SILVER AND MONEY CAPITALISM
Each morning at five-thirty, Rodrigo Cespedes eats two rolls and drinks a cup of tea heavily laced with sugar before he slings his ratty Adidas gym bag over his shoulder and leaves for work. Rodrigo lives in Potosí, the world’s highest city, perched in the Bolivian Andes at an elevation of 13,680 feet above sea level. At this altitude Rodrigo stays warm only when he holds himself directly in the sunlight, but this early in the morning, the streets are still dark. He walks with other men going in the same direction, but like most Quechua and Aymara Indians they walk along silently. The loudest sounds come from the scraping noise of the old women who laboriously sweep the streets each morning. Bent over their short straw brooms, these women look like medieval witches dressed in the traditional black garments woven in Potosí and the tall black hats native to the area.
Rodrigo reaches the main road and joins a line behind forty to fifty men waiting to board one of the dilapidated but once brightly painted buses that leave the Plaza 10 de Noviembre at a quarter before the hour. In the dawning light, he stands across the street from a small dump in which a handful of old women, two dozen snarling dogs, and a few children fight over unrecognizable chunks of food in their daily battle for garbage. When he finally boards the bus, Rodrigo squeezes agilely into the dense pack of silent and stooped men. Very slowly the old bus begins its labored climb up Cerro Rico, the mountain towering over the city. After ascending the mountain for only a few minutes, the bus passes the entrance to the original colonial mine founded on Cerro Rico in 1545. Workers long ago boarded it shut after exhausting that vein, and then they moved to higher veins more difficult and less profitable to mine. After another twenty minutes and a hundred meters’ rise in elevation, he passes the dilapidated entrance to the massive government-operated tin mine and the scene of many bloody confrontations between miners and management. Once owned by the “Tin King” Simon Patiño, these mines were nationalized by the revolutionary regime of Victor Paz Estensoro after the revolution in 1952, and now COMIBOL (Corporación Minera de Bolivia), a government-owned and highly unprofitable company, operates them as a way to keep the miners’ leftist union tranquil. The bus chokes to its first stop at the mine opening, and most of the men leave the bus.
Even though the bus has less than half a load now, the old engine wheezes and belches up thick black diesel fumes as it struggles on to an altitude of fourteen thousand feet. Few vehicles anywhere operate at a higher altitude, and this bus probably plies the highest daily bus route in the world. Barely able to climb any higher, the bus coasts to a stop near the Heart of Jesus, a large abandoned church covered with graffiti and filled with the strong smell of stale urine, all topped by a giant concrete Jesus. The edifice and its large statue jut out on a cliff a little over halfway up the mountain. Here Rodrigo and the remaining men leave the bus, which then descends for another load.
Without a glance at the Heart of Jesus and without raising his eyes toward the immense mountain above him, Rodrigo begins to climb the long familiar path. For the next two hours he looks only at his feet and he keeps his chin tucked into his jacket and out of the mountain winds that whip around him in freezing but bone-dry swirls even though he is only a few degrees south of the equator. He does not need to look around, for as long as his legs are climbing up the mountain he knows that he is heading in the right direction. He need not fear bumping into a tree, because he is far above the timber line and because over the last four centuries millions of brown hands have already removed every bush, weed, and blade of grass searching for rocks with traces of silver, tin, tungsten, or bismuth. He need not worry about bumping into a large boulder, because generations of Indian workers have long since pounded, hammered, and shattered every boulder into millions of rocks smaller than a child’s fist. He need not fear falling into a crevice, because women carrying baskets of rock and dirt have long ago filled in all the crevices with refuse from the five thousand mines that have pierced Cerro Rico in the past five centuries. If Rodrigo did look up, he would see nothing but the endless pile of rusty brown rocks that he climbs every day.
The monotony of the mountain face is interrupted only by the mine openings that pock it like the ravages of some terrestrial cancer. Rodrigo finally stops just short of the summit of 15,680 feet; the trip from his home below has taken two and a half hours. He sits down just outside the mouth of the mine he works, opens his bag, and fishes out a flat, round roll like the ones he ate for breakfast. As he chews the roll, he looks down at the city spread out below him. Because the air is so crisp and clear at this dry altitude, he can clearly pick out the block of houses where he lives in the city of 100,000 people with lives much like his own. He is now half a mile above the city and three miles above the ocean, which, of course, he has never seen. In the distance a small black ribbon of railroad track connects Potosí with the outside world, hauling the tin to Arica, the port on the Chilean coast of the Pacific. The line also connects Potosí to the capital of La Paz. Twice a week passengers can ride the day trip to La Paz on the narrow-gauge railway. Straining to cross the Condor Pass at 15,705 feet above sea level near Río Mulato a few hours out of Potosí, this train operates the world’s highest passenger railway. But all of this is far removed from Rodrigo’s life.
