‘The Open Wound of the Colonial System’: A Sad History of Bolivia

Happy New Year! It’s only mid-Jan, I can still say that.

Apologies for the 3 month delay on the blog post, imaginary faithful readers who wait with baited breath for that magic ‘ping’ notifying them of another long awaited new post.

But thanks for bearing with me, welcome back to any old readers and hello to anyone new!

Excuses time.

Travels (yes, which did include a lot of downtime so not much of an excuse), moving back to Ingleterra, Christmas, a new job. Plus, a terribly dysfunctional laptop with a Chilean charger.

So, first of the updates from the last three months: Bolivia.

I am still unsure what to think of this small landlocked South American country.

In terms of its nature and landscapes it is visually stunning. Resting several thousand feet above sea level, Bolivia stretches across the Andes, the Uyuni salt flats, altiplanos, multiple volcanoes and lake Titicaka, a huge lake lying across the border of Bolivia and Peru. And if that wasn’t enough, it also contains a significant portion of the Amazon.

A couple of long bus journeys during the day allowed me to admire some of the more ‘regular’ countryside properly, besides that of the tourist attractions such as the Salt flats. Rural villages, farms, farm animals roaming through the land…all very picturesque. All very picturesque, that is, except from the hordes upon hordes of plastic littering the sides of the road and beyond. It was difficult to properly appreciate the natural beauty amongst the astonishing amount of litter. Clearly the plastic free campaigns that have been sweeping through the Western world have not yet reached Bolivia, and if I asked for a drink ‘sin plastic straw’ I would have been looked at as if I had three heads.

But then, for a country as poor as Bolivia, litter campaigns and education about the evils of plastic are probably not top of their priorities. After spending 8 months in relatively affluent Chile and a couple of trips to Westernised Argentina, Bolivia could not have been more of a contrast. Economically, linguistically (Quecha, an indigenous language is also widely spoken alongside Spanish) and politically, Bolivia is very much a product of the several centuries of economic and political exploitation it has endured, firstly from the Spanish and then repeatedly from its Latin American neighbours.

In this respect, Bolivia can be coined the Poland of South America. Brace yourself for a woeful tale filled with plunder, exploitation, occupation- I’ll try and keep it brief.

The beginnings of Bolivia’s miseries started with those devilish Spaniards. (For once it is nice to write about Western colonisation without the mention of England. Well, not nice, but different… you know what I mean.) Ever since Columbus’ landing on the continent in 1492, the Spanish had been searching high and low for their El Dorado. And they were richly rewarded for their efforts when they stumbled upon a stretch of land in Southern Bolivia, an area which became known as Potosi. Potosi, also known as the city of silver, transformed the fortunes of those Spanish colonists. The mountains of silver that were discovered in the hills there became the financial backbone of the Spanish Empire, responsible for further expansion and even the development of industrial revolutions throughout Europe, as other countries trading with Spain massively benefited from the constant flow of silver. It has even been claimed that “Potosí made the money that irrevocably changed the economic complexion of the world.”

The city itself was also transformed. In its heyday in the sixteenth century, silver temples, churches, and grand colonial buildings sprung up. Spanish colonial high society, artists, poets and many others flocked to the city all hoping to share in its riches; at its peak, Potosi had a larger population than London. Many indeed lived an extravagant and hedonistic lifestyle here; women imported the finest cloth from England and Holland, gambling houses and brothels were built, and huge festivities were thrown to commemorate holy Spanish days.

But of course, this wealth and opulence came at a price, and not everyone benefited. Indigenous Bolivians, Peruvians and slaves were forced into the mines to extract every slither of silver they could where they died in their millions. In the three centuries after the silver was discovered, 8 million people died in the mines. The cold, lack of food and general horrific working conditions has led some to describe it as the ‘mouth of hell’ and the ‘open wound of the colonial system’ for its consumption of so many.

Today, Potosi is a shell of its former self. Once the hub of Latin American colonial life, hailed by some as the first capitalist city and the precursor to globalisation, it is now merely another poor city in one of the poorest nations in South America. Churches have been closed, and old colonial buildings have fallen into ruin and disrepair. The mines still operate, but now tin is mined instead of silver. Once the last of the silver had been extracted, the Spanish had no use for the city and they left as quickly as they had come.

‘The city which had given most to the world now had the least’.

