Gone to Rust

By Newman, Alisa | Hemisphere, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Gone to Rust


Newman, Alisa, Hemisphere


Since Bolivia first entered the global economy during the period of Spanish colonial rule, its role has been that of mineral exporter. The legendary mines of Potosi and other rich silver veins in Alto Peru, as Bolivia was then known, financed the Spanish empire throughout much of the colonial period. In the twentieth century, Bolivia's mines again pulled the country into the world economy, this time with exports of tin. Bolivia became the world's leading tin producer, feeding industrial demand for canning and other uses.

Eventually, however, the tin mines were depleted or rendered obsolete by new metal alloys and synthetic materials. By 1980, Bolivia's export commodities had diversified to include natural gas and agricultural products, with tin representing only about one-quarter of the value of total exports. The price of tin was $5.72 per pound in 1978; by 1985, it had fallen by more than hall to $2.50. Miners who already suffered notorious working conditions and poor health clung to the jobs that were the only source of their survival.

In 1985, President Victor Paz Estenssoro, who had nationalized the country's mines alter the 1952 Bolivian Revolution, enacted a decree that shut many of them down. Instead of acknowledging the dismissals, the government claimed that workers were merely being "relocated" to more productive sectors. More than 20,000 miners lost their jobs, and once-thriving mining centers became ghost towns. Tent cities sprang up on the outskirts of La Paz and Cochabamba as unemployed miners migrated to urban centers in search of work.

Today, the mines and the towns built around them languish in desolation. Theaters that once premiered new shows are boarded up. …

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