From A Verdade, Brazil, December/January 2017

The veins are still open

The drama of mining in Latin America

José Levino

“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. (Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I)

So, great Karl Marx, these acts continue to mark the existence and reproduction of capitalism. If in its wake, despite all these massacres, this meant progress for humanity compared to the slavery and feudalism that preceded it, today it is a barrier to true progress, happiness and the well-being of mankind. If it is not succeeded by socialism, it will bring the human race back to barbarism, as his friend and partner in theory and practice, his comrade-in-arms, Friedrich Engels, predicted.

Potosi in Bolivia is an example. In the 16th and 17th century it supplied Europe with more than half the silver that enriched the bourgeoisie. The rest still allowed the invaders to maintain a city of 200,000 inhabitants, the majority of whom enslaved, rivaling the metropolises. When the ore was exhausted, they abandoned the place, where they left eight million dead indigenous people. “Only the ghosts of the dead wealth were alive” (Eduardo Galeano).

In the 20th century, Potosi is once again exploited, now for tin, with the same poverty and misery, now without the previous ostentation, since everything goes to various industries, including food containers, a small part of which goes into the food and becomes a source of disease. It is also one of the components of toothpaste. The miners are victims of silicosis, with an average life-span of 45 years.


There are 211 conflicts in Latin America among the indigenous communities, peasants, multinational and national states and companies due to mining. This is the number recorded by the Mining Conflict Observatory in Latin America. In fact, the number is greater, because the Observatory itself says it needs more information from Brazil, Paraguay and Venezuela.

Accused by the companies and governments of hampering national development, the communities are not deceived by this talk and are resisting; they are quite right. For the people, the number and poor quality of the jobs that the extraction of ores generates does not compensate for the consequences, which are many and serious.

The water is contaminated with arsenic, which causes cancer, and with heavy metals such as mercury and lead, which cause neurological and respiratory problems among others. Social diseases are serious. Communities of two thousand people are suddenly occupied by 10,000 miners, upsetting social life with the introduction of drugs, prostitution, robbery and various kinds of delinquency. When they leave, the problems remain.

The type of work is semi-slavery. Labor legislation is not respected. Besides the lack of health and danger, the working hours are exhausting: 13, 14 or 16 hours. There is also a system of 14-days mining, 14 off. They ignore the conventions of the International Labor Organization and the UN declarations on workers’ and citizens’ rights.

Tragedies such as Mariana (Minas Gerais) in Brazil and Veladero in Argentina, both took place in 2015 (in November and October, respectively), which left irreparable damage to people and nature, are not accidents. They are the result of the irresponsibility of the bourgeoisie and its governments towards life, since according to capitalist (il)logic, what matters is “possessing” and not “being.”

Since Colonization

It is not surprising that the bourgeois governments encourage and support this kind of activity, for this is their very function: to serve the ruling classes. What is surprising is that similar attitudes are being adopted by Bolivarian regimes that advocate national liberation and the building of 21st century socialism.

In fact, besides their rhetoric, there was no break with the model of dependency and association of the export of agricultural products, because there was insufficient accumulation of forces for this. Self-criticism and recreation of paths is commendable and part of the process of transforming society. Now, surrendering to that model in the name of development and not allowing the government to be retaken by the traditional elites, is unacceptable.

The most striking case is that of Ecuador, where the government of Rafael Correa, breaking with the Constitution of the Citizen’s Revolution and its Program – National Plan of the Well-Being (PNBV), signed an agreement with China to auction off three of its eight million acres of Amazon jungle to Chinese companies for the extraction of ore. Its justification is economic development and preservation of social programs threatened by a lack of resources. In fact, Ecuador has accumulated a debt of $7 billion with China, amounting to 10% of GDP.

The areas auctioned off by the Ecuadorian government struck directly the territories of the indigenous people, who have carried out various forms of condemnation and mobilization and were subjected to a great deal of repression and tactics of cooptation by the smaller organizations, seeking the isolation of the National Confederation of Indigenous Organizations (CONAIE). The repression now extends to the student movement, as reported in the latest issue of A Verdade.

Maduro’s government in Venezuela, dependent on oil, is being punished by the economic boycott of the local bourgeoisie together with US imperialism, with the people facing hunger and shortages, reducing their support for the Bolivarian regime.

The Productive Economic and Social Model of Bolivia, chaired by an indigenous leader, Evo Morales, has succeeded in reducing poverty and producing economic growth. Now, however, it is under threat precisely because its success is based on the export of gas and ore, whose prices are falling, due to the imperialist strategy of domination, which the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has joined.

To try to overcome their crises, which are continuous rather than cyclical as in the period when Marx wrote Capital, the bourgeois class, through the central (imperialist) states, is not willing to allow governments to remain in office that offer the least resistance to its voracity (see the recent overthrow of President Dilma Rousseff in Brazil) and the permanent harassment of Maduro’s government.

Is there a way out?

In the capitalist model there is no way out except the deepening of exploitation, the destruction of nature and living beings. Therefore, as Engels said, mankind has only two alternatives: socialism or barbarism. The problem is how to get to socialism. The one that has an objective interest in this change, even if he is not aware of it, is the proletariat – the class of those dispossessed of the means of production, who depend only on their labor power to live.

In order to build socialism, this class must become conscious, organized, mobilized, and must create its own autonomous, independent power. And real power exists only if it brings together the economic, political, and ideological aspects, built from the bottom up. It is no use taking over the government of the States, either by peaceful or armed means, by promoting the transformation of the state apparatus, without enabling the rank-and-file to build the new model without being intimidated or deceived by the pressure or siren songs of the media.

Without a revolutionary leadership based on Marxist theory and an understanding of our reality and the historical experiences of each Latin American country, the masses will not build people’s power. Without the conscious and organized masses there will be no revolutionary leadership; No matter how firm and decisive a group of revolutionaries may be, it will never have the power to build socialism if it is disconnected from the masses.

Without this combination of vanguard and masses, like a locomotive and the cars of a train forming a unity, there will be no socialism in the 21st century or any other century. The lessons of history are set, but many cannot or will not learn from them.

Jose Levino is a historian

Research sources:

“The Open Veins of Latin America”, Eduardo Galeano, Paz e Terra Publishers

Le Monde Diplomatique Brazil