University of Minnesota

Report on the Situation of Human Rights in The Republic of Bolivia, Inter-Am. C.H.R., OEA/Ser.L/V/II.53, Doc. 6 (1981).






A. General Considerations

1. As stated in Chapter I of the present Report, the 1967 Bolivian Constitution, which is currently in effect, provides in Article 7 c) that everyone has the right of assembly and the right of association for lawful purposes.

2. In Part Three of the Charter, which deals with special regimens, Title two refers to the social order, and in its Article 159 recognizes and guarantees trade-unionism as a means of protection, representation, welfare, education and culture of workers. It also established a guarantee for trade unions as regards the activities they carry out in the specific performance of their duties, and says that those that enjoy such a guarantee may not be prosecuted nor arrested.

The same law upholds “the right to strike as the exercise of the workers’ legal entitlement to withhold their labor to defend their rights, after complying with the legal formalities.”

According to the Constitution, work is a right and a duty, and is the basis for the economic and social order (Article 156), and because of that, “labor and capital enjoy the protection of the State, and the law shall regulate their relations by establishing regulations on individual contracts and collective bargaining, the minimum wage, the maximum work day, child and female labor, paid weekly and annual vacations, holidays, bonuses, awards or other profit-sharing systems, indemnity for length of service, dismissal, professional training and other social and worker protection benefits.” It is a function of the State to create conditions which will guarantee employment, job stability and fair wages for all.”2

The State also grants social security benefits on the basis of principles of universal coverage, solidarity, uniformity of treatment, economy, timeliness and effectiveness.3

3. It should also be noted that the Bolivian State is a party to a number of international juridical instruments that uphold the aforementioned rights and in particular, it should be recalled that Bolivia has ratified ILO Conventions No. 87 concerning “Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize” and No. 98 concerning the “Application of the Principles of the Right to Organize and to Bargain Collectively.”

4. After the coup d’etat on July 17, 1980, the right of assembly and freedom of association underwent serious changes, in contrast to the broad freedom that characterized the previous constitutional rule of President Lidya Gueiler Tehada. As will be seen below, these rights have in practice been suspended in Bolivia today, as regards the trade union sectors.

B. Restrictions on Trade Union Rights after July 17, 1980

1. As the Military Government proceeded to “pacify” and control the civilian population and organized labor, it adopted a number of Supreme Decrees suspending the freedom of assembly and association upheld in the Constitution and a number of international agreements.

2. These measures included:

i. Decree No. 17531, issued four days after the take over of power, Article One of which declares: “that the trade union leadership and the employers and professional associations of active workers, with the exception of the auto transportation workers, whose trade union activities were conducted outside any political activity and who resisted the extremist dictatorship, are in recess”4 (our underlining)

Article two of the aforementioned decree stipulates that “the corresponding entities shall establish, in the shortest time possible, the procedure and bases for reorganizing the new trade union leadership at all levels, with the participation of workers who have a record of good trade union behavior.”

Finally, Article three obliges former trade union leaders to render accounts to the corresponding agencies of their organization’s income as long as the reorganization called for in the preceding article is in process.

ii. On August 4, 1980, Ministerial Resolution No. 452 ordered the freezing, as of that date, of all bank accounts belong to trade union organizations, for the purpose of preserving their economic interests.

iii. On August 12, the Government enacted Supreme Decree No. 17545, which established a transitional rule to regulate employer-employee relations: each workplace had to propose a slate of candidates for the post of “Labor Liaison,” who would be selected by the Ministry of Labor and Labor Development. In order to be chosen, the worker must, among other requirements, never at any time have been a trade union representative. This union official represents the workers before the employer entities, he administers and organizes labor funds, and renders accounts to the competent authority on the financial and administrative management.

The new trade union representative, who, according to this decree, is chosen by the government itself and is made responsible for labor funds, cannot, in the Commission’s opinion replace the free trade union organization, which also means the freedom to affiliate to any labor organization of the worker’s choice.

iv. Another decree that affects the employer-union balance is No. 17536 which, after July 30, 1980. instituted what is known as the “Patriotic Service to the State.” Article 2 of that decree provides that “No citizen whose services are requested under the present Decree-Law may be excused from service, under penalty of law and in defiance of orders given by the Supreme Government.”

