"Slow Death in Bolivia"

By Norman Gall

June 1966

THE PLAZA DEL MINERO at the huge, nationalized Siglo Veinte tin mine 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 mayhem of rival political slogans and pocked with bullet marks: the wasted headquarters of the miners’ sindicato. The windows are still broken from last September’s battle, in which some 50 miners, soldiers and policemen were killed and more than 100 were wounded—all in vain. For despite the continuing agitation and violence, little has changed in Bolivia except the Revolution itself, now degenerated into a loose confederation of gangster-satrapies. The theme of Bolivian life remains slow death in the mines.

Bolivia’s tin miners, protagonists 14 years ago in one of Latin America’s most profound and convulsive social revolutions, have been betrayed repeatedly by the corruption and extremism of their leaders and have as yet found no exit from the misery which prompted their initial rebellion. Nationalization of the mines, the revolutionary cry and hope for social justice before the 12-year rule (1951-64) of the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR), has proven politically as well as economically bankrupt. Instead of easing off over the years, the rhythm of violence at the mines has intensified.

Today Bolivia is again being ruled by a military junta; once more it is bogged down in internal military rivalries and the squabbling of a dozen pocket political parties, each seeking the backing of a powerful group of generals and colonels. Elections are set for July 3, with General Rene Barrientos—handsome, U.S.-trained leading figure of the 1964 coup that ousted MNR President Victor Paz Estenssoro—still unopposed for the Presidency. But the pre-revolutionary game of conspiratorial roulette among the several jealous factions has been enthusiastically revived and next month’s balloting, probably rigged, means little.

Bolivia is one of those small nations of the Hemisphere—like Cuba, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic—where Latin American revolution has proceeded more radically and violently than in the larger countries. In 1952 the MNR quickly nationalized the mines, decreed universal suffrage and gave land and freedom to the peasants, formerly serfs composing 70 per cent of the population. This profound restructuring of Bolivian life brought the average miner, over a few years, from the quiet feudal bondage of some isolated hacienda into the radical politics, continual violence and in many ways still deeper bondage of mines such as Siglo Veinte.

The most recent cycle of violence began in December 1963, after two leaders of the Communist-run sindicato were jailed. Four American Embassy officials were taken hostage in reprisal, and President Johnson, barely two weeks in power, publicly suggested to President Paz Estenssoro that U.S. troops be sent to Bolivia to rescue the Americans. The hostages ultimately were freed through the intercession of the Archbishop of La Paz, after the mine was surrounded by Army troops and armed MNR peasant militias.

Since overthrowing Paz Estenssoro in November 1964, the Army has twice more sent troops into the mines to crush armed rebellions provoked by the arrest of Leftist leaders. And with the repression at Siglo Veinte, many believe that a phase of the Bolivian Revolution, perhaps even the Revolution itself, has ended.

The fighting began last September when Isaac Camacho, a young Trotskyite leader, was arrested in his house just a month after the mysterious assassination of another Trotskyite leader. Camacho was an organizer of the clandestine sindicatos formed after the regular mine unions were banned for fighting the Army and Air Force four months earlier in other mines. His wife ran screaming to a canteen where other Trotskyites were gathered; someone rang the emergency siren at the sindicato building; and following a brief meeting, a crowd of miners—many in their usual Saturday afternoon drunkeness— stoned the police station. Dispersed by tear gas, they returned with dynamite and small arms and forced the police to abandon the Station. The fighting continued sporadically in the streets until 11:30 P.M. and four were killed.

Two days later, on Monday morning, the miners stole 5,000 sticks of dynamite from the mine interior and emerged, in traditional fashion, for a demonstration in the Plaza del Minero. The Army already had sent troops to the mine. Some took positions on the surrounding enormous gray-green mounds of waste ore. There, overlooking the rows of adobe dwellings, their corrugated tin roofs glistening in the brilliant sunshine and loaded with heavy stones to keep the wind from blowing them away, they set up bazookas and machine guns. Other soldiers, meanwhile, took positions in the winding, reddish river beds where the unemployed search for isolated pockets of mineral among the rocks.

