From the Mines to the Streets: A Bolivian Activist's Life

Excerpt from "From the Mines to the Streets: A Bolivian Activist's Life" by Benjamin Kohl and Linda C. Farthing, with Félix Muruchi. For more information on the book see

Chapter 4: Joining the State Company


Getting a Job


Once the new government gained control of the Valle Alto [Cochabamba's upper valley], my discharge papers arrived, and I headed home. I was happy to leave the barracks. Military service had allowed me to learn a little bit more about the world outside the mine. Both in my own eyes and those of the community, I was now an adult.

Before joining the army, I had kept up contact with my family's communities, and when I went to fiestas [celebrations] there, I met people of my age who had already completed their military service. They had always looked at me and my friends as if we were still children. Sometimes we saw old men who hadn't served when they were young, and people always made fun of them. Just knowing I would never suffer such treatment made me feel good, and I returned home with my head held high.

With my new maturity came a new attitude toward work. I no longer wanted to labor as a juk'u or even for a venerista, because I realized that formal work in the state company was much better. I had seen other ways of life and was determined to move up in the world. And I had the essential prerequisite for a state job, which was the military service booklet.

Workers in Siglo XX were hired through the union, so I went off to speak to Don Gilberto Bernal, the permanent secretary. "Yes, we are signing people up, but you need to make the arrangements with compañero Federico Escobar, the worker control representative," he said, pointing to a nearby door. This reflected that a certain level of worker control still existed in the mine despite the Barrientos coup.
At that time, the MNR and the Catholic Church had joined forces to keep the communists from fully controlling the union. Irineo Pimentel, the general secretary, had their support, and it was no secret that he was there to contest power with Federico Escobar. To reduce tensions and infighting, Federico invited Pimentel, who had a separate but adjoining office, to combine efforts. One concrete measure of their collaboration was that they cut a hole in the wall connecting their offices, which served to increase symbolic, as much as material, cooperation. However, each maintained his own list of unemployed workers, which allowed them to build separate bases of support within the union. I first went to Gilberto Bernal, as I knew that he worked with Escobar, who I thought better represented miners' interests and who I knew was more popular than Pimentel.

At Escobar's office, six men were seated in a line of chairs against the wall waiting their turn to talk to him. I listened curiously as the workers asked for advice or support on work or family problems, and Escobar paid careful attention to their entreaties, answering each one with authority and confidence. When my turn came, I enthusiastically blurted, "I want you to add my name to the list of miners looking for work."

He just stared at me. "I'm sorry. We're not signing anyone else up because there simply isn't enough work. Besides, you're young, not like the other compañero who was just here," he said, pointing to an empty chair. "He has six children, so his needs are clearly greater. We have to find him work first."

I stood there, dumbfounded and fixed on the spot, because it never occurred to me he would refuse my request. I plaintively responded, "But I've just completed my military service." Something in my manner affected Escobar, and he looked at me long and hard. Then he picked up a piece of paper, where he wrote down my name and said, "Take this to the secretary, she'll add your name to the list."

There were about 640 people ahead of me, but because I lived at home and my father supported me, I had lots of time to go to the union hall every day, where, with 500 other unemployed men, I waited patiently for the newest list to be posted. Even though I realized I would not be hired immediately, I had to show up every day. If I missed a roll call, they dropped my name to the bottom. For two months, I showed up five days a week, first in the morning and again in the afternoon.

One day compañero Escobar announced, "All those who are unemployed should organize themselves to travel to the COMIBOL offices in La Paz and demand work. We'll take you in one of the company trucks." After naming a commission of six representatives to negotiate with the company, we set off the next day in one of those huge British Leyland trucks they use for hauling mineral. Many of the men weren't able to get ready in time, so in the end only 320 of us traveled to La Paz. I had already moved halfway up the list.
Juan Lechín Oquendo, a machinist, a star soccer player in the miners' league, and then a member of Bolivia's sizeable Trotskyist party, the Revolutionary Workers' Party (Partido Obrero Revolucionario, or POR), assumed the leadership of the Federation, a post he held for forty-three years. In 1946, the FSTMB adopted the Pulacayo Thesis, promoted by the POR, which closely followed Leon Trotksy's belief in a worker-led revolutionary government.

