Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A Potosi History

"The city which has given the most to the world and has the least," said an old Potosi lady.

I have been fascinated with the Bolivian city of Potosi ever since I read about it years ago.

Uruguayan historian and author Eduardo Galeano writes about the rich and exploitative history of the largest silver mine in the Americas, the basis of extreme wealth for the Spaniards in colonial times. In Open Veins of Latin America, he writes:

"They say that even the horses were shod with silver in the great days of the city of Potosi. The church altars and the wings of cherubim in processions for the Corpus Christi celebration in 1658, were made of silver: the streets from the cathedral to the church of Recoletos were completely resurfaced with silver bars. In Potosi, silver built temples and palaces, monasteries and gambling dens..."

"...By the beginning of the 17th century it had 36 magnificently decorated churches, 36 gambling houses, and 14 dance academies. Salons, theatres, and fiesta stage-settings had the finest tapestries, curtains, heraldic emblazonry, and wrought gold and silver; multicolored damasks and clothes of gold and silver hung from the balconies of houses. Silks and fabrics came from Granada; hats from Paris and London; diamonds from Ceylon; precious stones from India; pearls from Panama; crystal from Venice..."

Towering over Potosi is the Cerro Rico, or Rich Hill. Apparently, it was an indigenous man who discovered that the hill was full of silver, but once the Spaniards found out, they flocked there to start mining. Not that THEY started mining, but rather that they began to take indigenous people from all around Potosi to force to work in the mines as slaves. They would often have to work for one or 2 days straight, with almost no food, only coca leaves to chew on. At the Coca Museum in La Paz, I learned that the Spaniards banned coca use when they first arrived in the Andes, claiming that it was a devil's plant and interferred with a godly life. But then about 20 years later, when they realized that coca helped the miners' productivity in Potosi, they allowed it again, by decree of Philip II.

Galeano continues:
"Only 28 years had passed since the city sprouted out of the Andean wilderness and already, as if by magic, it had the same poulation as London and more than Seville, Madrid, Rome, or Paris. A new census in 1650 gave Potosi a population of 160,000. It was one of the world's biggest and richest cities, ten times bigger than Boston..."

Potosi is a classic lesson of colonial economics.
"The colonial economy, supplying rather than consuming, was built in terms of- and at the service of- the European market."

And so what happens when that raw material slows down, when they can no longer supply?
"The regions now the most underdeveloped and poverty stricken are those which in the past had had the closest links with the metropolis and enjoyed periods of boom. Having once been the biggest producers of goods exported to Europe, or later to the US, and the richest sources of capital, they were abandoned by the metropolis when for this or that reason business sagged. Potosi is the outstanding example of this descent into the vaccuum."

And finally, Galeano says:
"Potosi society, sick with ostentation and extravagence, left Bolivia with only a vague memory of its splendor, in the ruins of it's churches and palaces, and of 8 million indigenous corpses."

And even though there was constant mining for hundreds of years, and so many indigenous killed, there are still 20,000 miners working in the Cerro Rico today. Although there are only trace amounts of silver, miners still eke out their living from lead, tin, and zinc. I did a tour of one of the cooperative mine shafts with an ex-miner, and it was truly horrifying. The men in my guide's family have been miners for generations, and all have died from mine-related lung diseases. Though the workers are part of a cooperative, they are essentially independent in their work, so if they want any safey equiptment, they have to buy it themselves, at prohibitively expensive prices. They breathe gas in the unventilated mines with no masks, touch arsenic-ridden walls and rocks with no gloves. Inside the mines, there are dangerous drop-off cliffs, and wooden beams haphazardly holding up rock avalanches. Blasting times are from 10-noon and 4-6pm daily, you can hear and feel the blasts shake in the tunnels. "Don't worry," my guide said, "That blast is at least 100 meters away." Um, that's only about 300 feet between me and unchecked dynamite.

My guide also said,
"Outside we are Christian, and worship God. But inside the mines, we worship the devil. We have to, to survive."

The devil god's name is Tio, possibly from the Spanish "dios" meaning "god"- but in the miners'language of Quechua, there is no d sound, so the word was altered. Even today, most of the miners are indigenous and Quechua-speaking. Tio was invented by the Spaniards to put an other-worldly presence in the mines as a form of control. Every cooperative tunnel has an abandoned gallery with a statue of Tio, a horned man-beast-looking god. And on Fridays after work, the workers make offerings to Tio for continued health, safety, luck finding new veins, or any other desire for their daily life. They sit around his statue, and place on it coca leaves or cane sugar liquor, and light cigarettes for his mouth (he only likes one certain brand). Then they drink the 96% liquor in the dark of the gallery.

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