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In the late nineteenth century, the railroad was imagined by liberal elites as offering a marvelous fix for the country’s ongoing problems of geographical isolation, regional stagnation, and technological backwardness. Paeans to the railway, such as the passage that follows, written by the Bolivian diplomat Ignacio Calderón (1848–1927) in 1906, conceived of modernization as the replacement of the animal caravans that had long traversed the Andean landscape with the new Anglo-American-financed mode of mechanized transportation.

Calderón was the representative in Washington for the Liberal administrations of Ismael Montes (1904–9, 1913–17). He actively courted U.S. financial investment and arranged the so-called Speyer Contract, a joint stock venture between the Bolivian government, the National City Bank of New York, and the Speyer Company to construct railroads that would “vertebrate” national space. The project was intended to connect principal urban sites with mining and rubber zones. Calderón envisioned that access to the rubber region in the Beni would stimulate trade with Brazil and allow for Bolivian export of precious tropical products. But in the end, the lines that were built privileged the highland and highland valley regions, where the bulk of the population and the mineral wealth were to be found. They did not reach further east than the agricultural breadbasket of Cochabamba, which serviced the mines and major cities, and did not extend to the Beni, in the lowlands. The regional demands of Santa Cruz, implicitly noted in this passage, were put off for later.

The Speyer Contract also proved a losing financial proposition for Bolivia, which did not recoup its $22 million investment and ended up with less than half the amount of track originally promised. When the government faced economic diffculties, its foreign partners sold their shares to a British firm at a profit, and British capital came to control nearly the entirety of Bolivia’s railway network.

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