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Potosi: Rags and Riches (Regional Seminar and CIDL)


Potosi´s Cerro Rico mine was the crux of Western industrialization, producing enough silver to bridge South America and Europe. Within twenty years of the Spanish discovery of Cerro Rico, Potosi became the third largest city in the world, having the same population as London and ten times as many people as Boston (Galeano, 20-1). Blood and bones of indigenous and African slaves fertilized the soil of Cerro Rico–three centuries later the extortion had amassed a holocaust of eight-million people.

In the eyes of the Spanish, the Quechua and Aymara were ¨stray animals,¨ full of idolatries, sins, and bearing no souls (Galeano, 40-1). The Spanish ¨way of Christ¨was the means in which they would exorcise these devils from their sins, and this way of Christ was forced labor and new idols: the colonial “masters”. They forced the indigenous to sleep out in the open on a mountain with freezing temperatures, waking up to the oven of the mines. In this scorching heat, they triturated in the mine´s arsenic and inhaled mercury fumes, which they used to extract the silver. If they weren´t working to their master´s standards, the whip and other forms of torture were implemented. To survive in the mines more than four years  was a rarity. When the miners revolted against these conditions, the Spanish quelled the revolt by building Devil statues–called Tios, because the local people were unable to pronounce ¨Dios,¨ the Spanish word for God–and making the miners worship these devils for their idolatry tendencies (Davidson). The river runs deep with irony.  The offerings to the Tios served as protection and wellbeing to the miners while they were forced to desecrate the insides of Kay Pacha, the Earth, who along with the Sun and the Moon, the indigenous worshipped more than anything else.

Cerro Rico is a cornerstone that the builders used to create today´s economic oligarchy; Potosi and the centuries of oppression of its native inhabitants is the cornerstone that the builders refused. While the Spanish were the plunderers of Potosi, the British and its´ child state, the U.S.A., along with other European colonizers, were the main capitalizers. The Spanish used the silver to live lavishly, purchasing luxuries far and wide, especially in the European market and feeding the British-American manufactures. These states are also at blame for the travesties of the Spanish, for without a market there wouldn´t be incentive.


In the poorest city in the poorest country in Latin America, thin cobble-stoned streets dissect their way through Potosi´s colonial-styled buildings. The economy is slim: mining and mining tourism. Cerro Rico sits above, deflated from centuries of pillage, watching down on the city. Ghosts of the Crown walk over the mountain wearing  translucent garments bearing the logo: neocolonialism. The silver and other minerals are sold for dirt cheap to the U.S.A., China, and Europe to be processed and by the time the same minerals return to Potosi, their value has increased twenty-fold. The miners do not touch the refined products that they bleed and sweat for–the complacent and affluent Western consumers are at the top of those who do.

Miners work up to twenty-four hours straight, suffocating in the deep caverns and chewing coca to stimulate strength and suppress their hunger to save their earnings for their families. Child-labor is common. In 2005, UNICEF, the International Labour Orginization (ILO), and the National Insitute of Statistics found 7,000 children working in the mines, some as young as six years old (UNICEF). These organizations broadcast an image that they are supporting the child labourers, but what they have done in Potosi, is created worse conditions.

At the International Labour Orginzation´s Convention 182, two articles were passed: 1) prohibiting work for children under fourteen and 2) determining standards of how low the quality of work is allowed to be. These agreements were passed by entities outside of Latin America and other ¨Third-World¨countries. As the child-labor in Potosi often does not pass either of these standards, the children do not recieve suppòrt from the Western hegemony´s orginizations that are supposed to help children in such conditions. Whether child-labor is legal or illegal in Bolivia, it will continue to exist in Potosi, for that is the harsh reality of the global economic systems that are in place. The children, many without fathers, work the mines so that they can eat and go to school. For many children, there isn´t an alternative. So when UNICEF expresses anger at a Bolivian law that allows children as young as ten to work the mines, they are ignorant of the history that has created such poverty within a population that is majorly indigenous still.


Providing food or a one-time stipend to the children will not end their poverty and hunger, it will only stall it. Only by creating an infrastruture in which child labor is no longer necessary will enforce such standards. This infrastructure is devoid of U.S. corporations coming and plundering a continent rich in resources. The next ILO convention could, perhaps, pass an article that prevents corporations from going into impovershed countries and creating monopolies–for example, Bechtel in Cochabamaba, Bolivia, where they privatized the water and charged prices that are unaffordable for a necessity of life, just to garnish profits. However, this is still thinking within the system. One must think outside of the system that works better. Don´t call it a utopia, but a distopia of the dreams of a few and the nightmeres of the many. (Pre-sanctioned Cuba, devoid of the image created by U.S. propaganda, might be a good place to start).


Davidson, Kief. The Devil’s Miner. Salzgeber, 2005. Film.

Galeano, Eduardo, and Cedric Belfrage. Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. 25th Anniversary ed. New York: Monthly Review, 1997. Print.

“Young Bolivians on Working in One of the World’s Most Dangerous Mines.” UNICEF. UNICEF. Web. 4 Oct. 2014. <http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/bolivia_58867.html>.

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