Part II: The Crisis of Nationalization

By Norman Gall

January 1974


At the time the major Bolivian fin mines were nationalized in 1952, the industry had been sustained for more than 20 years by the efforts and investments made in the first three decades of the century. No important mine had been brought into production since the Depression; little geological exploration had taken place and there were few additional investments. Many mines were becoming exhausted and their equipment was becoming obsolete. After World War II the tense political situation and the high price of tin led the major companies to gut their mines so as to maximize their profits before nationalization, which was widely feared by the industry. In 1938 the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America reported:

Some of the older and more important mines face adverse conditions of natural origin: the declining grade and increasing complexity of the ore, the narrowing of the veins, the increasing pressure of the rocks as the mines go deeper, and the excessive extension of the underground workings…. Most of these factors cannot be counteracted by new investments in existing mines, and will gradually increase further the costs of ventilation, transport inside the mine, pumping of water from the deepest tunnels, increased maintenance to avoid cave-ins caused by the great pressure of the rocks, etc. In other words, more ore will have to be extracted under worse conditions and transported greater distances to produce the same amount of metal.

These adverse conditions in Bolivia were aggravated by the stagnation in the world demand for tin since the Depression. Between 1930 and 1963 world lead consumption doubled, copper tripled, nickel quadrupled, and aluminum consumption rose 20-fold, while the use of tin increased by only 3 per cent. Except for one year during World War II (1941), the United States was never again to reach its 1929 level of tin consumption (85,000 tons), and world demand was not to recover its 1929 level (171,000 tons) for another 35 years. Because of high production costs and international production controls, the price of tin in recent decades has resembled that of a semiprecious metal, partially because political upheavals in Bolivia, Indonesia, the Congo, Malaya, and Nigeria tended to limit the supply of tin entering the world market. According to one observer, “the shift in supply patterns partly reflects differences in the amounts of reserves and costs of production, but the reduction in total supplies is primarily due to political disturbance in the countries affected or to the policies adopted by their governments as a result of political changes.” Uncertainties both of the price and supply of tin thus have prompted major economizing innovations in its use. In the words of a British geographer:

Tinplate provides an excellent example of the power of modern technology to reduce dependence on the products of the underdeveloped world and their price uncertainties. A rise of £l00 a ton in the price of tin is said to increase the cost of producing an average “tin can” by less than one-fiftieth of a new penny. Even so tinplate producers have acted both to economize in tin use and to find alternative materials. Substitutes such as plastic, aluminum or “tinless” tin cans made of steel have made headway, and improved coating techniques have cut down the use of fin even in tinplate, with the replacement of the old “hot dip” tinning by the electrolytic process and with the production of “thin tinplate” in which the coating is thicker on one side than the other. As a result of these developments, demand for tin from the British tinplate industry fell from 1947 to 1961 even though consumption of preserved foods doubled. In the USA tinplate production went up between 1960 and 1967 from 5.7 to 6.3 million tons, but tin consumption by the tinplate industry fell by 11 per cent.

All these factors must be taken into account when considering what has been widely described as the economic disaster of nationalization of Bolivia’s major mines. The sharp declines in production since 1952, commonly ascribed mainly to politicization and disorganization of current operations, can also be viewed primarily in terms of the precipitous drop in the ore grade. While there were many stories of labor anarchy in the mines after nationalization, a United Nations technical assistance mission reported in 1950 that mine labor already was rebellious and worked effectively for only 40-50 %of its shifts. The failure of the three major mining groups to explore and invest in Bolivia, thus allowing their properties to deteriorate, can be understood in view of the uncertain world demand for tin; the Bolivian government’s retention of the companies’ foreign exchange earnings in the 1930s and 1940s, and the revolutionary effervescence since the Chaco War. All these factors combined to shape the raw and mounting tragedy of the mines and their people.

While the mining industry—including the small-and medium-sized private mines that were not nationalized—employed less than 10 %of the nonagricultural labor force in 1950 of what was still a heavily peasant society, it was—and remains— the linchpin to the monetary economy in Bolivia. The industry generated 95 %of Bolivia’s foreign exchange earnings in 1950, with 70 %of this coming from tin, and export taxes on minerals provided No-fifths of government revenues. Like oil in Venezuela and copper in Chile, tin in Bolivia was largely an enclave industry where fluctuations in price and production would spell the difference between prosperity and ruin throughout the economy. Unlike sugar in Cuba and beef and wheat in Argentina, Bolivia’s mono-product was extracted by a tiny but volatile minority of the labor force that could create havoc in the economy at any moment.

In his report on the first two years of nationalization to a miners’ congress in Siglo XX-Catavi in late 1954, the Secretary-General of the Federación Sindical de Trabajadores Mineros de Bolivia (ESTMB), Mario Torres, attributed the decline in production since 1952 to “depletion of the ore deposits, a lack of trained technicians, lack of spare parts and pulperia [company store] supplies... and, finally, the euphoria in the mining camps that comes from feeling free of oligarchic oppression)’ When the mines were nationalized, the price of tin was already dropping from the 1951 Korean War high of $1.28 per pound—an all-time record—to reach a trough of 92 cents in 1954 that lasted through most of the 1950s. In the nationalized mines of COMIBOL (Corporación Minera de Bolivia), the state mining corporation formed in 1952, the work force increased by nearly half between 1951 and 1956, while tin production dropped to half the 1951 level (14,800 tons in 1961).