The Army was met by gunfire from the communal latrines, built for 40 persons to squat at a time. and from behind the rusted scrap metal piled before the miners’ houses for protection against the wind. World War II fighter planes of the Bolivian Air Force machine-gunned the higher mountainside settlements called Calvary and Cancañiri, where a large number of mineral thieves lived—organized by the Trotskyites—and where the Army’s advance was resisted with rifles and dynamite (cast with a sling-shot, shepherd-style, and packed together with nails in condensed milk cans).

HE SEPTEMBER battle lasted a little less than 12 hours. By its end the miners, who in 1952 had destroyed the Bolivian Army in bloody street fighting that swept the MNR to power, were again subjected to primitive industrial feudalism: To revive COMIBOL, the bankrupt state corporation running the nationalized mines at a $1 million-a-month loss, the government halved the miners’ pay to 80 cents a day, abolished the unions and their veto power over management decisions, and sharply reduced miners’ quotas of low-priced food in the subsidized pulperias (company stores). The principal Communist mine bosses not in hiding were either jailed, exiled or bribed by the military government—which had intimidated many of them in recent years with the new, heavy weaponry provided by the U.S. to rebuild the 8,000-man Bolivian Army, twice in the past 20 years defeated in popular uprisings.

The Czech automatic weapons distributed among the 25,000 miners after the Revolution had either been sold privately over the years or, under pressure, handed over to the Army. "We still have some arms hidden, but no bullets," said one Leftist leader. "We used to buy many of our weapons from Army officers and soldiers, but recently the Army changed the calibre of light arms. We are trying now to buy one of those new machines that can change the calibre of the Army’s bullets."

The Siglo Veinte mine is cradled among sullen, rusted hills that rise from the moon-like landscape to embrace the swollen hive of penury which the great mine has become. The funerals after last September’s fighting followed each other in the old Indian way of the altiplano, the 12,000 feet-high Andean desert of stone and scrub running the length of Bolivia and wrapped in monotony, in fatalism, in adobe superstitions.

The casket issued from its place of display inside the sindicato building movie theater, escorted by the muted, whining trumpets of an Indian band and by a horde of stunted, square-faced, bronze men in bleak-blue Sunday suits of the cheapest cloth. The plangent dirge was swollen softly by the tubas, French horns and drums in the procession, as it worked its way up the steep. stony streets of the mining camp and into the modern parish church built a few years ago by some Canadian priests. Following the Requiem Mass, it moved down hill into Llallagua, the commercial district of the mining complex, past Indian peasants with glazed, doll like eyes conducting a llama herd through the marketplace.

Picking up mourners on the way, the funeral choked the narrow cobblestone main street, driving into side alleys the Indian women on the curbs selling contraband radios and sewing machines, oranges from the tropical Oriente of Bolivia and roasted mutton snacks called anticuchos. The casket paused at another church to be blessed by another priest, continued down the scarred, brown hillsides across the Maria Barsola Field—where in 1942 the miners first clashed with the Army, leaving 40 dead—and then disappeared for a while inside the adobe walls of the cemetery.

"We never go to the cemetery," one of the Canadian priests told me. "They still have their old ways and they are not very comfortable with us present." The bereaved family passes around aguardiente, a sugar-based alcoholic brew that is sprinkled on the new grave to honor the earth goddess known as the Pacha Mama and into the air to appease the Spirit of the Hills, commending the soul to their divine care. Then there is a lot of dancing and weeping and drinking. The mourners take a long time in coming home.

The miner’s life is haunted always by such spirits. There are 500 miles of tunnel within the Siglo Veinte mine. In one of the lower enclosures stands a statute of the Devil called the Tío (Uncle), fashioned in the grotesque Indian style of the altiplano’s Lenten carnivals. In times of crisis and festivity the Tío is placated with offerings of cigarettes, coca leaves and chicha, a potent Andean corn liquor fermented after the grain is chewed by a housewife. The Tío is regarded as the promoter of cave-ins, and miners vanishing at the lower levels are believed to have been dragged by it into Hell.

