The intense geologic activity beneath the Altiplano has endowed Bolivia with extraordinary mineral riches. Silver ore extracted from a single mountain at legendary Potosí helped finance the Spanish crown for centuries and, some economists argue, created the wealth without which Europe's rise to power couldn't have happened. In the early 20th century, tin from newer mines provided the raw material for much of the world's canning industry, making it possible to keep young men in the trenches of World War I for years on end.
The Altiplano is still a source of wealth. After nearly a decade of building up the necessary infrastructure, Apex Silver Mines, a U.S. corporation, is preparing to take ore from another hill, San Cristóbal, which appears to consist almost entirely of silver, zinc, and lead. And another U.S.-owned mine, San Bartolomé at Potosí, may be the world's largest source of pure silver.Yet in the midst of all these riches—which also flow from plentiful deposits of oil and natural gas in Bolivia's lowlands—the country's per capita income is only about $3,200 a year. Immense wealth and immense poverty have challenged—and defeated—even Bolivia's few enlightened rulers, as well as persistent efforts by international goodwill organizations. Few countries can match Bolivia's disheartening history of dictatorships, coups, and purely venal rule. One former dictator, Gen. Luis García Meza Tejada, is still in jail for political murders and corruption, and three presidents between 2003 and 2006 did not serve full terms of office.
A casual observer would say that nearly all Bolivians are brown skinned and most are poor, while a smattering of people at the top of the social heap are well-off and white. But racial distinctions are never so simple. The more potent divide may be the one between the half of the population that speaks only Spanish and the remainder, the indigenous inhabitants of Bolivia, who speak one of the country's 36 other official languages—including Aymara and Quechua, the majority languages of the Altiplano—and often also speak Spanish.
Bolivia today is undergoing profound change, and those bringing it about are the very people whom various forms of despotism have kept in a state of paralyzed submission for centuries. Marching for their rights, challenging authority, exploding with rage often enough, the descendants of the first peoples are trying to make a new world for themselves—one in which they will occupy the center. The year 2005 saw their greatest triumph: Voting as a block, they elected Evo Morales, an Aymara from the Altiplano, to the presidency. What comes next is anybody's guess, but it will almost certainly not be a return to submission.