Sadly, because of time constraints I was unable to explore Potosi, save for 2 bus stops where I made a connection on my way to Sucre. But even driving briefly through the city, the poverty of the former jewel of the Spanish crown was overwhelming.

Potosi’s eerie and tragic history of plunder and exploitation is a poignant symbol of Bolivia. It’s poverty extends throughout the country; La Paz, the administrative capital is neither attractive nor affluent, and I was warned by several tourists to keep a very tight grip on my belongings if I did not want to be robbed.

Crime and corruption are big players in Bolivia, something the Bolivian President Evo Morales has capitalised on. The first indigenous President of Bolivia, Morales has won much support for his promises to lift Bolivia out of his economic plight, and he has achieved much in terms of the economy and literacy rates. But many question Bolivia’s democracy under Morales. His decision to ignore the country’s referendum vote to prevent his re-election for the fourth time has set off alarm bells in the country and beyond that he is moving in an authoritarian direction, joining the likes of Venezuela’s Maduro.

This post has so far painted a pretty negative picture of Bolivia. Political instability, crime, corruption, unsafe and unattractive cities, poverty, and seemingly non- existent environmental regulations. Repeated plunder and invasion by Spain, Chile and Brazil have exhausted the country’s natural resources and depleted its land, leaving it a shadow of what it was. Chile in the last two centuries must shoulder much of the blame for this, after their annexation of Bolivia’s coast and copper mines in the Atacama, two features that have brought Chile huge riches, securing its position as South America’s wealthiest nation.

But aside from its nature, Bolivia has another highlight; Sucre, the judicial capital. After ten months in South America, I would place Sucre in my top three favourite places that I have seen, and a reason in itself to re-visit Bolivia. Unlike Uyuni, Potosi (granted which I hardly saw save two bus stops) and La Paz, Sucre has retained its colonial beauty with narrow cobbled streets, white washed buildings and terracotta roofs. Markets, cafes and second hand shops line the streets, along with a ridiculous amounts of lawyers’ offices of all things. Hundreds of lawyers’ offices can be found at every street corner so if you run into trouble with the law you’re covered- although the offices do not yet look as if they have entered the digital era, as they are filled with towers of papers tenuously stacked up.

During my almost two week stay in Sucre (I kept finding excuses to extend my stay) I settled into a very comfortable routine, which I did not replicate in any other place during my travels.

Mornings consisted of Spanish lessons, from a psychedelic techno fanatic who enjoyed discussing conspiracy theories and the meaning of life (which vastly expanded my Spanish vocab). After that I would wonder through the narrow streets to the market, where I would buy an avocado from the same lady everyday who also invited me to try several other exotic fruits I had never seen before (loyalty is an important trait in these markets-changing fruit supplies is a felony. Not literally, but almost). I would then make my way back to the hostel for lunch where I would complete my homework, in the company of other guests learning Spanish (Sucre is a hub of Spanish schools for foreigners). After ten minutes the Ozzies would proclaim that actually they worked much better with beer, and to not have an early afternoon drink would hinder their learning, and have you seen all those studies that prove that alcohol is conducive to learning languages? After a boozy lunch/study session we would go and explore the city. Viewpoints, cafes on church rooftops with a sea of terracotta roofs below and indigenous art galleries are some of the many highlights Sucre has to offer… but equally, wondering around and getting lost in the myriad of winding and uneven streets was just as enjoyable. And then finally dinner, where two Belgium girls at the hostel would frequently cook up a feast for ten people, or the Ozzies would get overly excited at the barbeque (doing nothing to dispute their stereotype once again), all accompanied by Bolivian wine and candles stuck into empty bottles.

If you have managed to make it to the end of this marathon, convoluted post which includes everything from poor excuses, history and nostalgia, my final conclusion (I am a history student after all) is that Bolivia is a country of complete contrasts. Every country is a product of its history, but Bolivia proves this more than most I have visited. Its colonial buildings which have fallen to ruin are a physical reminder of its glory days as the centre of the Spanish Empire, and its descent into poverty after it outlived its use, which still very much exists today. But despite Bolivia’s sad history which has resulted in crime, corruption and potential dictators- it is well worth a visit for the salt flats, the mountains, rainforest and lakes.

Oh, and a wonder around the beautiful streets of Sucre.



Open Veins of Latin America- Eduardo Galeano


One Comment Add yours

  1. Nomad Dummy says:

    Potosi’s history is sad indeed. Would have loved to see more pictures of the city!


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