Thursday, July 16, 2015
Potosi, Bolivia (Siege day 5)
The people i have spoken to in the past 24 hours as desperation sinks in:
- The Vice Minister of the Interior
- La Nacion newspaper
- The head of the Bolivian Tourism Ministry
- The British Vice Consul
- The Times Newspaper
- Alexei (got food poisoning)
- Colonel Hinojosa, head of Potosi police
- Agence France Press
- The miserable woman who 'makes'breakfast and immediately afterwards padlocks away the salt and tea bags so we cannot get at them
- Mike Collier (legend and journalist friend)
- Rayyan Sabet-Perry (legend and journalist friend)
- A representative of the Catholic Church
- The British Ambassador
- A bloke who says he can get us more eggs and beer
- Rep from COMSIPA
- Bolivian journalists in the main square
Email to Bolivian government:
Hi (name withheld)
Here is the Carlos V Imperial Hostal Evacuation list: Northern Ireland 2, England 1, Russia 2, USA 2 (names withheld)
Due to events in Potosi, all tourist sites have been closed for a couple of weeks, with the only exception being the tours of the mines. I would assume this is because the miners still want visitors to witness the atrocious and terribly dangerous conditions they have to work in. Personally speaking, I just don't fancy going down those mines as it is genuinely unsafe. Countless men have died down there over the years, decades and centuries.
Strangely, they have decided to open up the Casa Moneda today for an hour but we have been tipped off it is only possible to get in if you knock. For one reason or another I am the only one of the Potosi 7 who wants to pay a visit. I often skip expensive museums because budgets simply don't allow but I want to get a better understanding of the history of this remarkable city.
Casa de la moneda by Elemaki/wikimedia commons
Hundreds in a day normally visit the Casa Moneda – the Bolivian National Mint. Today it is literally only me. I am on my back at the scale of this place. And the penny has finally dropped about just how significant Potosi was to the Spanish Empire. That big mountain peak , Cerro Rico that looms over Potosi, was the difference between the Spanish remaining part of the world elite for centuries. The same applies to the Catholic Church. Literally, one mountain changed and shaped the world. No wonder that mountain is central to so much Spanish and Catholic art from that period (see main image) Without that hill of silver the Spanish would not have been able to afford to build one of the greatest empires in history. From the 1500s, Potosi and parts of Mexico provided the Spanish with unfathomable amounts of wealth. During the 16th century alone, their silver reserves were said to be worth up to $2 trillion in today's values.
The cost was tens of thousands of deaths from mercury poisoning, lung disease and sub-human conditions. More than 30,000 African slaves are said to have been brought here to work and die.
Truly, Potosi was once the world's richest city and one of its most populous (second largest in the Americas at one point with 200,000 people, many of them rich Europeans). The expression 'to be worth a fortune' comes from Potosi. Valer un Potosi – to be worth a Potosi. And the mint mark of Potosi is believed, by many, to be where the US dollar sign originated from.
Today, as the poorest city in Bolivia (population now only 240,000), oh how it has been raped and abused and left to die. Almost 500 years of digging for silver, then tin and then zinc, mean that parts of the mountain could collapse soon. Already, massive sinkholes have appeared. We Europeans must teach our children and their children about all the great atrocities committed by our rich nations over the centuries instead of celebrating our disgusting empires.
The lovely guide who has shown me around tells me she fears what will happen in the next week or two. She believes we must get out of the city soon before something really bad happens. She thinks the city has no future under Morales. Five years ago apparently, a similar general strike was held in Potosi, which ended when the government promised a number of things for the city, including a new cement factory, new hospitals and significant direct investment. None of those promises were ever kept.
Afterwards, speechless as I contemplate the scale of what took place in this city over the centuries, I wander back taking in the views of stunning Potosi.
Some images of Potosi old town:
(click on images to enlarge)
Agence France Press:
I’m (name withheld), of AFP news agency. We’d received a message from our colleague in Riga, and he told us you were in trouble in Potosi, because of a general strike in that city. Is it possible to know about your situation, and maybe can you give us a local phone number (from the hotel maybe or a person you are close there) for calling you? We were trying to reach you in your Riga’s number but it didn´t work. Also I wasn’t able to find your WhatsApp. Please, let´s us know any news, and we really hope things became better soon. Regards
British Head Consul: I understand the representative from the Tourism Ministry has been in touch with you but please let me know if you still have concerns about the evacuation arrangements. We understand the evacuation by coach will take place later today and you should be taken to La Paz (if this still is your preference).
