In the 1870s, Simón Patiño, in a condition half dead from hunger, discovered in the Bolivian high plains the richest vein of tin in the world. The concentration was so high that the tin could be sent directly to the port, without need for a process of concentration. Patiño became the “King of Tin” and one of the richest men in the world. “From Europe he for many years lifted up and overthrew the presidents and ministers of Bolivia, planned the hunger of the workers and organized their massacre, and expanded and extended his personal fortune. Bolivia was a country that existed in his service” (Galeano 2007:191; 1997:147).
A popular movement in Bolivia first emerged in the 1930s. By the early 1950s it had become an advanced social revolutionary movement under the leadership of the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement. Its social base consisted of unions of mine workers, peasants, and factory workers. It reached its zenith in 1952, when the Bolivian government nationalized the mines and distributed land to peasants.
However, the nationalization of the tin mines did not change the situation. In the first place, the tin mines had been exhausted. In the mountain where the rich vein had been found by Patiño, the degree of purity was reduced 120 times from what it had once been. For every 156,000 tons of rock, only 400 tons of tin were obtained (Galeano 2007:191; 1997:147).
Secondly, Antenor Patiño, son of Simón, charged considerable compensation for the nationalization, and he continued to control the price and the distribution of Bolivian tin. The nationalization “had not modified the role of Bolivia in the international division of labor. Bolivia continued exporting the crude mineral, and nearly all the tin is refined still in the ovens of Liverpool by Williams, Harvey and Co., which is owned by Patiño. The nationalization of the sources of production of any raw material, as is taught from painful experience, is not sufficient” (Galeano 2007:192; 1997:148).
With Bolivian mining after nationalization continuing to conform to the peripheral role in the international division of labor, the Bolivian workers continued to suffer wages of superexploitation and to live in social conditions characteristic of underdevelopment. They lived in one-room shacks with dirt floors, with 60% of male youth sharing a bed with a sister. They lacked bathrooms, having instead small public sheds with latrines; the people preferred the garbage dumps, where at least there was open air. They had to wait for the delivery of water, collecting it in containers when it arrived. Meals were limited, consisting of potatoes, noodles, rice, maize, and occasionally tough meat. During dinner, the minors chewed coca leafs, which function to dull hunger and to mask fatigue (Galeano 2007:194-95; 1997:150-51).
The worst was the dust, which condemned the minors to death by asphyxiation (Galeano 2007:195; 1997:151). “The slow and quiet death constitutes the specialty of the mine. Vomiting of blood, cough, and a sensation of a lead weight on the back and an acute oppression in the chest are the signs that announce it. After the medical analysis come the never ending bureaucratic pilgrimages. They give a period of three months to vacate the house” (Galeano 2007:196; 1997:151-52).
Tin mining destroyed the environment, leaving tunnels as well as accumulated grey mounds from the residue that is left after the tin is separated from the rock. Rains washed the residual tin and deposited it everywhere. Everything had the dark color of tin, from the mountain streams to the walls of the minors’ shacks (Galeano 2007:194).
The exhaustion of tin meant that its exploitation could not remain profitable, so the tin industry in Bolivia declined, to be replaced by the exploitation of natural gas, just as tin had previously replaced silver as the principal raw material for exportation from Bolivia. But as the exported raw material changed from silver to tin to natural gas, the structures remained intact: the raw materials export industries were owned and operated by foreign companies who paid hunger wages to Bolivian workers, with the cooperation of the Bolivian government. The core-peripheral structures contributed to the economic development of the nations to the North even as they guaranteed underdevelopment and poverty for Bolivia.
But as in Venezuela and Chile (see “Petroleum in Venezuela” 10/18/2013 and “Copper in Chile” 10/22/2013), the people formed movements that sought to take control of the natural resources of the nation and thus to make possible the true and full independence of the nation. During the course of the twentieth century, the popular movements had significant gains, but they did not accomplish the definitive social transformation that they sought. The struggle of the people continues today, as we will see in future posts.
Galeano, Eduardo. 1997. The Open Veins of Latin America: Five centuries of the pillage of a continent, 25th Anniversary Edition. Translated by Cedric Belfrage. Forward by Isabel Allende. New York: Monthly Review Press.
__________. 2004. Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina, tercera edición, revisada. México: Siglo XXI Editores.
Key words: Third World, revolution, colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, democracy, national liberation, sovereignty, self-determination, socialism, Marxism, Leninism, Cuba, Latin America, world-system, world-economy, development, underdevelopment, colonial, neocolonial, blog Third World perspective, open veins of Latin America, Galeano, tin, Bolivia