Potosi & Sucre

Potosi, Eduardo Galeano and “Open Veins of Latin America”

“The city that has given the most to the world and the one that has the least.” 

In his book “Open Veins of Latin America,” Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano details “five centuries of the pillage of a continent.” It’s an economic, historical account of post-Columbus Latin America that describes decades of looting, first by the colonial powers and later by multi-national conglomerates. The image of veins spreading deep down into the earth is an analogy to mining tunnels and is best seen in Potosi’s Cerro Rico (Spanish for “Rich Mountain”). The silver that was dug out and processed into the lucrative metal made Spain the wealthiest country in the world and, at the same time, inflicted one of the greatest atrocities in human history. It is estimated that over eight million mostly Indian inhabitants died during the 200 years that the Silver Mountain’s mines were at peak production from the mid-16th century to the mid-18th century.

We toured the Silver Mountain’s mines; it was a 2-3 hours slow walk, sometimes bending, sometimes crawling, in mostly dark, chilly, and wet conditions. It is a fascinating and depressing experience to see miners at work today and imagine the past’s inhumane work conditions.   

Later, when we visited the National Mint Museum, we learned that the high death toll was due to the toxic dust and fumes inhaled while processing the raw material into pure silver in addition to the dangerous mining itself. Further reading: How silver turned Potosí into“The mountain that eats men alive.”

Potosi is the highest city in the world, 13,419f (4,090m) above sea level. The city streets are narrow and gloomy, but the colonial-era buildings and richly decorative churches carry glimpses into its past glory days. Eduardo Galeano wrote: “Today, Potosí is a poor city in poor Bolivia…  This city condemned to nostalgia, tormented by misery and cold, is still an open wound of the colonial system in America: an accusation. The world would have to start by apologizing.”  For a few weeks before our trip, I immersed myself in his poetic writings, some of which are well-known and poignant: 

“The Church says: the body is a sin. Science says: the body is a machine. Advertising says: The body is a business. The Body says: I am a fiesta.” From Walking Words

“In 1492, the natives discovered they were Indians, discovered they lived in America, discovered they were naked, discovered that the Sin existed, discovered they owed allegiance to a King and Kingdom from another world and a God from another sky, and that this God had invented the guilty and the dress, and had sent to be burnt alive who worships the Sun the Moon the Earth and the Rain that wets it.” From Children of the Days

The historical facts cannot be disputed; wrong was done. Still, the repeated sentiment of being victimized without introspection stirred my criticism towards Galeano’s choice to describe 500 years of history from one perspective. I believe that blaming others for Latin America’s economic failures (poverty, homelessness, persistent unemployment) is dangerous. It makes it sound like it’s all beyond reach, where the answer is probably somewhere in the middle. Yes, the Colonial powers exploited and looted the natural resources of Latin America. Still, even after they were kicked out, Latin America could not bring itself to become a confederate of states like its Northern neighbor, which was the grand vision of Simon Bolivar, the liberator. Furthermore, I suspect that something in Latin America’s culture and values failed to develop the acceptance and dignity awarded to entrepreneurial spirit and private property and failed to diminish centralized state control and church influence.

Holy Week

We happened to visit Potosi on Holy Week celebration, a week-long celebration of the Easter holiday. Thus, we had the chance to observe a couple of evening concerts held at the central Plaza and a unique street parade that ended with a mass at the main cathedral. It felt like a blessing, being in the midst of a spiritual celebration because, in my mind, God is one regardless of religion.

Fruit Juice in Sucre’s Market

The Bolivian cuisine is not my kind, but one section of Sucre’s central market felt like a little heaven. A row of ladies makes the most amazing freshly pressed juices and fruit salads for just 6 bolivianos ($1).