The Ghosts of Colonial Bolivia

Steve Russell

Bolivia, like the rest of South America, spent almost 300 years enriching the coffers of the Spanish Empire. It was said that a bridge could be built from the mine at Potosi to the Spanish king’s palace made of the silver looted from the Bolivian people with slave labor. Potosi, at over 150,000 souls, was once the largest city in the Americas.

Bolivia threw out the Spanish in 1825 and named the new republic for the leader of the military campaigns against Spain, Simón Bolívar. It finally elected an indigenous president in 2005, Evo Morales, whose Aymara Nation is indigenous to the colonial nations of Bolivia, Peru, and Chile.

The Morales government has tried to make exploitation of what natural resources the Spanish left benefit the indigenous population, but the reminders of colonial history are everywhere.

This past July, construction workers in Potosi uncovered human remains believed to be miners from the Spanish colonial era., the news source for mining investors, estimated that eight million miners died at Potosi between 1500 and 1800 “as a direct result of cave-ins, overwork, hunger and disease.”

Only about 16,000 miners are still working Serro Rico Mountain, but they still toil under brutal conditions that lead locals to call it “the peak that eats men.”

The Washington Post reported on November 14 that mineral exploitation under the Morales government remains disturbing to traditional people. The French oil giant, Total, manages a concession to exploit oil and gas resources under land only recently returned to the Guarani people.

Total’s bulldozers uncovered what appeared to be a Guarani burial ground back in July. The company claims it immediately halted construction and called in archaeologists.

Nick Miroff, Latin America correspondent for the Post, entered the construction site near Caraparicito with Oscar Robles, the former Guarani peon who became capitán after the Morales government chased away an American patron, whose former mansion is now home to eight Guarani families. Robles suggested that Total had not been as careful as they claimed.

Miroff reported:

The Guarani men climbed over the low berm left by the bulldozer to search the scattered debris on the other side. There were pottery shards several inches wide and a big rounded dirt clod that looked as if it had been molded inside a burial urn. Large, fully intact pieces of bone were pressed between layers of earth, perfectly preserved.

As they brushed away the soil, a tooth fell out — a molar. It was part of a jawbone, complete with a row of small teeth.

“A child,” said Robles, cupping the teeth in his hands. “These are our ancestors.”

Since Evo Morales was elected and a new constitution passed, the Guarani control the surface of their indigenous lands. The Bolivian government, however, owns the minerals under those lands. Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos, a Bolivian state enterprise with an unfortunate history of mismanagement, owns 55 percent of the recent gas projects, with the balance sold to major corporations, Gazprom of Russia and Total of France.

Total, the managing partner in Caraparicito, claims a proprietary method of dealing with the locals, “Stakeholder Relationship Management,” with 370 employees worldwide assigned to that task. Total has halted construction pending an archaeological report on the graves, after which it intends to rebury the remains with Guarani participation.

For the indigenous people, pulling mineral wealth out of the soil is still fraught with a colonial history of exploitation, even if the profits, most of them, will now remain in Bolivia. So will the ghosts.

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