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.

The man came over to greet us, smiling. Fecundo offered him a pinch of his coca leaves, while I proffered one of the $3 bags of dynamite that, on Fecundo’s advice, I had purchased from one of the mining supply stores as presents for the miners. The small gray cylinders came in a clear plastic bag and felt almost weightless. It was hard to believe they had the power to bite into solid rock, but that day I watched from a safe distance as the miners used carefully placed charges to turn a rock wall into rubble.

Farther down the shaft, we saw two men with a massive power drill. They were wearing goggles but no face masks, and were covered from helmet to boot in a thick layer of rock dust. They were drilling into the end of the shaft to test for mineral quality and extend the tunnel farther into the heart of Cerro Rico. Did they want a bag of explosives? Did I want to see them work?

They fired up the motor, and the driller lifted the machine into place while his assistant took charge of water and power lines feeding the drill. As soon as the drill made contact with the rock, the noise was deafening and the dust began to fly. I tried to tough it out, but my senses were overwhelmed: I couldn’t breathe or see anything. Reaching blindly for the wall, I felt my way backward, stumbling and bumping my helmet but moving toward clearer air. I stopped, ripped off my bandanna, now caked with rock dust, and crumpled to the muddy floor, coughing. Fecundo was there in no time patting me on the back and chuckling. “Vamos,” he said. “Up a couple levels the breathing is better.”

In a few minutes we found ourselves in a spacious chamber where the air seemed deliciously clean. There was a big winch with a cable going through a hole in the floor, and a few wheelbarrows lying around nearby. I was still trying to recover from the trauma of the power drill. I hadn’t been able to tolerate the dust for even a few minutes, and I had my bandanna to filter the air. The drillers, much closer to the source of the rock powder, had no masks at all and, incredibly, appeared to be able to tolerate it all day, every day.

These miners, who numbered around 10,000 when I was there, work under conditions that can’t have improved much since the Spanish colonial era. There were no bathrooms, no drinking water, no food. And at the shaft opening, where they dumped tons of mineral slag every day for sorting, I had seen numerous young boys hard at work–age is sometimes difficult to estimate in a different country, but they were prepubescent, of that I was sure.

I asked Fecundo how long men could survive in such dreadful conditions. “Silicosis. We all get silicosis,” he answered. “The dust starts to destroy our lungs, and when enough is gone, we die. Miners who are lucky enough to avoid dying on the job in a tunnel collapse or from the gas in the shafts generally end up suffocating and coughing up their lungs once the silicosis nears 100 percent. Drillers like those guys you saw are young and tough; maybe they will keep that job for three years, four max. The drillers get paid the most, but they also get silicosis the fastest. If they’re lucky, they’ll live to 40.”

On my return trip to Bolivia four years later, I met a miner, an old-timer who, in light of this average life expectancy, had obviously been very fortunate. José Montesinos had retired to El Alto, the gritty working-class city up the mountain from La Paz, having survived more than thirty years working near Potosí. Tall by Bolivian standards despite a slouch, likely a result of years of stooping in the low tunnels, he was sprightly for his age.

José invited me to his house, a few blocks away, so that we could talk inside, protected from the chill of the Andean wind. It was a comfortable place but simple: made from concrete blocks and protected by an outer wall with broken glass bottles wedged into the top–a security arrangement common throughout Latin America.

I took a seat while José’s wife went to get us each a glass of soda. A clock on the wall featured a painting of Jesus’ face, and a small television in the corner was playing music videos, including Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise.” It was the last place I expected to see a 1990s rap video.

José told me he had been born in 1936 in Tupiza, near Potosí, and began mining late, when he was 19. He spent most of his career working in the mines and helping to organize the miners’ union. Then, in the mid-’80s, with mineral prices collapsing worldwide, Bolivia and its crucial mining sector fell into crisis. Bolivia became a classic example of the way neoliberalism was shoved down Latin Americans’ throats.

