At 13,500 feet it is the highest city on earth and surrounded by the Altiplano, which resembles nothing so much as the surface of the moon. It was, in1650, the largest city in the Western Hemisphere (then, the same size as London) and the richest city on earth. It sits at the foot of the Cerro Rico, a mountain of silver, and the main source of the wealth that gave Spain its world domination. 130,000 people still live there, almost all Quechua and Aymara Indians who eek out an existence mining silver. In 1987, UNESCO declared Potosi part of the Patrimony of Humanity.
News from Potosi is not easy to come by. It is remote in the extreme. Because it is so obscure, the City of Silver never finds much of a place in international news media. In the past couple of weeks, finding out what is happening there has been even harder than usual. Evidently, Evo Morales, the President of Bolivia, has blocked information. I first learned that something of note was happening from pictures posted on Facebook by my fellow New York mystery writer Catherine Clark. A Spanish friend of hers was in Potosi and texting images to her. Here they are:
The miners of Potosi are staging a general strike to protest conditions in their city. They have a lot to complain about. 68% of the population of Potosi lives in extreme poverty; in the surrounding area, poverty levels reach 90%. Child mortality rates are the highest in Bolivia and some of the highest in the world. 101of every one thousand babies dies in infancy. Nearly 40% of the people are chronically malnourished.
The Cerro Rico is called “the mountain that eats men.” About 15,000 work there and an average of twenty die each month. The life expectancy of the miners is 40 years. FORTY YEARS! It has always been that way. City of Silver, my mystery novel set in Potosi, begins with a miner dying in the very first scene. My research had revealed that from the earliest days the local indigenous men were forced into labor. When they were conscripted from their villages and marched to Potosi, musicians played funeral marches for them because they knew most of them were never coming back. In the 470 years since the Spanish began exploiting them, conditions have never improved.
In the hopes of getting some relief from their grinding suffering, two weeks ago a group of protestor walked to La Paz. It took them twelve days. I drove over that forbidding terrain one freezing spring. It is full winter there now.
Back in Potosi, a general strike has blocked the city completely. The protestors are demanding government investment in infrastructure— hospitals, bridges, roads, wind power, an international airport, proper shoring within the mountain, and a garbage recycling plant. They also say they need doctors, nurses, teachers, psychologists.
Perhaps the timing of the current protest had something to do with the Pope’s recent visit. But His Holiness was in La Paz with all the media attention on him. And it seems that Morales made sure no word of the strike leaked out until the Papal visit was over. Even now, almost nothing is making its way onto the Internet. There have been major demonstrations in Buenos Aires in sympathy for the miners of Potosi. It is easier to find the news of those secondary happenings than it is to find out about the plight of the miners directly
The BBC coverage talked with great sympathy of difficulties borne by 100 foreign tourists—mostly Argentinians who were having a bit of bad time because the strike was preventing them from getting out.
To give you an idea of the beauty of the place, I am including here a few of the photographs David took on our visit to Potosi in 1993. They will give you a small idea of the beautiful monuments of a history so fascinating, so exotic, and so hidden and unknown to most of the world. These beautiful places were made by the ancestors of the people who are suffering there now.
Annamaria - Monday