Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The world's richest city

Between Coroico and Uyuni it was time for another oil change, so we rode around town looking for some quality oil, found it, paid $60US for it (waayyyy too much!) and found a shop to do it in. Wilber and Mario (pictured above) were kind enough to let me use their shop, and after that we were off to Potosi.

We drove four hours into the barren landscape from our last stop, Oruro, and arrived in the dusty city of Potosi. Potosi was founded by the Spanish in the 1500's, and has a long and troubling history of mining and exploitation. In it's heyday it was larger than Paris or London, and the silver mined from the Cerro Rico (literally "rich hill") pictured above fueled the ambitions of the Spanish empire for three hundred years.
In this unattributed Spanish painting, the Holy Trinity crowns "Mary" the mother of God who is also a Bolivian mountain filled with silver. In other words, the Spanish were pretty excited! (This, ironically from a country busy scouring Europe for "heretical propositions" and "blasphemy"!)
 All of this wealth came at a cost, and that cost was the lives of eight million indigenous laborers and African slaves who extracted the silver. The conditions were worse than you can imagine, with slaves sent into the mines for six month intervals without surfacing. Those who were "lucky" worked in the processing plants on the surface, chemically separating the precious metals and inhaling every carcinogen in the periodic table. One part of the process, amagamation, involved laborers stomping in pools of crushed silver ore and mercury with their bare feet, after which the mixture was heated and the mercury vaporized. Mostly into their lungs.

The Spanish scraped and blasted every shred of silver from the mountain, and every shred of life out of the millions of people they bought or kidnapped and then worked to death. However, local miners are still working some of the thousands of veins of less-precious metals in Cerro Rico. They use the same techniques, and even contemporary miners have a life expectancy of ten years after they start work. Tours of the working mines are available to the brave, but we decided that this was one thing we might actually skip. Firstly, because it's horrible for you, secondly, the use of dynamite is totally unregulated so cave-ins still happen, and lastly, it seems a bit patronizing to "tour" someone's place of work to marvel at how bad they have it.

We did go for a tour of the mint, and there we got an image of the life of a surface laborer.
These massive minting machines, brought from Germany, ran 24 hours a day and were powered by "four donkeys" turning a shaft on the level below.
  Our tour guide assured us (almost TOO enthusiastically), that these machines were NEVER powered by slave labor. However the book I have been reading, Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano, says that the teams of four donkeys would only last a few months in this work, and were replaced with teams of 16 African slaves soon after the mint began production. Nowhere on the tour did the guide mention slavery, though with the working conditions it was obvious slaves were used. Every piece of literature on the place states as much, and even their own display showed a curiously dark-skinned "Bolivian" at the un-enviable task of pumping the bellows...
A life pumping the bellows, smelting silver to fuel the Spanish Inquisition. Abducted and sold in Africa to perform slave labor in Bolivia to fund state-sanctioned religious terrorism in Europe; the literal beginning of the modern world economy.
Over the course of 300 years the Spanish whipped and coerced 45,000 TONS of silver out of Cerro Rico. The mint housed some of the relics of the good times. How much silver did they have? Well, enough to that it seemed reasonable to build solid silver tables, and solid silver lampes to put on them. There are stories of the rich in Potosi finishing dinners and throwing entire silver services out into the street, to be picked up by passers by.
How many people died to make these silly, silly things?

Once the silver was gone, so were the Spanish, leaving behind opulent mansions and churches for which the dirt-poor population had little use. They pried off everything metal, sold everything beautiful, and lived in what was left. The center of town is one of the longest-occupied on the continent, and is now a mish mash of re-purposed villas.
Electricity and plumbing have been...retrofitted.

Beautiful stonework and seamlessly stuccoed arches in an abandoned building

Though life certainly goes on, every ornate facade in decay serves as a reminder of the crimes commited against the people there.  It will never be a quaint Bolivian village; and there is no escaping Spanish ghosts when you live in their ruins. Potosi feels like a city of hermits whose poverty is mocked by their foreign-built home. Living in the master's quarters does not fit, and his absence is not enough to bring back the spirit of a people driven so low. It seems that the Cerro Rico has cursed everyone who has touched it. Potosi is now the poorest state in the poorest country in South America, despite having the richest silver mine in the history of the world. The silver is gone, Spain's empire is gone, and we all know that the world was, and still is, filled with greed and heretics.