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Bolivian tin miners campaign for economic justice and human rights, 1977-1978
The 1977-1978 economic justice and human rights campaign in Bolivia stemmed from tensions that began with the 1952 Bolivian Revolution, which left the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement in power. This group implemented a nationalization of the tin mines, agrarian reforms, and universal franchises. These policies and reforms lasted until 1964, when a military coup led to the regime of General Barrientos. This regime clashed with miners and broke down worker power and cultivated the peasantry. Then, with the help of Ché Guevara, guerrilla resistance was formed throughout the 1960s, eventually leading to widespread dissatisfaction in 1971.
The growing discontent fostered a deterioration of the current government orchestrated by the right wing as they dethroned the left wing government headed by General Torres, who had governed from 1970-1971. General Banzer, a right wing dictator, ruled from 1971 to 1978 and gained considerable support by giving large landholders many rights. In the late 1970s, the tin miners, fed up with the General Banzer regime, began a popular resistance movement.
The tin miners’ campaign gained crucial momentum when four women in La Paz, Bolivia, initiated a 23-day hunger strike from December 28, 1977-January 20, 1978. The four women had husbands that were tin miners, who were either arrested, fired, and jailed or were in hiding. The women and their hunger strike were supported by fifty other wives of tin miners, who had been fired for union activity. The children of the women were also part of the hunger strike. After public criticism arose over the inclusion of children, the women responded saying that the children would eat when adults took their place. Seeing the severity of the situation, members of the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights joined the movement and eventually there were more than 1,380 people fasting. Other nonviolent resistance included churches and universities across Bolivia becoming centers for peaceful demonstrations, and in Mexico, groups joined the hunger strike to emphasize solidarity.
The hunger strike had overwhelming support from the Catholic Church led by Archbishop Jorge Manrique, who had given his blessing to the strike and provided his residence as a safe place for the women and children. By mid-to-late January, Cardinal Maurer, the Primate, and twenty other religious leaders signed a letter that declared the workers’ demands. To emphasize the Church’s support, Archbishop Jorge Manrique issued an ultimatum to the Banzer government to either end the strike or there would be no religious services of any kind, except for services for the serious ill and dying. He added that those who entered churches to arrest strikers would be threatened with excommunication from the Church.
The overwhelming support for the hunger strike led to the release of most political prisoners and the recognition of trade unions. These developments indicated the time for new political organization. At this juncture, the Banzer regime was not only feeling pressure from the tin miners’ wives and the Catholic Church, but was also feeling pressure from the United States, as US President Jimmy Carter wanted the demands of the strikers to be met.
In response, the dictator held elections, but the elections caused political polarization between the left and right wings leading to many elections and frequent turnover of presidents. Also, a series of coups amounted, including a brutal two year military dictatorship, which included the use of death squads. Ultimately, however, nonviolence prevailed and in 1982, a civilian president was elected after the nonviolent overthrow of the military dictatorship. All of the initial demands made by the wives of the tin miners were met thanks to the solidarity and nonviolent resistance of more than 1,380 people in Bolivia and beyond.