HE MINER is transfigured while at work: Constantino Apasa’s taut, handsome Indian features are distorted by the plug of coca leaves in his mouth, smearing his lips green and swelling his jowels. The leaves are masticated together with a lime ball to produce cocaine and an artificial gastric secretion which eases hunger. In the heat of the lower recesses, 1,000 feet below the ground, his sweating bronze face is powdered white by the dust rising from his pneumatic drill as he attacks the most upper reaches of a cavern.

Stored carefully near the place he works is a small jar of cold, unsweetened tea. "The tea is our breakfast and lunch," he told me. "We cannot afford sugar for the tea because a family of nine has to be fed on 80 cents a day. The kids are always sick for lack of food and catching each others’ illnesses. In school they are packed 75 in a small classroom. They often sit on the classroom floor, and study without books. My father tried very hard so that it would be better than this. He sent me away to a private high school, but I had to come back here after the 1942 massacre. The miners marched on Catavi [the office area of the mining complex] carrying a large Bolivian flag down the hill from the mining camps to ask for more pay. The Army was called in and fired on them. My father jumped into a sewage canal to save himself. The miners attacked the Army barracks and took the guns. When more troops were sent, about 40 miners were killed. My father was fired, and I had to come back from school to work making adobe bricks.

"I went into the Army and then went into the mine, pushing ore cars. I have been inside the mine for 15 years. I cannot tell you how terrible it is to grow old in the mine. You swallow dust for years and, though the company doctors say you’re still healthy, the mal de mina [silicosis] comes all at once. You start coughing blood and then after a few months or years your lungs collapse completely. The mine is very old. After all these years of exploitation, the quality of the mineral is so poor that, instead of extracting it in the old way, they are blasting away the insides of the mine to get out the remaining material and finish it within five years.

"When the MNR came to power in 1952, we felt it was a workers’ party and things would be different. But then the MNR politicians organized a secret police and filled their pockets. They rebuilt the Army which we destroyed, and when it got big enough the Army threw them out. Now the Army has new weapons which we cannot match. We have to talk reason, but the tensions are very great and many of us feel very little is won by reason here in Bolivia. We live now worse than with Patiño. At least the old man understood that to get men to work you have to feed them decently, and there was plenty of cheap food in the pulperias. What we need is an armed uprising at the same time in all the mines. This used to be easy when each sindicato in each mine had its own radio station. We could call each other on the open airwaves and organize a national strike or a march on La Paz within a few hours. But now the Army has closed our radio stations."

Apasa defends his house against the piercing night wind by setting a sheet of discarded boilerplate against the door. Behind it in one room, nine persons sleep in two beds. Suspended from the ceiling is a bicycle and baby carriage. Along the walls are an old soccer photo of Constantino with his teammates, and a wedding picture in a finely-worked silver frame. A broken window is stuffed with an old burlap mineral bag. Below the window outside the house two dried fish heads hang on a wire for good luck. On another wire stretched above a small stove, salted meat is hanging out to dry. Flowers are planted on the front steps in old wooden dynamite boxes, whitened by the sun.

Along the Street on nice afternoons, Indian wives in tall, white stovepipe hats—typical of the Cochabamba Valley where many of the miners were born—wash clothes in tin basins. At night Indian herdsmen, coming from the altiplano with brushwood for the miner’s homes, often bring small herds of llamas to the streets and sleep behind the boilerplate in front of the doors wrapped in brown ponchos.

The brushwood piled before the doors also helps keep the wind out. But disease persists: "Infant mortality is about 40 per cent," said a young, Paris-educated company doctor," and 60 per cent of the children between one and five have tuberculosis. Half the adult population is alcoholic, and silicosis runs about 80 per cent among the miners. Now there is an epidemic of hepatitis and diarrhea caused by bad water, and our hospital has run out of penicillin."