Article 3 stipulates that citizens who have to perform the duties specified in the decree shall be declared to be maintaining their original jobs.

In practice, this decree is a de facto denial of the right to strike, since the worker is compelled, under penalty of law, to comply with the requirements of the State.

v. As part of the reorganization of the Judiciary proposed by the Military Government, it promulgated Decree No. 17840 on December 3, 1980. This Decree reorganized the Labor Courts, appointing seven judges to the National Labor and Social Security Court and the Labor Judges of the various districts of the country.

vi. It should be noted that in its Decree No. 17604 of September 12, 1980, the Supreme Government ordered construction of a building consisting of a parking garage and social center for workers, on the site of the old headquarters of the Bolivian Workers’ Federation (COB). Since publication of this Decree, the COB union headquarters have been torn down to begin the new construction.

3. From the very moment the present regime took power, it has been the Government’s desire, as stated in the proclamation on the participation of the Armed Forces in the process of National Reconstruction, to issue new laws for the trade union and labor sectors, in order to normalize their activities. This required de-certification of existing entities, including political organizations, and the appointment of new trade union leaders controlled and oriented by the Government.

4. The Government has stated that the justification for and the origin of these measures, which in its opinion are temporary in nature, lie in the fact that the trade union representatives had moved away from the true objectives of trade union representation, and had manipulated the country’s social policies in a demagogic fashion. This had made it necessary to uproot once and for all the influence exercised by those who had placed the union leadership in the service of foreign, anti-national ideologies.5

5. The legal framework described above puts severe limits on the constitutional guidelines on the right of assembly and association, and ignores international regulations on the matter, thus making it difficult to attain the basic objectives that have been states and restated by the Military Government.

C. The Position of the Trade Unions during the Events on July 17, 1980 and
Subsequent Developments

a. Trade Unionism and the Military Coup

1. Ever since the events of 1952 and what is known as the National Revolution, Bolivian trade unions have gained very great socio-economic importance, despite the periods when they were temporarily suppressed or controlled by different governments.

2. The miners unions are considered to be the most militant and insistent on demanding better working conditions compatible with elemental principles of social justice.6

3. According to information and testimony received by the Commission, the workers in the largest tin and other mines, such as the Siglo CC, Miraflores, Caracoles in Oruro, Huanuni, Viloco, Calguisi, Corocoro and Catavi, were the first targets of the military repression. For several weeks after the coup, there were violent confrontations between the military forces and the miners in their various hometowns. The army even used high-powered weapons in the battles, and bombed a number of centers with small aircraft and helicopters. Other tactics included control of transportation and communications, which effectively prevented food from reaching the miners and their families.

4. The headquarters and regional offices of the most powerful trade union, the Bolivian Workers Federation (COB) were subject to a military attack at the beginning of the hostilities; this clearly indicates that from the beginning, the trade union organizations were attacked by the new government authorities as the most threatening centers of resistance. Previous chapters have told in more detail of the events surrounding the attacks, detentions, torture, and in some cases, murder of labor leaders.7

5. After the COB headquarters was taken by force of arms and its leaders jailed, most of the various industrial, teachers, journalists and peasant unions were attacked in an attempt to completely dismantle the labor movement.8

b. International Organizations and the Trade Union Situation in Bolivia

6. The position of trade unions in Bolivia after the coup d’etat caused particular concern internationally, and has been the subject of continuing analysis by, among other bodies, the International Labour Organization. In 1980, two representatives of the Committee on Freedom of Association visited the country with the prior consent of the Government, and talked with government authorities. After examining the Bolivian situation, the ILO Committee, at is 215th Session held on March 3-6, 1981, voiced its concern over the seriousness of the charges that it was continuing to receive about the death and detention of trade union leaders. It noted that the trade union movement can be free and independent only where fundamental human rights are respected. The Committee appealed to Bolivia rapidly to restore freedom of association, and to report to it on any new legislation issued by the Government, which it was confident would be compatible with ILO conventions 87 and 98, ratified by the State of Bolivia.

