The night Bolivia's military tried to block tin miners

The Quechua Indians, who mine Bolivia's tin, the country's No. 1 export, generally do not live more than seven years after going into the mines. They earn an average of less than $1 a day. They have the highest infant mortality rate and the lowest life expectancy (42 years) in the Western Hemisphere.

Despite centuries of exploitation, they are the most politicized group in this country. With little more than rocks, some dynamite, and strikes, they lead a struggle for democracy.

In July 1980, within hours after a coup installed him as Bolivia's leader, Gen. Luis Garcia Meza killed, imprisoned, or exiled all major union leaders. He ordered the Air Force to bomb the mining towns.

But Bolivia's miners, armed only with some World War II rifles, held out for several weeks. Only after food supplies were halted, and the military attacked - leaving several hundred dead, including women and children - did the miners surrender.

Under Bolivia's new president, Celso Torrelio Villa, who has been in power nearly four months, constitutional guarantees are suspended, as they were under Garcia. Political parties and trade unions are banned. The press is censored and there is curfew in La Paz, the capital.

Since September three worker leaders have been assassinated. And last month 2 ,000 miners in Huanuni, the third-largest of the 14 major mining centers in Bolivia, called a general strike.

The Huanuni miners demanded recognition of their union. After a series of work stoppages, they closed down Bolivia's most profitable mine.

Minister of the Interior Romulo Mercado called the strike ''part of a Russian plot'' and ordered the military to intervene.

By the end of the first week of this intervention, miners in several other towns joined the strike. University students in La Paz marched in solidarity.

President Torrelio responded by threatening to close down the universities. He had Huanuni sealed off with roadblocks.

Ten days after the strike began and a few hours before the military cordoned off the roads leading into Huanuni, several hundred miners gathered around the central plaza in their daily ritual of solidarity.

The day before, they had received termination notices. The government had begun a campaign to recruit new miners. It planned to reopen the mines Monday.

Trucks with food and other necessities were sent back when they reached the roadblock. Identity cards of miners who tried to leave or enter the town ripped up.

During the night, 16 leaders were taken from their homes, beaten, and shipped off to La Paz prison.

''They came and got him at 2 a.m.,'' said the wife of Ramiro Alcala Quispe said, her voice choking. 'They dragged him out of bed and beat him in front of our children.''

One miner said: ''I cannot say what will happen now.''

During the night 16 more leaders were taken from their homes. And in the morning, miners was tense. Several military trucks were parked at the entrance of the mine and everyone waited for the troops to arrive. By 8:30 a.m., roughly 100 men in riot gear, armed with tear gas and shotguns, ordered the miners to disperse.

At the back of a house six leaders met.

''The government has not let anyone in here,'' said one leader. ''They use the television, the radio, and the newspapers to tell lies about us - that we are dangerous, that we want to fight.

''Our children do not have enough to eat. Our wives do not know when they will see us again.''

When the meeting ended, a young man I had not seen before was waiting for me in the street. He took my hand and ushered me around the military patrols, who carried tear-gas canisters and shotguns.

When he knew I was safe, he whispered, ''good luck.''

''If you are a journalist,'' said one woman, ''please write that they can kill us with hunger, that we would rather die now than not have liberty.''

A Bolivian reporter said, ''I have it on good authority that 120 miners were killed in Huanuni.'' The report is unconfirmed. The same day the interior minister said the strike was over and miners were at work.

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