Above and below: peasants and miners in Oruro and Northern Potosí, Bolivia (1899-1929)

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Smale, Robert Leland

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During the first three decades of the twentieth century, massive industrial mining operations developed among the wind-swept hills and steppes of the Andean highlands. From out of these isolated mining camps arose one of the most militant union movements in Latin America—a movement so powerful that in 1952 the miners imposed a socialist revolution on the country. Mining prospered in the Andes even before the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century. As the mines developed, European entrepreneurs cemented their control over the more advanced capital-intensive operations, but they never completely abolished small mills and mines controlled by the popular classes. The rivalry between the capital-intensive pole of mining and the artisan pole continues today. Both the Spanish state and the later republican government of Bolivia supported the dominant classes in this struggle. Also during the Spanish colonial period, urban mineworkers emerged as a separate and distinct segment of Andean society. The rapid industrialization beginning in the early 1900s fortified the nation’s working class; as the mines expanded and employed new technology to boost production, the workers strengthened their own union structures and experimented with new political philosophies. The Bolivian peasantry did not make a similar advance; the rural population of the country never shed the political and ideological tutelage of Bolivia’s dominant classes. Ironically, the Indian majority of the country did successfully resisted oligarchic and state encroachment during the years 1899 to 1929. This victory, coupled with their only indirect contact with industrial capitalism, retarded the development of independent ideological programs among the peasantry. The Bolivian working class, with a mixed European and Andean cultural heritage, built upon a centuries-long history as a distinct social group to craft a forward-thinking ideology very much their own. Only the working class had enough direct exposure to capitalist industry and the vagaries of Bolivia’s oligarchic government to understand the true character of the country’s economic and political order. More than any other segment of Bolivia’s popular classes, the working class of the mining camps accumulated the necessary historical experience and ideological sophistication to formulate viable alternatives to the nation’s capitalist economy.