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Reparations, Colonialism, and How to Engage an Argument

As conservatives respond en masse to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent cover story for The Atlantic on reparations, a similar, older exchange over liberal scholarship is returning to headlines.

TheNew York Times recently picked up on a month-old story from Brazil in which Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano expressed distaste for his famed 1971 manifesto on the historical roots of the region’s contemporary poverty, Open Veins of Latin America. The book has become a classic in Latin American anti-colonialist academia, laying the blame for Latin American poverty squarely at the feet of the United States and its corporations. Open Veins enjoyed a brief burst of popularity in the U.S. in 2009, when then-president of Venezuela Hugo Chávez famously gifted a copy of the book to President Obama. As Adam Goodman noted at Tropics of Meta, contrary to the Times, Galeano did not “disavow” the historical viewpoint of his book, merely his “leaden” prose and inexperienced presentation. Yet Open Veins’s academic value has long since been relegated to historical conversation-starter, rather than policy inspiration. Marjorie Miller illustrated the changed value of the book in the L.A. Times in 2009:

Today, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic failure of Cuba, Open Veins seems dated. The military governments of South and Central America have been replaced by independent, democratically elected leaders who do not take their cues from United Fruit or the United States. …

Yet almost 40 years after Galeano wrote Open Veins, Latin America is still beleaguered by a poverty and inequality born of the colonialism he described.

The trajectory of Open Veins is instructive, as Galeano’s work was received similarly to that of Coates: with liberal adulation and conservative skepticism. One of the main conservative criticisms of both Galeano and Coates’s work is that their presentations are unproductive calls to victimhood. Venezuelan columnist Ibsen Martínez characterized Galeano’s work as a “self-victimizing” that “debases the very theory of neocolonial dependence that Open Veins purports to sustain,” while The Federalist’s Rachel Lu accused Coates of depicting black Americans as “‘victims’ of history rather than its rightful inheritors.” To critics, this victim-focus led to Galeano and Coates’s failure to craft policy solutions to the cultural problems they highlighted.

In his own day, Galeano’s argument was countered by both the widespread Latin American experience of socialist failure and a well-articulated alternative historical viewpoint, exemplified by the work of conservative Venezuelan journalist Carlos Rangel and his own 1976 book,The Latin Americans. Rangel accepted Galeano’s structure, which compared the U.S. experience of colonization with the Latin American one, but corrected its content.

Rangel traced the history of economic inequality in Latin America from pre-Columbian empires through colonial Spanish rule and independent 18th-century republics, adding centuries’ worth of economic history to the fraction for which the U.S. alone was culpable as portrayed by Galeano. By setting up Latin America as the inheritor of a much more complex economic reality than pure exploitation by a single superpower, Rangel was able to improve upon Galeano’s thesis about the oppressive nature of the structures that shaped Latin American poverty. This integrated, linear vision enabled Rangel to convincingly propose an actual policy solution to the problem merely decried by the leftist movement he faced: a more inclusive capitalism that expanded the benefits of liberalism to those to whom they had been denied by centuries of war, aristocracy, and military rule. In short, Rangel’s study of history and recognition of systemic oppression lent him a credibility that pure economic theory may have lacked.

Conservatives who take issue with Coates’s work can learn from the Galeano-Rangel exchange, which provides a model for taking on conventionally liberal issues. As Robert Tracinski explained, also in The Federalist,

There is a lesson here for the right, and especially for those of us who are seeking to recast the free-market agenda to make it relevant to a wider audience. The legacy of segregation and racism—often backed by government intervention—is real, and we should take it seriously. But in some ways, the worst legacy is the degree to which capitalism and Americanism are already de-legitimized in the minds of many blacks.

Coates is presenting an opportunity for conservatives to take their shot at issues liberals have dominated, if they learn that acknowledging and engaging historical experiences of oppression lends credibility to an informed political argument. Rangel’s response to Galeano shows that accepting systemic, historical roots of inequality on their own terms does not have to be antithetical to a conservative political approach.

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