EXTRACTING minerals from the Andes at excruciating altitudes has been Bolivia’s main activity and agony for centuries. Cerro Rico, the silver mountain of Potosi, the richest silver deposit ever known, was mined and minted by altiplano Indians, working under the lash until they fell dead and their corpses were cast down the mountainsides surrounding the city. Discovered in the mid-16th century, a decade after Pizarro’s initial victory over the Inca, the silver of Potosi created America’s first fabulous city, 14,000 feet high, with a population of 160,000 which sent enough silver to Spain to build its Armada and finance its European wars. Then in the 19th century, shortly after Bolivia was created as a buffer state by the Creole generals who won independence from Spain, the silver gave out.

The revolutionary change began with tin and with the Indian who got rich from tin, Simon Patiño. A stocky cholo (an Indian converting to Hispanic culture) from the Coehabamba Valley, he was fired from a job as vendor for an import-export firm for accepting as debt security an exhausted silver mine called La Salvadora, near what is now Siglo Veinte. Gaining the right to exploit the mine himself, he discovered in the old silver tailings enormous deposits of tin—so great that Siglo Veinte alone once produced 14 per cent of the world’s supply. While his wife sold coca leaves in the marketplace of Llallagua, he panned the mineral himself in the river bed, sending ore 200 miles over the Andes to the Pacific coast on the backs of llamas.

Then he began recruiting Indians from his native Cochabamba to work as miners. This jolting introduction to the 20th century—compounded by the effects of the Great Depression and Bolivia’s humiliating defeat and territorial loss to Paraguay in the Choco War (1932-1935)—began a process of radicalization which could not be reversed. Ever since then Siglo Veinte, Bolivia’s biggest mine, has been swarming with extremist politicians of every shade, trying to mobilize the miners as a fighting force.

Patiño, by the end of World War I one of the world’s great industrial princes, never returned to Bolivia after leaving when he suffered a heart attack in 1924 in La Paz. But he was so intimately familiar with his mine that even from regal exile in New York, Paris and Buenos Aires he could issue detailed orders to his engineers. Neither his tight managerial control nor the troops he sent against his striking miners, though, could stop the revolution that was on its way.

Emigdio Penaranda came to Siglo Veinte shortly before nationalization. Then a young man, now a softspoken, middle-aged engineer, he has worked there ever since. "Before the revolution, nearly all the engineers were high-paid foreigners brought by Patiño," he said, "Bolivian engineers found it hard to advance. There was a caste system with the gringos on top and the miners on the bottom and we somewhere in between. The miners were mostly Indians from distant valleys and couldn’t speak Spanish. When the Revolution came, we all tried very hard. Everyone worked long hours, seven days a week often, and there was great spirit and discipline in our work. The Bolivian miners and engineers wanted to show they could run the mines themselves. Production rose until 1955, when world tin prices collapsed following the Korean War. There was a terrible inflation in Bolivia because food production fell as a result of the agrarian reform. The crowds in the cities, who had to line up all night for meat and eggs, cursed the miners because the MNR shipped the best food to their pulperias at frozen prices because it was afraid of their militias.

"At the same time the Communists took power in the unions and ran everything through the Control Obrero [a provision of the 1952 nationalization decree empowering the union to veto management decisions]. The Control Obrero was an invention of the Devil. There was no discipline, no responsibility, and the mines’ payroll increased in two years from 22,000 to 40,000 workers. Union leaders rode around in chauffeur-driven company cars while the government was losing $1 million a month on its nationalized mines. They tried to get a foreign company to run the mines, but no one would do it. It was left to us and to the Americans who stepped in to pay the bill, and now we are fighting among ourselves."