Letter to Bolivian government: the colonel was not there as promised. the police do not have an organised evacuation plan. they are talking about us leaving in a bus organised by a hostel but there is no guarantee of safety. there is a mass demo planned here at 2 and already people are arriving from every direction
It is another mass demo day. As much as I would like to, rather than risking watching it from nearby, I think it is best to follow the live TV coverage from the safety of our hotel. Po-to-si, ley ley ley, the protesters repeat over and over again. From time to time, sticks of dynamite are thrown a few yards in front of the lead marchers, exploding with a large bang each time, a few seconds later.
It is officially confirmed that yesterday's evacuation of the Argentines was botched. The news doesn't fill any of us with confidence.
Meanwhile, the journalist from the Times doesn't think our story is newsworthy. But, when I try to contact her on Facebook and she ignores my messages, I notice she's spent half of her day in London posting photos and 'hilarious tit bits' about her bloody dogs. I despair. Now that our situation has become worryingly precarious I see what other people are emailing and tweeting about outside the bubble of Bolivia and it all seems like a complete and utter load of bollocks. Pardon my French. Nonsense about which striker is going to some Premier league club, photos of what people had for lunch, wasn't doo dah whatsit brilliant on Britain's Got Talent last night. I feel like I am living in reality and all those people are occupying some candy floss dream world.
In the evening, and seemingly out of the blue, we are suddenly told to pack and follow someone to Koala Hostel. As the news comes only from our hotel manager - and not from the police or embassies - we are a little suspicious this news is genuine. The hotel staff have become rude and nervous during the past 24 hours; as if our presence has begun to threaten their own security. And they are adamant we must leave right now, attempting to overcharge poor Alexei, who is only just recovering from his bout of food poisoning, in the process. It seems ironic that I have spent five days in such an amazing room; the poshest backpacker pad I have ever had.
The hotel boss skips through the main square and down some side streets to the hostel. As the seven of us are carrying our backpacks, we are attracting lots of attention from the locals.
Once we arrive, we stand in the street with our rucksacks in the darkness but there is no sign of the police and army. Our former hotel manager scuttles off into the shadows before we can get an answer from him about what the hell is going on.
Inside the hostel, I speak to some French teenagers who tell us the evacuation has been called off. Haha. So all they have done has corralled all the non-Argentines into one place. For the second day running, our evacuation out of Potosi has been abandoned or botched. Christine doesn't think we will get out of here at all and wants to leave early tomorrow morning. Andy is quickly talking sense into her. "Which direction are you gonna go in?" "Down there." "And then where? And where after that?"
The French are also discussing leaving as a group early doors. I am trying to convince everyone to stick together and explain to the French that I am speaking to the foreign press about their plight. They came here to volunteer and help the local poor. I think when the foreign press hears that they did this and are now trapped, there will be enormous pressure on the authorities and local civic leaders to evacuate them. The French could be every foreigner's ticket out of here.
There is actually no room for us in the hostel although there is another hostel with an almost identical name nearby called the 'Koala Den'. The owners are extremely friendly and accommodating.
We go for a walk in our new neighbourhood. Many street sellers are out and nobody is stopping them. The atmosphere has changed for some reason. It leaves me with a sense of genuine hope, even if most of the Potosi 7 are resigned to defeat after our second botched evacuation in two days.
Back at the hostel, Andy and I are using twitter to push our message. A couple of notable, well-followed people have retweeted us and More Than a Game is picking up lots and lots of new followers, many of them media people and interested parties with thousands if not tens of thousands of individual followers. I have never been a fan of twitter but I can see how it can be used by anyone to potentially push a message. An Argentine journalist contacts me after picking up some of my posts from the #potosi hashtag. Better still, a reputable French journalist is in touch. I feel Andy and I are gaining momentum in our push to use the media to get us out of here.
Near the Koala Den, there is a little convenience shop where you can bang on the corrugated iron and mutter some passwords to the lady hidden in the shadows. More beer, eggs and noodles!
After an evening of twitter and emails, Andy and I sit over a couple of beers discussing our predicament.
What happens after a city has been raped and abused for centuries? This is what happens. The two of us are in total solidarity with the people of Potosi and believe in their struggle. We don't blame them for this general strike and siege. If I were one of them, I would join them. But I am not and I would just like them to let me and my friends leave in peace as this is not our fight.