Jeffrey Sachs, now a famed economist and onetime adviser to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, drew up a plan that epitomized the term “shock therapy.” The plan became law, thanks largely to the efforts of then-Planning Minister Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, later elected twice to Bolivia’s presidency before being driven out of the country by popular protests in the middle of his second term in 2003. The plan prioritized Bolivia’s debt payments to foreign creditors like the IMF, slashed trade tariffs, froze public sector salaries and cleared the way for privatization of key industries, including mining.

“They wanted to break our unions, and firing tens of thousands of miners was a good way to do it,” José lamented. “Miners were organized, our union members were mostly from radical left political parties and we had a sense of solidarity with one another and with the country as a whole.” After Sachs’s plan went into effect, the state-owned mining corporation, Comibol, shut down hundreds of mines, and for an opening salvo fired some 25,000 workers. According to José, more than 40,000 additional mineros lost their jobs in the next few years. “As a union organizer,” José explained, “I was one of the first to go.”

“We have a saying,” José continued: “Sangre de minero, semilla de guerrillero.” The rhyme is lost in translation: “The miner’s blood is the seed of the guerrilla.” I thought for a bit about Bolivian history but couldn’t grasp what he was getting at. The country has never seen extensive guerrilla warfare, despite widespread and perpetual political instability. “I don’t understand,” I said eventually, uncomfortable that perhaps I was taking his words too literally. “Did some of you go on to form guerrilla organizations?”

The old man chuckled and told me gently that I was missing the point. He explained that after 1985 tens of thousands of Bolivian miners, including him, had no choice but to migrate from the mines in search of a new life for themselves and their families. A few went to other countries in search of work, but most went to the campo and became farmers, especially of coca in the Chapare region, or moved into cities, mostly to the rapidly growing El Alto. What was crucial, José told me, was that even as “the new economic plan succeeded in destroying organized labor in the mining industry, it also spread the seeds of future political movements, including those that would carry Evo to the presidency.”

When Evo Morales was elected in 2005, it wasn’t just the active miners like my friend Fecundo in Potosí who supported him but also most of the 700,000 people in the neighborhood associations of El Alto, the estimated 40,000 cocaleros in the Chapare region, and other groups across the country. Ex-miners, José explained, were a critical part of the leadership of these organizations, and the solidarity and discipline that had been forged when they were in the mines was critical to Morales’s electoral success.

At the time of my conversation with José, the Bolivian people and their government were immersed in heated debates over issues such as the control of the nation’s gas reserves, the imposition of coca production limits and tax hikes on the mining sector, as the government expanded its own mining operations in a renationalization of sorts. In these discussions, the left was confronting challenges similar to those faced by progressive movements across the region: namely, how to win legitimate authority and how, having succeeded, to confront the legacy of neoliberalism without stifling economic growth or civil liberties.

In Bolivia, I realized I was witnessing a country undergoing a revolution, and one that was largely peaceful. But it was equally evident that great strains attached to this. Morales owed his election victory to a range of social movements throughout the country. He had found that repaying their support and being loyal to his roots were not easy. Today, while he remains a popular president, some among his base are dissatisfied because the neoliberal structure of the state remains largely intact. I have heard Bolivians say, “We elected Evo to do away with it, and now he’s governing it.”

When grassroots leaders enter government, their organizations are deprived of leadership, and activists who have dedicated their lives to fighting power often find themselves co-opted by it. The problem is not unique to Bolivia: all over Latin America, when social movements focus their energy on electoral outcomes, they often lose even when they win. But if they ignore the electoral arena, they severely limit their ability to influence state policy and thus lose control over vital areas of their daily lives. This is a dilemma at the heart of radical organizing throughout Latin America, where left electoral strategies have enjoyed extensive success over the past decade. It has not yet been resolved, but the debates around it are relevant for progressives everywhere, including in the United States.

As José put it to me that afternoon in his living room in El Alto, “For as long as I can remember, the United States has sent expert advisers to guide our presidents and our national policy. Now, perhaps, it is time for your country to learn from us.”