Because of the inflation that racked Bolivia in the 1952-1956 period and the chaos in COMIBOL’s accounting caused by sloppy bookkeeping and artificially low exchange rates (14,000 bolivianos to the black market dollar in 1956, against the official rate of 190), it has taken time for economists to determine that COMIBOL actually was making a profit in those years. According to the conservative George Jackson Eder, the American advisor in La Paz in 1956-57 who organized the United States-financed economic stabilization program:

COMIBOL deficits were not the cause of the precipitate depreciation of the currency, as most people in government and in the Central Bank believed. Quite the contrary; if the nation’s accounts had been properly kept, without the confusion produced by multiple rates of exchange, and particularly the absurd official exchange rates, it would have been clear that COMIBOL’s excess of cash receipts over cash expenditures was the only thing that enabled Bolivia to survive the cash deficits of the petroleum corporation, the Development Corporation and the railways.

A Price Waterhouse accounting of the first 11 years of COMIBOL’s operations showed that in 1953-1956 the Central Bank had received from COMIBOL $138 million more in foreign exchange than it had dispensed to COMIBOL, with much of this surplus being diverted into agricultural and petroleum developments in the lowlands east of the Andes. These schemes reflected a view attributed to President Paz Estenssoro that the mines were dying anyway, and that Bolivia’s economic future lay in the Oriente. While these policies lay the groundwork for the extraordinary economic development in recent years of the Santa Cruz region, it also hastened the decline and decapitalization of the tin industry on which Bolivia still depends.

In his book on the stabilization program, Eder assigns prime importance to miners’ wages in fixing the new exchange rate in 1956:

If COMIBOL employed too many miners, and if the miners produced less than they should, which was the case, there would be less for each miner. If the amount available for wages worked out at say $1 a day per miner, and if the miners demanded a wage of Bs. 6,000 a day, the exchange rate would have to be Bs. 6,000 to the dollar; if they demanded Bs. 10,000 a day, the rate would have to Bs. 10.000...... On the other hand, the higher the miners’ wages and the higher the rate of exchange, the worse off the rest of the population would be, because of higher domestic prices and because of Bolivia’s dependence on imports for many articles of prime necessity.

The stabilization program succeeded not only because of the $25 million initial Stabilization Fund, but it also received $360 in United States’ aid in the 1955-1964 period, nearly half of this in USAID grants directly subsidizing one-third of the Bolivian budget. The State Department initially asked that even President Paz’s Stabilization Decree have Washington’s prior approval.

Despite its strong bias against state ownership of the mines, one of the most important historic documents of the revolutionary period is the nine-volume study of the mining industry produced in 1956 by the American engineering firm, Ford, Bacon & Davis (FBD). According to FBD, some 65 %of the technical staff at the mines left their jobs between 1952 and 1956. Nevertheless, some of the most important technical jobs were filled by foreigners who had worked for the Patiño, Aramayo, and Hochschild organizations and had decided to remain in Bolivia. The report described some of the nightmarish management problems they faced:

The frequent lack of materials and supplies, especially the critical ones, at most of the mine operations has been very costly in terms of lost man-hours, strikes, labor disturbances and general decrease in morale. In addition, the general inefficiency of the overall purchasing, handling and distribution of supplies has resulted…. in higher costs for such materials.

… in nearly all the Corporation mines one to three or more important staff positions are not even filled, and this does not give a correct measure of the staff and supervisory force deficiency for the reason that many personnel are filling positions above their real capacity.

 Labor is frustrated by its inability to cope with inflation, inability to obtain proper working tools, and in some cases lack of adequate supervision, lack of housing, lack of proper medical and camp facilities and most of all lack of essential food, fuel and clothing.... Mine doctors have quoted that at some mines as much as 50 %of the mine force have some sort of respiratory ailment such as tuberculosis and silicosis.

The pulpería [company store] problem has been one of the major sources of trouble and frustration….. The pulpería grew out of the need of the mining companies to furnish the necessities [food, clothing and fuel] to the miners.., at cost, so... the miners and their families had available to them a good diet. [Because of] the increasingly absurd low prices at the pulpería in face of the soaring inflation… the mine workers that have the pulpería privilege found it lucrative to re-sell items on the black market…. It is startling to find that this pulpería subsidy in some of the…mines amounts to more than the total direct mining and milling costs at these operations.

While there had been serious labor trouble in the mines in the decade preceding nationalization, the most important structural change after 1952 was the control of the industry assumed by the national miners’ union. The mine workers’ leader, Juan Lechin, who had played a key role in the revolt that brought the MNR to power, became the MNR’s first Minister of Mines (1952-1954), and he was succeeded in this post by the Secretary-General of the FSTMB. The chief instrument of the FSTMB’s influence over mine operations was the Control Obrero, which also was the most innovative of the institutions spawned by the Bolivian Revolution.

