Continental Drift #8: Silver Heaven, Black Hell – Potosi, Bolivia

Silver Heaven, Black Hell

Does the Devil exist? This is an eternal question that has plagued mankind for millennia. This may be bad news for many readers, but the Dark Force does in fact exist. I have visited his lair, nestled deep in the mountains of Bolivia.

Entering Bolivia from the altiplano, a deserted plain 14,000 feet above sea level, I was blown away by the serenity of this natural expanse, where the purity of the world manifests itself, as silent volcanoes loom over dry, pure white salt-pans and crystalline green lakes graced with hundreds of pink flamingoes. The altiplano, uncorrupted by human habitation or degradation, seems to be the product of divine inspiration or merely proof of a higher benevolent force. But a few hundred miles north, in Potosi, Bolivia, nature has not been appreciated or admired, but brutally raped.

For millions of years, until just a few hundreds of years ago, there stood Cerro Rico, a natural wonder – a giant mountain made of silver � imagine that, made of silver! Ah, but beneath this seemingly precious peak there slept a dormant devil. Undisturbed, he hibernated in the heat of his hearth, but with the arrival of men attacking his home with pickaxes and dynamite, this sleeping giant was soon awakened. By the time man had staked his claim, rallying behind a flag to rape and pillage this natural gem and the indigenous inhabitants that lived in tranquility by its side, it was obvious the dark force within had come to life.

The mighty European colonist, infected by the Devil, developed a mercantilist hunger and a capitalist thirst, not only debasing nature, but humanity as well. A natural beauty was conquered, carved and devoured, inch by inch by an army of indigenous workers who were basically enslaved, inevitably to die early deaths from accidents or a range of horrible health effects. The colonists entered as courageous explorers, but quickly devolved to act more like determined ants taking over a jungle tree. Their diabolical desire manifested itself as they killed for riches, profit, and endless wealth. They made a fortune and financed a flourishing Spanish culture and tried to exorcise the demons that had invaded their souls by building massive cathedrals in cities from Toledo and Sevilla, but all their religious zeal could not stave off the devil. For he is still alive and well, sneaking through the dark tunnels of the Potosi mine like a rabid reptile.

Potosi in the 1600’s had 150,000 inhabitants, and was larger than London, Paris and Seville. There were gambling houses, prostitutes and fine dining; it was a magnet of riches, as products were brought from all over the world to accommodate the New Rich that made an easy fortune from the fortuitous presence of the natural wealth the mine offered and the seemingly endless amount of natives that were sent to dig out the riches. The Indians were told the Europeans were Gods and were threatened with eternal Hell if they did not work in the mines. The natives viewed these seemingly omnipotent Europeans as gods/devils, as they respected the intelligence of these surveyors and geologists, but saw their malevolence manifested in the way they enslaved the men and sexually mistreated the women.

Hundreds of thousands of innocents were killed in this mine. The mine owners will attest that they died from accidents and health problems, but sending one to certain death is simply murder. Even today, the miners of Potosi live lives of utter desperation, locked in a system equally exploitative. Sure, colonialism is “officially” over, but capitalism is alive and well, thriving side by side with the devil within. One �ism passes on, but the exploitation never dies � could it be man’s one lasting contribution to the world? One mountain enriches a whole country an ocean away; its riches are extracted with bloody hands, wiped clean, quickly exported and used to build churches. The very item that cost thousands of lives is used to appease God, justifying brutality with a false hope for salvation. God, if he is up on high, cannot be so ignorant. Did the greedy colonists expect he wouldn’t see through this veneer of lies?

The miners have for hundreds of years recognized the presence of the devil inside this hellhole. They believe their Christian God lives outside the mountain, where Catholicism is alive and well, but the mine is the devil’s territory. They work in the same horrible conditions, get paid the same terrible wages, lead the same dreadful lives and die the same early tragic deaths. Is there any doubt this is not the world of the Devil? Have we made any progress in 500 years? One mountain stands as a symbol of nature’s abundant wealth, but is systematically decimated, representing the ultimate symbol of injustice. It enriches thousands beyond their dreams, but destroys millions beyond their nightmares. With all the evils that colonialism and mercantilism created in this world, does there exist one actual spot, one geographical location that so perfectly embodies the inherent evil of this unjust system? Potosi Silver was a gem, yet it was also a disaster.

I have witnessed this wicked world, crawled through its claustrophobic tunnels into the earth’s infernal core. The devil’s presence is obvious, not just from the chilling darkness, the hellish heat and the heavy asbestos that fills the air, but the giant Devil idols that loom in sinister shadows. The miners, after seeing so many of their friends and ancestors die from falling rock, suffocate beneath cave-ins or fall prey to fatal sicknesses, have developed a very superstitious nature. They lay offerings to this devil, whom they call Tio, including the stimulant coca leaves they chew throughout the day, which give them the energy and endurance to work strenuous twelve-hour days in such a punishing place. They also sprinkle the ground with sips of the 98% alcohol they drink throughout the day. They imbibe this turpentine-like drink because of its purity as they believe the devil will repay them for their devotion by rewarding them with pure deposits of the silver and tin that have become so rare after nearly half a millennium of relentless mining.

Even today, the miners of Potosi live in this Hell. Inside the annals of the earth, I sit on black rock, feet immersed in primordial brown mud, sipping turpentine with a wad of coca leaves in my mouth. With lungs full of asbestos, I chat with miners who have taken a break after I offer them a valued gift: a $6 stick of Chilean dynamite. The alcohol burns my lips and torches my throat and combined with the full mouth of coca leaves, lack of oxygen, intense heat and lack of water, creates quite a dizzying buzz. My immersion into the miners’ lifestyle proves punishing, but I feel I owe them my time as I owe myself the experience, as I learn quickly there are no water fountains or safety masks in Hell, nor are there any warning sirens to alert one that a rail-cart full of ore being pushed at speeds of 30 mph by three miners is approaching quickly through these constricting tunnels, so when I hear the threatening sound of rattling steel, I run to the nearest cavern and duck into the shadows to let the speeding load pass. Watching Carlos (a 16 year-old child caked in black, with only the white of his eyes as testimony he is not himself a piece of coal) working towards death for $3 a day confirms the presence of an evil spirit within these constricting confines.

To be honest, I do not believe in a true devil, just as I do not believe in the presence of a single omnipotent god. My reference to this Evil Being is pure allegory, for it is obvious that it is Man himself that has manifested the malevolence, incorporated Evil into his daily bag of tricks, yet created the myth of some wicked beast to cover his own malicious actions. Man, who is capable of such benevolence, of such beauty, is unfortunately just as infamous for his cruelty, destruction and malevolence.

Sitting amidst these suffering miners, my mind wanders back to the tranquility that greeted me to Bolivia. Oh, for the serenity of the altiplano! Where are the wide open spaces that exemplify hope, where are the flamingoes whose grace is testimony to nature’s innate beauty, where are the llamas who roam in complete freedom, moving among the grasslands, free of the worries of predators or human hunters? The mining continues in Potosi, as there are still hundreds of years of ore left to be unearthed. One can only hope that once this mountain has been tapped dry and its victims laid to rest, man will put aside his iniquity, and the Devil will once again sleep in peace. So, until that day, I hold out hope for the miners of Potosi, who, amidst their daily suffering, prove that unfortunately, we still live in a world full of injustice and the overbearing Evil of Man.

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