As the department-wide strike in Potosí continues to edge into the international press (primarily through its effect on tourists and now upon mining companies that operate in the region), I want to give more of the background on the strike and its demands, so it’s at least understandable why people are blockading and hunger striking there.
“It can be summed up in one single thing: in misery. … We are fighting for a hill that as of yet is not a factory, just a hill; it’s raw material. For the dream that some time we, that the families that live there, might have something. They are places forgotten by the hand of God: they don’t have water. They are using up the water in the wells. There is no electricity. It is misery.”
Saúl Juarez, Potosino hunger striker in Cochabamba
If you are from North America, this use of misery might be unfamiliar to you, but it is common in the language of Latin America. We must first organize, then-Haitian president Jean Bertrand Aristide once said, to move from misery to poverty. Here in the hemisphere’s second-poorest country (after Haiti), Potosí is the poorest of nine departments. The rate of extreme poverty, which is falling nationwide, is still 66.7%; meaning that two-thirds of Potosinos cannot afford to buy their family’s basic necessities. Of every 1000 live births there, 101 children will die before their fifth birthday. Both of these figures are the highest in Bolivia; in the case of child mortality, the second place departments—La Paz and Chuquisaca—see 63 deaths per 1000 children. It is for this reason that Potosinos have spread to the rest of the country in search of better opportunities.
“We can say that we are fighting for the reactivation of the productive apparatus of Potosí.”
Claudia López, Potosino hunger striker in Cochabamba
Most of the demands advanced by the Potosí mobilization are focused on specific industrial or economic projects, which in the eyes of protesters, have languished for the lack of state interest. The boundary dispute with Oruro centers around two hills that contain limestone, a key ingredient for cement, and a second demand is for a cement plant to earn money and create jobs from that resource. Likewise, Potosinos are calling for the activation of a metallurgy plant and for the creation of an international airport to connect Uyuni and its phenomenal salt flats to international tourists.
Potosí, of course, is not poor for the simple lack of investment from the outside. It has never simply languished in the absence of foreign interest. Instead, it was once the largest the city in the Western world precisely because of the rich attraction its mineral wealth held for the Spanish state and its investors. Immense wealth was symbolized by the Cerro Rico which sits above the city, or simply by the phrase “it’s worth a Potosí.” Every Bolivian, rich or poor, left or right, knows how Bolivian wealth enriched Spain, and through it Europe. And every Bolivian understands that to take part in that wealth requires doing more than extracting minerals from the ground and shipping them out of the country.
More recently, Potosí was hit hard by the shock-therapy program of neoliberal economic restructuring that began in 1985. At the time, the miners who worked for COMIBOL—the national mining company that took over the mines run by three wealthy tin barons in 1952—were the strongest social movement in the country. The government of Paz Estenssoro aimed to break this power, and essentially shut down the government-run mining sector to do so, laying off tens of thousands of workers. Those miners who did not resettle elsewhere in the country became the backbone of the cooperative mining sector, a collection of small scale mining projects that engage in uncoordinated mining of the Cerro Rico, and other mountains like it, in search of rich veins of minerals. Decades of such drilling have brought the Cerro to the brink of structural collapse, posing the threat that the hill—recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO—could become a ruin.
“They all come to promise and promise, and to say this and that could be done. The [current] government has done the same: it has promised. But after five years of their rule, of creating new laws and a new constitution, of re-electing them, there is nothing. … So, we want dates; we want concrete responses of when and how; we want specific studies; we want operational plans that establish dates for the processes that are going to happen.”
If one had to choose a symbol of the capacity for delay in pursuing development projects in Bolivia, it might well be Karachipampa, the metallurgical plant that the mobilization is demanding to be activated. This lead and silver smelter was built between 1985 and 1988. It has never operated.
Several years ago, in 2005, the Canadian firm Atlas Precious Metals Inc. entered a shared-risk agreement to invest in the plant. You can see on their web page an optimistic assessment of the plant’s production capacity. As of April, only 20% of the firm’s promised investment had been realized (article in Spanish). Currently, Atlas and COMIBOL are in a legal dispute in which Atlas demands its $12 million investment be repaid, and COMIBOL seeks compensation for the value of the plant, which remains unused. In a letter to the government (es), the Potosinista Civic Committee washes its hands of the whole dispute and demands:
The only thing the Potosí people want is to see, in an immediate manner, the effective functioning of the Karachipampa Plant, whether it is with the [foreign] company or through state intervention.
Beyond all these details, the strongest emotion visible here is simple, exhausted, impatience. Whether the timeline is 21 years for the plant, or 5 years for the MAS government, or three generations for the border dispute (more on that when I can provide a fuller background, or transcribe more of my interview with a Coroma resident), those who have thrown themselves into this protest have run out of patience. Against the experience of delay, they have enacted tactics based on urgency: extended blockades, hunger strikes, and so on. So far, Potosinos themselves, beginning with the hunger strikers have borne most of the costs of these urgent tactics themselves, or imposed them on the surrounding communities. However, they are increasingly enacting or talking about tactics that will cost companies operating in the region substantial losses on a daily basis.