ALAI AMLAT-en, 09/03/2018.-. Close observation of the coat of arms of the Pluri-National State of Bolivia, reveals at the bottom of the oval a mountain. But not just any mountain: it is the Sumaj Orcko, a magnificent peak, a sacred place for those who live in the vecinity. Toward the middle of the XVI century, the conquistadors arrived and the mountain changed its name and function, to become the Cerro Rico. Alongside, Potosí was to grow into one of the most populous and wealthy cities of the world in those times. The enormous flow of silver extracted from the mount provided the silverwork that adorned hundreds of churches and the lordly tables of those who attended. But above all–as Galeano recounts in his “Open veins”–it financed the debts of the Spanish Crown with German, Genovese, Flemish and Spanish bankers. Debts that paid for new wars, new conquests, new deaths. There are things that endure, it seems.

Nothing remained for the millions of indigenous mitayos and African slaves who died in those mines. Nothing but sixteen hours of unhealthy work per day in an intemperate cold at more than four thousand meters altitude. Nothing but a life expectancy of less than 35 years, chronic tuberculosis and silicosis, punishment for disobedience or mutilations and deaths through accidents.

A century later, the price of silver fell and with it, the fever for it began to decay. But the Bolivian subsoil still guarded an enormous mineral wealth. It was the turn of tin.

It was already another century and another mountain –Llallagua –from whose bowels Simón Patiño began to build his economic empire. By then, the world had undergone a change of empire and language. However, money continued to be the universal language.

Patiño was to take on many more mines, building the Machacamarca-Uncía Railway; he would found the Mercantile Bank and become a world investor. A new war, the first world war, would make the price of metals rise and with it, the power of the capitalist mineral companies. Companies that managed Bolivian politics and financed successive dictatorships. From these enormous fortunes, little was left for the national treasury and development at the service of the people. “To avoid taxes”, Decio Machado (of the ALDHEA foundation) points out, Patiño “transferred in May 1924 the headquarters of his businesses to the US, establishing, in July of the same year, the Patiño Mines and Enterprise Consolidated Inc., which was registered in the State of Delaware.” There are things that endure, it seems.

The excrement of the war

Guano is the excrement of birds in coastal zones, of cormorants called guanay. Great quantities of it were found on the Bolivian coast, that together with the desert region of Atacama, held abundant deposits of saltpeter, an excellent fertilizer like guano, but also important for making gunpowder, the powder that detonated in the War of the Pacific, in which Chile appropriated the coast and the sea pertaining to Bolivia.

But this war was not the only one in the continued extraction of wealth from Bolivian territory. A few years later, in 1899, the War of Acre was unleashed, in which Brazil seized from Bolivia a territory rich in rubber trees and gold fields.

Between 1932 and 1935, in the zone of the Chaco, more than 100 thousand Bolivian and Paraguayan soldiers died in a struggle for the control of supposed petroleum reserves under its subsoil. Among the forces instigating the war was the greed for petroleum of the Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey and the Anglo-Dutch Shell.

Nationalizations against the plunder

Uprisings followed the plunder and against these, the cruel repression against the rebels, in a bitter and continuous cycle. But justice was to triumph. The revolution of 1952, led by Victor Paz Estenssoro (MNR), nationalized mining resources, undertaking a programme of profound social reforms, among them land reform and the introduction of universal suffrage. Twelve years later, it was overthrown by a military coup headed by René Barrientos and planned in Washington.

Hydrocarbons, in turn, were nationalized three times. In 1936, at the end of the conflict with Paraguay, it was the turn of the wells of Standard Oil. In 1969, Ovando Candia nationalized those of Gulf Oil. Finally, in 2006, shortly after the arrival Evo Morales as President, the decree “Heroes of Chaco” gave the State the absolute control of the important reserves of gas and petroleum of the country.

The Process of Change

In the development of the Process of Change established by the social movements together with the government of Evo Morales, the State recovered its principal sovereign resources and converted into state enterprises the principal public service companies, managed up until then by multinationals companies, mainly Spanish and French ones.

In monetary terms, this has meant the greatest economic growth of recent years in Latin America and an exponential growth of the country’s international reserves. That is to say, an availability of resources to undertake a radical improvement in the quality of life of Bolivians.

Reduction of extreme poverty from 34% 15%; a broad-based network of over 3000 public health centers, including in regions of difficult access; 85% of the population with access to drinking water; the emission of land property titles for more than 1,5 million peasant farmers; various universal programs of direct transfer such as the Renta Dignidad or the Bono Juancito Pinto; allocation of up to 14% of the State budget to education; construction of thousands of social housing units; and increased wages: all these are achievements that speak for themselves… even though the private media speak little of them.

A televised soap opera devised by the conservative restoration

What the media did speak of endlessly, two years ago, was Gabriela Zapata, a former girlfriend of Morales, from which relationship – according to a journalist of doubtful connections – she had apparently given birth to a son hidden from public view. In addition, the woman had supposedly used influences and contacts to obtain State contracts for the Chinese company CAMC, of which she was an executive. A loosely woven novel, as is all fiction with some particle of truth.

The child was of course non-existent, but Zapata the businesswomen was indeed condemned to ten years in prison for the contracts obtained, although neither the president nor his collaborators had any relation with it.

The soap opera of intimacy and corruption managed to poison public opinion, questioning the presidential morals and achieving its goal: to distort the result of the plebiscite of February 2016. With a participation of nearly 85%, the No vote won by just over two percentage points.

From a historical perspective

A recent sentence of the Supreme Court of Justice has enabled the possibility of Evo Morales standing in the upcoming presidential elections. With him, the possibilities increase of continuing a process of deep transformation that has now completed twelve years.

Beyond the material aspects, the Bolivian people, particularly those most submissive and discriminated against, have recovered their dignity and prominence in the political sphere. Perhaps this is what most offends sectors of the oligarchy, transnational companies and part of the urban middle classes, fearful of the ascent of the popular social groups.

The power groups, determined to prevent these changes, have organized and financed “civic committees”, heirs of the Half-Moon[1] coup d’état of 2008. Piloted by the US and encouraged by the atmosphere of neocolonial restoration, these committees protest against the supposed disrespect of the popular will; they proclaim an “undemocratic drift” and throw up their hands in horror at the “generalized corruption”. It is an advertising stunt repeated in different places in Latin America, but no less effective.

In historic perspective, the correct question is not about proscribing candidates in order to supposedly preserve democracy, as was also attempted with Rafael Correa, Lula or Cristina Fernández. The question is about how to democratize the lives of the Bolivian people, avoiding a return to the politics controlled by economic power that inflicts suffering and violence. Because, how many years of sovereignty and dignity are necessary to repair centuries of pillage and vexation? Certainly more than twelve.

(Translated for ALAI by Jordan Bishop)

[1] NdT: The Media Luna (Half Moon) is the informal name given to the Eastern region of the country, mainly lowlands with a predominantly non-indigenous population. 2008 saw a series of confrontations and acts of civil disobedience, led by that region, in an attempt to destabilize the government of Evo Morales.

More information:

We invite you to sustain ALAI’s work.
Agencia Latinoamericana de Informacion


About the author

– Javier Tolcachier is a researcher with the World Centre of Humanist Studies, an organism of the Humanist Movement.