During some recent taped interviews in Caracas, I asked Lechín, now in exile, just how the idea of a Control Obrero in the mines originated. “The idea was resisted by Paz and the rest of the MNR leadership, but they gave in because they were afraid of the armed miners’ militias that had just defeated the Bolivian army in the streets of Oruro and La Paz,” said the tall, white-haired former, soccer star whom the miners have adored since he was briefly subprefect in Uncía-Llallagua in 1944. “You know, in those days after the Revolution, people were calling La Paz ‘Lechíngrad.’ The MNR was really a middle-class party, and Paz had voiced opposition to the nationalization of the mines in Buenos Aires on the eve of his return from exile to head the triumphant Revolution. We at the Ministry of Mines were devising a formula for worker participation in the management of the nationalized mines, but we were dissatisfied with merely having minority representation on the board of directors of COMIBOL. Then we heard over the radio that the Russians had just exercised one of their first vetoes in the United Nations Security Council. We thought what a good idea it would be for the workers to have a veto over COMIBOL management decisions to avoid administrative abuses and dirty business deals, especially in the purchasing department. We never intended the Control 0breros at each mine to interfere with daily operations, but they did this on their own because they were elected annually by the workers and thus had to respond aggressively to workers’ complaints or lose their jobs. Mario Torres, the FSTMB Secretary-General, was Control Obrero at the COMIBOL headquarters in La Paz before he was appointed Minister of Mines. When he became Control Obrero, Mario asked me what he should do. ‘Veto everything,’ I told him, ‘especially purchases. Then the losing bidders for each contract will come to you with complaints of how they were cheated, and you will learn a great deal.’ ”

One of the most coherent accounts I have heard of the years following nationalization came from Emigdio Peñaranda, a softspoken, middle-aged Bolivian engineer with a strong rapport with the workers. Peñaranda came to Siglo XX as a young man, around the time of nationalization, and worked in the interior mine for 14 years. We talked at length during my first visit to Siglo XX in 1965-66, and again in 1973. He told me:

Before the Revolution, about four-fifths of the mine engineers were highly paid foreigners brought in by Patiño, while Bolivian engineers had very little future. There was a caste system with the gringos on top, the miners at the bottom and we Bolivian engineers and office workers somewhere in between. Most of the miners were Indians from distant valleys, and many of them couldn’t speak Spanish. When the Revolution came, we all tried very hard. Nationalization made the Bolivian miners and engineers feel they were the owners of the mines. Everyone worked long hours, often seven days a week, and there was great discipline because we wanted to show the world we could do more than Patiño. Production rose at first, even though we lacked rails, timber, and water pipe—the acidity of water inside the mine corroded the pipes very fast. We had to strip some sections of equipment just to keep other sections running. Then the price of tin collapsed after the Korean War. The inflation in Bolivia was aggravated because food production fell after the agrarian reform. People in the cities, who had to form lines at night to get bread and milk in the morning, cursed the miners because the MNR shipped the best food to the pulperías at frozen prices because the government was afraid of the miners’ militias.

The problems with the mine workers began around 1954-55,” Peñaranda continued. “The worst period of union dictatorship was in 1956-1958, when my family and I had to leave the mine under COMIBOL’s orders for our own safety. The Control Obrero was an invention of the Devil. There was no discipline, no responsibility. After nationalization many people wanted to come to work in Siglo XX, which was then the center of political and economic power in Bolivia. The government pressured management to hire more people, but very few of them wanted to work inside the mine. At the same time there were many more fringe benefits, as well as all kinds of special bonuses. Union leaders rode around in company cars with chauffeurs while the nationalized mines were losing $1 million a month. The COMIBOL management gave up and tried to get a foreign company to run the mines, but nobody wanted to do it. So we were left to fight among ourselves.

Surprisingly, nationalization at Siglo XX-Catavi, the largest and most politicized of the COMIBOL operations, caused less economic upheaval in the early years than at the other nationalized mines. Not only did the payroll increase at Siglo XX much more slowly than at the COMIBOL mines as a whole between 1952 and 1956, but a higher ratio of underground mine workers to the total labor force (40 per cent) prevailed at Siglo XX than at all nationalized mines (32 %in 1956). While the rate of industrial accidents at the nationalized mines rose sharply between 1953 and 1955, at Siglo XX they declined to about 40 %of their 1950 level.

In 1955 Siglo XX produced one-third of COMIBOL’s tin output, and in 1956 its milling capacity was raised from 5,000 to 6,500 tons of ore per day to help offset a one-third decline in the ore grade between 1950 and 1955. Nevertheless, according to FBD, “the Catavi mine has reached a late stage as regards ore reserves, as the mine is now largely dependent upon ‘reworking’ the previously mined areas to recover some gash veins in the walls, old filling material of economic grade, and sand tailings from the dump....At present the mine is not quite capable of supplying the full mill load, and it is necessary to supplement the mine output by trucking old sand tailings to the mill…. It is now estimated that the Catavi operation made a profit of $2.26 per ton milled in 1955.... However, the known wage increases subsequent to the above date would make this operation marginal.” At this point the Catavi management embarked on a dramatic expansion of its block- caving program of gutting the interior mine. In a 1959 article in the Engineering and Mining Journal, Catavi Manager Herbert M. Weisz wrote:

Without the application of block-caving methods it would not have been possible to mine 13 million tons of pillars [“solid waste”] which contain more than 91,500 tons of fine tin. Block-caving must also be credited with keeping up production which otherwise would have decreased to a point of preventing continuous operations. It now accounts for about 50 %of the ore and 40 %of the tin produced and the production program for the Llallagua mine foresees it contributing 80 %of the total mine extraction. In addition, by keeping up production while sparing reserves of vein material and by adding new reserves of former sub-grade material, block-caving has permitted raising reserves of mineable ore and prolonging the life of the mine for 10 or 12 years.

