Few individuals played a greater role in shaping modern Bolivia than tin baron Simón Patiño, who rose from humble mestizo origins to become one of the world’s richest men, popularly known as the “Rockefeller of the Andes” and the “King of Tin”. Born in 1860 to a poor family in the Cochabamba valley, Patiño moved to Oruro in 1894 to work in a mining supply store. A year later he bought his first share in the nearby La Salvadora mine, and in 1897 bought out his partner to control what turned out to be one of the biggest deposits of high-grade tin in the world. Legend has it that at first he and his wife Albina dug out the precious ore with their own hands, carried it downhill in wheelbarrows and then across country by llama train. But in 1900 Patiño struck one of the richest veins of ore ever found in Bolivia, which was to make his fortune.
By 1905, La Salvadora was the country’s most productive mine, operated by foreign technicians with high-tech equipment. Patiño used the wealth it generated to buy up the surrounding mines and link them to the main railway line to the coast. Within fifteen years he controlled about half of Bolivia’s tin output, was the country’s most important private banker, and enjoyed an income far greater than the government, which he effectively controlled. This wealth came at the expense of the thousands of miners he employed. However, these miners suffered low pay, appalling working conditions and severe oppression.
Patiño also expanded his empire internationally, buying up mining interests and foundries in Asia, Africa, Germany, the USA and Britain. This corporation controlled the entire production process for about a quarter of the world’s tin and played an important role in setting international prices. Rumoured to have Nazi sympathies, he was said to have helped finance Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War. By the early 1920s his fortune was estimated at $100 million, making him one of the five richest men in the world. Despite this, Patiño never really overcame the prejudices of Bolivia’s white elite, and from 1924 onwards lived permanently abroad. In 1925 he moved his corporate base to the USA, but spent most of his time in London, Paris and the French Riviera. He died in Buenos Aires in 1947 and thus never lived to see the nationalization of his Bolivian mine holdings.