7. A worrying incident that occurred in September 1980 had to do precisely with the visit to Bolivia of an international humanitarian mission, consisting of five representatives of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), and its branch, the Inter-American Regional Organization of Workers (ORIT). On September 20, the group, made up of nationals of a number of European and Latin American countries, was awakened in its hotel and detained by authorities from the Ministry of the Interior. Two of them were released within 24 hours; the other three remained in detention for a week, and were subsequently deported from their country. The international delegates, who entered the country with their visas in order, accused government agents of having stolen $25,000, which was intended to assist the families of imprisoned trade unionists. During their detention, the members of the mission were threatened and in at least one case, subjected to unlawful force. Alberto Moncada, A Colombian citizen, was severely beaten by the Security Police. Another member of the mission, Ulf Asp of Sweden was a witness to these events. Asp says that after Moncada was mistreated, he was unable to talk, could not sit down, and was bleeding. Another member of the ICFTU – ORIT team, the Italian Enzo Friso, had all his belongings stolen.

8. Another mission that visited Bolivia between September 30 and October 3, 1980, including representatives of the World Confederation of Labour (WCL) and the Latin American Workers’ Federation (CLAT), was detained on arrival at the airport. The members were taken to the Ministry of the Interior Offices, and were later allowed to go to their hotels. The interviews they requested with Huan Lechín, Father Tumiri and other jailed trade union leaders were denied.

9. All the organizations working internationally to guarantee trade union freedoms have pointed out that present conditions do not allow for full enjoyment of the rights of association and assembly, and that any expression of opposition is considered to be extremist and dissident, and that those making such statements are immediately subject to reprisals by the authorities.

c. The Church and the Trade Unions

10. From the very first moments of the coup d’etat, the bishops have stated their strong disagreement with the acts perpetrated by the military forces.

On July 18, one day after the coup, the Archbishop of La Paz, Jorge Manrique, condemned the violence committed by the Military Junta against the people of Bolivia, and demanded the release of the recently-detained political prisoners. He also protested over the use of ambulances by the Security Forces to camouflage their military missions trying to give a humanitarian image to their actions.

On July 25, the Bishops of Bolivia issued a declaration in which they backed Monsignor Manrique, and stated their concern over the use of non-uniformed paramilitary forces to keep down the civilian sectors. The bishops invoked the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and appealed to the Government to return the country to constitutional rule.

In his homily of August 6, 1980, the Archbishop of La Paz referred to the persecution that was under way, in the following terms:

Sin is everywhere in our present situation. This sin has its roots in the hearts and minds of people and penetrates into the very fabric of public life and society’s decision-making levels. There are old sins deeply rooted in the past and now institutionalized at every level for causing the death, suffering and sadness of the victims–not only individuals but entire social groups–particularly the poor, the peasants, the miners, the underprivileged. It is an extremely grave sin to kill, to apply physical and psychological torture, to terrorize by a display of armed force, to detain and imprison, without trial, people who are the sons of God and our own brothers. It is a very serious sin to silence the voice and take away the hope of an entire free and sovereign people who are called to be the people of God.

Speaking of the repression of many sectors of the civilian population, including trade union leaders and workers, the Episcopal Conference of Bolivia said in its collective Pastoral Letter of September 8, 1980, which was entitled “Dignity and Freedom”: During recent weeks, we have learned with sadness of the violent death of citizens, imprisonment and physical and psychological torture, attacks and theft, destruction of radio and other property, persecution and threat against innocent people, massive layoffs of workers and employees, the denial of safe conduct for persons in asylum in diplomatic missions, confinements, deportations and other abuses …”(p.5).

The bishops also denounced other abuses committed by the Government against many workers, including some public-sector workers:

The dismissal of many public employees, without administrative due process, places numerous families in a difficult situation, leaving them without the social benefits established in the General Labor Law (p. 6).