While mining operations held together reasonably well at Siglo XX until 1956 under extremely adverse conditions, they began to fall apart under the political stresses of the Stabilization Program that cut deeply into the purchasing power of the miners and led to splintering of the coalition of forces that formed the MNR. The number of strikes recorded by the Labor Ministry jumped from 310 in 1957 to 1,570 in 1958. President Hernán Siles (1956-1960) visited Siglo XX in June 1957 as part of a dramatic tour of the mines to prevent a national strike by the miners called to recover the pulpería privileges taken away under the Stabilization Program. Around the same time, as a counterpoise to the feared miners’ militias, Siles began with United States aid to rebuild the Bolivian army which had been badly crippled in the 1952 Revolution. This strategy reached its logical conclusion with the November 1964 overthrow of the MNR in a military coup, after President Paz Estenssoro peeled away most of his support in the course of his maneuvers for reelection in 1960 and again in 1964. After seizing power, the rebuilt army proceeded to crush the armed miners’ militias with new weapons supplied in the United States military assistance program.

The political disintegration of the MNR, beginning with the 1957 Stabilization Program, precipitated a rapid deterioration of Siglo XX’s capacity to survive as an industrial enterprise. After 1956 the Catavi mill’s production of tin-in-concentrates declined at an annual average rate of 9 %to 2,810 tons in 1963, or one-third of the 1956 output. The proportion of underground mine workers to the total payroll dropped from 40 to 25 %between 1956 and 1964, while worker productivity inside the mine—which in terms of ore extracted rose slightly between 1950 and 1955—declined sharply by 1959. Recording a $3 million loss in his 1959 annual report, the mine manager wrote that “we see that we are very near to collapse.”

In August 1961 the young president of COMIBOL, Guillermo Bedgregal, told the Bolivian Congress that, “at this moment COMIBOL’s debts add up to $20 million. The major creditors are private manufacturers and state enterprises such as the railroads and the national oil company. The prostration of COMIBOL is one of the causes of the country’s economic stagnation; the mines generate between 75 and 80% of Bolivia’s foreign exchange earnings, and the failure to mobilize this wealth is causing the bankruptcy of small industries. For example, the Ferrary & Gezzi factory, one of the largest in Oruro, is about to close its doors because COMIBOL owes it $150,000 and cannot pay. All kinds of industries, from sawmills to shoe factories, depend on COMIBOL for survival. This is not an exaggeration; the statistics are eloquent, and for this reason the mining industry has maximum priority in the government’s economic program.”

Bolivia’s tin exports declined from $85 million in 1952 to $36 million in 1958. Between 1959 and 1963 Siglo XX lost an average of $365,000 per month, while COMIBOL as a whole was losing $1 million monthly. The Dutch general manager of COMIBOL, Goosen Broesma, traveled to Europe and the United States to look, unsuccessfully, for a private company to take over management of the nationalized mines. Then the Soviet Union made a dramatic offer to COMIBOL of $150 million in credits for Soviet mine machinery at the time of Nikita Khrushchev’s 1960 visit to the United Nations. Paz Estenssoro told me later that “we used the Russians as leverage against the Americans to overcome their taboo against aiding nationalized industries.” This pressure led to the formulation of the so-called Plan Triangular to rehabilitate the investment-starved COMIBOL mines, a three-year, $38 million package jointly sponsored by USAID, the Inter-American Development Bank (BID) and the West German government. The major elements of the plan were $4 million for new geological exploration, $18 million for spare parts and new mining equipment, $4 million for laying off 4,800 surplus mine workers and $2 million for metallurgical research and development.

While the Plan Triangular assigned $2 million for new machinery for Siglo XX-Catavi and helped make substantial reductions in the swollen payroll, there occurred around the same time another, more far-reaching response by the growing population of the Llallagua district to the economic crisis of the great mine. This was the large-scale robbery of tin ore by mineral thieves known as jucos, a Quechua word meaning “birds of prey that fly at night.” The manager of the mine soon found that it was cheaper to have the ore taken from the mine by jucos, who would sell it back to the empresa, than to have the same amount of ore extracted by miners on the payroll. While juqueo, or mineral-stealing, long had been a problem in the Bolivian mining industry, it attained major social and economic significance in the early 1960s. This stolen ore figured on company accounts as mineral obtained from “other sources.” While previously an insignificant statistical item, purchased ore rose from 45 tons of tin-in-concentrates in 1957 to 538 tons in 1962 to 1,366 tons in 1964, or nearly half the Catavi mill’s 1964 production. Not only did this represent a breakdown of industrial organization, but the growth of juqueo was also part of a broader regression toward pine-industrial mining technology.

Hilarion Felipes was one of the Trotskyite organizers of the bands of jucos who began entering the mine nightly in the early 1960s. He is a tall, bent man of 31 years with a puffy face and cauliflower ears who lives in a sagging one-room adobe shack on one of the newly settled hills overlooking the town of Llallagua. In the early 1960s Hilarion was “Secretary-General of the Unemployed,” an organization of workers fired under the Plan Triangular formed by the Trotskyites—ever-frustrated in their efforts to wrest control of the Siglo XX miners’ union from the communists. “I was 19 years old and had just returned from service in the army,” he told me. “The Trotskyite leader Cesar Lara found me one night when I was stealing ore and told me I had to organize the juqueo on a large scale because there were so many people hungry. It was then that I became a member of the POR [the Trotskyite Revolutionary Workers Party]. bra and another POR leader, Isaac Camacho, formed a fictitious ‘cooperative’ at a nearby abandoned mine as a blind for selling stolen ore back to the company. The general manager at Catavi was a young Dutch geologist, Cornelius Bloot, who at first resisted buying stolen ore. But Bloot was a compassionate man who felt that something must be done to help the unemployed and feared that if the company didn’t buy from the jucos, they would sell the stolen ore somewhere else. Hilarion continued:

