sector of the global economy,
where they occupy the lowest rung of the world labor market:
* in the garbage dumps of Mexico City,
Manila, or Lagos they hunt glass, cans, and paper and fight the
vultures for scraps
* in the Java Sea they dive for pearls
* they hunt diamonds in the mines of Congo
* they work as moles in the mine shafts of Peru, where their size
makes them indispensable, and when their lungs give out they end
up in unmarked graves
* in Colombia and Tanzania they harvest
coffee and get poisoned by pesticides
* in Guatemala they harvest cotton and get poisoned by pesticides
* in Honduras they harvest bananas and get poisoned by pesticides
* they collect sap from rubber trees in Malaysia, working days
that last from dark to dark * they work the railroads in Burma
* in India they melt in glass ovens in
the north and brick ovens in the south
* in Bangladesh they work at over three hundred occupations, earning
salaries that range from nothing to nearly nothing for each endless
* they ride in camel races for Arab sheiks and round up sheep
and cattle on the ranches of the Rio de la Plata
* they serve the master's table in Port-au-Prince, Colombo, Jakarta,
or Recife in return for the right to eat whatever falls from it
* they sell fruit in the markets of Bogota and gum on the buses
of Sao Paulo
* they wash windshields on corners in Lima, Quito, or San Salvador
* they shine shoes on the streets of Caracas or Guanajuato
* they stitch clothes in Thailand and soccer shoes in Vietnam
* they stitch soccer balls in Pakistan and baseballs in Honduras
and Haiti to pay their parents' debts
* they pick tea or tobacco on the plantations of Sri Lanka and
harvest jasmine in Egypt for French perfume
* rented out by their parents in Iran, Nepal, and India they weave
rugs from before dawn until past midnight, and when someone tries
to rescue them they ask, "Are you my new master? "
* sold by their parents for a hundred
dollars in Sudan, they are put to work in the sex trade or at
any other labor.
Armies in certain places in Africa, the
Middle East, and Latin America recruit children by force. In war,
these little soldiers work by killing and above all by dying.
They make up half the victims of recent African wars.
In nearly all these tasks, except war,
which tradition decrees and reality teaches is a male affair,
girls' hands are just as useful as boys'. But the labor market
treats girls the same way it treats women. They always earn less
than the meager bit paid to boys, when they earn anything at all.
Prostitution is the fate of many girls
and fewer boys around the world. Astonishing as it seems, there
are at least a hundred thousand child prostitutes in the United
States, according to a 1997 UNICEF report. But the vast majority
of child victims of the sex trade work in the brothels and on
the streets of the southern part of the globe. This multimillion-dollar
industry, with its networks of traffickers, intermediaries, travel
agents, and procurers, operates with scandalous ease. In Latin
America, it is nothing new: child prostitution began in 1536,
when the first "tolerance home" opened in Puerto Rico.
Today half a million Brazilian girls sell their bodies for the
benefit of adults-as many as in Thailand, but not as many as in
India. On some Caribbean beaches, the prosperous sex tourism industry
offers virgins to whoever can pay the price. The number of girls
placed on the market is rising steadily: according to estimates
by international organizations, at least a million girls swell
the ranks of the global supply of bodies every year.
The number of poor children who work,
in their homes or out, for their families or for whomever, is
uncountable. They work outside the law and outside statistics.
And the rest? Many are superfluous. The market doesn't need them,
nor will it ever. They aren't profitable; they never will be.
From the point of view of the established order, they begin by
stealing the air they breathe and soon steal anything they can
lay their hands on. Hunger or bullets tend to shorten their voyage
from crib to grave. The system that scorns the old also fears
the young. Old age is a failure, childhood a threat. Ever more
poor children are "born with a tendency toward crime,"
according to specialists. They are the most dangerous category
of the "surplus population." The child as public threat:
"the antisocial conduct of youth in Latin America" has
been a recurring theme at the Pan-American Children's Congress
for years. Governments and some experts on the subject share this
obsession with violence, vice, and perdition. Each child is a
potential El Nino, and the disasters he or she may cause must
be prevented. At the first South American Police Congress, held
in Montevideo in 1979, the Colombian delegate explained that "the
rising daily increase in the population under eighteen leads us
to expect a higher POTENTIALLY DELINQUENT population (uppercase
In Latin American countries, the hegemony
of the market severs ties of solidarity and tears the social fabric
to shreds. What fate awaits the nobodies, the owners of nothing,
in countries where the right to own property is becoming the only
right? And the children of the nobodies? Hunger drives many, who
are always becoming many more, to thievery, begging, and prostitution.
Consumer society insults them by offering what it denies. And
then they take vengeance, united by the certainty of the death
that awaits them. According to UNICEF, in 1995 there were eight
million abandoned children on the streets of Latin America. According
to Human Rights Watch, in 1993 death squads linked to the police
murdered six children a day in Colombia, four a day in Brazil.
The number of malnourished children in the world is growing. Twelve
million children under the age of five die every year from diarrhea,
anemia, and other illnesses caused by hunger. A l 998 UNICEF report,
full of such statistics, suggests that the struggle against child
hunger and death "become the world's highest priority."
To make it that, the report turns to the only argument that seems
to work today: "The lack of vitamins and minerals in the
diet costs some countries the equivalent of more than 5 % of their
gross national product in lives lost, disability, and lower productivity."
The world economy requires consumer markets in perpetual expansion
to absorb rising production and keep profit rates from falling.
It also requires ridiculously cheap labor and raw materials to
keep production costs down. The same system that needs to sell
more and more needs to pay less and less.
In 1960, the richest 20 percent of humanity had thirty times as
much as the poorest 20 percent. By 1990, that figure had increased
to seventy times. And the scissors continue to open: in the year
2000 the gap will be ninety times.