This same document issued by the bishops of Bolivia in Cochabamba analyzes the relationship between various ideologies and the church, and declared that “an ideology will be legitimate if the interests that it defends are legitimate, and if it respects the fundamental rights of other national groups” (p. 15). Among a number of basic rights reaffirmed by the Episcopal bishops in their letter, we should note their insistence, in their own words, on the following social rights:

We proclaim the right of assembly and association; we proclaim the right to work, to job security and to free trade unions (p. 19)9

11. Apart from the various statements by the bishops, the clergy in general have taken specific action to attempt to alleviate to some extent the suffering of the victims of repression, particularly the imprisoned workers and their families.

The Office of the Archbishopric of La Paz create a special bureau to deal with the families of individuals detained, attempting to find information on the fate of their relatives. A commission was established to visit political prisoners. It consisted of Monsignor Alejandro Mestre, Auxiliary Bishop of Sucre and Secretary General of the Episcopal Council of Bolivia; Monsignor Julio Terrazas, Auxiliary Bishop of La Paz, Father Jaime and Father Nino Mazoli.

However the regime did everything possible to hinder the Commission’s work, and only Father Mazoli was given permission to visit the hundreds of people detained in various places throughout the country. He was not allowed to take notes during his visits, which made it practically impossible for him to remember the names and details of the prisoners.

d. The Present Trade Union Situation

12. One of the evident purposes resulting from the coup d’etat of July 17 was to liquidate existing trade union organizations. Despite efforts made in that direction, the trade union movement continued to show significant vigor, considering the obstacles placed in its way. Proof of this lies in the various work stoppages that have been called and led by labor leaders from the underground, in order to demand their rights.

13. For example, on November 3 and 4, 1980, the miners of Catavi and Siglo XX began a forty-eight hour strike to protest the deaths of workers in Huanuni. Five labor leaders were then detained: Gilberto Bernal, Mario Cussi, Hilarión Guitérrez, Florencio Ortuño and Marcelino Pardo.

Then in January 1981, the Executive Committee of the Bolivian Workers Federation (COB) staged a forty-eight hour strike as a protect against eh so-called government “economic package.”10

Among other things, the trade union members were demanding release of their imprisoned leaders and the return of their radio stations, a question that will be dealt with further on in the present report. The strike was partially successful, since large numbers of workers failed to report to work. For its part, the Government accepted none of the demands of the COB. As a result of the strike, at least five union leaders were detained in the Vinto (Cochabamba) area, including Bernabé Quiroz, an old labor leader.

14. Another factor of concern to the Commission is the information received that there has been a massive firing of workers, because of alleged political-trade union reasons; that wages have not been fully paid and that overtime at the pit from has been reduced.

It is alleged that 300 workers have been laid off in the industrial sector, and that in other sectors, such as the railroads, almost 1,500 people have been dismissed. This, of course seriously affects the income of these family groups, which are low income and need wages for their daily sustenance.

15. On March 12, 1981, the Bolivian Workers Federation wrote an open letter to the Episcopal Conference of Bolivia. Because of its importance, the Commission wishes to include the ideas set forth in that letter in the present report:

Bolivia’s workers have found in the collective pastoral letters of the church a constant reaffirmation of the action by our national majorities to restore in our country the human rights and social justice that are now being violated by the de facto Government.

This identity of purpose as to the basic requirements governing public life makes it essential that there be a dialogue between the church and the entity that represents Bolivian workers in order to make a clear statement of the position of the democratic sectors regarding repeated official affirmations of a possible institutional opening.

The COB understands that at the next Episcopal Conference, there will be a positive attitude toward resuming a campaign on behalf of human rights, including trade union freedoms in the country; we admire this and are most grateful for it, because it enables us to propose what in our opinion are the conditions that would give sufficient proof of the sincerity of any hypothetical desire for an institutional opening.

