This article was adapted from Chesa Boudin’s Gringo: A Coming-of-Age in Latin America (Scribner).
With just under 10 million people, Bolivia has slightly less than three times the population of Montana, but its internal politics have drawn worldwide attention recently. Since its election in 2005, the government of Evo Morales has been roiled by secessionist revolt from the right, disaffection among its erstwhile supporters on the left and hostile broadsides from a US government that has regarded its close relationship with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s self-proclaimed socialist revolution with discomfort.
Morales, a charismatic nationalist and Bolivia’s first indigenous president, was elected largely as a result of his deep connection with the country’s rural poor. He was a coca farmer, the president of the farmers’ union and has been vocal in his criticism of the US government’s efforts to eradicate Bolivia’s coca crops. The key role of the farmers’ movement in the country’s dramatic political transformation is well known, but that movement’s revolutionary program and organization had its origins outside the rural sector, as I discovered when visiting the country in 2002 and again in 2006.
My first trip through Bolivia was made on a bus, which wound its way through a high-altitude desert to the beautiful colonial city of Potosí, in the middle of the country. While eating breakfast in a cafe in town, I met a miner named Fecundo. He invited me to come and see the nearby silver mine where he and his team worked.
And so the next day, shortly after sunrise, I traveled to Cerro Rico, the 16,000-foot mountain that looms above the city. The mountain has actually shrunk since the Spanish began mining its rich veins in the mid-1500s. The windswept entrance to the mine where Fecundo and his fellow workers scratched a living was a crude tunnel that looked out over a vista of warehouses, mineral processing sheds and barracks-like dorms. Barrel-chested, his left cheek bulging with coca leaves, Fecundo led me inside. I tied a bandanna over my face, flipped on the headlamp strapped to my yellow helmet and followed him into the bowels of the earth.
As we descended deep into the dank tunnel, all natural light disappeared. I had to crouch to avoid banging my head on the ceiling. Fecundo steered me through a mazelike system of narrow tunnels, some of them dropping steeply and others heading off into the dark nothingness beyond the reach of my headlamp. In some places the ceiling seemed to be sweating beads of water; in others tiny stalactites hung from the roof. After a few minutes, I was panting for breath from the altitude and the dust-laden air, and fighting acute claustrophobia.
Several hundred feet down the tunnel we came across a lone miner. His red-brown skin, typical of Bolivia’s indigenous people, was coated with a layer of fine gray powder. Gloveless, he was hammering a face of stone with a pick in one hand and a mallet in the other. Fecundo yelled to him in Quechua, one of the two primary Indian languages spoken throughout Bolivia’s highlands. Like most of Bolivia’s miners and more than half of the country’s inhabitants, Fecundo and his team spoke Spanish only as a second language.