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The Forgotten Activist


new internationalist
issue 200 - October 1989

Domitila - the
forgotten activist

The 1980s have not been kind to Bolivia - and especially not to its
devastated tin-mining communities. Sophia Tickell tried to track down
two great characters who brought home to NI readers what conditions
were like in the mining town of Siglo XX. She found only one -
a woman who feels betrayed by sympathizers in the West.


May 1979

[image, unknown]

Domitila Barrios de Chungara was the leader of the Housewives' Committee of one of Bolivia's militant mining communities. She became an international celebrity.

'... At the International Womens Year Conference in Mexico City, I introduced myself feeling like nothing: 'well I'm the wife of a mineworker from Bolivia'. I worked up the courage to tell them about our problems. That was my obligation.'

From the start I knew that finding Domitila de Chungara and Higon Cussi was not going to be easy. Both come from the tight-knit and militant mining community of Siglo XX1 which was torn apart in 1986. The crash in the price of tin on the world market - and the election of a right-wing government committed to a ruthless neo-liberal economic model - led in early 1986 to the closure of all state mines.

I found Siglo XX to be a ghost town. In three years, the district, which includes the Catavi mine, has lost over 2,500 of the original 3,000 workers. Those who remain are employed in maintenance and repair work. The miners' houses, built in the 1920s by tin baron Simon Patiño, were abandoned and rapidly becoming derelict. The hospital and the school, hard-won gains of the miners, lacked patients and pupils, and a few people stood idly around the union building, former hub of the district. The only activity of any note was on the strip of land leading from the mouth of the mine. Like convicts, co-operatives of ex-miners and local campesinos spend day and night there breaking rock in the hope of finding a little mineral that they can sell. Renowned for their political militancy, the miners have proved tragically unable to maintain this political leverage once the economic power was taken away.

There has been little pattern in the movements of the 23,000 miners who were 'relocated' from mines throughout the country. Like other state-sector workers, the Government promised to find new jobs for those they laid off, but in reality most have been left to their fate without support. Some families have moved to the shanty towns in La Paz and Cochabamba, where even now some live in tents. Others made their way to the coca-growing Chapare region, only to return plagued by the heat and tropical illness. Some have emigrated, and yet others eke out a living selling contraband toothpaste from neighbouring Chile or Peru.

So the very act of searching became symbolic of the drastic changes that have recently shaken Bolivia. Previously self-reliant communities are now so dispersed that the whereabouts of family members remains unknown. I never did find Higon.

Domitila now lives in Cochabamba in the foothills of the Andes. With the $10,000 she received from the sale of Let Me Speak,2 her harrowing account of life and political struggle at Siglo XX, she has been able to buy a two-roomed house in the poor neighbourhood of Hayrakasa. She lives there with four of her seven children who remain alive, and her tiny grandson. I asked her about the changes in her life since the NI featured her in 1979.

 'I lived my life in Siglo XX as described in the book until 1980, when I was invited to a conference on women in Denmark. Two days after I arrived, the Garcia Meza coup took place and two-and-a-half years of exile began. I was not allowed to return to Bolivia, so I spent my time and energy denouncing what was happening and setting up solidarity networks. I ended up in Sweden for most of that time. It was very difficult. For over seven months I had no idea what had happened to my family - and in that time both my father and my sister died.

'Anyway, in 1982 Bolivia returned to democracy after 16 years of military rule, and I went home to Siglo XX. In 1985 the winner of the election was Dr Paz Estenssoro, three times President but no friend of the people. The challenge facing his government was to bring down hyperinflation, which at one time even reached 24,000 per cent. They succeeded, but at what cost? Outside Bolivia Dr Paz is this great hero who brought down inflation. But he only did it by sacking thousands and thousands of workers. Not just miners - factory workers, builders, public-sector workers, teachers and nurses as well.'

I asked Domitila about her own experience, and what had happened at Siglo XX during that turbulent time.