The FSTMB played a defining role in the 1952 revolution, which, along with revolutions in Mexico and Cuba, was one of Latin America's most profound. The FSTMB spearheaded the consolidation of what would become a formidable labor confederation the Bolivian Workers Central (Central Obrera Boliviana, or COB). The COB forced the new middle-class government to make good on its promises to nationalize the Tin Barons' mines. As part of a cogovernment deal between the COB and the government, Juan Lechín assumed one of five worker-controlled posts as the mining minister and shifted his loyalties to the MNR. He later served as Bolivia's vice president in 1960 before abandoning the party in disgust at its right-wing drift and forming the Revolutionary Party of the Nationalist Left (Partido Revolucionario de la Izquierda Nacional, or PRIN).

A system of worker control (control obrero), designed to grant union representatives some degree of veto power over management decisions in state-owned enterprises, was introduced by presidential decree in 1953 and took root unevenly in the mines between 1955 and 1963, emerging most successfully at Siglo XX (Gall 1974b). While the Office of Worker Control exercised a watchdog role over COMIBOL funds, its representatives had no participation in decision-making, and only one union representative served on each local management board. Attempts to extend the system to other sectors failed.

We arrived after hours on the road, dusty and tired, at the headquarters of the Miners' Federation in La Paz, and we camped out in the large meeting room, which gave it the appearance of a military encampment as we spread our bedrolls on the floor. I remember sitting in the room studying two murals by Miguel Alandia Pantoja, a famous Bolivian artist. The paintings, ten to fifteen feet high and twenty to twenty-five feet long, portrayed the struggles of the miners before the 1952 revolution. Unfortunately, they were destroyed after the 1980 coup of Luis García Meza.

The day after we arrived, Juan Lechín, the head of the Federation, met with us. We immediately told him that we had decided to undertake a hunger strike if we were not given jobs. In the early 1960s, the Housewives Committee of La Paz had used hunger strikes with some success, and by the middle of the decade they were incorporated into social movement strategies. Lechín looked us up and down and commented, "You must be the group that Escobar sent. I'm sure Pimentel will send his own group shortly, but we'll arrange a meeting for you with the president of COMIBOL."

After Lechín left, leaders of the local unemployed workers' union showed up and told us that if we wanted to find work, we had to join their federation, which would cost us five pesos per person. They were all very well dressed in suits and ties; we stared at them in disbelief and responded, "Why should we join your union? Our problem is far more urgent than yours. Even if you are unemployed, you obviously still receive some income from your union, and so you can hold out longer." We couldn't figure out any reason to join, as our union was based in Siglo XX, not La Paz. We figured they just wanted to collect five pesos from each of us.

While this was the first time I had come to La Paz, I didn't have any chance to see the city. Every day we were busy in meetings, being interviewed, or filling out forms required both by the union and COMIBOL. After three days, we were summoned to a meeting in the COMIBOL offices. The building had been owned by Patiño before the 1952 revolution and was the fanciest building in La Paz. The main entrance was built in polished black granite, with beautifully detailed revolving doors. We walked through the lobby, which was completely done up in marble, and it seemed that we were the only people who weren't dressed in suits and ties, but there were enough of us that I didn't feel out of place. The meeting was held in the wood-paneled auditorium on the third floor, and even though more than 300 of us filed into the room, there was space for more. When we were seated, the president of COMIBOL, Lechín, and other mining leaders took the stage, and the president announced a plan to survey and sample Siglo XX. He said this new project would allow him to hire 390 additional workers.