Regular mining wages, however, have never been the only form of emolument at Siglo Veinte. After the Army’s machine guns and bazookas were removed from the huge gray-green mounds of waste, the palyiris returned. These are the widows and daughters of dead miners who have no way of living but to work in the rock piles with small picks, sorting out odd pieces of tin ore and carrying 50-lb. bags of mineral 200 yards to a small grinding machine. "We are paid $15 a month for this," said Nellie Torrigo, a small, energetic woman in a black bowler hat and a discolored skirt, her hands and feet whitened with powdered rock. "My husband died of silicosis at the age of 37, and I have six children. My older children help me work as a palyiri to earn a little more. We want to be recognized by the company to get medical and food benefits. We women were members of the sindicatos, and the sindicato helped, but there is no sindicato anymore. Yet many more women want to get into this kind of work though many of us have died of hemorrhages and spinal injuries. Most of the girls take home a bag of tin ore each day, which they can sell back to the company through a friend."

Another form of scavenger is the juco. In Quechua, the ancient Andean vernacular used by the Incas. the word means "A bird of prey that flies at night." It also signifies the mineral thievery which has become a nearly universal occupation among truck-drivers and storekeepers as well as the miners themselves, and Which helps sustain the Bolivian Trotskyites. Pushed to the sidelines persistently in their efforts to end "Stalinist" control of the miners’ sindicato, they form a small but highly combative minority in union politics which in times of crisis has repeatedly served as a catalyst for the worst outbreaks of violence in the mines.

ONE of the world’s last two consequential labor parties adhering to Leon Trotsky’s cause (the other is in Ceylon), these young Bolivians over the past four years have been organizing the growing number of jucos who enter the mine nightly to steal choice tin ore and sell it back to COMIBOL. As production stagnated in recent years and mining costs rose at times as high as 50 per cent above the world tin price. COMIBOL managers secretly encouraged the stealing of ore—a third of its tin output is purchased from "outsiders"—to reduce union problems and labor costs.

Remigio Alfonso, a lanky, tough-looking youth of 23 who lives in a primitive adobe hut on a hill overlooking Siglo Veinte. for the past few years has been the Trotskyites’ "Secretary General for the Unemployed." "Last night I had to crawl on my belly for two hours to get to where the good mineral was," he told me. "I am trying to earn money to buy another weapon. Last September, the Army discovered a machine gun buried four feet deep in front of my house, and they arrested my wife. When the Army occupied the mines, they could stop the jucos. Since the Army left in December, the police are also trying to stop them, but they cannot do so for long. There are just too many unemployed.

"I came back from the Army in 1961, and they wouldn’t give me a job, so I learned well about the inside of the mine. Our party organized about 800 of the unemployed into bands of 50 and 100 men who used to enter the mine in different places every night. No watchman would dare to stop us. The jucos could earn more in one night than a miner now earns in a week. This is why each miner, too, takes about 10 to 15 pounds of ore out of the mine in his bag every day.

"The company used to give us special times and places for taking the mineral, and we had our own men in the sampling section to tell us where the good stuff was. We Trotskyites formed a cooperative of jucos which sold stolen tin ore back to the company. We used the profits to buy arms. Every day there are more people fired from the mines, just hanging around. When their terminal pay is spent, there is nothing to do but go into the mine to steal.

"The jucos are good people to prepare for revolution. They are hungry and desperate and there are more of them every day. They ask me every day in the street: ‘When are we going to organize bands again?’ There is no other way for them to stay alive."

As a palliative for such conditions, the United States since 1956 has contributed roughly $400 million in financial and technical assistance to Bolivia, by far the most intensive foreign aid effort in Latin America except for the $1 million a day Russia has been spending to keep Cuba afloat. Massive sums have gone into stabilizing Bolivia’s currency, underwriting her trade deficit, and developing her virgin tropical forests and plains east of the Andes. But much of the money also has gone directly to maintain a surface calm by underwriting the economic disaster of nationalization.

There is an intense controversy going on in Bolivia over how to handle the miners. Many U.S. technicians believe the only way out is a decision like that taken by John L. Lewis, former boss of the United Mine Workers, to accept new machinery and job reductions to the point that miners remaining can earn a decent wage through increasing productivity. But for the present, the cycle of eruptions, repression’s and palliatives continues.