1. Ever since the de facto government usurped the popular will, the economic crisis has been getting constantly worse, with is full weight falling on the wage-earning classes. Far from taking positive action in this crisis, the de facto government has reacted negatively. In these conditions, the economic package has caused a general rise in the cost of living that fall mainly on the working class. It is therefore necessary to give a salary increase that will take into account the lowest income sectors, to restore the real value of their wages and as a result, bring them back into the national economy.

2. We do not believe that it will be possible to normalize the most elemental employment relationships or to achieve participation and consensus by the working class in development of the national economy unless there is a total respect for all trade union freedoms. As a result, we believe that restoration of these rights is a pre-condition for any other measure of a political, economic, or social nature. Only through full exercise of trade union freedoms can unsolved social problems and unheeded needs be taken care of.

3. Observance of trade union freedoms means firstly that we the workers are entitled to democratic election of our leaders. Only thus can the lines of authority in the trades unions be reestablished as a serious, conscientious and responsible channel for the aspirations of the rank-and-file. We therefore reject any appointment of “Labor Liaisons” as being in violation of the free exercise of democracy by the workers.

4. In the opinion of the Bolivian Workers Federation, it would be difficult to organize an election of trade union leaders to represent their rank-and-file if the de facto government keeps hundreds of them in exile, detention or internal exile. We therefore believe that only a general amnesty can help any process designed to bring the country back to democracy.

5. Moreover, the arbitrariness of the government has prevented all trade union organizations from using their union headquarters. As a result, we are obliged to demand return of these headquarters to the various trade unions, since they were purchased with funds collected from the membership and are part of their property; they were not obtained through any grant from the state or from private sources.

6. Without freedom of opinion, and therefore without freedom of the press, no institutional process can take place. The current monologue must be replaced with a dialogue among all sectors of the nation’s community. Democracy rests on information and exchange of opinions; only under these conditions can all citizens be responsible for decision-making. Return to the trade union organizations of the radio stations they own is also an essential precondition at this time of the announced institutional opening.

7. On that tragic January 15, eight public opinion leaders lost their lives, including Artemio Camargo Crespo, a leader of the FSTMB. We believe that the humanitarian and Christian thing to do to console his relatives is to determine the responsibility for all that happened and to explain it fully.

Everyone of the measures proposed here grows out of the most elemental principles of social justice. None of them can be side-stepped without violating the basic principles of the dignity of work and human life. Anything else would be to attempt to institutionalize a de facto government, and would not be a process of opening up to democracy. Implementation of these measures cannot therefore be partial, limited or restricted because that would only result in postponing the foals of democratic coexistence that Bolivians seek, and would accentuate the antagonism that the violence has been unjustly and unnecessarily engendering in Bolivian families.

On behalf of the workers of Bolivia, we therefore repeat our thanks and our respectful greetings.


16. At the end of March 1980, the Ministry of the Interior issued bulletins broadcast over the communications media recalling that government decrees had ordered suspension of political parties and similar organizations, and warned public opinion that any action disturbing peace and order would be drastically penalized. Similar declaration from the Minister of Labor indicated that free trade union life would continue to be in abeyance because the conditions were not ripe for it to be opened up.




1. American Convention on Human Rights. Article 15. Right of Assembly. The right of peaceful assembly, without arms, is recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and necessary in a democratic society in the interest of national security, public safety or public order, or to protect public health or morals or the rights or freedoms of others. Article 16. Freedom of Association. 1. Everyone has the right to associate freely for ideological, religious, political, economic, labor, social, cultural, sports or other purposes. 2. The exercise of this right shall be subject only to such restrictions established by law as may be necessary in a democratic society, in the interest of national security, public safety or public order, or to protect public health or morals or the rights and freedoms of others. 3. The provisions of this article do not bar the imposition of legal restrictions including even deprivation of the exercise of the right of association, on members of the armed forces and the police.

2. Article 157 of the Constitution.

3. Article 158 of the Constitution.

4. At its 214th session held in Geneva on November 18-21, 1980, after examining case 983 on Bolivia, the Committee on Freedom of Association of the International Labour Organization (ILO) indicated that under Article 4 of Convention 87, which has been ratified by Bolivia, trade union organizations, shall not be liable to be dissolved by administrative authority.