We were overjoyed, and with agreement in hand, we returned to Catavi in the back of the truck, standing squeezed together for the freezing twelve-hour trip. But we neither got tired nor felt the cold, because we were so excited that we had won the right to work. A couple of days later, they posted the list of those of us who had been hired. The first fifty names included the neediest men with families and children to support, and young, single men like me were down at the bottom. But they systematically went through the entire list, and, after a few months, on April 15, 1965, I started work as a miner.

Life in the Mining Town


The entire area was brimming with minerals, and there were tin mines not just in Siglo XX, but also in Uncía and Catavi, where the company's main administrative offices were located. The Siglo XX mining district was divided into two sectors: the camp and company administration, and the mine itself. The city of Llallagua bordered the mining camp. Together, they comprised the combined metropolitan area of Siglo XX–Llallagua, which at that time had about 120,000 inhabitants. Some 5,000 families lived in Siglo XX, each with an average of five children, so about 35,000 people in all. My family lived in the Salvadora Camp, a half-mile from the principal mine entrance of the Siglo XX mine, at an altitude of 12,200 feet above sea level.

The road finally dissolves into the Plaza del Minero, the center of communal life at the mine. [It] is dominated by the heroic statue of a bare-chested, helmeted miner raising a rifle aloft in his right hand while pressing a pneumatic drill into the ground with his left. The statue commemorates Bolivia's 1952 Revolution, but its bold, angular lines point merely to a three-story concrete facade painted with a riot of rival political slogans: the headquarters of the miners' sindicato.

All the installations in sight were built before the mines were nationalized in the Bolivian revolution of 1952, save for the union headquarters, the only permanent building on the plaza, its facade . . . pocked with bullet marks. The windows are still broken from last September's battle [1965], in which some 50 miners, soldiers and policemen were killed and more than 100 were wounded.

[A] small army of boys gather each afternoon around a huge rack of comic books Spanish translations of Superman, Batman and Donald Duck displayed beneath the Communist posters adorning the sindicato headquarters and rented for a penny a half-hour. Many of the unemployed wander into an old, concrete movie house where the admission charge is two cents like nearly everything else here dating back to the Patiño days. . . .

Bowler-hatted Indian women sell ice cream, cotton candy, and glasses of chicha next to the miner's statue. Near the market stalls across the plaza there is a constant flow of altiplano Indians in dusty ponchos and floppy sheepskin hats who bring potatoes and firewood on clusters of llamas to sell at the miners' houses. These Indians gradually melt into the mining community as porters in the marketplace and peons in the marginal workings greatly swelling the local population. (Gall 1966; used with permission)

The settlement was called Salvadora, because when Simón Patiño, the first Tin Baron, was just putting the mine into production, the principal vein abruptly disappeared. Patiño was desperate, on the verge of abandoning the mine and returning to Oruro bankrupt. According to popular legend, late one night he descended into the mine and forged a pact with the Tío, the god of the mine interior. An enormous vein suddenly appeared before his eyes, larger than had ever been found, and it was called La Salvadora. With the increase in demand for labor to work the new vein, an additional neighborhood was built, which was baptized Salvadora as well.

Approximately 1,700 people crowded into the settlement in small adobe houses, each one about 650 square feet, divided into a 13-by-16-foot living room, a 6.5-by-10-foot bedroom, a 6.5-by-6.5-foot kitchen, plus a small patio. This was considered an adequate house for a family with eight children. Families with only three or four children had even smaller houses. Electricity switched on only at night and for an hour at midday. There was no indoor plumbing or sewer system. The entire settlement had only one latrine, with twelve compartments for men and an equal number for women, which was located about two hundred yards from my house. Two public taps served the entire settlement, one of which was one hundred yards from our house. To fill canisters with water, generally we had to wait in line for about five minutes.