While a showdown with the armed miners last September may have been necessary to get rid of the extremist mine leaders and the union’s dictatorial powers, the Army then paved the way for the extremists’ comeback by cutting the miners’ pay to starvation levels. Two weeks after September’s battle, 106 Catholic priests, including the Archbishop of La Paz, sent a petition to the military junta which, citing Pope John’s encyclical, asked that the miners’ wages be restored to their former levels for "humanitarian reasons."

Nonetheless, in economic terms, the big crackdown seems to be paying off. Production costs (about three-quarters of which go for wages) have been scaled down below the current high market price for tin. Costs had long exceeded the world price and had fluctuated month to month like a fever chart of Bolivia’s political tensions. Now, although costs are still above their January 1964 level, and production for 1965 was 6 per cent below that for 1964, world tin prices have been rising so fast that COMIBOL earned a small profit for the final months of 1965: its first since the early years of nationalization. Fortunately for Bolivia, the other major tin producing countries—Malaysia, Indonesia, the Congo and Nigeria—have their troubles too; so prices should continue to be high.

The mining community, meanwhile, has settled into a kind of tense and sullen normalcy. Bolivian Communist party posters have begun to bloom again on the walls of the sindicato headquarters. Most of the Communist mine leaders still in the country have been returning from jail or hiding in the mines, and it is widely suspected that they are collaborating with the military government. "I can’t understand why these Reds are always showing up," an Army captain in Catavi said. "I take them prisoner and send them to jail in La Paz. Then some general or colonel who is now a Cabinet minister intervenes for them and they are back here as free as ever."

The returning prisoners lounge for days on end in the Plaza del Minero, among the small army of boys who 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. Posed like a Greek temple at the edge of a precipice, its billboard announces an old Van Johnson movie called "The Last Time I Saw Paris."

Max Ferrofino, a 38 year-old driller with a round, wrinkled Indian face, a veteran of the 1952 street fighting and everything else that followed, sums up the relentless hardships. He survives as a beneficiary of the curious filial welfare system which still prevails at the mine: "My father was killed in a cave-in in 1933 and I took his place, when I was old enough, 17 years ago. My son takes my place when I die. I have decided that it is better to die young than to die hungry, especially with silicosis. A revolution is made so people won’t die of hunger. The Revolution of 1952 has been frustrated, betrayed, and it has carried away the riches of the people. They have crushed us very hard. Yet I fear that if the hunger continues there will be another uprising." To know what he means you only have to look into a miner’s eyes and visit his house, and then see how he changes when he goes down into the mine.

THUS, while it is true that the Revolution did to some extent benefit Bolivia’s peasants, it did not succeed in reaching into the mines. A progressive Belgian priest, who has worked in Bolivia for the past 15 years, summed up the situation for me as we watched a ceremonial Indian dance on the basketball court at Siglo Veinte:

"There are more schools and there is more class-consciousness, freedom and dignity among the peasants and the miners. But the basic program of the Revolution has led to a disaster from which the country must recover: The agrarian reform gave the peasant land, but created hunger and inflation in the cities because the peasant produced for himself and not for the market. There was universal suffrage decreed, but the elections were always fixed. Sindicatos were organized to defend workers and peasants, but created a hundred petty dictators. Nationalization of the mines handed them to Communist union bosses and produced economic ruin."

As for the Communist union bosses, who were hounded by the junta for much of the last year, most are now working for Barrientos’ election on July 3. And Leftist Juan Lechin, the Mine Workers’ Federation leader for the past 20 years—who is reputedly more given to smuggling and sensuality than to the revolutionary struggle—is said to be in hiding in La Paz. The Federation was forbidden to hold its Congress recently because of official fear that it would re-elect the debauched old Siglo Veinte soccer hero as its president. A former Bolivian Vice President, Lechin was once one of the country’s most powerful politicians.

The ultimate results of the general election on July 3, if it is held, are fully predictable. An unopposed Barrientos victory will unite the opposition and speed the flywheel of conspiracy: from the next scramble, the next indignant student demonstration, the next storming of the palace, the next miners’ march on La Paz, all the way to the next all night conclave of the country’s politicians and generals to choose a subsequent President.



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