'In 1986 they shut down the mine and offered all the workers a pay-off. Well, of course we protested and went on the March for Life and Peace3, which was turned back by the military. The new government's economic policy was fatal for us. They wanted to break the strength of our union. They stopped providing the subsidized food which had made it possible to survive. At the beginning we all resisted and put up with the hardship, but it was impossible. In the end it's the hunger that wears you down. It's the children crying to be fed, and having to get up in the morning and pawn whatever you've got left to buy four rolls for breakfast or a kilo of sugar. In the end, despite our efforts and those of friends, we just had to go.

'It was terrible. Most of us had been born in the mining community. It was the only life we'd ever known. When you want to move somewhere you plan it in advance, you prepare yourself for the change. But it wasn't like that for us. We were just thrown out from one day to the next. It was so sad. We were bewildered. We felt as if our mother was dying. When your mother dies you don't know where to go or what's going to happen to you. We didn't know when, or even if, we were going to meet again. We couldn't understand why we had to go. We stayed and stayed until we were forced to leave.

'I came straight to Cochabamba with my family because we were lucky enough to have the money from my book and I'd bought this land before leaving Bolivia in 1980. We always thought we'd leave, I suppose. Even before they closed the mine we knew that once they retired my husband we'd have to move. The company only provides housing while you're working. Once you're retired you have three months to get out. That's why so many of our sons went down the mine to stop the family becoming homeless.

'So we came to Cochabamba. My husband stayed at the mine. I suppose we're typical of so many families that split up over the changes. It's been difficult. Finding the younger children schools took up all our time to begin with, and then we had to find a way of surviving. It's been tough on the kids. We've all tried to get work, but none of us has anything permanent. You try selling pasties in the market - something we always did to supplement our income at the mine - but it's impossible. Oh, there are plenty of people who want to eat, but no-one has the money to pay. My son did get a job in a button factory and an optician's but he was laid off from both because of lack of demand. It's more expensive to manufacture things here in Bolivia than it is to buy contraband. So we make out as best we can. Sometimes we have enough to eat, sometimes we don't.'

I asked Domitila whether she was involved in any political activity or neighbourhood pressure group. The contrast between her hand-to-mouth existence in Cochabamba and the former vibrant activist who inspired people all over the world was very striking.

'The only neighbourhood committees here are those controlled by the political party in government. There are no people's committees. Look, this area empties at five or six in the morning and people come back at nine or ten at night.' She pointed to an 11-year-old girl who had been hovering in the doorway since I arrived. 'She's the sort of person who's here in the daytime. Her mother leaves her one boliviano (40 cents) a day to feed her five brothers and sisters. Sometimes she buys bread and sometimes pasta. If it's pasta she comes here and asks us to cook it for her. The little ones complain, thinking the money should be able to buy much more. How can you expect organization when the struggle for survival is so acute?'

In the past Domitila was a champion of international solidarity. She wrote her book and spent two-and-a-half years in exile raising support for the struggles of the people in her country. I asked her what she thought the role of solidarity is now.

'I'm not sure. When my book came out everyone was interested. Everyone loved the drama and the repression and our struggle. Now the fight is just as hard but it's not so romantic, so it seems people have lost interest. I believe that the Bolivian people are going to continue struggling. Things aren't going to stay as they are now. On the contrary, it's going to get much harder. I think that's why the US troops have arrived to build their runways.4 They're not building that runway at Potosi so that we Bolivians can travel, as if we had the money! They're building it so that they can control events in the whole of South America when things get really tough. I think that people in other countries who value democracy, freedom and who recognize that we need work, I think that they should do solidarity work with us. Now - not just when it's romantic.'

Sophia Tickell works in La Paz with CEDOIN, a research and information centre which publishes reports in Spanish and Bolivia Bulletin in English.

1 Siglo XX is Spanish for Twentieth Century.
2 Let me speak! by Domitila Barrios de Chungara with Moema Viezzer, Monthly Review Press (N. America) and Stage One (UK) 1975.
A massive protest march of miners and their families from Oraro to La Paz in August 1986.
275 US soldiers arrived in Bolivia in June to carry out 'civic action' including the building of a runway.

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New Internationalist issue 200 magazine cover This article is from the October 1989 issue of New Internationalist.
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