Between the richest of the rich, who appear on the pornofinancial
pages of Forbes and Fortune, and the poorest of the poor, who
appear on the streets and in the fields, the chasm is even greater.
A pregnant woman in Africa is a hundred times more likely to die
than a pregnant woman in Europe. The value of pet products sold
annually in the United States is four times the GNP of Ethiopia.
The sales of just the two giants General Motors and Ford easily
surpass the value of all black Africa's economies. According to
the United Nations Development Program, "Ten people, the
ten richest men on the planet, own wealth equivalent to the value
of the total production of fifty countries, and 447 multimillionaires
own a greater fortune than the annual income of half of humanity."
The head of this UN agency, James Gustave Speth, declared in 1997
that over the past half century the number of rich people doubled
while the number of poor tripled and that 1.6 billion people were
worse off than they had been only fifteen years earlier.
In the United States half a century ago, the rich earned 20 percent
of national income; now they get 40 percent. And in the South?
Latin America is the most unjust region in the world. Nowhere
else are bread and fish distributed as unfairly; nowhere else
does such an immense distance separate the few who have the right
to rule from the many who have the duty to obey.
Latin America is a slave economy masquerading
as postmodern: it pays African wages, it charges European prices,
and the merchandise it produces most efficiently is injustice
and violence. Official statistics for Mexico City from 1997: 80
percent poor, 3 percent rich, the rest in the middle. The same
Mexico City is the capital of the country that in the 1990s spawned
more instant multimillionaires than anywhere else on earth: according
to UN figures, one Mexican has as much wealth as seventeen million
of his poor countrymen.
There is no country in the world as unequal
as Brazil. Some analysts even speak of the "Brazilianization"
of the planet in sketching a portrait of the world to come. By
"Brazilianization" they certainly don't mean the spread
of irrepressible soccer, spectacular carnivals, or music that
awakens the dead, marvels that make Brazil shine brightest; rather
they're describing the imposition of a model of progress based
on social injustice and racial discrimination, where economic
growth only increases poverty and exclusion. "Belindia"
is another name for Brazil, coined by economist Edmar Bacha: a
country where a minority lives like the rich in Belgium while
the majority lives like the poor of India.
Every year poverty kills more people than the entire Second World
War, which killed quite a few. But from the vantage point of the
powerful, extermination is not a bad idea if it helps regulate
a population that is growing too fast. Experts decry "surplus
population" in the South, where ignorant masses violate the
Sixth Commandment day and night: "surplus population"
in Brazil, where there are seventeen inhabitants per square kilometer,
or in Colombia, where there are twenty-nine. Holland has four
hundred inhabitants per square kilometer and no Dutchman dies
of hunger, but Brazil and Colombia belong to a handful of gluttons.
Haiti and El Salvador are the most overpopulated countries in
the Americas-just as overpopulated as Germany.
The moral code of the end of the millennium condemns not injustice
but failure. Robert McNamara, one of those responsible for the
war in Vietnam, wrote a book in which he admitted it was a mistake.
That war, which killed more than three million Vietnamese and
fifty-eight thousand Americans, was a mistake not because it was
unjust but because the United States carried on in full knowledge
that it could not win. By 1965, according to McNamara, there was
already overwhelming evidence that the invading force could not
prevail; nonetheless, the U.S. government continued as if victory
were possible. The fact that the United States spent fifteen years
visiting international terrorism on Vietnam in order to impose
a government the Vietnamese did not want does not even enter into
the discussion. That the world's premier military power dropped
more bombs on a small country than all the bombs dropped during
the Second World War is utterly irrelevant.
Power recalls the past not to remember but to sanctify, to justify
the perpetuation of privilege by right of inheritance, absolving
those who rule of their crimes and supplying their speeches with
alibis. What schools and the media teach as the only possible
way of remembering the past simply passes on the voices that repeat
the boring litany of power's self-sacralization. Exoneration requires
unremembering. There are successful countries and people and there
are failed countries and people because the efficient deserve
rewards and the useless deserve punishment. To turn infamies into
feats, the memory of the North is divorced from the memory of
the South, accumulation is detached from despoliation, opulence
has nothing to do with plunder. Broken memory leads us to believe
that wealth is innocent of poverty. Wealth and poverty emerge
from eternity and toward eternity they march, and that's the way
things are because God or custom prefers it that way.
Free trade is sold as something new, as if born from a cabbage
or the ear of a goat, despite its long history reaching back to
the origins of the unjust system that reigns today:
* three or four centuries ago, England,
Holland, and France practiced piracy in the name of free trade,
through the good offices of Sir Francis Drake, Henry Morgan, Piet
Heyn, Francois Lolonois, and other neoliberals of the day
* free trade was the alibi all Europe used while enriching itself
selling human flesh in the slave trade
* later on, the United States brandished free trade to oblige
many Latin American countries to accept its exports, loans, and
* wrapped in the folds of that same flag,
British soldiers imposed opium smoking on China, while by fire
and in the name of freedom, the filibuster William Walker reestablished
slavery in Central America
* paying homage to free trade, British industry reduced India
to the worst penury and British banks helped finance the extermination
of Paraguay, which until 1870 had been the only truly independent
country in Latin America
* time passed, and in 1954 it occurred to Guatemala to practice
free trade by buying oil from the Soviet Union, and the United
States promptly organized a devastating invasion to set things
* shortly thereafter, Cuba, also failing to see that free trade
consisted of accepting prices as imposed, purchased outlawed Russian
oil; the terrible fuss that ensued led to the Bay of Pigs invasion
and the interminable blockade.
"Developing countries" is the name that experts use
to designate countries trampled by someone else's development.
According to the United Nations, developing countries send developed
countries ten times as much money