At first we entered the mine in groups, including some students who needed money to continue their studies. But soon there were bands of 200 jucos, some of them armed, going into the mine at night in different sections, overwhelming the watchmen placed at the tunnel entrances to prevent stealing. When the stealing began on a large scale, peasants came from all the surrounding regions to Llallagua, and the town grew very fast. Most of the ore was stolen from abandoned mineshafts worked long ago by the company, with narrow veinlets that Patiño didn’t bother with because the mine was so rich. This was dangerous for inexperienced people because the rock was not solid—the floors and ceilings of these old tunnels were formed by taqueos [refills] and abandoned by the company because they were so dangerous. So there were many cave-ins that killed our people, The jucos work with iron bars and carbide lamps, and when the lamps flickered out many of our men were trapped forever in these abandoned tunnels because they couldn’t find their way out. It’s like burying yourself alive in the pyramids of Egypt. You can crawl on your belly and knees, making your own cave, to find some very good ore, only to fall through an old refill into a shaft below and never be seen again. When the MNR was overthrown in 1964, the new military government sent the army into the mines, and the army stopped the juqueo awhile. In 1965 Cesar Lora was murdered by an army captain and in 1967 Isaac Camacho was arrested and never heard from again. But they have never been able to put an end to the juqueo, by both the unemployed and by the miners themselves, because it is the only good business left at Siglo XX and there is so much need.


When weighing the heightened population pressure on the depleted economic resources of the Siglo XX mine, one must depend largely on crude statistical and visual evidence that may be no less convincing for its rawness. Because the last two Bolivian censuses were taken in 1900 and 1950 and because vital statistics are mere scratches in the sand, one is left pretty much to one’s own devices, which in this case consisted of carrying out a sample demographic survey of 183 families in Siglo XX and the town of Llallagua..

After mining operations on the mountain of Llallagua were consolidated under Patiño’s ownership in the 1920s, population growth in the community was limited initially by a number of factors. Until the Depression, the company hired only single men as miners, because the high incidence of disease and death from silicosis would otherwise oblige Patiño to indemnify large numbers of families attached to the company. The mine population actually shrunk during the Depression, with employment cutbacks reinforced by the recruitment of some 1,300 miners to fight in the Chaco War, to the degree that a labor shortage existed when the price of tin began to recover from the world economic crisis. This labor scarcity forced the company to begin to hire married workers, although housing for families was in extremely short supply and some workers were still living in caves at the edge of the mining camps in the late 1930s. The intense crowding of these camps with new migrants in the 1940s hastened both political revolution and the breakdown of industrial organization.

The 1950 census showed that the mining camps and towns perched on the mountain of Llallagua formed the seventh largest urban complex in Bolivia, with a population of 30,053, of which 18,827 lived in the camps of Patiño Mines. While the mine work force increased by 40 %between 1950 and 1960, there have been sharp payroll reductions since 1960 that have left the mining camp population in 1973 (20,382) only slightly larger than that reported in 1950. One of the clearer conclusions to be reached from my sample survey is that the mine has ceased to be a melting pot for migrants from other parts of Bolivia as it was earlier in the century. While the community continues to grow from immigration, the newcomers tend to come from the surrounding area and not from the distant Cochabamba Valley, where Patiño was born and which in earlier decades had been the principal supplier of manpower for the mines. This change may be explained simply by the fact that, around the time of nationalization, the company stopped sending recruiters to the Cochabamba Valley. In my 1973 survey about four-fifths of the people interviewed were born on the altiplano, with 43 %coming from the Province of Bustillos, where Siglo XX is located. Many of the miners now working for the company are the sons of miners. While the death of a mimer usually means that his family must move from company housing, causing considerable turnover in the community, it is also true that many an eldest son has inherited his job, by right, from his dead father.

According to company records, the mining camps presently are inhabited by 3,695 workers and 16,687 dependents, yielding the extremely high dependency ratio of 4.5 to one. Of the total camp population, 40.5 %were under 13 years old and 57 %were under 18. This is even a younger population than that of a very young country like Venezuela, with 52 %of its people under 18, and younger still than the CELADE national projection for 1970, estimating 52.8 %of the Bolivian population to be under 20. The 183 women who answered my questionnaire had a median age of 38.2 years and reported a total of 1.315 pregnancies (7.19 per woman). Of these, 1,141 yielded live births, giving a crude reproduction rate of 3.0 daughters per mother, exceeded in Bolivia only by a few rural areas. Emerging from the company’s statistics of age structure and total population of the mining camps, together with fertility and mortality indicated in responses to my questionnaire, is a typically peasant demographic profile with both high birthrate (50/1,000) and death rate (20/1,000). Of the 1,141 live births reported in my survey, 28.5 %of the children born had died before this survey was taken. In other words, counting the abortions and stillbirths reported, only three of every five pregnancies produced a presently surviving child. The 21 women in the 45-49 age group, having virtually completed their childbearing years, averaged 9.5 pregnancies and 8.1 live births each, with only 5.3 of these children surviving at the time of the survey. None of these 21 women reported infertility. All but two reported that at least one of their children had died, while eight of the mothers in this age group averaged 4.5 deaths of their children after live delivery. According to Dr. Fernando Querejazu, the chief pediatrician at the company hospital in Catavi, 40%of the children entering the hospital for treatment are badly undernourished, and 15 %of all babies born in the hospital die in their first year of life.

