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Bolivian activist Domitila Chúngara, ¡presente!

Published Mar 29, 2012 7:41 PM

Bolivian working-class leader Domitila Chúngara succumbed to cancer on March 13 at age 74, in Cochabamba, Bolivia. President Evo Morales declared three days of national mourning and posthumously awarded Chúngara the Condor of the Andes honor, the highest distinction the state can confer on a Bolivian citizen.

Chúngara’s life in struggle began in 1937 at the Siglo XX tin mine where her father was a union leader and political activist. Exiled to Pulacayo, where the family endured terrible hardship, Chúngara met and married a man who subsequently became a miner at Siglo XX. Bolivia’s tin mines were nationalized in 1952, and a new national labor federation was established, the COB (Bolivian Workers Central).

In 1961, the Housewives’ Committee (el Comité de las Amas de la Casa) was formed by spouses and widows of miners at Siglo XX, and was soon extended to other nationalized mines. Chúngara began working with the organization almost as soon as it was founded, and was named Secretary General. The committee organized marches and hunger strikes when miners were arrested, and demanded payment of the workers’ wages, food and medicine for their children.

When Che Guevara arrived in Bolivia in 1967, Bolivia’s long tradition of labor activism was challenged by U.S. political and corporate interests, strengthening the conservative sectors of Bolivian society with the encouragement of President René Barrientos. He ordered the military to massacre striking miners at the Catavi and Siglo XX mines the night of San Juan in June 1967, using the guerrilla struggle as a pretext.

Chúngara survived the massacre and organized a mass procession to the cemetery which has been memorialized in the film, “The Courage of the People” (El coraje del pueblo), in which she reenacts her part in the demonstration and struggle. She shouted, “Murderers!” from atop the cemetery’s wall, and then was spat upon, beaten, jailed and lost her unborn baby. Eduardo Galeano, author of “Open Veins of Latin America,” has described Chúngara’s ordeal in “Memory of Fire III: The Century of Wind.”

Hunger strike for justice

Chúngara was also a mother, a mother who took her five children to the Cathedral of La Paz, along with four other mothers from the Housewives’ Committee and their children, to begin a hunger strike in December 1977 against the repressive regime of Hugo Banzer and to demand total amnesty for the 348 union and political leaders in exile. The church supported their struggle and by early January 1978, over 1,000 people were on hunger strike, then 1,500, then 2,500 and then thousands and thousands across Bolivia. Banzer was forced to capitulate and had to sign a formal agreement with the human rights groups supporting the miners’ movement. The five women and the struggle of Bolivian workers forced Banzer to leave office in 1978.

Even before leading this massive act of resistance to repression, Chúngara represented Bolivian workers in the International Women’s Year Tribunal held in Mexico City in 1975. While there she met Moema Viezzer who was instrumental in compiling and publishing Chúngara’s landmark, “Let Me Speak!”— her life story as a woman from Bolivia’s mines. The book gives voice to the critical role women activists play in the struggle, and to all the men and women that work at the mines.

Chúngara and her children were forced into exile in Sweden by the government of Luís García Meza after she participated in the Bertrand Russell Tribunal on human rights in 1980. She was unable to return to Bolivia until 1982, just before the massive neoliberal structural undoing of Bolivian society which closed the state-owned mines and threw 30,000 miners out of work. Some of her children decided to stay in Europe.

In the last decade or more, Chúngara focused her energies on the Mobile School for Political Training that she founded to bring political consciousness, popular history and activism to new generations in impoverished neighborhoods of Cochabamba, populated largely by families of ex-miners.

As Chúngara said, “The people are always there, and I’ve never lacked for solidarity wherever the people are. The people will always be with me in the struggle.” n