We bought our food from the pulpería [company store], which was a kind of supermarket only for mine workers. Four items were subsidized: rice, sugar, bread, and meat. Other articles like vegetables and clothes were sold at market prices. It wasn't necessary to pay in cash; if there was a mine worker in the household, the family was registered with the store, but each worker's family could only shop every other day.

The worker's wife was responsible for stocking the house and taking care of the children. My mother usually got up at four in the morning to prepare food for my father before he left for the mine. When I began working, she did the same for me. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, right after we headed out the door, she hurried to the company store to stand in the long queue for the necessities, finally returning at midday. She spent half the morning in separate lines for bread, meat, rice, and sugar. While she was out shopping for food, the older siblings helped the younger ones to prepare for school.

In the bedroom, we shared three beds. My parents had their own; the children slept two, three, or even four to a bed in the other two. Because the house lacked a proper ceiling, and just had a tin roof, it was tremendously cold, so aside from being a necessity, sleeping together kept us warm.

Military Occupation of the Mine


About a month and a half after I started work, General Barrientos launched his political assault on workers, directing his ire principally at the miners. On May 7, 1965, the government decreed a new Mining Code, which undermined the gains of the 1952 revolution. Its principal objective was to privatize the state mining company, and the union with its combative leadership presented the most substantial obstacle. The transnational companies imposed this measure on the country so that they could improve their access to new mining concessions. With this law, the reprivatization of our national wealth began. It also heralded the formal creation of mining cooperatives.

The government immediately ordered massive firings of miners, and particularly union leaders. Officials first lowered salaries by 25 percent and deployed both legal and physical force to confront protesters. The government recalled all recently discharged soldiers to active duty. Faced with the high probability of a bloody massacre, mining leaders had little choice but to flee into exile, most of them to Argentina. Federico Escobar escaped to Chile, and others stayed in the country, but hid underground. In some cases they escaped to their communities of origin in the countryside.

Some weeks later, in July, compañero Cesar Lora, a well-known union leader, was assassinated. He was a high-ranking leader in the Revolutionary Workers' Party (Partido Obrero Revolucionario, or POR-Lora) who worked in the Beza section inside the mine. He was brother to Guillermo Lora, a great national intellectual. Another compañero, Ribota, was also murdered, and his body was later found with signs that he had been tortured.

By September we could no longer tolerate the constant abuse of the national police. The government justified the increased police presence as aimed at controlling the jukeo and declared a state of siege in the mines, arresting people for no obvious reason. Sometimes the police accused those who were being jailed of being juk'us when they weren't. And sometimes as we left the mine entrance, they checked us over for contraband mineral.

On Saturday night, September 19, 1965, a confrontation erupted between police and students at the secondary school where I studied at night while working in the mines during the day. When we left school at 11 p.m., the police refused us passage through the main plaza of Llallagua most of us lived on the far side of the plaza in the mining camps of Siglo XX. We were exhausted many of us had worked all day and then gone to study in the evening, and not going through the plaza meant a far longer walk home. Despite our exhaustion, this infuriated us, and we started to hurl rocks at the police, who reacted by setting off tear gas and firing their guns. We rapidly retreated, but several students were arrested and others wounded. This made the miners, both students and nonstudents, even angrier, and we decided to take to the streets again on Monday, even though it was clear that the military was trying to provoke a confrontation to justify their occupation of the mines.

The media called us communist agitators, and government officials proclaimed it was their duty to remove the troublemakers to ensure public safety, so they sought to install handpicked union leaders who would represent state rather than worker interests. They arrested three principal leaders Filemón Escobar, another leader whose name I don't remember, and Isaac Camacho, who disappeared in 1967 and was assassinated. His remains were never recovered.

On Monday, September 21, 1965 [National Students' Day in Bolivia], we learned, as we were heading off to work, that as many as 200 workers had been pulled out of their houses, arrested, and some even shot and killed. We were enraged rather than frightened. We organized emergency meetings in every section inside the mine and announced a walkout to demand freedom for the detained union leaders and workers. Several family members of those arrested told us that the prisoners were being held at the police station. We decided to march there, but before we took to the streets we raided the warehouse where dynamite for underground blasting is stored. The aboveground workers joined the 1,200 underground miners. We were close to 3,000 strikers in all.