This burden of mortality suffuses the miner’s life and repeats itself, like a tale told by an idiot, in the collisions and outbursts of his community. It is ingrained into the rhythm of his work and the dense phalanxes of oblong dwelling compounds in the mining camps. Inside the mine Constantino Apasa’s taut, handsome Indian features are distorted at work by a plug of coca leaves in his mouth that smears his lips green and swells his jowls. In the heat of the lower recesses of the mine, his sweating face is powdered by the swarms of dust enveloping the clamor of his pneumatic drill attacking the moist upper reaches of a cavern where he will place an explosive. “The miner doesn’t care much about dying,” they say again and again. “We face danger daily inside the mine, and will die early of silicosis anyway. This is why we have risked death so readily in revolutions and when the army has invaded the mines.”

Nearly all the workers’ houses, like everything else at the mine, date from the Patiño era. The yellow cement surfacing of the exterior walls has been peeled away in most places, and the bare adobe remains. The sudden climatic changes within the daily cycle of life in this mineralized desert areas commonplace as the frequent crossings of the boundaries of human existence, as shown in the birth- and death rates. Constantino Apasa defends his house against the night wind of the altiplano with a sheet of discarded boilerplate propped against the door. Behind the door nine persons sleep in two beds in one room. On one of the walls is an old soccer photo of Constantino with his teammates, and a wedding picture with a finely worked silver frame stands on the only table. A bicycle and a baby carriage hang from the ceiling of the room to economize in floor space. A broken window is stuffed with a burlap ore bag. Above that window outside the house two dried fish heads hang from a wire for good luck. As in most of the miners’ houses, the kitchen is outdoors on the small porch that is crowded with wash basins and brushwood brought in from the altiplano. At night the small herds of llamas that carry the brushwood often are parked in the streets of the mining camps, while their Indian herdsmen sleep behind the boilerplate in front of the houses. Flowers are planted in old wooden dynamite boxes, whitened by the sun, on the steps approaching Constantino Apasa’s house. The sun comes and goes with a sudden intensity. On nice afternoons the miners’ wives wearing bowlers of the altiplano or the white stovepipe hats of the Cochabamba Valley, bring large tin basins into the sunshine to wash clothes with water hauled in old lard cans from the communal faucet.

Shortly after the carnage of the Night of San Juan, when during the drunken festival night of June 24, 1967 the army again seized the mines at the time of Che Guevara’s guerrilla uprising in Bolivia, the editor of the Catholic newspaper Presencia, Alberto Bailey, made a tour of the principal mining districts to describe the living and working conditions. Bailey wrote that “everything has to fit in one small room: clothing, furniture, beds, utensils.... and an average of from six to eight persons. All that usually fit are two normal-size beds and at times a third small one. The cold, rain and wind penetrate the roofs and walls, which are almost always covered with old newspapers to improve their appearance. There is no water in the miners’ houses, not even in those considered exceptionally good. There is nothing that even resembles hygienic toilet facilities, only communal latrines built between the houses for 40 persons to squat at a time. The excuse for this that we heard in the mines [was that] these houses were built for young, single men. Now miners with large families are occupying these houses and, of course, are crowded.”

By the mid-1960s there were about 500 miles of tunnels inside the Siglo XX mine, but the average grade of ore had declined from 9 %in 1924 to 2.45 %in 1938 to 1.11 %in 1952 to 0.50 %in 1970. While quality of tin ore has declined by half since the Revolution, the population of the Siglo XX-Llallagua mining district has roughly doubled. The most dramatic aspect of this growth has been the almost incongruous prosperity of the town of Llallagua, which in 1950 had an urban population of 6,719 that today may number between 20,000 and 30,000. In 1956 Llallagua was separated from Uncía, the provincial capital, and formed its own municipal government. The growing town population has led to serious water shortages because of the competing needs of the municipality and the Empresa Minera Catavi. In the eight years between my first and most recent visit to Llallagua, there has been-an impressive proliferation of stores, canteens, tailor shops, and lawyers’ offices. Streets have been paved, sewers laid, two new banks opened, a hospital built, and an evening high school for workers created, the Colegio Nocturno 1 de Mayo, which began with the students paying the teachers’ salaries. Swirls of people pour into the main street that descends through an old ravine clogged now with appliance stores and outdoor displays of shoes and brightly colored cloth and plastics. The lower mountain slopes beyond the town are being covered rapidly by new settlements of tin-roofed adobe shacks.

We seem to be seeing in postrevolutionary Bolivia what Clifford Geertz saw in postrevolutionary Indonesia: a movement “from industrialization without urbanization toward urbanization without industrialization.” There are two complementary explanations given locally for the sudden manifestations of wealth and growth in Llallagua. The first is that the return to labor-intensive forms of mining has created a new demand for peasant manpower in these primitive workings, which may have been accentuated by the halving of miners’ wages in the 1965-1970 period after the army invaded the mines and crippled the sindicatos. The 1965-1970 period saw rapid growth of pre-industrial forms of labor at a time when miners’ pay cuts imposed by the military government tended to reduce or eliminate the differential in earnings between those working inside and outside the company organization.

The second explanation given for the surge of prosperity of Llallagua is the trade in stolen ore. A Marxist labor leader, who himself has built a fine house in Llallagua from his profits as a rescatire (ore-buyer), told me that “both rich and poor are in the trade. The Llallagua storekeepers give the jucos food in exchange for stolen ore. People in town buy ore for five or six pesos that they can resell for 15 pesos these days. One wealthy family has a soda factory and five or six trucks, which are used to carry stolen ore to sell at the government Mining Bank offices in Oruro and Potosi. Everybody is involved in this. Students go into the mine at night to earn extra money. Miners on the company payroll can steal 50 pounds of ore a day. They either sell it to rescatires or to the men in the primitive workings outside the mine, who will turn the ore into concentrates and sell it back to the company.”

