The Three Tier Structure of Spanish Colonialism

The story of a lump of sugar is a whole lesson in political economy, politics and morality,
— Auguste Cochin

The following post was adapted from a reading response to Eduardo Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America, written for a class was in called Race and Rights in Latin American Human Rights


Edurado Galeano, a journalist and activist, in the first half of his book The Open Veins of Latin America, gives what is ostensibly a history of Spanish and Portuguese colonization up until the wave of independence movements which swept over Latin America in the mid 19th century. However, the book is not an academic history, nor is it a history primarily concerned with understanding the details of the centuries it covers. Instead, the project Galeano engages is based in the deconstruction of power and political economy by way of historical analysis. Galeano does not aim to provide the narrative of “History” as an objective chronology, and therfore shirks the conventions of academic history including unfortunately thorough citations, but instead it aims to provide a history, essentially chronologically, of how Latin American politics and economics formed into the state he observed when writing in the early 1970s.

The history of colonialism in Latin America is most concretely tied to an expropriation of land, and the enslavement and murder of masses of people in the service of extracting resources from the region.

The first section of the book is organized around resources, first gold and silver, and secondly sugar, appropriately mirroring how Latin American political and economic life during colonization was centered around resources. In each of these sections he develops the notion of the fundamental three tiered structure of colonialism as fleshed out in the economy surrounding the production of those natural resources, one in which there is expropriation and slavery at the hands of a local colonizers, who accumulate luxury but do not build up productive capital outside of the monoculture of resource extraction, and who are subservient to a tier of precapitalistic mercantilists.

The history of colonialism in Latin America is most concretely tied to an expropriation of land, and the enslavement and murder of masses of people in the service of extracting resources from the region. Galeano describes the conquest of the Americas as an invasion fueled by search for gold and silver, and later in Brazil and the Caribbean by the search for ever more fertile land after the sugar cane had left in ruins the fields in which it was harvested season after season. The land, once inhabited by aboriginal Americans, was taken by colonizers by means of violence.

It is with the enslavement of native and African population and the expropriation of land from the region that the fuel of European capitalism was extracted from the veins of gold and silver and the sugarcane fields

Initially this was in the forms of the conquistadores taking over the empires of central America and the Andean region, but throughout the process of colonization various forms of violence, including poison and militaries, were utilized and ended in mass death or enslavement. There was a disjuncture in how the treatment of native Americans was talked about on paper, where by the 17th century papal decree had declared enslavement natives illegal, and how it was treated in practice, where, through a system of forced religious conversion in exchange for labor called encomiendas and other forms coercion, the economy of both mining and later, to a lesser extent, sugar relied heavily on the exploited labor of native Americans. Galeano argues that these nascent human rights were good in name only, because the economic and political impetus to exploit the labor and expropriate the land of natives remained the primary object in the calculus of exploitation.

Extraction was not at the hands of the merchantalists themselves, it was in the hands of a class of lumpenbourgeoisie who created and enforced the monoculture centered around extracting resources

The enslavement, as we know, did not end with the enslavement of native populations, in part because the decimating combination of disease and genocide did not leave a large enough population to fulfill the needs of the colonial system, especially in its later plantation years. Instead, European traders, at first mainly Portuguese and Dutch traders, and later also English traders, supplied the need to have labor to exploit by importing enslaved African people who were bought from African countries in exchange for goods such as old weapons and colored glass.

It is with the enslavement of native and African population and the expropriation of land from the region that the fuel of European capitalism was extracted from the veins of gold and silver and the sugarcane fields, but this extraction was at the hands not of the mercantilists themselves but in the hands of a class of lumpenbourgeoisie who held colonial lands and created and enforced the monoculture centered around the resources extracted from the land. Galeano describes this class of rulers as mostly living in an unimaginable opulence, existing almost entirely off of the luxuries and necessities imported from Europe, whose primary job it was to enforce the regime of expropriation and exploitation. It is probably when describing this class of people that Galeano falls into caricature more that anywhere else, since his claims of opulence are often uncritical except with respect to the detailing of the importation of the various goods which these colonial rulers consume.

Even the local bourgeoises were left in a position of total dependence on foreign aid and loans.

The third layer of colonial domination is the one which drives the heart of the expropriation, namely the precapitalists mercantilist who benefited from the labor and land of Latin America in order to accumulate the capital necessary to wage war, enrich themselves, and eventually industrialize. Importantly, Spain, who in the initial colonial moment has empty coffers, did not see very much of this wealth, and the little it did see went to supporting the aristocracy and the counterreformation. Instead, the traders of Europe and the debt holders of Spain regularly saw large portions of its gold and silver, and the Dutch and English traders which ran the slave trade saw much of the wealth from sugar. Galeano says that it was this process of, using Marc’s term, primitive accumulation that allowed for the prosperity and development of Europe.

This complex international structure for the systematic exploitation of labor and land in Latin America had disastrous consequences. Both precious metal extraction and sugar based agriculture are unsustainable, which along with the destruction of local agriculture and complete lack of industrialization, put even the local bourgeoises in a position of total dependence on foreign aid and loans. Galeano notes the double tragedy of colonization in Latin America, namely the fact that the industry of Europe was created by the exploitation of Latin America, and in the post independence drive to industrialize Latin America a second wave of expropriation and exploitation of labor was necessary. The section ends with a hopeful view of what was then a newly communist Cuba, and one of the key questions I was left with was what Galeano might think of the modern Cuban economy, an economy based in isolation after the fall of the USSR.

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