Tin Industry

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Tin Industry

The tin industry in Latin America is largely concentrated in Bolivia, which, after Malaysia, has been the largest producer of tin in the world. For over eighty years (1900–1980), tin was Bolivia's largest export. The owners of the tin mines became some of the wealthiest men in the world and extremely powerful within Bolivia. The 1952 revolution of the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) brought about the nationalization of the most important mines, providing jobs and income for the government. The tin industry also engendered one of the most powerful labor unions in Latin America.

Tin mining became important at the beginning of the twentieth century just as silver mining, the previous economic mainstay of the country, became unprofitable. Nevertheless, the nineteenth-century silver-mining boom was important, for the silver miners built the railroads that connected the highland mining areas with the Pacific coast and made feasible the transportation of a relatively inexpensive product like tin ore. Strikingly, few silver miners were able to make the transition from silver to tin. Only the Aramayo family from southern Potosí, with heavy infusions of European capital, was able to make the switch; they eventually controlled about one-fifth of the country's production. The change from silver to tin also shifted economic power from the Potosí-Sucre axis in the south to La Paz and Oruro in the north. The Federalist War of 1898–1899, which pitted the Conservative government based in the south against the Liberal Party and La Paz Federalists, confirmed the new political and economic configuration of the country. After the Liberals won, La Paz became the permanent seat of the executive and legislative powers and the de facto capital of the country.

Tin mining required a much higher level of capital investment than silver, and for this reason successful tin miners quickly allied themselves with foreign capital. By the early twentieth century three major companies controlled tin mining. In addition to the Aramayo holdings, Mauricio Hochschild, a Bolivian Jew also backed by European companies, held about 20 percent of the market. The most important tin miner, Simón Patiño, a Cochabamba Mestizo who produced about half of Bolivian output, worked with British and later U.S. companies. Despite heavy foreign financial participation, most of the tin industry remained in the hands of Bolivian nationals throughout the twentieth century.

The control the tin barons exerted over Bolivian politics from the early twentieth century to the 1952 revolution was deeply resented by many Bolivians. The Liberal Party and the Republicans were deeply influenced by Patiño and his colleagues. Patiño, however, left Bolivia in the 1920s, never to return. His company, incorporated in Delaware, was run in Bolivia by a series of administrators out of the central office in Paris, France. By this time Patiño's Bolivian mining holdings formed only a fraction of his business enterprises. His other interests included British and German tin smelteries, agroindustrial enterprises in Bolivia, and tin mines in Malaysia. Thus, although the country's largest tin miner was Bolivian, the mines themselves were run as a small portion of a multinational corporation. The mine owners, their subordinates, and their political allies were called La Rosca, a term that contained many negative connotations.

Despite the attempts at maintaining a paternalistic regimein the mine labor camps, various strikes by miners and their bloody repression by the Bolivian army led to greater labor militancy. The massacre at Uncía in 1923 and especially the Catavi Massacre in 1942 helped create antipathy toward mine owners and made it possible for labor leaders to create alliances with leftist political parties such as the MNR. The alliance with mine labor helped bring about the MNR's opposition to the mine owners and its programmatic commitment to the nationalization of the Big Three's tin operations.

When the MNR finally triumphed in the bloody revolution of 1952, one of the new government's first administrative acts was to nationalize the mines and create the Corporación Minera de Bolivia, or Comibol. In fact, the tin miners were instrumental in the triumph of the revolution. They descended from the mines and helped rout the army and occupied the major Bolivian cities. Thereafter, the largely Trotskyist mine workers remained an important force in national politics and, until the late 1980s, the leaders of the Bolivian labor movement. Although mine owners were later compensated for their losses—the United States insisted on compensation before it would recognize the revolutionary regime—the power of la rosca had been broken.

When the military overthrew the MNR in 1964, the new president, René Barrientos Ortuño, attempted to reform Comibol with U.S. advice. To make these reforms possible, Barrientos broke the power of the unions. He sent the army to occupy the mines and arrested labor leaders. This type of repression reoccurred under right-wing military dictators Hugo Banzer in 1971 and Luís García Meza in 1981.

Comibol remained the principal source of cash for the Bolivian government until the 1980s, when declining world tin prices led to the shutting down of most tin mines. The government offered to relocate the unemployed mine workers to the subtropical jungles of Bolivia. Some went to these zones, but poor infrastructure and lack of resources doomed this policy. Other former miners went to work in the coca fields of Cochabamba, and many more moved to the cities, creating a surge of urbanization in cities such as Sucre, Tarija, Cochabamba, and Santa Cruz. The industry remained depressed through the 1990s. In this environment, the government privatized many of its tin mines. However, the increased global demand for commodities in the early twenty-first century, due to the industrialization of China, has boosted tin prices. Foreign investment has increased. Also, in the twenty-first century, Bolivia continues to be the world's largest tin producers.

See alsoBanzer Suárez, Hugo; Barrientos Ortuño, René; Bolivia, Political Parties: Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR); Comibol; García Meza, Luis; Hochschild, Mauricio; Mining: Modern; Patiño, Simón Iturri.


There is no adequate monograph on the history of the Bolivian tin industry. Partial efforts include Sergio Almaraz Paz, El poder y la caída: El estaño en la historia de Bolivia (1967); Juan Albarracín Millán, El poder minero en la administración liberal (1972); Walter Gómez, La minería en el desarrollo económico de Bolivia, 1900–1970 (1976). See also Alfonso Crespo, Los Aramayo de Chichas: Tres generaciones de mineros bolivianos (1981). A useful account of Bolivian tin miners is June Nash, We Eat the Mines and the Mines Eat Us: Dependency and Exploitation in Bolivian Tin Mines (1979).

Additional Bibliography

Albarracín Millán, Juan. The London Tin Corporation y el nacionalismo boliviano. La Paz, Bolivia: Fundación Bartolomé de las Casas, 2002.

Bedregal Gutiérrez, Guillermo. COMIBOL, una historia épica. La Paz: Fondo Editorial de los Diputados, 1998.

García Flores, Pedro Pablo. La minería en Bolivia. Bolivia: Observador, 2005.

                                            Erick D. Langer