A third reason for the sudden growth of Llallagua may be its expanded importance as a regional peasant market, both in the stores on the town’s busy main street and in the open-air Sunday bazaar that is a theater of intense activity beside the sindicato building on the Plaza del Minero. Anthropologists report that, in many localities of the Bolivian altiplano, “new towns” have arisen around weekly peasant markets thanks to the new social mobility among rural people created with the abolition of Indian serfdom by the 1952 Revolution.

The juqueo, or ore-stealing, can be characterized as just one of the pre-industrial forms of mining that have reappeared at Siglo XX in recent years. An examination of company records in Catavi showed just how dependent COMIBOL has become on these pre-industrial forms of labor by persons outside the organization. In the first half of 1972 the mine lost $831,407 with the price of tin averaging $1.67 per pound and marketing and production costs totaling $1.82. The mine payroll of 4,932 workers accounted for 36.5 %of the costs incurred in the official production of 2,473 tons of tin-in-concentrates.  Nearly two-fifths of this “production,” however, came from sources outside

the company. Its records show that the company had paid $262,000 for ore and concentrates worth $812,000. After the Bolivian peso was devalued by 60 %in late 1972, greatly reducing COMIBOL’s labor costs as tin prices climbed rapidly, the company’s profit margin on purchased ore was even greater, fully 400 per cent.

The men and women producing tin from these primitive workings bitterly complain that they are being systematically cheated by company assayers on the weight and tin content of the ore and concentrates delivered, enabling the company to make huge profits on purchased minerals and so reduce its inflated overhead burden. During my 1973 visit to the mine, the cooperatives of Locatarios—working abandoned mineshafts high on the mountain— were on “strike,” refusing to deliver their concentrates to the company until management agreed to return small ore samples with the assayer’s report. In a sense, the great mine now seems to be subsidized by cheap Indian labor in much the way that the colonial mita drafts of Indians subsidized the cerro rico of Potosi after the seventeenth century.

“Without this source of cheap labor the cerro rico, with all its rich ores long since exhausted, could not have continued to work minerals,” D.A. Brading and Harry E. Cross wrote recently in the Hispanic American Historical Review. “At Potosi the mita both created the first rapid boom and then subsidized continued production.”

Some of the primitive workings at Siglo XX seem almost a revival of ancient mining technology, though there appears to be a tendency to settle at the state of the art that existed around the time gunpowder was introduced into Central European and Spanish colonial silver mining in the seventeenth century. Indeed, some of the mine machinery appearing in German woodcuts of the’ period are more advanced than much of the apparatus doing the same job at Siglo XX today. The tendency to form cooperatives in the reversion to pre-industrial forms of mining in Bolivia, including COMIBOL’s converting its more unprofitable mines into cooperative enterprises to reduce overhead, again resembles an early period in German mining, when “the lords found it to their interests to turn over the mines to the workmen, with the result that there arose everywhere little autonomous associations of co-laborers, each with a mine of its own, which paid tribute to the lord and divided profits among the members.”

Apart from the jucos, there are four kinds of primitive mining now going on at Siglo XX:

(1). Veneros: There are about 2,000 men, including peons, who produce about 75 tons monthly of tin-in-concentrates from low-grade alluvial deposits in the streams descending the mountain of Llallagua and in the floodplain of Uncía immediately below. These workings are just as in the ancient mines of Cornwall, where “the stream works were all of limited depth, it being merely a question of digging down to the bedrock through the substratum, a distance that would vary locally but which could not very well be greater than 50 or 60 feet.”

On my last visit to Siglo XX I went down into one of these small alluvial mines, which resembled in design the Stone Age flint mines discovered at Grimes Graves in England, with the difference that the vertical shaft, or cuadro, descended 34 meters, while the neolithic workings had a maximum depth of ten meters. The venerista, or alluvial concessionaire, in this small mine was Apolinar Alvarez Lopez, 41, a native of nearby Chayanta who retired from his job in the interior mine with handsome severance pay under the Plan Triangular. One descends into his cuadro by a hand-operated winch cable, which is also used to lower tools and life ore from more than 400 meters of horizontal galleries extending in three directions from the bottom of the cuadro. It took Alvarez and six peons two years to excavate these diggings. “We have to find the mineralized layers ourselves. One of our galleries, 190 meters long, is closed now because of a cave-in. Another 100-meter tunnel ended up in the riverbed. There are many false starts. The company cheats us in the weight and grade of our production, then discounts school tuition for our kids, royalties, truck rental for moving our ore, and a special fee for technical assistance. The engineers who are supposed to give us technical advice come around once in a while, but have never gone inside the mine. All they do is ask me for more production.”

 (2). Lameros: Along the little canal beside the railroad track on which ore is carried from the “Sink-and-float” preconcentrating plant to the mill, there is a succession of tiny dams and a long line of men waiting their turn to trap the waste that flows in the canal from the noisy machinery that fitfully and inefficiently processes the ore from the mine. The low tin content of ore now coming from the mine is further diminished by inefficient recovery in the concentrating process. Thus one-third of the tin produced by the mine is lost in the waste that pours from the “Sink-and-Float” plant, and gives the lameros their livelihood.