Swallowing the last of his dry roll, he reaches deep inside his jacket and shirt and brings out his distinctively handwoven chuspa, a brightly colored bag of coca leaves that he always keeps on a string around his neck. Picking a few leaves, he carefully inserts them one at a time, together with a little lime, into his mouth with a well-practiced turn of his wrist. After only a few minutes of inactivity at this altitude, he begins to feel the cold, but the mildly narcotic effect produced by chewing the leaves will soon numb that. It will also alleviate his hunger, his thirst, and the sheer drudgery and monotony of the coming eight hours in the mine. It will ease but not stop the pain which slowly begins to torture him in the morning and by the close of the shift has engulfed his whole body from head to toe.
With his quid of coca securely between his cheek and gum, Rodrigo silently joins the other miners and begins his shift, hammering out small pieces of rock for eight hours without even a meal break. They work without the aid of automated machines or even of animals to haul the heavy wagons of rock. Because Rodrigo works in a mining cooperative, he receives pay only for what he produces and not for the time it takes to produce it. Unemployed miners form cooperatives that take over old mines when the government and the private mining companies judge them too unprofitable to operate. As twenty generations of Indian miners have done before him, Rodrigo chips away at a little more and a little more of the mountain each day. The mountain is now so honeycombed that the Indians say it is nearly hollow and soon will collapse upon itself.
At the end of his shift in the mine, Rodrigo reverses his climb. Even though he does not ride the bus during his descent, the trip down takes him only two hours. He returns home exhausted from the ordeal of twelve and a half hours. Rodrigo repeats this routine seven days a week for a wage of approximately a dollar a day and under the constant threat of unemployment because his health might break down or the world economy might take some turn on commodities for reasons incomprehensible to him. He pauses in this weekly routine only for an occasional fiesta or funeral, and on those days he loses that dollar.
Rodrigo knows that the colonial town of Potosí and the mountain on which he works have a long and supposedly glorious history stretching back to Inca times. He has heard that history acknowledged many times by the priest, by politicians in speeches, and by the union officials, and he also knows many of the stories about the fabulous riches, the horrible disasters, the massacres, the revolts, the swindles, the strikes, and the wars surrounding the history of these mines. He easily and vividly relates the stories about the disasters, whereas the stories about the lives of the rich and powerful are only vague accounts of limitless food in large, warm rooms. But Rodrigo has little time to dwell on such topics; perhaps if he lives past the average life expectancy of forty-eight years he can find out more about it.
This mountain on which Rodrigo lives and works is the richest mountain ever discovered anywhere on earth. Beginning in 1545, this mountain produced silver for the treasuries of Europe at a rate and in a volume unprecedented in human history. The Cerro Rico, which means “rich hill,” was a mountain of silver over two thousand feet high. Eighty-five percent of the silver produced from the central Andes during the colonial era came from this one mountain. The name Potosí became a synonym for fabulous and inexhaustible wealth after Miguel Cervantes used the phrase vale un Potosí, “worth a Potosí,” in Don Quixote de la Mancha. For a while the expression was even used in English and became the name of towns in Wisconsin and Missouri as well as two mountains in Colorado and Nevada and another mine in Mexico.
The Indian miners say that they have extracted enough ore from this mountain to build a sterling-silver bridge from Potosí to Madrid. It produced so much silver ore and required the labor of so many Indian slaves that for a while Potosí was the largest city in America. It was the first real city of the New World, reaching 120,000 inhabitants by 1573 and 160,000 by 1650. Potosí rivaled such Old World cities as London and Paris in size. The vain Spaniards who ruled it chose to advertise their wealth even in Potosí’s coat of arms, which ostentatiously proclaimed: “I am Potosí, the treasure of the world and the envy of kings.”
According to Quechua myth, the Inca emperor Huayna Capac first mined Cerro Rico a generation before the Spanish arrived, but the Incas called it Sumaj Orcko, “beautiful hill.” The emperor stopped the operation, however, when a voice thundered out of the mountain saying: “Take no silver from this hill. It is destined for other owners.” The prophecy certainly came true, for the people of Bolivia have never profited from their great riches. The silver of Potosí was destined for others.
Copyright © 2010 by Jack Weatherford. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.