We all had sticks of dynamite strung across our chests like old-fashioned cartridge belts as we marched together to the Miners' Plaza. But suddenly we realized that almost all our leaders had been arrested, and so we had no one to address the crowd. We were accustomed to having a leader direct the assembly, and so no one dared speak and, honestly, no one had the skills to forcefully address the crowd either. Finally we convinced compañero Vargas to lead the meeting. Of course, he didn't have the oratory power of our leaders, and instead gave a simple talk about our arrested comrades in the jail. The assembly demanded they be freed by noon. Meanwhile, groups of strikers surrounded the police station. My section was assigned to the west part of the jail. The younger students were responsible for keeping us informed about the ongoing negotiations. At noon the police still refused to meet our demands, and in fact, we discovered that the prisoners had been moved to Oruro.

We had agreed that if we couldn't free the prisoners, we would attack and break the military's siege. There was no lack of people willing to initiate the offensive against the police, who by then had climbed on the roof of the jail to better control the area. One of my comrades set off a stick of dynamite near the city hall, and the police, more out of fright than anything else, I think, began to fire.

We only had dynamite against the rifles, machine guns, and grenades of the police, but our numbers gave us an advantage. I felt all fired up that this was our chance to free the prisoners. We had a great sense that we were right in our demands, and this, along with our superior numbers, and the feeling that we were braver than the police, gave us the strength to attack the jail even though we were largely unarmed. The immediate goal was to wrest guns away from the police so we could arm ourselves and engage in a more equal combat.

As miners, we were accustomed to danger, as we lived under an indeterminate death sentence: the only question was whether we would die in a mining accident or live long enough to fall victim to the slow drowning of black lung. So we confronted the police fueled by rage and without fear. In retrospect, perhaps we were not conscious of what we were going up against; however, in the heat of the moment, and with the knowledge that we were part of a group of 3,000 fighting for our brothers' freedom, we advanced. We simply did not consider the consequences.

We were steadily closing in on the jail, forcing the police to retreat, when I realized that shots were raining down from the hillsides. We had been surrounded by the army, who were attacking us from behind. At just this moment, I felt a sharp sting in my left buttock, and then wetness from blood flowing down my leg. I think it was probably a piece of a grenade that hit me. I gradually backed out of the combat in the direction of the river and headed home as quickly as I could by way of the Río Seco (Dry River), the only place out of sight of the army. At that moment I was not so much worried about the wound, which turned out not to be serious, but rather about the brutal massacre that was about to take place.

My poor mother was horribly frightened by the nearby sounds of battle and was enormously relieved to see me. So as not to worry her more, I didn't tell her about my wound and instead headed to one of my cousin's houses. He was a nurse, and he expertly bandaged me up. A bit later, and much more relaxed, I returned home.

During the course of the afternoon, the company, with police support, forcibly evicted a group of workers from a Patiño-era army barracks that had been turned into informal housing. They quickly loaded the miners, along with their few belongings, into trucks and hauled them off to schools and other locations. About five o'clock, along with a newly arrived contingent of soldiers, prisoners from the confrontation, with their hands behind their heads, were forced into the now-vacant barracks.

Military units, originally from Santa Cruz, transported the prisoners. They were the ones who had landed at the Uncía airport before attacking us from behind. The event, which left more than thirty people dead and hundreds wounded, including miners and police, was called the September Massacre. Many of the prisoners were detained in the district and others moved to Oruro. This was the beginning of constant military occupations of the mine. Once they began, no one had any desire to work, and so repeated radio announcements demanded that we go back. For three days we held out, but eventually we had little choice but to return into the mines when the company threatened to fire anyone who didn't show up.

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