The gas was to have been shipped to California—for a minuscule price in exchange for a few miserable gifts—across Chilean land that used to be part of Bolivia. This last detail was just salt in the wound for a country that for more than a century has been demanding, in vain, restoration of the sea access it lost in 1883 in the war that Chile won.
But the route of the gas was not the primary cause of the fury that erupted throughout the country. There was another, which the government responded to with bullets, as is its custom, leaving the streets strewn with dead. The people rose up because they refused to allow to happen with gas what had previously happened with silver, saltpeter, tin, and everything else.
In 1870, an English diplomat in Bolivia was the victim of a disagreeable incident. Dictator Mariano Melgarejo offered him a glass of chicha, the national drink made from fermented corn. The Englishman thanked him but said he preferred chocolate. So Melgarejo, with his customary delicacy, made him drink an enormous vat of chocolate and then paraded him on a mule, seated backwards, through the streets of La Paz. When Queen Victoria, in London, heard of the incident, she had a map brought to her and pronounced ’’Bolivia doesn’t exist,’’ crossing out the country with a chalk "X."
I’d heard this tale many times. It may or may not have happened exactly this way. But this phrase, attributed to British imperial arrogance, could also be read as an involuntary synthesis of the tormented history of the Bolivian people. The tragedy repeats itself like a revolving wheel: For five centuries, the fabulous riches of Bolivia have been a curse to the people, who are the poorest of South America’s poor. Indeed, for its own people, ’’Bolivia doesn’t exist."
For over two centuries, back in colonial times, the silver of Potosí was the primary nourishment of the capitalist development of Europe. ’’It’s worth a Potosí’’ meant something was priceless.
Midway through the sixteenth century, the most populous, most expensive, and most spendthrift city in the world sprouted and grew on the foot of the mountain that oozed silver. This mountain, called Cerro Rico, swallowed Indians. ’’The streets are thronged with people,’’ wrote a rich miner from Potosí: Entire communities were emptied of men, marched as prisoners from every direction to the opening into the mines. Outside, it was freezing. Inside, it was hell. Only three of every ten men led in left alive. But these short-lived inhabitants of the mines generated the fortunes of Flemish, German, and Genovese bankers, creditors of the Spanish crown. It was these Indians who made possible the accumulation of capital that transformed Europe into what it is today.
What remained in Bolivia of all this? A hollow mountain, an incalculable number of Indians worked to death, and a few palaces inhabited by phantoms.
In the nineteenth century, when Bolivia was defeated in the so-called War of the Pacific, it not only lost its access to the ocean and found itself locked into the heart of South America. It also lost its saltpeter.
Official history, which is military history, has it that Chile won the war. But real history confirms that the winner was British businessman John Thomas North. Without firing a shot or wasting a penny, North won the lands that had belonged to Bolivia and Peru and made himself the king of saltpeter, which at the time was the fertilizer necessary for the tired fields of Europe.
In the twentieth century, Bolivia was the primary supplier of tin to the international market. The tin cans that made Andy Warhol famous came from the mines, which produced both metal and widows. In the depths of the mineshafts, silica dust gradually asphyxiated the workers, who ruined their lungs so the world could have cheap tin.
During the Second World War, Bolivia contributed to the Allied cause by selling its precious mineral at a tenth of its usual price. Workers’ pay was slashed to almost nothing, a strike ensued, and the machine guns opened fire. Simon Patiño, owner of the business and master of the country, didn’t have to pay compensation because killing by machine gun is not a workplace accident.
At the time, Don Simon paid $50 a year in taxes on his profits, but he paid much more to the president of the nation and his cabinet. He had been a dirt poor man touched by the magic wand of Fortune. His grandchildren entered the European nobility and married counts, marquis, and the relatives of kings.
When the revolution of 1952 dethroned Patiño and nationalized tin, little was left of the mineral—the meager leftovers from half a century of boundless exploitation in the service of the world market.
More than 100 years ago, historian Gabriel Rene Moreno discovered that the Bolivian people were ’’cellularly incompetent." He had compared the weight of an indigenous brain and that of a mestizo and found that they weighed between five, six, and ten ounces less than the brains of members of the white race.
Time passed, and the country that doesn’t exist remains ill with racism. But the country that wants to exist, where the indigenous majority is not ashamed of what it is, doesn’t spit at the mirror.
This Bolivia, tired of living to fuel foreign progress, is the true country. Its history, ignored, abounds in defeat and betrayal but also in those miracles that scorned people are capable of when they stop scorning themselves and fighting each other.
These fast-moving times are marked by astounding, impressive achievements.
The year 2000 featured the so-called ’’water war’’ in Cochabamba. The peasants marched from the valleys and blockaded the city, which also rose up. They were met with bullets and tear gas as the government declared martial law. But the collective rebellion continued, unstoppable, until in the final clash the water was wrested from the grip of the Bechtel Corporation and restored to the people and their fields. (Bechtel, based in California, is now receiving relief from President Bush, who has awarded it multi-million-dollar contracts in Iraq.)
A few months ago, another popular explosion throughout Bolivia vanquished nothing less than the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The IMF made them pay dearly for the defeat—more than thirty assassinations by the so-called forces of order—but the people succeeded in their task. The government had no option but to annul the payroll tax that the IMF had demanded.
Today, there’s the gas war. Bolivia contains enormous reserves of natural gas. Sanchez de Lozada called this false privatization ’’capitalization,’, but the country that wants to exist showed it has a good memory. Would it allow a rerun of the old story of the country’s riches evaporating in foreign hands? ’’Gas is our right,’’ proclaimed posters at the demonstration. The people demanded and continue to demand that the gas be used for Bolivia and that the country not submit again to the dictatorship of its underground resources. The right to self-determination, so often invoked, so rarely respected, begins with this.
Popular disobedience derailed a juicy deal for Pacific LNG, comprised of Repsol, British Gas, and Panamerican Gas, known to be a partner of Enron, renowned for its virtuous ways. Everything indicated that the corporation stood to make ten dollars for every one invested.
As for the fugitive Sanchez de Lozada, he lost the presidency but he won’t be losing much sleep. Though he has the crime of killing more than eighty demonstrators on his conscience, it wasn’t his first bloodbath. This champion of modernization is not bothered by anything that can’t turn a profit. In the end, he speaks and thinks in English—not the English of Shakespeare but that of Bush.