Deep inside one of the world's largest tin mines, 16 miners are playing cards and chewing coca leaves to keep their strength up. The scene is high-spirited but tense. The men are in the eighth day of a hunger strike and say they will die if they have to in their efforts to keep the mines from closing. Some 2,000 Bolivians have been on a hunger strike during the past two weeks as the country suffers through its worst economic crisis in years.
A severe austerity program imposed by the 13-month-old government of V'ictor Paz Estenssoro has cut Bolivia's inflation rate from 20,000 to 20 percent, partly by laying off workers and restructuring state companies. But the program has resulted in economic depression. (The United States-supported drug crackdown has also depressed the illegal coca paste trade, which represented about $600 million -- the equivalent of one-third of Bolivia's gross national product.)
``We will continue [to strike] because mining is our way of existence,'' says Herman Ledesma Coca, who has worked here for the past 16 years. ``We have been living and working here for years, and we're not going to give it up.''
Two weeks ago, the government announced more mine closings as part of a plan to restructure the state mining corporation. This may mean the end of about 22,000 jobs in the mining sector.
During the past year, some 8,000 miners have been laid off or paid to retire early. Hundreds of other miners and their families have left mining communities because of worsening living conditions and cutoffs of government-subsidized food and health and education services.
Although the government has proposed turning some mines into cooperatives while shutting down others, the miners have rejected the idea. The idea won't work, miners say, since the government will not provide any assistance and the miners would have to find outside aid.
The government says that with the severe drop late last year in world mineral prices -- Bolivia's main money earner -- and mining losses of some $246 million last year, it can no longer afford to keep state mines operating or pay salaries. (Miners earn about $30 a month.) The price for tin -- which represents 71 percent of Bolivia's mineral exports -- dropped from $5.50 a pound in 1985 to about $2.50 a pound this year.
``It's absolutely uneconomic and [Bolivia] can't support it,'' says Planning Minister Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. It's better to pay these people off and have them go to live in the cities, he says. ``The real challenge is to create an economy that has some activity and growth.''
The miners, many of whom are being paid $500 by the government to retire, say they can't live on what the government is offering nor find other jobs.
The miners say the hunger strike is the last resort in their battle with the government.
President Paz declared a state of siege on Aug. 28, as more than 7,000 miners, their families, and political sympathizers headed from Potos'i and Oruro to the La Paz, the capital, on a 142-mile ``march for life.'' The military was called in to prevent the marchers from reaching La Paz. Some were arrested and taken to jungle internment camps. Others were returned home by truck.
Mining communities and several mining-dependent towns such as Potos'i and Oruro had already been brought to a stand still by strike action when the march took place.
The lack of jobs and slow-moving government programs to spur economic reactivation have encouraged national support for the miners' cause among the press, the public, and the clergy. In recent months, many miners haveflocked to Chapare, Bolivia's cocaine-producing region, to work. But US troop-supported antidrug operations have dried up that source of income.
``Miners have gone to the Chapare [region] and the cities thinking that they would be better off,'' says Marta de Rom'an, secretary-general of the miner's housewives committee in Siglo XX. ``But they are starting to sell off things they own, like radios and blankets, because they don't have work or money to eat.''
Those still left in the mining communities also have a bleak existence. ``The reality is the miners don't have meat any more -- or milk, or eggs,'' says de Roman. ``Our children are malnourished. That's why we are fighting.''
The government's negotiations with the miners, with church mediation, have led to a government proposal to free imprisioned trade union leaders and modify somewhat its plan to streamline the mining industry in return for an end to the hunger strike. Union leaders, who fear that the government is out to destroy the union, say the hunger strike will continue until an accord is reached.
The planning minister says the situation could worsen unless Bolivia's economic situation improves. ``We're hoping we can make it and get something going so that there can be some economic activity and the militant people won't get the support that they are getting now.''
The government says it is heavily dependent on foreign aid to get Bolivia out of its economic rut and bring about social peace.