Eduardo Galeano and the miners of Potosi

Bolivia 1083

I am re-reading ‘Open Veins of Latin America’ by the Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano – 500 years of marauding throughout Latin America by Europe and, later, the United States of America. Galeano writes with eloquence, weaving historical fact with quotes from the oppressed and oppressors, images of despair with those of arrogant greed. An exploration of exploitation. Part 1: ‘Mankind’s Poverty as a Consequence of the Wealth of the Land’ and his description of Potosi resonated especially with me.

In the 16th century Potosi in Bolivia became the world’s largest industrial complex. The Spanish pillaged it’s Cerro Rico mountain for silver, discarding the worthless tin in rubbish piles, and lined the pockets of the imperial bourgeoisie. The local Indian population were turned into slaves, with 8 million Incas thought to have died during the years of Spanish silver extraction. And then the silver ran out.

Today the tin that was dumped in heaps or left within the tunnels of Cerro Rico provides a pittance for the population of Potosi, the Spanish leaving the people and their ‘rich hill’ in poverty.

Galeano says:

‘Through the centuries the wealth has been drained from the 5,000 tunnels the Spaniards bored into the Cerro Rico. As dynamite charges have hollowed it out, its colour has changed and the height of its summit has been lowered. The mountains of rock heaped around the many tunnel openings are of all colours: pink, lilac, purple, ochre, gray, gold, brown. A crazy quilt of garbage…..Miners still enter old mines that are not flooded, carbide lamps in hand, bodies crouching, to bring out whatever there is.’

A few years ago I visited Potosi with its ornate colonial architecture and grand churches built before the Spanish left in 1825. In the 1980s the Bolivian Government abandoned the no longer profitable mines and they were opened up to anyone willing to work. Today small family-run cooperatives scour the mine for whatever is left – pounding, dynamiting the rock in tunnels, amidst an air low in oxygen and filled with dust. Silicosis and other pulmonary illnesses mean that few live beyond 40. Cooperatives provide health insurance and control the funds brought in by tourists visiting the mines, a bonus to the small profit made by miners after purchasing tools, dynamite, acetylene lamps and coca leaves to suppress hunger and pain during the long shifts underground. Days are made bearable by the consumption of strong alcohol, cheap and potent, and the worship of Tio, the God of the underworld, who holds the power of life and death in these volatile, claustrophobic conditions.

One would think in 500 years our acceptance of exploitation of the poor by the superpowers for ever increasing wealth would have waned. But what of our lust for diamonds at the expense of child soldiers, horrific amputations and devastation in Liberia and Sierra Leone, or our desire for coltan to build mobile phones and computer chips funding the brutal militias of Congo, or the World Cup stadiums in Qatar built on the corpses of Nepalese and Indian migrant workers? And when the resources are gone or the event over what are these people left with?

When Galeano visited Potosi in the 1960s he spoke to an ‘unemployed man who was scratching through the dirt with his hands’ who said: ‘The Cerro is still rich….There must be a God, you know: the metal grows just like a plant.’ How many more are left with deluded hope at the hands of western greed?

The lyrics in this song are loaded. The english translation is below…

I am,
I am what they left behind,
I am the leftovers of what they’ve stolen.
A hidden town in the summit,
My skin is of leather that’s why it withstands any weather.
I am a smoke factory,
Peasant labour for your consumption
Cold front in the middle of summer,
Love in the time of cholera, my brother!
I’m the sun that rises and the day that dies,
with the best sunsets.
I am the development in raw flesh,
a political speech without saliva.
The most beautiful faces I have ever met,
I am the picture of a missing person.
I am the blood in your veins,
I am a piece of land which is worthy
I am a basket with beans,
I am Maradona against England scoring two goals.
I am what supports my flag,
The planet’s spine is my mountain range.
I am what my father taught me,
Whoever doesn’t love their country doesn’t love their mother.
I am Latin America,
A nation without legs but still walking.
You can’t buy the wind.
You can’t buy the sun.
You can’t buy the rain.
You can’t buy the heat.
You can’t buy the clouds.
You can’t buy the colours.
You can’t buy my happiness.
You can’t buy my pain.
I have lakes, I have rivers.
I have my teeth for when I smile.
The snow coating my mountains.
I have the sun which dries me and the rain which bathes me.
A desert drunk on peyote and a drink of pulque to sing with the coyotes. Everything I need.
My lungs breath clean air.
The suffocating altitude.
I am the molars of my mouth chewing coca.
The autumn with its fainting leaves.
The verses written under a starlight night.
A vineyard full of grapes.
A cane plantation under the sun of Cuba.
I am the Caribbean Sea looking after the little houses,
Performing rituals with blessed water.
The wind that combs my hair.
I am all the saints that hang from my neck.
My fight is not fruitless,
Because the manure of my land is natural.
You can’t buy the wind.
You can’t buy the sun.
You can’t buy the rain.
You can’t buy the heat.
You can’t buy the clouds.
You can’t buy the colours.
You can’t buy my happiness.
You can’t buy my pain.
You can’t buy the wind
You can’t buy the sun
You can’t buy the rain
You can’t buy the heat
You can’t buy the clouds
You can’t buy the colours
You can’t buy my happiness
You can’t buy my pain
You can’t buy my happiness
You can’t buy my sadness
You can’t buy the sun.
You can’t buy the rain.
(We draw the path, we walk)
You can’t buy my life.
MY LAND IS NOT FOR SALE.
I work hard but with pride.
Here we share, what’s mine is yours.
This nation doesn’t drown with the waves.
And if it collapses I rebuild it.
I don’t even blink when I look at you,
So you’ll remember my last name.
Operation Condor invading my nest,
I forgive but never forget!
(We walk)
Here struggle is perceived.
(We walk)
I sing to be listened.
Here we stand
Long live Latin America!

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One response to “Eduardo Galeano and the miners of Potosi

  1. Pingback: Fast forward: Bolivia | snoop and doodle·

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