Historical Trauma

Historical Trauma: The Bolivian Case

The Intersection of Historical Trauma and Present Economic Policies


The excavation of lithium in the Salton Sea, as highlighted in a recent TV news program, brought to mind the captivating landscapes of Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. This reflection led me to ponder the profound impact of a nation’s historical trauma on its economic policies. This essay will explore the intersection between Bolivia’s traumatic past and its current approach to economic development. By examining the majestic Salar de Uyuni, the nation’s lithium dilemma, Potosi’s historical context, and Eduardo Galeano’s perspective, I aim to understand the complex relationship between historical trauma and economic decision-making.

Salar de Uyuni: Nature’s Reflective Wonder

Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia stands tall among the world’s most awe-inspiring locations. Spanning an area equivalent to Lebanon or twice the size of Delaware, it is the largest salt flat globally, encompassing 10,500 square kilometers (4,080 sq mi). During our visit, in 2019, at the end of the rainy season, the flat was partially covered in a thin layer of water, transforming it into a mesmerizing reflection of the sky. The sight was reminiscent of the Rorschach psychological test, where natural beauty intertwines with psychological interpretations. The intriguing combination left a lasting impression.

Bolivia’s Lithium Dilemma: Nationalism versus Globalization

Beneath the surface of Salar de Uyuni lies an abundant natural resource: lithium, often referred to as “White Gold.” With the increasing demand for lithium batteries in mobile phones and electric vehicles, one may wonder if Bolivia is poised to become the next global energy supplier, akin to the wealthy Gulf states. However, the reality is quite different. Despite Bolivia’s claim to possess the world’s largest lithium reserves, the country has yet to capitalize on its potential.

The root cause lies in Bolivia’s economic policies. President Evo Morales’s government restricted foreign companies from operating in Bolivia and extracting lithium for many years. Instead, Bolivia sought to retain control over lithium extraction and battery production, recognizing the vast disparity in value. While a metric ton of lithium was valued at $13,900 in 2018, up from $9,000 in 2017 (according to US Geological Survey), its transformation into batteries, depending on the type of battery and the market, skyrocketed its worth to $4 million. Unfortunately, Bolivia lacked the necessary engineering expertise, patented technology, and tools to exploit this potential fully.

To understand Bolivia’s stance, one must consider the historical context. Like many other Latin American countries, Bolivia endured the pillaging of its natural resources by foreign colonial powers and multinational corporations. The fear of repeating this history, with little benefit to Bolivia’s economy, is a clear and present trauma. The scars of this historical exploitation continue to shape Bolivia’s approach to resource management.

Potosi: A Symbol of Exploitation and Injustice

The city of Potosi, immortalized by Eduardo Galeano in his book “Open Veins of Latin America,” epitomizes the consequences of resource exploitation. Galeano vividly describes “five centuries of the pillage of a continent,” recounting the economic history of post-Columbus Latin America. Potosi’s Cerro Rico, known as the “Rich Mountain, holds significant symbolism as the source of silver that fueled Spain’s wealth while inflicting immeasurable suffering on the indigenous population.

During our visit to the mines of Potosi, we embarked on an immersive journey, cautiously maneuvering through labyrinthine tunnels shrouded in darkness, coldness, and dampness. Bearing witness to present-day miners’ toils and contemplating the past’s inhumane conditions was simultaneously fascinating and disheartening.

The lamentable loss of life associated with mining operations was not solely attributable to the dangerous nature of the work itself but also to the inhalation of toxic dust and fumes while refining raw materials into pure silver. Exploring Potosi’s historical context is a stark reminder of the colossal human toll exacted by exploitative practices.

It is estimated that over eight million primarily indigenous individuals perished during the zenith of silver production from the mid-16th to the mid-18th century.

The profound significance of Potosi extends beyond its historical narrative. Situated at an elevation of 13,419 feet (4,090 meters) above sea level, it claims the distinction of being the highest city in the world. Its narrow, somber streets are adorned with colonial-era edifices and ornate churches, offering glimpses into its bygone days of grandeur. Eduardo Galeano encapsulated the poignant essence of Potosi, describing it as a city plagued by poverty and misery, haunted by the ghosts of the colonial system—an enduring wound demanding acknowledgment and redress from the world.

Eduardo Galeano’s Perspective: Navigating the Complexities

In Eduardo Galeano’s literary masterpiece, he provides a comprehensive panorama of Latin America’s economic history. His introspective exploration, however, presents a perspective that leans toward attributing economic failures, poverty, homelessness, and persistent unemployment solely to external actors—colonial powers and multinational corporations. While there is no disputing the historical injustices inflicted upon Latin America, relying exclusively on external culpability paints an incomplete picture.

It is essential to recognize that Latin America grappled with internal challenges even after gaining independence and freeing itself from colonial powers. The region’s failure to foster economic prosperity, eradicate poverty, and establish stable governance systems cannot be entirely attributed to external factors. Instead, a nuanced analysis necessitates an examination of the interplay between external influences and internal dynamics. Blaming others exclusively for Latin America’s economic shortcomings can perpetuate a sense of victimhood, inhibiting proactive measures to address the structural issues hindering development.

A balanced understanding calls for acknowledging the historic exploitation while reflecting on internal factors that may have hindered progress. Latin America’s struggle to embrace entrepreneurship, private property rights, and reduce centralized state control, alongside the enduring influence of the church, warrants introspection. Latin America may chart a more prosperous course by engendering a culture that encourages innovation, fosters an entrepreneurial spirit, and prioritizes economic diversification.


The interplay between historical trauma and economic policies emerges as a complex and multifaceted phenomenon in the intricate tapestry of Bolivia’s past and present. The beguiling beauty of Salar de Uyuni stands as a testament to nature’s wonders while serving as a poignant reminder of Bolivia’s potential wealth. Bolivia’s lithium dilemma encapsulates the nation’s desire to retain control over its resources, borne out of a traumatic history of exploitation. Potosi, with its historical significance and enduring wounds, serves as a reminder of the devastating consequences of resource extraction.

While shedding light on the external factors that have shaped Latin America, Eduardo Galeano’s perspective calls for a balanced assessment that acknowledges internal challenges. By embracing a comprehensive understanding, Latin American nations can reconcile their historical traumas, forge a path toward economic empowerment, and navigate the complexities of contemporary decision-making.

Ultimately, the intersection between a nation’s historical trauma and its present economic policies underscores the intricate interplay between past experiences, current aspirations, and the quest for a prosperous future. By exploring these connections, we gain a deeper appreciation for the complexities that shape nations and societies, fostering a more nuanced understanding of the forces at play in our globalized world.