5. Preamble to decree 17531.

6. Estimates are that sales of minerals, particularly tin, represent approximately 78% of Bolivia’s international exchange (World Bank). It should be noted that a Bolivian miner receives a wage of about US$2.00 a day, and that his life expectancy is on average 35 years.

7. By way of example, we will give below a list of the trade union leaders who were victims of the repression, who were detained and in most cases, subsequently set free. Juan Lechín Oquendo; Simón Reyes Rivera; Liber Foret; Corcino Pereyra; Noel Vásquez; Vladimir Ariscurinada; Luis López Altamirano; Victor Sosa; Max Toro; Luis Pozo; Oscar Sanjinez; Henry Aguilar; Porfirio Rodríguez; Omar Rendón; Alfonso Landivan; Víctor Lima; Filomen Escobar; Severo Torres; Diego Morales Barrera; Juan Chargas; Francisco Choque Huanca; Raúl Coronel Soto; Pablo Rocha; Ascencio Cruz; Germán Gutiérrez Ricaldi; Félix Casorlla; Gregorio Andrade; Casiano Amurrio; and Félix Aldama.

8. In addition to the abovementioned detentions, an as yet undetermined number of trade union leaders and workers were allegedly killed by Government forces, as stated in the Chapter on the Right to Life. These include Gualberto Vega; Artemio Camargo Crespo; Marcelo Quiroga Santa Cruz and Gonzalo Barón. It is also alleged that a significant number of workers and leaders have disappeared, and that no one knows of their whereabouts. We mention the following by way of example: Rene Sánchez; Jorge Durán and Pedro Inca. The repression by the Government Junta has also reached their legal representatives. A number of attorneys were detained in the days following the coup. We need only mention the name of one of them, Dr. Anibal Peñarrieta, who was legal adviser to the COB and a well-known defender of human rights.

9. The Collective Pastoral Letter to which reference is made was signed by the following ecclesiastical authorities: Cardinal José Clemente Maurer, Archbishop of Sucre and Honorary President of the CEB (Episcopal Council of Bolivia); Monsignor Luis Rodríguez, Archbishop of Santa Cruz and President of CEB; Monsignor René Fernández, Bishop of Oruro and Vice President of the CEB; Monisgnor Alejandro Mestre, Auxiliary Bishop of Sucre and Secretary General of the CEB; Monsignor Jorge Manrique, Archbishop of La Paz and Officer of the CEB; Bonifacio Maderbascher, Apolostic Vicar of Reyes and Officer of the CEB; Monsignor Bernardo Fey, Bishop of Potosí; Monsignor Abel Costas, Bishop of Tarija; Monsignor Tomás Manning, Bishop, Prelate of Corico; Monsignor Jacinto Eccher, Bishop, Prelate of Corocoro; Monsignor Carlos Anasagasti, Apostolic Vicar of Beni; Monsignor Eduardo Boesl, Apostolic Vicar of Ñuflo de Chavez; Juan D. Pellegrini, Apolostic Vicar of Cuevo; Monsignor Carlos Brown, Auxiliary Bishop of Santa Cruz; Monsignor Genaro Prata, Auxiliary Bishop of La Paz; Monsignor Bernardo Schierhoff, Auxiliary Bishop of La Paz; Monsignor Adhemar Esquivel, Auxiliary Bishop of La Paz; Monsignor Julio Terrazas, Auxiliary Bishop of La Paz; Monsignor Armando Gutiérrez, Archbishop; Monsignor Tomás Mc.Bride, Apostolic Administrator of Pando, and Monsignor Walter Rosales, Capitular Vicar of Cochabamba.

10. Some of the measures included a price rise on basic necessities: bread rose by 100%, kerosene by 300%, gasoline by 150%; in addition, some state subsidies were eliminated from products such as rice, sugar, flour and oil, which also meant a rise in the price of those items.


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