There are about 400 lameros who, with their peons and families, work the canal at 215 assigned places beside the track. The slime flowing from the plant is picked up on alternate days to allow a sufficient quantity to accumulate at the dams. Because there are so many lameros who want to recover the slime bearing 0.20 %tin as close as possible to the plant, a system has been devised for taking turns among groups of ten lameros so that each will work closer to the plant each month and occupy a place at the head of the line every two or three years.

About one wheelbarrow-load of slime is carried from the canal daily to a gravitational concentrating bath called a buddle, which has been used in England at least since the days of Henry VIII. The buddle is a cylindrical pool into which water is poured, with the tin slime, creating a solution in which the mineral sinks to the center of the pool and the waste material floats to the edges. This laborious process is repeated about 20 times until the grayish material in the center of the buddle turns black. At the end of a good month the lamero will produce from six to eight 100-pound bags of concentrates containing 20 %tin, receiving for this about $100 to be shared with his family and his peons.


Text Box: Palliris, 1966.

(3) Palliris: In the early 1960s the management in Catavi found that large sections of the mountainous gray-green dumps behind the “Sink-and-Float” plant contained a higher grade of tin than the ore being extracted from the mine. After the MNR was overthrown in November 1964, the widows and orphans of dead miners were given work on the dumps as palliris, selecting pieces of high-grade rock from the waste pile and lugging them in 40-pound bags to a mechanical crusher several hundred yards away. Previously, hand-selecting of choice ore, or guia, by the palliris had been eliminated by the company with the completion of the “Sink-and-Float” plant in 1949. In the l960s the Catavi management said the palliris were being used again as a form of charity to the women. Although the company said the women were their own bosses, it employed an engineer and two foremen to supervise their work. The women were not paid for transporting the bags of ore to the crusher, which sometimes resulted in spinal injuries and internal hemorrhages. They were paid five cents per bag delivered, but were not allowed to produce more than eight bags per day. 

The leader of the women who work among the knolls and dunes of waste rock is Margarita. A grayhaired Indian woman who wears the white stovepipe hat of the Cochabamba Valley. “On November 11, 1964, a week after the MNR was overthrown, the company broadcast a call on the radio to widows and orphans who wanted work. There were more than 600 of us who showed up. We were promised jobs on the company payroll as vacancies occurred, but none of these jobs ever opened up. Both our numbers and our pay have declined as the tin content of the dumps diminished from 2.20 to 0.78 per cent.” Soon this work will be eliminated entirely, since the high grade material is nearly exhausted.

 (4) Locatarios: These are the roughly 2,000 men who work the abandoned mineshafts at the top of the mountain that date from the beginning of the century. These originally lucrative locations were given out in 1967 to political insiders and friends of the company manager, who were then ousted in a revolt of their peons in October 1969 when a leftist military regime seized power in La Paz. The peons then formed cooperatives to work the locations themselves.

Were it not for their high productivity (97 tons of tin-in-concentrates delivered monthly to the company), the locatarios might be described as a composite of the excess population of this swollen community: former company workers, peasants, unemployed army veterans, students and miners’ sons. Save for the very rare use of pneumatic drills bought by individual teams of locatarios, this work resembles the technology employed in mine extraction in colonial times.

The locatarios work in teams of two to eight men, depending on the size of the shaft and the width of the vein, working a pulso (by hand) with an iron bar to the light of a carbide lamp, advancing the work-front of the tunnel between 10 and 15 inches daily. They buy timber, helmets, boots, and explosives from the company, which also rents them trucks to transport ore to their concentrating area farther down the mountain.

I have been down to these workings several times. In the warmer parts of the mine the men work in their underwear, or sometimes naked, taking turns at the workface when they have to dig in pockets of gas. They carry away the ore and waste material on their backs along the narrow tunnels to primitive lifts, where it is raised in buckets to the extraction level. They can spend months digging fruitlessly trying to find a new vein, at their own cost and risk. They say much of their luck depends on the Tío, an idol that is a semblance of the Devil. Tío figures are kept in several mineshafts in the mountain of Llallagua, and are worshiped with coca leaves and cigarettes, receiving on special occasions a sacrifice of a baby llama. “The Tío is everywhere,” one locatario told me. “We had a Tío of our own, but the idol was stolen. The Tío has eaten four men here: two have died from gas-poisoning and two in cave-ins.”

The Locatarios bring their extracted ore further down the mountainside to a riverbed beside one of the mining camps, where it is crushed and concentrated by primitive methods used by Patiño when he was processing ore by hand at the beginning of the century. There is the quimbalate, which crushes the ore beneath heavy rocks, and the maricate, a kind of straining box with metal screening at the bottom that filters the ore as it is washed. Each afternoon the Locatarios bring their ore to this “ingenio,” or mill, and around the twentieth of each month the entire work force is engaged in concentrating the ore for delivery to the company. The quality of this ore, here as elsewhere at Siglo XX, however, is declining and the men feel that the old mineshafts will soon be empty.

In this way the Bolivian tin industry seems to be returning to its earliest beginnings. This probably could have been avoided with adequate geological exploration and investment in development of new methods of recovering low-grade ore. Since the Great Depression, however, these possibilities have been blocked by political and population pressures on the resources already developed, even though much of this wealth already had been transferred out of the country before 1952. Consequently, the exhaustion of ore reserves and the decline of industrial organization has forced COMIBOL to turn several of the nationalized mines into cooperatives worked entirely by pre-industrial technology.  



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